Interfaith dialogue? What’s there to say?
On the 27th of March, I participated in a Christian-Muslim interfaith dialogue which took place at Covenant Presbyterian Church (CPC). This dialogue was jointly organised by Masjid Yusof Ishak and the National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS) and supported by Harmony Centre and the Ministry of Culture, Community, and Youth (MCCY). The purpose of the dialogue entitled Living Together for the Common Good was to build bridges of social cooperation between Christian and Muslim youth leaders. Some of you may recognise Masjid Yusof Ishak as one of the two mosques marked out for terror attacks by the self-radicalised 16-year-old Singaporean Christian youth recently detained by the Internal Security Department (ISD). In fact, this interfaith dialogue arose as a result of that. When Christian and Muslim leaders met in the aftermath of the incident, they recognised the urgent need for better mutual understanding and cooperation, since it was a bad impression of Muslims and an erroneous understanding of Islam that contributed to the Christian youth’s radicalisation. If similar future incidents should be prevented, then dialogue between the two faiths needs to take place.
At this interfaith dialogue for youth leaders, both Christian and Muslim participants were assigned to small groups that engaged in conversation over a given topic. The following topics were discussed: the part violence plays in our religiosity, the tension between religious diversity and need for social cohesion, and mutual cooperation for the common good as citizens. The various small groups then presented the fruits of their discussions to everyone present, which included Ustaz Dr Mohammad Hannan Hassan, the deputy mufti of Singapore, and Bishop Terry Kee (of the Lutheran Church in Singapore), the vice-president of NCCS. The two senior religious leaders then gave their comments on the issues raised and fielded questions from the participants.
The dialogue turned out to be a good time of mutual learning and constructive discussion which took place in an air of empathy and respect. Given the topics tabled for discussion, it would have been rather unfruitful (and perhaps disastrous) if participants brought defensive and narrow-minded attitudes to the table. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the overall candidness of the conversations which took place. For example, an Ustaz admitted the history of violence in the propagation of Islam, and some Christian pastors highlighted the presence of texts in the Old Testament explicitly commanding violence. Despite these being thorny religious issues, they weren’t simply glossed over or whitewashed but humbly brought to the table and acknowledged. Although the brevity of the dialogue meant that delving into issues and laying out concrete plans for mutual cooperation was impossible, it still went a long way in building a bridge between our two Abrahamic faiths. Allow me to share some of my reflections after the session.
The purpose of such interfaith dialogue isn’t meant for Christians to convince Muslims of the truth of our gospel (or for Muslims to defend the veracity of their faith)—interfaith dialogue isn’t an avenue for evangelism and proselytization, and that can’t be stressed enough. This is especially so in a pluralistic society like Singapore where religious feelings of Muslims and Christians are often deep rooted. Attempting to proselytize or be strident about one’s belief at an interfaith dialogue would be counterproductive. This doesn’t mean we don’t share the gospel with Muslims, but it means we’re wise about it and we recognise there’s a time and place for everything. Of course, some well-meaning Christians may still see this stance as a pusillanimous compromise and a capitulation to relativism and universalism. They believe that if Christians possess the truth, then everyone else is in error and interfaith dialogue has to be an avenue to “convert the heathens.” However, such unhelpful attitudes may just be conducive to radicalisation. If our theology is so narrow that we can only view non-Christians as “the others”—the “reprobates” and “infidels”—and mere targets for proselytization, then we aren’t too far from the perspective held by the self-radicalised youth, who could only see the relationship between Christians and Muslims as one of stark contrast and unavoidable conflict. As a result, he felt the inexorable need to act pre-emptively against “the others” to defend “his people.” Yet, that’s forgetting that all humans are created in the image of God and precious in God’s sight.
According to Dr Adeney-Risakotta, Professor of Religion and Society at the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies, the purpose of interfaith dialogue is
to understand and learn from each other, while accepting there are substantial differences between religions as well as between different interpretations within the same religious community. This kind of dialogue aims to break down barriers, clear up misunderstanding and make it possible for us to work together for common goals.
To him, dialogue shouldn’t minimise the differences between faiths, as “understanding how we are different may be more valuable for both sides, than just knowing what we hold in common.” Which means interfaith dialogue isn’t about Christians and Muslims coming together, holding hands in a circle, and singing kumbaya, ignoring all differences in ultimate truth claims between the two faiths. Relativism and universalism are not presuppositions to an interfaith dialogue. On the contrary, because we want to learn and understand each other’s faith better, nobody should be leaving their faith commitments at the door.
