Pluralism: The new bogey

Najib: Pluralism is against Islam 

What the opponents of pluralism are saying is, it’s offensive and wrong to make all religions equal because Islam, and by extension Muslims, are superior to all others.

Jacqueline Ann Surin, The Nut Graph 

THERE is a new threat against Muslims in Malaysia and its name is pluralism. No less than Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak himself has flagged pluralism as an “enemy of Islam” and grouped it together with the other bad words, “LGBT” and “liberalism”.

My Name is Khan promotional poster (source: Wiki Commons)

My Name is Khan promotional poster (source: Wiki Commons)

Not to be outdone, some Muslims, who have been described as scholars, recently declared the spread of pluralism in Malaysia as “worrying”, as if it were some kind of pandemic that needed to be controlled. Even popular Bollywood star, Datuk Shah Rukh Khan, has been accused of promoting pluralism through his rather inspiring and endearing movieMy Name is Khan.

But just what kind of threat does pluralism pose to Malaysian Muslims? And if it’s such a clear and present danger to the majority of the population, what are other nations, which also experience cultural and religious diversity, doing about pluralism that we may learn from them?

Pluralism 101

Just what is pluralism anyway?

According to Harvard University’s Pluralism Project, there are four components to pluralism. Diana L Eck writes that diversity alone is not pluralism. There needs to be an “energetic engagement with diversity” for pluralism to exist. “Today, religious diversity is a given, but pluralism is not a given; it is an achievement,” she writes, adding: “Mere diversity without real encounter and relationship will yield increasing tensions in our societies.”

Second, it’s not about tolerance, which is tenuous, but “the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference”. Eck argues that tolerance “does nothing to remove our ignorance of one another” and warns that in today’s world, “our ignorance of one another will be increasingly costly”.

Thirdly, pluralism is not relativism. Rather it is the “encounter of commitments”. What does this mean? It means that proponents of pluralism don’t need to leave their identities and commitments behind. It’s about “holding our deepest differences, even our religious differences, not in isolation, but in relationship to one another.”

And finally, pluralism’s foundation is dialogue. That means both speaking and listening in a way that involves “give and take, criticism and self-criticism” so that the process can reveal both “common understandings and real differences”.

More sheep than Muslims

Seen in this light, it’s no wonder that institutions such as Harvard University in the US have embarked on initiatives to promote, rather than reject, pluralism. Indeed, the motivation for undertakings such as the university’s Pluralism Project has been the radically changing religious and cultural landscapes that have emerged in the US because of immigration. The project’s mission statement is “to help Americans engage with the realities of religious diversity”.

Helen Clark (source: Wiki Commons)

Helen Clark (source: Wiki Commons)

The US isn’t the only place in the world where a predominantly white, Christian population views diversity as a gift that can be channelled for greater good by promoting pluralism. In a country where there are likely more sheep than Muslims, Helen Clark’s administration lent support to a project by the New Zealand Diversity Action Programme that resulted in the Statement on Religious Diversity. Among others, the statement “encourages education about diverse religious and spiritual traditions, respectful dialogue, and positive relationships between government and faith communities”. And just like in the US, New Zealand was spurred by the increasing religious and cultural diversity arising from migration from Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

More Muslims than sheep

In Malaysia meanwhile, there are clearly more Muslims than sheep. In fact, the Malay Muslim population in Malaysia is what the white Christian population is in countries like the US and New Zealand. More importantly, unlike the US and New Zealand, we’ve always lived with religious and cultural diversity. Our society didn’t suddenly see a dramatic shift in demographics that led to citizens feeling befuddled about the appearance of mosques, temples, gurdwaras and churches.

Sheep (Todd Huffman | Flickr)

Sheep (Todd Huffman | Flickr)

And yet, what do we do about our plurality? From prime minister to so-called religious scholars to Muslim youth groups, we hear a clear and resounding rejection of pluralism. Here’s what they’re saying when they cast pluralism as the new bogey in town: “No” to engagement. “No” to dialogue. “No” to active understanding. “No” to equal and respectful relationships with others.

In other words, “No” to what we’ve been historically and culturally since, at the very least, Malacca became a trading port in the 15th century. And “No” also to what we have already achieved which developed countries are only now trying to acquire. In fact, let’s just demolish one of the bedrock of Malaysian life.

Seen in this light, we shouldn’t be at all surprised that there were attempts to denigrate Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim through the distribution of leaflets in Slim River this month that condemned the Opposition Leader as a believer of religious pluralism. He’s not the only one. Two years ago, PAS spiritual leader Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat was attacked at an Islamic seminar for attending a function at a Buddhist temple.

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