Your faith, my iman

INDEED, it matters that apart from internalising the teachings and traditions of our own religion and practising them, Malaysians must make every effort to understand the faiths and beliefs of other groups. In order to reach out to one another and nurture harmonious relationships, there must be a conscious effort to know about the spiritual values of other communities.

A key finding in the CIRINI Resolutions and Recommendations of the Intercultural Dialogue held recently is that while “harmony” and “relationships” are ranked among the most important cultural dimensions in Malaysian society, participants agree that misconceptions about inter-religious matters stand in the way of greater understanding among the people. Learning about the religious sensitivities of every community is, therefore, the first step in accepting their differences.

While there is consensus that all religions propagate common values such as “faith in God”, “honesty”, “trustworthiness” and “respect for others” among their adherents, the finding is that there are still large gaps in people’s inter-religious and inter-cultural knowledge.

Even within the same community there is some confusion between religion and culture, between what is seen as a religious practice and what is practised as a cultural tradition.

For instance, even among the Malay Muslims the line between what is acceptable in Islamic teaching and what is practised in Malay culture is sometimes blurred as it is between the rituals of Hinduism and popular Indian cultural practices, and between Chinese customs and Taoist rites. A more serious knowledge gap is in not knowing the difference between the major faiths such as Buddhism, Taoism and the Ba’hai faith.

In a recent luncheon talk co-hosted by the Association of Voices of Peace, Conscience and Reason and the Old Frees Association on The Interfaith Challenge: Seeking A Common Ground, the guest speaker Datuk Anwar Fazal touched on similar issues.

While the world’s major religions and faiths intrinsically stand on common ground in upholding the universal values of love and compassion; justice and mercy; kindness and gratitude; and goodness and godliness, their adherents and the societies they live in seem to be on shaky ground sometimes verging on disarray.

While Malaysians of different faiths profess and are united by their “Belief in God”, there seems to be a lack of cross-religious understanding. While there may be superficial knowledge of other religions such as where and how their adherents pray, it is apparent that there is a lack of “real” knowledge about the religion, culture, language and history of other communities.

In the Q&A session, the audience wanted to know how the interfaith challenge can be posed to the wider Malaysian society.

While they themselves represent a small cross section of urban civil society who are united by their common educational background and better exposure to inter-community relationships and networks, what about the masses who operate much within their own religious and cultural groups?

How can the search for a common ground be translated into meaningful activities on the ground? How can we reach out to the proverbial man in the street to make him more aware of the religious sensitivities of the people living in the other streets of his neighbourhood or place of work?

Several suggestions have come to the fore: public campaigns like “Smile or wave to your neighbours”; community prayers and vigils; street parties; public dialogues; and forums on interfaith and inter-cultural matters; small-group engagements on controversial issues; listing out the things you are grateful for; and listing out the kindnesses you can extend to others.

A major proposal is the publication of booklets on the religious sensitivities of each community to address areas which may not be discussed openly.

My own proposal is a public campaign to get every Malaysian to befriend at least 10 people from a different faith or religion, starting from students in schools and institutions of learning. Friendships nurtured early in life sustain us in our later years as is apparent in the camaraderie of the Old Frees, Georgian and convent alumni.

By forging good relationships among communities of people, there will be occasions for us to eat together, to communicate with one another and to share our thoughts and ideas about not only our joys and successes but more importantly, our fears and apprehensions.

Perhaps the daunting task of seeking a common ground lies not with the religious leaders who are committed to propagating their own faith and protecting their community of adherents, but with civil society.

While religious leaders may pay lip service to the idea of pushing for a movement of moderates, it is ordinary citizen groups such as PCORE and alumnis such as OFA who have a truly mixed membership that can come to the fore to initiate meaningful programmes and activities on the ground.

“Your Faith, My Iman” is a good slogan to begin with.


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