Coffee Talk Series #3: Are We Ready for Honest Interreligious and Interracial Dialogue?
Date: October 24th, 2020 | Saturday
Time: 8.30 – 9.30 pm (Malaysia)
Watch Full Video Here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDteI9d-N-s
Although Malaysia is made of pluralistic society, interreligious and interracial dialogue is not a common idea and practice. Sometimes, it is stigmatised as a space of proselytization, rather than cultivating common understanding, humanising the ‘others’ and bridging barriers in more intimate space. In building inclusive society, are we ready to have honest and meaningful dialogue? How can religious, community and youth leaders foster and facilitate dialogue in our society? What is the best method to encourage the society to dialogue to cultivate positive and sustainable values such as inclusivity, non-discrimination and critical thinking?
Jason Wee is the co-founder of Architects of Diversity, a non-profit initiative that aims to bridge communities and identity groups among Malaysian youth. He leads the designs and execution of curricula for empathy and conflict resolution among secondary school students. Jason graduated from Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs.
Nurhuda Ramli is the co-founder and writer of Jurnal Sang Pemula, a group dedicated for public discourse and writing for ‘Pencerahan dan Kesetaraan’. Her areas of interest are gender, religion, and language. She graduated from the International Islamic University of Malaysia in Human Science (Arabic Language and Literature).
Khairi Anwar is a writer and director, for the stage and screen, based in KL mainly with his theatre company, Anomalist Production, where his works have travelled to Singapore and Indonesia. He is an award winning writer and director for theatre and short films, and he is known for creating contemporary Malaysian socio-realism stories. Khairi’s first feature film in 2020, ‘Mentega Terbang’ (2020) questions about religions and their different versions of the afterlife. The film was amongst the five finalists for Kuman Pictures Feature Film Challenge 2020.
Hisham is a member of Komuniti Muslim Universal (KMU) Malaysia. His active involvement with KMU includes conducting advocacy training and workshops for youths and other stakeholders, particularly in the inclusion of religious minorities, gender equality under the framework of prevention and counter violent extremism (P/CVE). He has a background of Shariah and Law from Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia. As a YSEALI Alumni from the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Hisham is passionate about civic engagement, youth advocacy, community building and interfaith experience.
Fatimah Athirah was born in Terengganu. She worked as an advocacy and capacity building officer in a women’s rights NGO, EMPOWER Malaysia. Her work with EMPOWER had focused on monitoring the commitments of members of Parliament on women’s rights in Malaysia. She is also an alumnus of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, University of Malaya.
Fatimah Athirah contextualised that interreligious and interracial dialogue in Malaysia is not a mainstream practice. It is a highly stigmatised space for ‘proselytisation’ by certain groups and individuals. The politicisation of race and religion by the political elites has unfortunately turned dialogue into an alien concept in society. As a result, we could not possibly have healthy and honest dialogue about race and religion.
Addressing ‘the elephant’ in the room
Jason Wee explained that productive dialogue must address the elephant in the room. It must not focus only on the spirit of unity or social cohesion, but also sensitive issues such as the Malay special rights or any other issues that are highly stigmatised or might have legal implications if open to discourse. In fact, race and religion intersect at so many levels, inconceivable not to talk about one without the other. Thus, dialogue should question the power structure in Malaysia and failure to do so would be counterproductive to an honest conversation about our interracial and interfaith relations.
In support, Huda talked about the disengagement of Malay-Muslim communities to address real problems in an interreligious dialogue. According to her, the organisation of dialogue tends to be superficial in a sense that it only focuses on common values of religions and oftentimes defensive of their own faith without dealing with bad practices of faith in real life such as discrimination, extremism and terrorism. Interreligious dialogue should recognise that such problems exist in our society, so we could further explore strategic long-term responses, not merely deploying our defensive mechanism.
A matter of approach
Khairi Anwar suggested that organisers and activists should find an effective approach to attract the participation of people who have different opinions on interfaith dialogue. Meaning that we should not only preach to the choir. Thus, content creation that does not explicitly seem to offend any religion or race is important to bring about a societal change. As a film-maker and artist himself, he recommended soul-engaging content through films to promote the message of humanisation of others. Audiences are more receptive towards films because they are a universal tool of entertainment and can send subtle messaging to provoke different ways of thinking compared to a formal and confrontational setting of dialogue.
Moreover, Jason added that the intra-racial discourse can address the language barrier and change should also start from within the community itself. Such discourse within a specific racial community might be best at addressing various issues by phrasing them in a language that is colloquially understandable and sub-cultural and does not offend the members of a community by comparison with discourse raised by persons from another community that might be regarded as ‘insensitive’.
Huda on the other hand offered her opinion that intra-faith discourse should also be part of the interreligious dialogue. Still a lot of people fail to understand their own religion from different points of view and how to peacefully manage intra-religious differences. This can be seen in the protracted hostility and demonisation against Shiah and Ahmadiah communities in Malaysia. Although, Marrakesh Declaration and Amman Message recognise both groups as part of the Islamic sects who should be accepted, not antagonised. Their stories as the victims of oppression and discrimination should be articulated to the apathetic members of faith for social awareness and systemic reform.
Additionally, Hisham highlighted the importance of strategy in maneuvering an honest dialogue. This includes that every participant of a dialogue should be able to define their own religious experience and identity without judgement. Every person has different religious experiences although the participants come from similar religious line. Additionally, a dialogue should be a safe space for every participant by listening to each other with empathy and maintaining respect and trust at all times. With the application of this strategy, participants will be more comfortable to express their thoughts and ideas without having fear of backlash.