Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Time to rethink religious pluralism

Jan 5, 2011

By Norshahril Saat , FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

ISLAMIC officials in Selangor detained 200 Muslims, said to be followers of the Shi'ite sect, early last month.

The incident shows the intolerance of some among the religious authorities when it comes to Islamic beliefs that do not conform to their interpretations of the religion.

In the same vein, several articles in local newspapers Utusan Malaysia and Berita Harian declared that the ideology of religious pluralism contravenes the fundamentals of Islam.

The former mufti of Perlis state, Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, who was arrested by the religious authorities in Selangor in November 2009 for preaching without proper accreditation, said that the detention of the 200 Muslims was a denial of the people's right to practise their faith, and that the religious authorities in the country were moving towards an era of the 'Talebanisation' of religion and allowing for only one school of thought to prevail.

A memorandum has been submitted by a group of local Shi'ite Muslims to the Malaysian Human Rights Commission.

Why are the Muslim elite and religious authorities so suspicious of religious pluralism?

The equation of pluralism with the transcendent unity of religions could be one reason.

Those who embrace pluralism are deemed to believe that there is more than one way to achieve salvation, with Islam being only one of the many paths.

Such a misconception about pluralism partly explains why some Muslim groups in Malaysia hesitate to take part in inter-religious dialogues. Such events are seen as an opportunity for advocates of religious pluralism to undermine Islam.

As a result, to this day, Islam is not represented in Malaysia's major inter- faith organisations, such as the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism.

But pluralism in Islam was never meant to refer to the transcendent unity of religions. Underlying Islam's position on pluralism is the right of other religions to be practised freely, a principle that is also enshrined in Article 11 of the Malaysian Federal Constitution.

As a matter of fact, Muslims have a long tradition of religious pluralism and dialogue - both inter-religious and intra-religious. There are many verses in the Quran that espouse freedom of choice in religion. For instance, the Quran states: 'If it had been your Lord's will, they would all have believed - all who are on Earth! Will you then compel mankind, against their will, to believe?'

The Quran also describes the diversity of languages, nations and ethnicities as signs of God's grace and not as a cause for making distinctions between superior and inferior groups. Throughout Islamic history, dialogues have facilitated mutual learning between civilisations - such as in Istanbul during the Ottoman Empire, which lasted from the late 13th century to 1923.
Pluralism, thus, encourages Muslims to go beyond mere tolerance of other religious practices and to respect, appreciate and celebrate diversity. This includes the understanding of other cultures and languages.

The perception that inter-faith dialogues are forums for conversion has to be remedied. Dialogue has always been an important way to correct misunderstandings. Dialogue can also serve as a means for different groups to voice their arguments and counter-arguments.

Most crucially, dialogue can guarantee the right of individuals to believe that their religion is the only way towards salvation, thus removing a major stumbling block for fruitful discussions on other pressing issues facing the community.

The success of inter-religious dialogue in contributing to religious harmony in many parts of the world may help inspire a rethinking of pluralism and inter-faith dialogue in Malaysia. Such a change of attitude is vital if current suspicions about the intentions of people of other faiths is to be overcome.

The writer is a research associate at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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