Creating harmony in multi-cultural societies

Creating harmony in multi-cultural societies
All together now: Will images like this, of children from different faiths interacting peacefully, become a thing of the past in Malaysia?
PHOTO: The Star/ANN

In multi-cultural societies living in a connected world, creeping radicalisation and extremism are posing more challenges to moderation.

PROF Dr M. Din Syamsuddin, chairman of Muhammadiyah, a very influential Islamic organisation in Indonesia, has been to many inter-faith conferences and seminars on moderation.

But, he says, these turn out to be monologues rather than dialogues because those attending are moderates themselves.

"There are no problems between the moderate Muslims, moderate Christians, moderate Hindus, and moderate Buddhists. But there are problems when we go out because the radicals and hardliners are out there.

"So we need to include the excluded. We need to invite the non-moderates for it to be comprehensive and for it to be a dialogue," he says.

Indonesia is home to the world's biggest Muslim population. Of the 210 million Muslims in the country, some 35 million are members of Muham­madi­­yah.

While the popular belief these days is to think that radicals and extremists are mostly Muslims, Prof Syamsuddin stresses that radicals and extremists should not be equated with any one religion because you find them in all religions.

For instance, two weeks ago during the Eid festivities, he says, a group of Christian extremists attacked a Muslim congregation at prayer and burnt down their mosque in Tolikara, Indonesia.

Such incidents have been happening between radical groups in both religions.

He says "the battle on the ground" in Indonesia is between the Arab Salafist and the American Christian Evangelists, both of which are radical groups.

"There is a need for the rest of the society not to be silent. We need a second way to respond. We need the role of the state, and the role of civil society too is vital.

"We need to cut out the root cause of radicalism," he adds.

And those root causes are not always about the religion.

According to Prof Syamsuddin, there are a number of non-religious factors that lead to religious radicalism.

These include poverty, illiteracy, discrimination, ecological collapse, a cultural "tsunami" and global political injustices like the war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the unresolved Palestine-Israel problem; all of these can fire up the situation and be used as justification to radicalise believers' perception of a religion.

"We have to overcome the non-religious factors. Political players too need to be invited to the table," he says.

The world needs "genuine collaboration" among people from all religious communities, people of wisdom, to win the battle of ideas and action to keep violent religious extremism away, he feels.

Another speaker at the roundtable, Singapore's Ong Keng Yong, who is the executive deputy chairman of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, shared Singapore's experience in managing moderation.

He says because Singapore's society is multi-racial and pluralistic, the government has had to think of ways to ensure harmony.

This means the government has had to intervene in a substantial way by playing a "strong and impartial role" through various legislations and institutions to maintain the values that contribute to harmony.

So Singapore has a Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act and a Presidential Council on Religious Harmony.

And at the people level, the government has set up many community centres, residents' committees and neighbourhood committees to bring people of different races and religions together for activities in residential areas.

Ong says when these committees organise potluck parties, people are sensitive to the religious considerations of others and know what not to bring.

"The Chinese know Muslims don't eat pork so they would bring something like a vegetable noodle dish; the Malays might bring a chicken curry (not beef because Hindus don't eat beef) and the Indians might bring a dessert," he says.

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