So why is such dialogue necessary? Imagine two neighbours who live above and below each other but hardly ever interacting. One day, one of them—let’s just call him Mr Chin—begins to hear knocking noises from his ceiling every day in the wee hours of the morning. As a nice neighbour, he tries to bear with the noise for a while, but eventually gets frustrated and upset at—let’s just call him Mr Mehta—his upstairs neighbour. After weeks of tolerating the din, Mr Chin heads upstairs and breaks Mr Mehta’s flowerpots in retaliation, believing that Mr Mehta is deliberately disturbing his sleep out of spite because he had complained about his dripping laundry. Little did he know, Mr Mehta’s wife had a mild stroke recently, and the knocking sounds were simply her attempting to ambulate to the toilet in the middle of the night with her walking aid. If Mr Chin and Mr Mehta had interacted more often on friendly terms, then Mr Chin would’ve known of Mr Mehta’s wife’s condition and he wouldn’t have jumped to conclusions and destroyed his flowerpots in a fit of anger. Perhaps, they would even have work out a solution to the problem together (like purchasing a commode for her).
Likewise, if interfaith dialogue can help Christians understand that the Islamic faith doesn’t command Muslims to do violence (or kill Christians) and the Islamist extremists are holding to an erroneous interpretation of the Quran, then perhaps we wouldn’t want to imagine Muslims in Singapore as closet terrorists—that would be abhorrent and bigoted. Also, if Muslims know Christians are able to sit at table with them and converse on religion as friends without criticising Islam or “hard selling” Christianity, then perhaps they would be more inclined to befriend Christians and even converse with them about religious matters. Clearing away the underbrush of misunderstanding and false notions about the other faiths paves the way to a better society.
Furthermore, having a dialogue puts faces to the faith in question. It’s easy for Christians talk about and criticize Islam among us behind closed doors (mutatis mutandis for the Muslims), but at an interfaith dialogue, religion is no longer an abstraction but is the lived reality of sincere and faithful persons sitting across the table. Both Christians and Muslims have similar hopes and aspirations in life, can be deeply committed to their faiths, and desire to peacefully live out what they believe in. Being able to put a face to the faith helps to soften any prejudice we may have and gives us true compassion to interact with each other in the public square amicably.
To play into the contrast and conflict framework of interaction and generate interfaith friction would have unfortunate outcomes for both Christians and Muslims in Singapore. On the 1st of March, there was an exchange in parliament between Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam concerning the possibility of religious bias in top civil servants. Mr Singh had asked, “Is there a danger in Singapore that laws and policies could be tilted towards particular religious beliefs—for example, because of the dominant religious beliefs of senior civil servants or people of influence? If not now, maybe some time in the future?” He later clarified the motivation behind his question “was to really seek a restatement of the Government's commitment towards secularism.” It would be hard to miss the assumption underlying Mr Singh’s question: religious persons cannot be trusted to be seek the common good of all, so we need to ensure religion is purged from the civil service (and from the public square). This is the narrative of secularism that many here have bought into. If Christians and Muslims are unable to muster theological resources from their faith traditions to dialogue and work together for the common good, then we’re just affirming this flawed narrative and further estranging ourselves from the public square.
The reality of the matter is, whether Christians or Muslims, we’re all creatures of God made to subsist in space-time. As a people bounded by geography and citizenship to a place in time, Christians and Muslims here share a common life together (Singapore Together!); our lives are intertwined by virtue of being Singaporeans—if there’s a drought here, we’ll suffer together. Hence St Augustine can write, “Thus even the Heavenly City in her pilgrimage here on earth makes use of the earthly peace and defends and seeks the compromise between human wills in respect of provisions relevant to the mortal nature of man, so far as may be permitted without detriment to true religion and piety.” In other words, because Christians will inevitably live alongside non-Christians in this age, be wise and seek a way to live harmoniously and work together for the common good. To do so, there’ll be a need to reach compromise on some matters (while remaining faithful to the gospel) to make the shared life possible, after all, our fundamental commitments remain different. Since we’re all in it together until Kingdom comes, then mutual understanding and cooperation is unavoidable. In fact, it is even the desire of God.
As God declares in Jeremiah 29:7, “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Interfaith dialogue is a step in that direction.