Inter-faith dialogue in Singapore must go deeper

Head of Studies in Inter-religious Relations in Plural Societies (S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies) Mohammad Alami Musa shared his views on extremism, secularism and the need for greater depth in discussions on religion, during a recent inter-faith dialogue held at The Arts House and hosted by a Buddhist organisation. Here is an edited transcript of the question and answer session, which followed his lecture.

Q How can Singapore share its experience of working for social cohesion in a multi-religious society?

A According to a study of 232 countries by the Pew Research Centre based in Washington, Singapore is the most religiously diverse country in the world. If there was an Olympics for religious diversity, we would have won the gold medal.

In the last 50 years, there has not been a single religious conflict in Singapore. But this is not the situation in the world today. Pew Research Centre has shown that the number of religious-based conflicts faced by many countries has gone up.

Moving on, things are going to be very challenging. You can see what is happening around us. Religious fundamentalism has gone up. I receive many reports every day on what is happening nearby and in countries not so nearby; I get so nervous looking at these trends.

The worst thing that can happen is when you "politicise" religion, and when you "religionise" politics. You theologise every problem that you face. Everything is about God, and you have to take a certain position as you want to seek the pleasure of God - there is no compromise.

I think we need to step up. We are still at the lower level of inter-religious engagement and discussion, unlike America, Canada or Britain, where the level of inter-religious dialogue and communication is advanced.

At the intellectual level and the depth of discussion, I think that we are still far behind and we need to quickly do something about it because the next 50 years is about knowledge.

It is not enough for religious leaders to sit around and have a meal and bring the press in and take a photo of them drinking and eating together. That is good, but we need to go beyond that with regard to dialogue and conversation.

Singapore's religious leaders need to have the sophistication of mind to present ideas in language which can be accepted by all, said Mr Mohammad Alami Musa.
Singapore's religious leaders need to have the sophistication of mind to present ideas in language which can be accepted by all, said Mr Mohammad Alami Musa. BH FILE PHOTO

The next thing we need to do more of is learn how to negotiate with secularism. In Singapore, secularism is called "soft secularism" or "moderate secularism". Compared to the French model or the situation in the former communist countries, there is a lot of scope for religions here to negotiate, to see how they can contribute to the goodness and well-being of society.

Remember, we are a secular state but our society is not secularised. Some 83 per cent of people have religions and the remaining 17 per cent are without religion but have religious sensibilities - that means morality, goodness and truth are important to them.

Q What can religious organisations do to enhance inter-religious awareness and communication among those who are not interested in this topic?

A I believe religious leaders will first need to do some due diligence. In fact, the starting point is with religious leaders themselves.

We did a small study, to see how inclusive, exclusive or pluralistic religious leaders are. Generally, they are inclusive, so that is good. That means they will be encouraging their followers to mix around more with the other religions. But there are also some who are exclusive - (so they will tell their followers) don't do it because your faith will be "diluted" or "contaminated". I think this is something that we need to deal with.

As a Muslim, I know more about Islam if I know more about other religions.

Q How can we prevent extremism from taking hold?

A Extremism is going to the extremities of your religious teachings and looking at sacred text or scripture and understanding it literally. You take a position that all other interpretations are wrong - that you are the only person who is right; being very extreme in that sense.

Using teachings which emerged a long time ago, whether in Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and transport them lock, stock and barrel to today's world and apply them here - this is what is happening amongst the actors of violent extremism.

We know how to detect an extremist or fundamentalist by the way they treat scripture and sacred text and the way they apply it to issues or problems of the day.

That is why in Islam, we have this thing called the Middle Path. There are three types, one is on the left where anything goes, one is on the right where everything is not allowed, and one is in the middle where people are thinking and able to contextualise the sacred text to see how best to practise the religion today.

That is how we should be.

Q I am very interested in the principle of negotiated secularism. Secularism is an ideal way to run the state, but along the way things evolve, and so now, capitalistic, hedonistic culture starts to surface. It will be wonderful if a balance between both can be achieved - but how to get there?

A I think that will require another lecture!

Almost all countries in the world today are secular states. How did secularism come to all these states?

I read this in a critique of Indian secularism, which said that before secularism came, religious groups, communities and leaders worked together, discussing a lot about the issues of society, of the place that they live in. But when secularism came, it was in a way imposed and there was no discussion among religious leaders and nationalist leaders on the kind of model of secular state to develop and which was agreed upon by all. It was somehow a kind of displacement of religion from society.

Interestingly, in Indonesia, at least with Pancasila, when President Sukarno, Vice-President Mohammad Hatta and a group (of their peers) conceptualised the Indonesian nation, there was such a discussion among the nationalist and religious leaders, between Christians and Muslims at that time, and that is how they came up with what is now known as Pancasila secularism, a very soft, moderate kind of secularism.

I think that for us, independence in 1965 was quite immediate and the Government said religion and race were very divisive, so multiculturalism, secularism and meritocracy became the ideology of the state that continues to today.

The right thing that we did is that the type of secularism that we have in Singapore is soft, moderate secularism.

In Singapore there is a lot of space for all religions. In town planning for example, there is space designated for places of worship. The state has already incorporated the needs of religions. We have the Jewish Welfare Board, the Sikh Advisory Board, the Islamic Religious Council. We have religious public holidays, there are many accommodations for religions within our secular state. So, what I am saying today is we need to strengthen this negotiation.

Religion has to present itself as useful and relevant and it has to use language that is acceptable to all.

If I had started this lecture by saying, "the Quran says this", "the Sutra says this", "the Bible says this", "the Vedas says this", then you find that there is no synthesis and there is a lot of divergence. So, we need our religious leaders to have the sophistication of mind to present ideas in language which can be accepted by all.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2017, with the headline Inter-faith dialogue in Singapore must go deeper. Subscribe