Move to engage wider public on religious harmony

A person holds placard reading "Terrorism is not Islam. Islam is like this flower. Terrorsim has no religion" during a gathering at "Le Carillon" restaurant one of the site of the attacks in Paris.
A person holds placard reading "Terrorism is not Islam. Islam is like this flower. Terrorsim has no religion" during a gathering at "Le Carillon" restaurant one of the site of the attacks in Paris. PHOTO: AFP

From terror attacks like those in Paris in January and last week, to beheadings by militants in Syria and deadly beatings of minorities in India and elsewhere, perpetrators of terrorism and sectarian violence have tried to justify their acts in the name of religion.

Observers are concerned that some might fall prey to extreme and distorted interpretations of religion to support extreme actions, and damage social harmony.

A group of academics and researchers spent the past year looking at religious traditions and history to explore what multi-religious societies like Singapore can do to strengthen harmony among people of different faiths.

They are now reaching out to the wider public.

OPEN DIALOGUE ESSENTIAL

Religion occupies the hearts and minds of many people, and like any human activity, it has potential for bad and potential for good. We have to be brave enough to grasp the nettle if we want to make this an engaging and fruitful project.

DR JULIUS LIPNER, SRP visiting professor and emeritus professor of Hinduism and comparative religion at Cambridge University

This week, the Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme (SRP), at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Nanyang Technological University, is organising a course on this issue for religious and community leaders and civil servants.

In January, the SRP will also host a two-day symposium where Mufti Mohamed Fatris Bakaram and Catholic Archbishop William Goh, among others, will speak on expanding the common space.

Mr Mohammad Alami Musa, who heads the SRP, told The Straits Times that these events will highlight how religious communities have historically developed their teachings in diverse societies.

They will also see scholars draw on the teachings of religions - including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Taoism - and highlight their principles that urge respect and acceptance of those of other faiths.

"Through our research, we can better understand how religious communities meet the challenges of living in plural societies, and apply their teachings to adopt an inclusive attitude towards other communities to strengthen inter-religious relations and expand the common space," said Mr Alami.

This week's course will look at how religion has been linked to communal conflict and violence around the world, and how religious resources can be employed in conflict resolution and peace-building.

The SRP also engages the wider community. This year, it organised, among others, a public lecture with the Hindu Endowments Board and a seminar for returning Islamic graduates with the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore.

Next year, its researchers will present preliminary findings from a study on Singapore's inter-religious landscape. Based on interviews with about 40 top religious leaders here, it will provide a research base on how the major religions are understood and practised, and how certain traditions may increase harmony or sow discord between different religious groups.

A heightened awareness of how certain practices, words or actions may cause religious friction is one takeaway for public servant Astrid Ha, 28, who is currently taking an SRP module that looks at the different viewpoints of major religions in plural societies like Singapore.

Such knowledge will be useful in ensuring that community events do not unwittingly offend any religious community, said Ms Ha, who is also a member of the Hong Kah North Community Club youth executive committee.

Moving beyond tolerance to a wider conversation on how religions and their practices can best be structured to promote peace instead of discord will not be easy, given various religious sensitivities, noted SRP visiting professor Julius Lipner.

But open and honest dialogue is necessary, said Dr Lipner, who is emeritus professor of Hinduism and comparative religion at Cambridge University.

He feels that Singapore - as one of the most religiously diverse countries where different religious communities have co-existed peacefully for decades - can lead the conversation on this front.

"Religion occupies the hearts and minds of many people, and like any human activity, it has potential for bad and potential for good," he said.

"We have to be brave enough to grasp the nettle if we want to make this an engaging and fruitful project."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2015, with the headline 'Move to engage wider public on religious harmony'. Print Edition | Subscribe