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Building A Common Society

Author: Ng Kam Weng
Date: 04.03.2010
Location: Petaling Jaya | Malaysia
Category: World Faiths

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Originally Posted in English

A response to Chawkat Moucarry’s ‘A Plea For Dialogue.’  

Of late, dialogue between Muslims and Western Christian academicians has moved from defensive polemics to more constructive discourse that seeks to achieve mutual understanding. Every effort is made to set aside inaccurate stereotypes of Islam so that it is judged in the best possible light. The commitment on both sides to dialogue and to exploring how to live together based on new-found commonality has raised optimism.

Nevertheless, Christians living in Muslim majority countries remain guarded. Optimism comes naturally when one is theorizing within the safe and comfortable confines of Western universities. The fact is, Muslims are more interested in pursuing dialogue with Western Christians because dialogue confers recognition and this is what Islamic scholars want from the West. However, dialogue with local Christians is avoided as Muslims are reluctant to confer recognition to the local Christian community.

Dialogue beneath the Gothic arches of Western universities should be welcomed, but surely genuine dialogue would gain more credence if it took place at the ground level, especially in countries where Islamic authorities do not feel the need to modulate their power so as to present an acceptable face, as they would when dealing with their Western counterparts. If indeed dialogue takes place, the Islamic authorities typically set the terms of engagement, reducing it to social rituals to confirm the dominance of Islam rather than to promote mutual understanding and respect. Naturally, local Christians lose enthusiasm for ’dialogue.’

A case study

I shall focus on the situation in Malaysia as a case study to explain the ambivalence of Christian minority groups toward Christian-Muslim dialogue.

To begin with, Malaysian Christians are intimidated by the battery of existing laws that may be used against them if they express frank opinions in dialogue. But honesty also requires local Christians to admit to a lack of confidence arising from a shortage of trained experts who can present their case persuasively, using the language of public discourse. Consequently, Christians tend to prefer to practice their faith in private rather than to engage in open dialogue.  In the process the Malaysian church ends up sounding like a feeble voice crying in the wilderness at the margin of society--or ends up having no voice at all.

Nevertheless, Christians should enter the fray of national debates regarding civil society and nation-building. Failure to do so results in a de facto surrendering of the public sphere to the dominant majority.

Effective engagement is possible only if Christians act out of a clearly defined social philosophy. In this regard, Christians must reject any political arrangement that allows Islamic officials to dominate other social institutions within society like the family, the school and the shrine.

Christians should also realize there are different currents of Islamic intellectual movements. On the one hand, there are the Islamic officials who expect the country to be administered according to an Islamic political hierarchy and reject socially differentiated institutions on the ground that such differentiations betray the influence of Western secularism. On the other hand, the reality of the modern nation-state has persuaded some Muslims to accept that society could be structured in terms of relatively autonomous and socially differentiated institutions. Christians should seek to work with the latter to build a polity which accords social equality to both Muslims and non-Muslims.

Keywords: Muslim, dialogue, understanding, Malaysia, intimidation, social equality, credibility, common interests, defensive, debate, engagement, pluralism

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Ng Kam Weng observes that "dialogue is not just an occasion for academic discourse. It is an ongoing negotiation of power between elites of different social-religious groups." This is a profound observation and is often true when the dialogue is occurring at formal levels. However, when dialogue happens as a natural outgrowth of a healthy interface between two friends, or two coworkers, or two neighbors, it is a profound event. All too often evangelism has been portrayed as an event in which the believer transmits a package of Gospel knowledge to a listener. There are contexts in which a direct presentation of the Gospel is appropriate and beneficial. Such contexts are typically ones in which there has been a significant response to the Gospel within the community. In most Muslim contexts, however, it appears that the more profound interactions happen on the interpersonal level, where heart meets heart, not mind challenges mind.


27.04.2010

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Malaysia

PhContributeBy Ng Kam Weng
 
Location: Petaling Jaya
Country: Malaysia

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