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Harnessing religions to promote justice, peace

Q&A with Dr Chandra Muzaffar



Religion can be a powerful force in the pursuit of justice and peace. Dr Chandra Muzaffar will be a speaker at a conference organised by Universiti Sains Malaysia next week. Its Noordin Sopiee Professor of Global Studies tells YONG HUEY JIUN why, as diverse as we are in our beliefs, we have more in common than we think Q: How do you feel about the progress (or lack thereof) of interfaith dialogues since you first began promoting it in 1980?
Malaysia itself is an example of dialogue in action. You have to interact with people of other religions and try to understand them; the other becomes part of your reality. I would see that as more important than having a council or body which brings all the religions together. Nonetheless, such an avenue for interaction is very important because you need some mechanism for resolving issues that create uneasiness among the different religions.

It's not quite right to say we've not had such mechanisms in the country. There have been such mechanisms. The Malayan Inter-Religious Organisation, was set up in 1956. We've had the Interfaith Spiritual Fellowship. All the religions are there, in a sense. At the level of civil society, there have been initiatives of that sort but it is the state which has not been directly involved. There are certain sensitivities about the state being involved in an endeavour of this sort.

This is part of the problem that confronts us. There's no reason why a Muslim-majority government should not be involved in interfaith dialogues. There's no reason to fear interaction and dialogue. Dialogue is integral to Muslim history because it was a part of Islam right from the beginning. The Prophet himself was actively involved in dialogues with the Christians and the Jews.

Q: Would bringing religion into the quest for peace be self-defeating?
I can't think of any religion which espouses war and violence. They all advocate peace, which means that within religion there are resources that one can harness for the purpose of promoting peace. All religions believe in the sacredness of life. All religions advocate justice and justice is the precondition for peace. All religions talk about the oneness of the human family -- from the Zoroastrian faith to Sikhism. It's very strong in Islam.

The teachings of a religion do not promote violence. It's the individuals -- the people who manipulate a particular religion -- who are responsible for the distortion of the essential message of the religion. The essential message of religion is very clear: it promotes peace.

Q: Religion can be a uniting or dividing force. Unfortunately, as history has shown, it's been more of the latter and has come to be known as the source of numerous conflicts. Your comments.
For the vast majority of people, religion gives them a certain notion of what the purpose and meaning of life is. Most of the time people go about their daily chores without doing anything that would give the impression that their religion is a source of conflict. In Malaysia, you have people of different religions living cheek by jowl in this country. People of different religions have been able to live side by side for most of history.

Secondly, when religion is seen as a source of conflict, more often than not, it is not religion per se. It could be politics, the economy or other forces at work that lead to conflicts. Religion is drawn into the situation. For instance, the Maluku conflict in Indonesia. It was linked to the collapse of the Suharto regime and, to a certain extent, migration. It wasn't the fact that you have Christians and Muslims.

Q: Why is religion often drawn into conflicts?
Religion is a very powerful emotion. If you want to ensure that your position triumphs in war, you resort to religion because it's a very powerful force for whipping up sentiments, mobilising support, galvanising people and targeting your adversary. It serves the purpose and the interest of politicians. It sometimes serves the purpose of the media, which sensationalise certain issues.

There are individuals and groups in all religions who consciously distort religion for whatever purpose, but bigotry in the name of religion has existed for a long time. However, there are spiritual, moral and intellectual resources in all religions that can be harnessed to promote justice and peace. If you look at recent years, quite a bit of that has been happening except that we have not taken notice of people of different religions coming together to fight for global justice. For example, the campaign against the war in Iraq and the campaign to promote environmental ethics.

Q: But could it be that their common goal is what fosters that cohesion? What happens when they are no longer fighting for the same cause?
If you take away the cause from them, they would just go about their daily routine. They are not going to kill one another. This is where we have to promote greater understanding of each other's religion. In other words, you have to make people aware that even if there weren't these common causes to fight for, you have many reasons to work together as human beings.

Today, more than ever, one has to do this because if you look at every one of the major crises that confronts us, you'll find that what is really needed is perhaps a spiritual and moral transformation. If you look at it from various perspectives, you will be able to see the connections between what's happening today and the need for some sort of spiritual and moral ethics. Some people would even say this is what is really needed -- a spiritual and moral revolution.

Q: Every religion has its own set of tenets and beliefs. Given that, how do you make people see that acceptance of another's faith need not mean an abandonment or alienation of one's own faith?
I think it's important for all of us to recognise -- and it doesn't matter whether one subscribes to a religion or not -- the fundamental dignity of all human beings.

Once you begin with that understanding, it becomes easier to move on to accepting diversity. It says in the Quran that that is part of the divine plan -- to learn to appreciate and celebrate that diversity.

In spite of this diversity, I know that there are common values and principles all of us subscribe to. These are common to all of us regardless of our faith or whether we believe in God or not.

Q: Do you think it's crucial to maintain secularism in a multireligious society?
I don't think one should establish a state based upon a particular religion. I don't think in the case of Malaysia you should have an Islamic state. That said, I still believe that society should be informed and inspired by spiritual and moral values. In other words, you cannot separate values from the economy, politics or culture.

The term "secular", unfortunately, has a certain connotation from the perspective of certain religious groups. People say secular as divorced from religious values. There are different types of secularism. French secularism is, in some ways, antagonistic towards religion. Indian secularism accommodates different religions. Globally, humankind is evolving into a situation where some sort of integration -- a more universal notion of the divine, spiritual and moral values, and the positive aspects of secularism -- is going to take place in the future.

The "Religion in the Quest for Global Justice and Peace" conference will be held in Kuala Lumpur from July 24-26. For registration, please call                04-653 4491         or email


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