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?

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.

Ong - who was CEO for four years of the People's Association, a statutory board - says because of the actions the authorities and groups have taken in the past to set up these committees, the concept of including all has now become ingrained among Singaporeans.

"Moderation comes naturally for Singaporeans. Everything is 'CMIO' - C for Chinese, M for Malay, I for Indian, and O for others. For example, when the media runs a story, they will look for reactions from the Chinese, Malays, Indians and others. It is all ingrained.

"I feel if we do more to institutionalise our moderation practises, we will only create more trouble for ourselves because people might feel the government is intervening too much, and this might create a reaction or resistance to this kind of overwhelming intrusiveness," he says.

In his opening remarks at the Roundtable, Singapore's ambassador-at-large and policy adviser Bilahari Kausikan said the concept of moderation has gained widespread endorsement because the problem of extremism is global and not peculiar to any one religion.

"Today, most attention is being paid to Islam but we have also been confronted with Christian extremism and Jewish extremism. Of late, we have even witnessed Buddhist and Hindu extremism."

Touching on the high-profile Charlie Hebdo shooting case, he says what struck him the most about it was the similarity of the thought processes of the killers and their victims.

"Both held their values to be so absolute that they justified anything.

"That the terrorists held a completely mistaken interpretation of Islam is beside the point.

"The point is they believed in it as fervently as the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists believe in their right to freedom of expression, which they foolishly see as the right to denigrate Islam.

"Both were equally wrong. Nothing justifies murder, but is it right to constantly lampoon a religion?" he asks.

(Charlie Hebdo is the French satirical magazine that published caricatures of Prophet Muhammad and angered Muslims worldwide, beginning in 2007 with one reproduced from a Danish newspaper that depicted the Prophet as a terrorist. In January this year, two brothers with al-Qaeda links stormed into the magazine's office in Paris and gunned down 12 people, causing worldwide outrage.)

To those who argue that the right to freedom of speech and expression allows them to publish offensive caricatures of the Prophet, Bilahari points out that even in France and the United States, there are limits to that freedom.

In France, he notes, there is a law against those who deny that the WWII Holocaust (in which six million Jews were killed by the Nazis) took place, and in the United States there is one against hate speech.

A few weeks ago, Charlie Hebdo said it would not be publishing cartoons of the Prophet anymore.

"Some in the West have decried this as a betrayal of values and a surrender to terrorism. I see it as the belated dawning of common sense," says Bilahari.

"Europe will adapt its value system because it must, because the cost of not doing so will be too painful to bear," he says.

Bilahari says the Langkawi Declaration on the Global Move­ment of Moderates adopted by ASEAN Heads of Government in April prescribes certain approaches such as outreach programmes, cross-cultural dialogues, the sharing of best practises, and information and academic exchanges.

"This is very useful but inadequate because those receptive to such programmes are those who need them least as they are already open-minded."

He believes understanding alone is insufficient for harmony.

He says what was inadequately stressed in the Langkawi Declara­tion is the role of the state.

Since no country today is homo­genous, there will inevitably be a conflict of values from time to time.

"When this occurs, it is the role of the state to act as a neutral arbiter to 'hold the ring'," he says.

According to Bilahari, states should exercise coercive power, including preemptively if necessary.

"When conflicts of values lead to violence, it is usually due to state failure.

"Because the state was caught by surprise or was too weak or timid to take action, or because it was unable to resist the temptation to seek political advantage by privileging one group over the other, or it was hamstrung by its own ideology.

"I am not arguing that coercion is always the answer or the only answer. It is not.

"But the capacity to coerce, or the threat of coercion, as well as adequate laws upheld by an honest and impartial judiciary, an efficient police force, and an alert internal intelligence service are all necessary and irreplaceable complements to the fostering of understanding through education and dialogue."

With regards to Islam in South-East Asia, Bilahari says all religions struggle with the question of women and family, the respective loyalties and duties owed by the faithful to the nation and religion, and the open versus conservative interpretation of their faith.

"There is nothing unique about this. But for the first time in history, information technology and social media have enabled a truly global ummah and given it an unprecedented immediacy, including in South-East Asia."

He says that since the language of the Quran is Arabic and not many Muslims in South-East Asia understand Arabic, this has "given an almost automatic legitimacy to what emanates from the Arab world" among some South-East Asian Muslims.

"And this is changing the texture of Muslim societies in the region. Some South-East Asian Muslims have even been inspired to join IS (Islamic State)."

But the reverse influence is not there.

"Although there have been suggestions that the more harmonious and successful Muslim countries of South-East Asia could serve as a model for the Middle-East and North Africa, I doubt that any Arab would take a non-Arab state as a model state in terms of religion."

What is more worrying, he says, is when sectarian and inter-religious tensions are being imported from the Middle East into South-East Asia and being "manipulated for significant political advantage".

"This is dangerous, and it reinforces my convictions about the crucial role that strong and impartial states and regional organisations like ASEAN need to play in the region."

The S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies-Global Movement of Moderates Foundation (RSIS-GMMF) Roundtable on “The Langkawi Declaration on the Global Movement of Moderates” was held in Singapore on Wednesday.