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Thursday, September 04, 2008

IPS Forum on Religious Diversity in Singapore
Part 3 of 3: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3

Session III: Some highlights: Islam and Christianity

Discourses on Islam in Southeast Asia and Their Impact on the Singapore Muslim Public
Dr Noor Aisha Bte Abdul Rahman
Department of Malay Studies, NUS

Research here is very scant. My research is mostly from literary writings, the papers, sermons, fatwas and legal opinions.

Islam in Singapore is not monolithic. I'm looking at dominant discourses. Dominant discourses are shaped by the religious elite. We have traditionalism here, which is very selective. People think they shouldn't question established discourse. Malaysian and Indonesian discourse does not show up here.

In the last decade, the views promoted are about non-exclusivity and tolerance and accommodation. The dominant discourse is non-fanatical, because the common folk don't welcome fanaticism. Fanaticism is artificially imposed.

Now there's an emphasis on pietism, the aspects of which are:

i) Personal salvation. Be moral and the afterlife is a reward. There is a focus on rituals, e.g. how to refine your prayers

ii) Halal vs Haram. This is divorced from contemporary ideas on ethics, but is based on theology. e.g. Gambling, living donor organ transplants. Discussion is isolated from a concrete level. It's just Dos and Don'ts - Legalism in the discourse.

iii) A dualistic worldview. This World vs The Afterlife, Religion vs The Secular, and about balancing each.

iv) Ethics. These are authoritarian and based on God and punishment, rather than love.

v) The position of man - a small and insignificant creature, powerless and weak. God is Great and Man is Insignificant. There is no look at the dynamism of man which is a fundamental part of the Muslim tradition.

vi) Reason, and the ambivalent attitudes towards it. There is doubt and suspicion. Reason is a creation of God, but it is a double-edged sword which leads you astray and undermines human potentiality.

The discourse is interwoven with myths, magic and mysticism, and incorporates the unseen and irrational. For example, Jinns, which are not in the Koran. There is discourse about Jinns, what they eat, how they tempt Man and what they look like.

The discourse is also characterised by Utopian thinking, which is suspicious of existing systems. It creates a new one based on the authenticity of an imagined authentic past. It is indifferent to the role of ideology in history (e.g. Democracy), and sees only Islam.

Modernity is seen as not in consonance with Islam, and there is a desire to return to the perfect Islam of the past. Imperfect modernity is to be discarded. But then, this does not engage with real systems and contemporary ideology. It's not political since it does not undermine and challenge, but it is not real engagement.

There is a need to adjust to the problems of modernity rather than just regress.

All of this is due to the role of feudalism in Islamic history, where there was no room for thinking and intellectuals. Then, colonialism forced modernisation upon the Malays; it was external and thrust upon them instead of internal. There is no local intellectual tradition.

Negotiating Christianity with Other Religions: The Views of Christian Clergymen in Singapore
Dr Mathew Mathews
Department of Sociology, NUS

People are pissed off by Christian evangelism and want a rule against religious touting.

In Singapore, Christianity is evangelistic. Most growth has been in the Charismatic stream in the last 2 decades. It is generally conservative, and influenced by evangelistic/conservative American churches. Even in Malaysia, there are more liberal Christians than Singapore.

Conservative Christianity believes in Biblical Literalism, has a concern about Truth Claims and is supposedly more Intolerant.

57 in-depth interviews were conducted, and 167 Protestant and 16 Catholic clergymen surveyed.

30% had moderate-strong fears that religious dialogue could compromise religious convictions (they were mostly Protestant - the reasons for this were supposed to be explained later but he didn't get down to it so I guess I'll just have to read the book); most Protestants were apprehensive about religious dialogue.

They thought inter-religious dialogue was meant to show that all religions are equal. They didn't want comparative religion to dilute their Absolute Truth Claims about their faith. Though one guy said peace helps the cause of evangelism.

40% thought it was hard to get donations from a non-Christian religious group (because they'd feel bad if members of the group were converted), and 30% thought it hard to cooperate with non-Christians for charitable causes.

Most were exclusivists; though they thought other religions had some good, they disagreed with their practices. Some had the Anonymous Christians view (they don't believe in Christ, but they are good people so they are Christians - they just don't know it yet).

Although most were exclusivists, they rationalised their not going around screaming "Repent" to non-Christians. One rationalisation was that they wanted to help people with day-to-day issues, and didn't care about Heaven and Hell because they wanted to save people from Daily Hell.

When preaching, the clergymen didn't mention other religions. They preached by asserting the truth about their religion rather than denouncing others ("possibly because of legislation").

73% said they would advise their flock not to bow to the coffin of a family member if the funeral was a non-Christian one. 93% said one should not hold joss sticks etc in non-Christian funeral rites, even if one knew this was not an act of worship (this was a Protestant phenomenon). This was because they thought these things would compromise one's faith in God, and Charismatics thought this would open you to non-Christian spiritual experiences.

Yet, there was compromise: 68% said it was okay to put flowers at a non-Christian altar table for one's ancestors.

Some rationalised this [Ed: their seeming heartlessness] by saying you should be filial in life and not wait for the funeral rites to make up for your lack of filial piety when the person in question died.

In all, there was rationalisation because this is was a secular state, but this did not dilute their exclusivism.

One policy implication was that dialogue should be about pragmatic concerns, about being the moral conscience of society.


Q: The last talk was depressing. If they're exclusivists, there is no hope. People need hope so we can work together. I think different religions are all part of the same truth. Einstein said we cannot solve problems with the same mindset that caused them.

A: The trajectory of Christianity in many parts of the world is not going to change. Exclusivism does not mean you do not collaborate with or relate to other faiths. You think they're wrong, but you can relate to them as citizens and human beings. Islam and Christianity are exclusivise but they can cooperate.

Q: The implications of the Muslim paper are that they cannot relate to present-day reality.

A: Religion is infused with philosophy affecting their values and norms. The problem is how the discourse inhibits their playing a more active role in assimilating national institutions and adjusting to modernity.

You cannot be active citizens and promote stuff that's good for everyone because you're stuck because you base yourself on the past.

Q: How do we coexist? We should do what academics do with competing ideas. In Law, Economics and Philosophy there is no problem with such contention. In Religion there is.

Do we need such sensitivity? Why? If we apply the academic attitude in the religious realm, I don't see why we need sensitivity to avoid disorder.

Q: Is exclusivism relevant? The State is secular and must have pragmatic ideals.

If there's exclusivism, we need mutual respect so there's no provocation. If we've faith we cannot sacrifice the fundamentals. Different religions must work together across history to achieve harmony.

Q: Tolerance is not giving up your point of view. It's about accepting different opinions are equally valid, and that other people who hold them are equally rational [Ed: No, this is called Relativism.]

Concluding remarks

We must be sensitive about religion, because of the protests of Buddhist monks in Korea that the President is pro-Christian, and the problems in Orissa and North Sulawesi. *Usual National Education talk*
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