Knowledge not fear in religion

By Dina Zaman
June 08, 2011 | The Malaysian Insider

JUNE 8 — A reader asked me in an email what my thoughts were on the “… religious management in the country…” and what I would do about the disarray.

I was quite stumped by the question. While I read in dismay about what was happening to our country, I had to admit, I didn’t have the answers.

Malaysia is obsessed with titles and credentials, and I was a highly improbable person to answer such a question. Perhaps, I replied to the reader, this was something best left to politicians, activists and religious authorities.

He wrote back, “… but if you could, what would you do?”

It is obvious to most thinking Malaysians that there is a serious disconnect between the real lives of Malaysians and the perceived notions of our lives by (self) appointed leaders of our faiths and authority. And that there are gaps among ourselves, within our own communities, and when combined, these only aggravate the situation.

We must remember when it comes to our religions, we are emotional. Where is the sacred space for us to believe and practise our faiths?

In Faith-Based Diplomacy: Trumping Realpolitik, Douglas Johnston had written that there was the assumption that with globalisation and modernisation, there would be “… a gradual, persistent, unbroken erosion of religious influence. “ [1] The book further elaborates, “Quite often, the reaction against (Western) modernization is framed in religious terms. This is a valid characterisation when one considers the modern, secularized, and rather compartmentalised approach to life … the strict division between the sacred and the secular observed in the West is a relatively recent innovation—and is foreign to much of the rest of the world. As Boston University sociologist Peter Berger has pointed out, ‘The difficult-to-understand phenomenon is not Iranian mullahs but American university professors.’”

Is this a predominantly Muslim problem?


A review article by Michael G. Peletz states that “… we see many of the same general dynamics operating in a wide array of predominantly Christian, Jewish and/or Judaeo–Christian contexts (including the USA) and among Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and others (Casanova, 1994; Antoun, 2001; Juergensmeyer, 2003; Cannell, 2010; Hefner, 2010). As with capitalist markets, modern states and civil society, it seems that public religions are here to stay.” [2]

My personal opinion is that while our religious leaders have the right to feel besieged and want to protect the faithful, the ego needs to be kept in check. We must own the responsibility of disseminating information and we must be objective. It is not about authority and position of power.

I am extremely suspicious of committees and panels. While I understand the need for a body to campaign and discuss religious matters, I have always wondered about what goes on in the minds and hearts of the individuals involved. I am sure that most are selfless, but who is to know? There is always an agenda.

In Malaysia, it is about protectionism. It is about a minority constantly battling a majority that is fearful of a loss (of its position), whereas all the former wants is space to practise what it believes in.

We have yet to learn that negotiation is not just about compromise.

How can our leaders help?

In the second chapter of Faith-Based Diplomacy: Trumping Realpolitik, the author Andre Malraux wrote, “Among the attributes that give religious leaders and institutions sizeable influence in peacemaking, four stand out:

1. A well-established and pervasive influence in the community

2. A reputation as an apolitical force for change based on a respected set of values

3. Unique leverage for reconciling confliction parties, including an ability to rehumanize relatiohships

4. The capability to mobilize community, national, and international support for a peace process.”

Most important, religions possess a transcendent authority for their followers that is the envy of most temporal leaders.

However, looking at some of our religious personalities who have caused more grief than inspired hope, the above may not be possible in the immediate future.

Another reader emailed to ask whether there was a place for agnostics and atheists in a country like Malaysia, where religion plays an integral role.

“What is your take on people who don’t have a religion especially in the context of Malaysia where like you said — religion has become inseparable from the national discourse?”

My rather inadequate answer to all of the above is that we Malaysians have the right to empower ourselves with knowledge. We must overcome our fear of the Other and learn more about each other. My column, Holy Men Holy Women, has taught me that we can learn from each other’s differences and delight in our similarities.

Inter-faith dialogue is an important tool, and we must include our youth in the negotiations. We cannot expect to love each other when we meet, but the whole idea of such dialogue is to exchange. Anger, fear, myths must be addressed.

Our education system needs to be revamped. Perhaps a return to the past where we had a system that worked; a time we fondly remember our children mixing freely with each other.

We should encourage comparative religious courses.

We must create and sustain a reading public. A culture that instils the love of books is also one that promotes the endearing quality of being curious, which in turn leads to critical thinking. Kumon, Enopi are supplements to an education, but do not necessarily mold children into personable beings.
Malaysians, God fearing or not, must focus on the relevant issues: education, corruption, the economy and the welfare of the state.

Instead of being taken up by polygamy and obedient wives, and who’s falling in and out of political parties, we should emulate Canada and Scandinavian countries which have exemplary welfare, health, employment systems. We should focus on what unites us — our common good, and our similarities (socially and culturally). And not the superficial chaff they would have us believe is dividing us.


[1] Faith-Based Diplomacy: Trumping Realpolitik. Contributors: Douglas Johnston – editor. Publisher: Oxford University Press. Place of Publication: New York. Publication Year: 2003.

[2] Islamization in Malaysia: Piety and consumption, politics and law. Michael G. Peletz

[3] Building a Shared Home for Everyone-Interreligious Dialogue at the Grass Roots in Indonesia. Contributors: Achmad Munjid – author. Journal Title: Journal of Ecumenical Studies. Volume: 43. Issue: 2. Publication Year: 2008. Page Number: 109+. COPYRIGHT 2008 Journal of Ecumenical Studies; COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning

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