Christian-Muslim Dialog in Malaysia: Terms of Engagement (Part 1)
Challenges for Christians
Some Christians avoid dialogue because of their own misconceptions. It is therefore appropriate for us to analyze how the meaning and goals of true dialogue could realistically be set in Malaysia. In the first place Christians should enter into the national debate about what common society we should work towards. The absence of a Christian voice results in a de facto surrendering of the public sphere to the dominant majority. Surely, this is an irresponsible act and an unconditional surrender to the hegemonic majority. Our failure to respond vigorously has resulted in a continual erosion of our Constitutional rights by many undebated legislations.
But an effective response is possible only if we act out of a clearly defined social philosophy. In this regard we reject as unacceptable any political arrangement which allows the State (regardless of whether it declares itself to be Islamic or not) to usurp the role of other social institutions within society like the family, the school and the sanctuary. We also need to have independent access to accurate information on current affairs. Particular attention should be given to the monitoring of the tension between different currents of Islamic intellectual movements. Specifically, the dominant movement maintains the traditional Islamic teaching which expects the country to be administered according to an Islamic political hierarchy and rejects the idea of socially differentiated institutions on the ground that such differentiations betray the influence of Western secularism. But the reality of the modern nation-state has also persuaded some Muslims to accept that society could be structured in terms of relatively autonomous and socially differentiated institutions. Christians should identify and cultivate relationships with such Muslims in the hope of working together for a common social philosophy which recognizes social equality for both Muslims and non-Muslims.
Christians should also appeal to the sense of moral integrity among such Muslim thinkers. It is undeniable that Muslim minorities in the West enjoy rights that far exceed those extended by Muslim governments to Christian minorities under them. Muslims in the West are under no restrictions to build places of worship and to proselytize. In contrast, Christians throughout the Muslim lands have consistently faced restrictions, intimidations and harassment. To give a recent concrete example, a Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding in Washington DC., USA, has appointed a Malaysian Muslim scholar into its Academic Council. In contrast, teaching positions for Christian theologians is virtually non-existent in our institutions of higher learning. To be sure, some Muslims try to parry off this discrepancy by appealing to social existing prejudices that work against Muslims at the ground level in the West. But surely this is cynical apologetics since there is no way in which we may compare social-cultural prejudice with legislated restrictions.
The challenge for all the religious communities, especially Islam, is to demonstrate that it has within itself the ethical resources to achieve a genuine common vision. Several implications arise in terms of how dialogue may be achieved in this country. First, dialogue is impossible if any one party (be it traditional Islam or Christianity) maintains an unquestioned absolutism about its position. The Christian is nevertheless encouraged by new openness among those Muslims who have courageously suggested that the Syariah is historically contingent and that the ‘Gates to Knowledge’ be reopened through Ijtihad. There is then room for discussion. However, some caution is in place since openness to Ijtihad is not itself sufficient. The reason is that unless a procedure for Ijtihad is concretely outlined, Ijtihad merely means that you listen to my interpretation. How Islam will overcome this is a matter that should be resolved internally by its leaders.
Second, even if a religious interlocutor holds his doctrinal beliefs as absolute, his religion should still allow room for reaching provisional agreements in matters relating to common life, even though such agreements invariably fall short of the demands of his own religious teachings. It is up to each religion to provide different motivations for the upholding of these commonly accepted ethical commitments in social life. It should also be instructive to examine in greater detail a favorite move by some Muslims in their appeal to the Medina ‘Constitution’ to justify their co-operation with non-Muslims in working towards agreement in common life. In this case, the subsequent history of Islamic domination represents a departure from the ideals of the early community. Christians should therefore challenge Muslims to follow through with this early insight to reach a genuine commitment towards overlapping consensus within a modern pluralistic constitution. An acceptance of a pluralistic constitutionalism which is already in place in the Malaysian Constitution will generate the possibility of liberal and egalitarian policies on the issues of religious freedom and cultural integrity.
Some Muslims argue that the concept of Shura is consistent with the spirit of democracy. But it is not enough just to voice support in rhetorical and general terms. The question is whether we go beyond rhetoric and evolve social institutions that will engender fair and equal participation and protect the democratic rights of all citizens regardless of their religious beliefs. It is therefore necessary for Christians to identify and support social mechanisms which prevent any abuse of power or discrimination. Such mechanisms should include forms of procedural justice operating with checks and balances. The ultimate question is whether Islam is able to accept the place of social pluralism in the modern world. In other words interlocutors in the dialogue will have to ask if Islam has abandoned its ideals too soon precisely because it rose to prominence/ dominance too quickly at its original inception.