Civil Society, Inter-Religious Harmony and the Need for Curiosity

By Afra Alatas


Kuala Lumpur, 1 February  2021 | Afra is a graduate of the Department of Malay Studies at the National University of Singapore, where she wrote her Master’s thesis on the perspectives of civil society on the promotion of inter-religious harmony in Malaysia. Beyond her academic interest in inter-religious harmony, she participates in inter-religious dialogue on a personal basis and is committed to building an inclusive and empathetic society.

Anyone who lives in Malaysia or who observes the type of socio-political issues which arise in the country would know that efforts to discuss inter-religious issues are often fraught with tension and difficulty. While many of us like to promote the idea of unity in diversity and endeavour to encourage more meaningful dialogue among Malaysians, there is sometimes hostility in diversity. It goes without saying that this is unfortunate and undesirable. Sometimes the hostility comes from a person on the street who says something out of ignorance, or even prejudice. Sometimes it comes from people in power, such as our lawmakers, who say and do things in favour of the majority, without considering the rights and sensitivities of the country’s minorities. Yet other times, it comes from organised groups in civil society, some of whom are quick to accuse others of having some sort of agenda to take over the country or wanting to threaten the sanctity of Islam. 

This last category is what interests me the most. Civil society in Malaysia is highly active and vocal, especially when it comes to issues concerning religion. Therefore, in 2018, I decided to embark on a study to understand how civil society organisations (CSOs) and actors of various ideological and religious backgrounds approach the topic of inter-religious relations in Malaysia. One of the main themes I explored was that of  the varying conceptualisations of the word harmony. 

Illustration on Interfaith Experience in conjunction with the World Interfaith Harmony Week (WIHW) in 2011 by Insights Megazine


Engaging with Differences 

We often like to talk about the necessity of harmony in a diverse society, but do we think about its various possible meanings and definitions? Does harmony simply refer to an absence of tension and violence, as many of us think it does? Conversely, could it actually involve some degree of disagreement? I found this question about the definition of harmony to be an important one, and it was the first question I posed to all the civil society actors whom I spoke to. I received a variety of responses to this question. 

A representative of one CSO very frankly told me that it is futile to define harmony as the absence of conflict, because it does not necessarily lead to proactive efforts to encourage meaningful and deep engagement. We could therefore ask ourselves: is it sufficient to enjoy peace without actually knowing anything about our neighbours’ beliefs? Is peace enough to ensure harmony? Is harmony meaningful without interaction and understanding?

This sentiment was similarly echoed by representatives of a few other CSOs, who expressed that an ideal picture of inter-religious harmony is when people of different religious backgrounds are able to talk not just about their similarities, but also their differences, and are able to celebrate these differences even though they might be a source of disagreement. However, they did after all say that this is only an ideal picture and does not reflect the reality in Malaysia. Some even feel that there is deepening disharmony in society. What are the possible reasons for this? And how many people feel this way? 

(Un)equal Citizens of the Nation

Another way in which some civil society actors define harmony is that it is a situation in which the protection of the rights of all religious groups as enshrined in the constitution is ensured. This means to say that there can be harmony only if everyone in society is treated equally, regardless of their religious beliefs. When the civil society actors elaborated on this definition of harmony, many of them cited the ‘Allah controversy’, stating that it reflected the encroachment on the constitutional right of every Malaysian to the freedom of religion. As many have pointed out, this long-drawn-out affair symbolised the alleged superiority of one religious community and/or belief over another and demonstrated that the basic right to the freedom of religion is not necessarily protected for all Malaysians. To them, the controversy therefore served to undermine inter-religious harmony.

Muslim protesters celebrate after the Court of Appeals in 2013 overturned a decision a lower court made several years ago against a government ban on the use of the word Allah by non-Muslims.

On the other hand, while some civil society actors emphasised that the protection of the rights of all religious communities is crucial, others opined that it could instead be a hindrance in ensuring harmony. This was expressed by representatives of some Muslim CSOs who stated that religious minorities’ expression of their grievances, as well as their efforts to fight for their rights, are reflective of their lack of understanding of the history of Islam in Malaysia. More specifically, these acts are perceived as tantamount to breaching the “social contract” and interfering in the affairs of Muslims. How and why does such an exclusivist approach towards religious minorities and inter-religious harmony arise? What does it mean for inter-religious relations in Malaysia when some segments of society believe that the pursuit of equality for all is actually a hindrance towards harmony? 

Pragmatism or Curiosity? 

These are important questions for us to think about. In the process of doing so, we should also think about what we want inter-religious harmony in Malaysia to look like. One civil society actor said to me that “harmony now is pragmatic, but never really curious.” Do we want to be pragmatic? Or do we want to be curious? How do we go about learning and discovering new things about one another? How can we encourage one another’s curiosity? 

One thing I’ve come to realise is that now, more than ever, our youth are vital in building a harmonious society. People often say that the youth are the future of society and are the hope for a better tomorrow. But they’re also very much a part of the present. Youth in Malaysia constitute the membership of a number of CSOs and informal collectives who are doing the crucial work of promoting inter-religious harmony. They are equipped with fresh ideas, creative perspectives, and greater access to new knowledge and tools. Our youth need our support, and this means that Malaysians of all backgrounds have a role to play in promoting a form of inter-religious harmony which is inclusive, meaningful, and curious.

This article is a part of the #Kebersamaan or #Togetherness Campaign by Komuniti Muslim Universal (KMU) to diversify progressive discourse on race and religion in Malaysia. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent the views of KMU Malaysia