It’s a delicate subject, for most a sensitive one. Many people would prefer to avoid it, or skirt around it rather than engage in public conversation with it. Nonetheless, the interest of the discerning has not waned.
Any discussion that has the potential to devolve into a monologue that promotes hegemony over plurality should be kept to small groups. As a result, interest is guarded and allowed to fester in a private knowledge domain, whether in search of knowledge or driven by curiosity.
Man-made fault lines that have been the source of misunderstanding throughout history continue to divide humanity, with governments and authorities of various faiths seemingly unable or unwilling to unite in order to cement humanity’s broken lines.
Understanding and empathy
However, we do not dismiss the importance of fostering understanding and empathy, and we are never short of words to reaffirm our commitment to tolerance and respect for one another’s faith. The initiative of the Unit for Other Regions Sarawak (Unifor) in hosting an interfaith dialogue two weeks ago, involving clergymen and leaders representing Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Baha’i, and Taoism, was a commendable move that could be the start of a series of interfaith dialogues, visitations, and a host of programmes jointly organised and hosted by the various religions.
It is hoped that with each new jointly-organised programme, the scope and depth of discovering each other’s faith for the sake of knowledge and understanding would broaden, and transformative efforts would rise and merge to form an interfaith humanity trajectory from which the fountain of love and care would spring forth.
Unifor-hosted interfaith dialogue
The Unifor-hosted event coincided with World Interfaith Harmony Week, which is observed annually in the first week of February. This observation stems from a United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Resolution calling for a global celebration of interfaith harmony.
Harmony is the keyword and is driven and sustained by ‘tolerance and respect’. If either of the two constituents, tolerance and respect, is missing or withdrawn, fault lines may emerge and threaten harmony. It is a delicate social construct, man-made and relational.
Until a better alternative emerges, the power of linguistic persuasion reigns supreme, with ‘tolerance and respect’ serving as the most appropriate definer and creator of the framework for interfaith harmony.
Sarawak, which is already a thriving melting pot of many ethnic and religious groups, continues to engage conversation with tolerance and harmony.
Theology, regardless of faith, must never be allowed to enter the framework because it has the potential to allow doctrinal views to exert dominance, causing debate and contentious uneasiness to emerge and disrupt the order of tolerance and respect in the dialogue.
Nuanced religious concepts
From the perspectives of various religions, concepts such as man, life after death, sins, heaven and hell, and other religious constructs are viewed differently. They must be respected and not criticised, no matter how strongly you disagree and feel deep within your silent self that one’s religion is superior.
We will not raise the alarm if we keep our ‘silent self’ silent and do not cross the line. The golden rule ‘do not do to others what you don’t want others do unto you’ speaks volumes of this.
Despite their apparent superficiality and stereotyping, the words ‘tolerance and harmony’ are loaded with values that bind and are relatable to Sarawak residents of all religious backgrounds.
Lynchpin words of tolerance, respect
Yes, Minister. Words of assurance unite us and illuminate the sparkle even as the lynchpin words ‘tolerance and respect’ challenge us to look beyond our restrictive nuanced ‘boxes’ to understand, tolerate, and respect neighbours who differ in faith and ethnicity.
It is part of society’s learning curve where ultimately knowledge and understanding leads us to empowerment and emancipation.
If ‘tolerance and respect’ were to be personified and given life of its own, it would be endearing its presence with a character that is racially and religiously blind. It would be emancipating.
But are we ready to bring the last of the barriers and open ourselves to acceptance in addition to tolerance and respect?
Are we willing to raise the bar of understanding by moving ‘tolerance and respect’ towards acceptance and reflecting this in the different spheres of activity – from the public service to the community?
In ‘acceptance’, are we willing to create a model of convergence and interaction of people of different faiths working and collaborating in the interest of the employer and the state, without prejudice?
Yes Minister, the answer lies deep within humanity. Man will find it difficult to overcome his prejudices and biases. And humanity has struggled to match sermons with action since time immemorial. And humanity has never been successful.
According to its own definition, interfaith dialogue is the positive and cooperative interaction between people of different religions, faiths, or spiritual beliefs, with the goal of promoting understanding between different religions in order to increase acceptance and tolerance.
Yes, Minister. The interfaith dialogue has its own set of constraints imposed by its creators. The operating scope of ‘interfaith dialogue’ is defined and limited, with the primary goal of creating and promoting understanding across religious divides.
Participation in interfaith dialogue is hampered by mistrust, prejudice, misunderstandings, weakness, and a lack of adequate representation. To address these issues, we can only hope for tolerance, respect, and genuine preparedness. To effect change, political will is required, and leaders must step up to the plate and lead the way.
Regardless of the nuances of people with different religious backgrounds and personalities, interfaith dialogue contributes to fostering empathy, assisting participants in developing real relationships, and developing a more complex and sophisticated understanding of each other.
Yes, Minister. Where are we in this?
Types of interfaith dialogue
There are four major types of interfaith dialogue, namely ‘polemical’, ‘cognitive’, ‘peacemaking’, and ‘partnership’ based on the motivation that encourages followers of different religions to interact.
Yes Minister, where are we in this?
Interfaith dialogue brings people of various religious faiths together for discussions. These discussions can take many different forms and have many different goals and formats. They can also occur at various social levels and target a variety of participants, including elites, mid-level professionals, and grassroots activists.
Interfaith dialogue has only recently provided a means to serve peaceful goals within the context of religious faith. Interfaith dialogue has the potential to unleash the power of religious traditions while also providing the inspiration, guidance, and validation that populations require to move towards nonviolent conflict resolution. Extremism eradication can also be viewed as a by-product, if not a resolution, of interfaith dialogue.
Each faith group can make a unique contribution to the common cause of creative coexistence through interfaith dialogue.
However, this is far easier said than done. For this to function well, interfaith dialogue programmes must be evaluated so that lessons, both good and bad, can be learned for future applications.
Accountability is lacking in interfaith dialogues. Declarations are signed, and powerful speeches are delivered.
But what if they are broken? There is no single approach, whether interfaith dialogue or otherwise, to preventing the types of extremism that minorities face; there is no magic wand to wave.
Yes, Minister. Interfaith dialogue is essential for fostering common understanding, but only in tandem with the advancement of accountability measures to halt the spread of extremist ideology and people, as well as the strengthening of victims of religious extremism’s ability to speak and act collectively.
* Toman Mamora (PhD Nottingham, UK) is a communication and research consultant. He comments on contemporary social and political issues, and seeks to raise public opinion on subjects of societal value.