Thinking Aloud

Religion is as much about social glue as staying true

A reading of religion that sees communities divided rigidly along religious lines cannot be healthy

The panel of religious leaders were from different faiths and traditions. But they spoke with one voice when it came to the topic of media reporting on religion, and posed questions that left many of the editors in the room nodding in agreement.

• Why is religion often in the news only when there's conflict or controversy?

• Why do the same stereotypes about religions and religious individuals get repeated?

• Can we have more journalism that aims to reduce tensions, rather than inflame them?

We were at a recent conference on reporting religion in Asia held in Tangerang, a satellite city west of Jakarta. Organised by the International Association of Religion Journalists and Indonesia's Union of Journalists for Diversity, it brought together journalists and editors from around the world to discuss ways to improve reporting on religion.

A key driver for the event is that at a time when tensions linked to religion are increasingly making headlines, from Jakarta to Jerusalem, there is a need for greater awareness of various faiths, especially in multireligious societies. It is also important to appreciate and be sensitive to the vast diversity of beliefs and views within religions.

This will help mitigate the tendency to view individuals just by the faiths they profess, a tendency that often leads to stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination.

Several of my colleagues have been writing at length about some of the smaller religious groups in Singapore, as well as on the historic places of worship that have been gazetted as national monuments. Many of their stories are rich ones of cooperation and harmony, including with next-door neighbours that host worshippers of different faiths.

But there is always room to do more, especially when the global news cycle can be dominated by stories of clashes and conflicts.

The Jakarta Post, in an editorial ahead of the recent conference, noted that much of "the friction and tension between religious communities found in many parts of the world today have been partly if not mostly fanned by poor media reporting; some deliberate as part of an editorial agenda, but some out of ignorance and sheer incompetence."

It added: "When they do this, the media have become part of the problem when they could be a central part of the solution."

One example of recent fanning of the flames took place at the height of communal tensions in Indonesia's Maluku islands in the 2000s, when newspapers catering to the Christian and Muslim communities focused on reports of atrocities against their own communities.

Another instance is Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten's publication of caricatures of Prophet Muhammad in 2005 and 2006, which saw widespread protests and tensions.

In Singapore, the Commission of Inquiry on the 1950 Maria Hertogh riots cited the inflammatory role some sensational press coverage had in inciting tensions.

In these incidents, tensions were fanned by hardliners too.

Today, some societies have drawn a line on religious leaders making divisive statements, and others wish they could speak more clearly without risk of a backlash.

Even in Singapore, reports on religious leaders being investigated and charged with wrongdoing - or being barred from entry for their divisive views - continue to attract some criticism from their followers, even as greater care is taken on the media's part to ensure such reporting is fair and balanced.

This is not always the case elsewhere in the region, where the authorities have had to exercise greater care in dealing with leaders who command a large following.

Singaporeans appear to have accepted that when the law or social harmony is involved, religious leaders and religious groups have to be treated equally - like any other individual. Some of their infractions are in fact more serious given their potential to influence others. There is also a risk that developments elsewhere could have knock-on effects here.

At a time when social media posts go viral, US President Donald Trump's retweeting of anti-Muslim posts by far-right Britain First leader Jayda Fransen could have raised tensions. Many media outlets did not publish those posts, one of which claimed to show a Muslim man destroying a statue of the Virgin Mary - an inflammatory video that could affect social peace.

British Prime Minister Theresa May condemned the retweets, which had drawn outrage. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby called them "deeply disturbing", saying Christians are called on to love their neighbour "and seek the flourishing of all in our communities, societies and nations".

While the media can also do its part to avert religious tensions, religious leaders themselves must step up and speak out against divisive tendencies, especially in situations that could spark conflict.

For what appears to be taking place in many multi-religious societies is a tussle between two interpretations of religion.

These need not be at odds.

The word religion derives from the Latin re ligare, which means to bind, a conference speaker noted.

The earliest religious leaders preached ideas and values that aimed to bring people in their societies together, and channel their energies towards improving society. For many, these teachings are eternal truths that remain valid today. It is why groups raise funds to help the poor and needy, mobilise aid to help victims of disasters, and help others around them regardless of their religion. Their actions are an invaluable social glue - and very much linked to the role of religion as a constant compass at a time of rapid change.

This face of religion is that of compassion, charity, and love for one's fellow man - as the first president of Singapore's Inter-Religious Organisation, Reverend H.B. Amstutz, said at its founding in 1949: "We, through this organisation, are no longer strangers and enemies, but pilgrims on a common road seeking common goals."

Scholars have also pointed to another source of the word religion - from the Latin relegere, to go through or over again in reading, speech or thought. This is associated with strict observance of sacred texts, laws and traditions. To many, following these - from prayer to dress codes - are also a key part of their faith.

Some take this a step further, and insist on a literal reading - and application - of texts, even though religious leaders say they have to be read with regard for the wider context of one's society.

An overriding emphasis on literally putting into practice what some see as scripture predicting appears to be a factor in how some quarters view the ongoing controversy over the US recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital. This led to many evangelical leaders in America supporting Mr Trump's decision as helping to fulfil divine prophecy.

At the same time, the patriarchs and heads of churches in Jerusalem have also written to the US President to reconsider his decision, saying they are certain it "will yield increased hatred, conflict, violence and suffering in Jerusalem and the holy land, moving us farther from the goal of unity and deeper toward destructive division".

Some of these differences and nuances can be better highlighted.

To many devout individuals, both care for social ties and a strict observance of scripture, are important. These two considerations also need to be weighed up carefully - and a reading of religion that sees communities divided rigidly along religious lines cannot be healthy for a multi-religious society. In many places, it has led to a cycle of violence that is hard to reverse.

Turkish writer Mustafa Akyol touched on this in a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times on how an "us versus them" mentality can radicalise a religious community.

"Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists alike can become hateful militants when they see themselves as righteous victims. That trend is visible everywhere, from the Buddhist monks cheering ethnic cleansing in Myanmar to the Hindu majoritarians who dominate Indian politics to the violent Muslim extremists in the Middle East," he wrote. "Conscientious believers in every tradition need to stand against the toxic urges that turn religion into a hollow vessel of arrogance, bigotry, hatred and greed. Otherwise, more and more evil will be done in their faith's name."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 10, 2017, with the headline 'Religion is as much about social glue as staying true'. Print Edition | Subscribe