Christian-Muslim Dialogue: Building a Common Society

Christian-Muslim Dialogue: Building a Common Society

Published in Christianity Today LINK

I wrote this article as a response to Chawkat Moucarry, “A Lifelong Journey with Islam.” LINK You may note the other responses by David W. Shenk, Evelyne A. Reisacher and Sunday Agang. These articles are part of the collaborative project between Christianity Today and The Lausanne Movement, The Global Conversation.

To facilitate a truly global conversation, we ask Christian leaders from around the world to respond to the Global Conversation’s lead articles. These points of view do not necessarily represent Christianity Today magazine or the Lausanne Movement. They are designed to stimulate discussion from all points of the compass and from different segments of the Christian community. Please add your perspective by posting a comment so that we can learn and grow together in the unity of the Spirit.
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Of late, dialogue between Muslims and Western Christian academicians has moved from defensive polemics to more constructive discourse that seeks to achieve mutual understanding. Every effort is made to set aside inaccurate stereotypes of Islam so that it is judged in the best possible light. The commitment on both sides to dialogue and to exploring how to live together based on newfound commonality has raised optimism.

Nevertheless, Christians living in Muslim majority countries remain guarded. Optimism comes naturally when one is theorizing within the safe and comfortable confines of Western universities. The fact is, Muslims are more interested in pursuing dialogue with Western Christians because dialogue confers recognition and this is what Islamic scholars want from the West. However, dialogue with local Christians is avoided as Muslims are reluctant to confer recognition to the local Christian community.

Dialogue beneath the Gothic arches of Western universities should be welcomed, but surely genuine dialogue would gain more credence if it took place at the ground level, especially in countries where Islamic authorities do not feel the need to modulate their power so as to present an acceptable face, as they would when dealing with their Western counterparts. If indeed dialogue takes place, the Islamic authorities typically set the terms of engagement, reducing it to social rituals to confirm the dominance of Islam rather than to promote mutual understanding and respect. Naturally, local Christians lose enthusiasm for “dialogue.”
A case study

I shall focus on the situation in Malaysia as a case study to explain the ambivalence of Christian minority groups toward Christian-Muslim dialogue.

To begin with, Malaysian Christians are intimidated by the battery of existing laws that may be used against them if they express frank opinions in dialogue. But honesty also requires local Christians to admit to a lack of confidence arising from a shortage of trained experts who can present their case persuasively, using the language of public discourse. Consequently, Christians tend to prefer to practice their faith in private rather than to engage in open dialogue.  In the process the Malaysian church ends up sounding like a feeble voice crying in the wilderness at the margin of society—or ends up having no voice at all.

Nevertheless, Christians should enter the fray of national debates regarding civil society and nation-building. Failure to do so results in a de facto surrendering of the public sphere to the dominant majority.

Effective engagement is possible only if Christians act out of a clearly defined social philosophy. In this regard, Christians must reject any political arrangement that allows Islamic officials to dominate other social institutions within society like the family, the school, and the shrine.

Christians should also realize there are different currents of Islamic intellectual movements. On the one hand, there are the Islamic officials who expect the country to be administered according to an Islamic political hierarchy and reject socially differentiated institutions on the ground that such differentiations betray the influence of Western secularism. On the other hand, the reality of the modern nation-state has persuaded some Muslims to accept that society could be structured in terms of relatively autonomous and socially differentiated institutions. Christians should seek to work with the latter to build a polity which accords social equality to both Muslims and non-Muslims.

Forging a common vision

What are some common social projects that Christians can undertake together with their Muslim neighbors? It is said that while doctrine divides, common values unite. This may be true for people working together on projects which promote social welfare. The problem here is that since Islam is favored and supported by the state, Muslim welfare activists have little desire to work together and share resources with Christians. Consequently, Christians have to do good works with their own resources until Muslims are prepared to work with them.

An area which offers greater possibility for Christians and Muslims to work together lies in the fight for social justice and human rights. The challenge for all religious communities, especially Islam, is to demonstrate that they have within themselves the ethical resources to achieve a genuine common vision for all citizens. Muslims in the West enjoy unrestricted freedom of religion. Christians should appeal to the sense of moral integrity among the more open Muslim thinkers to promote reciprocity of religious freedom so that non-Muslim minorities enjoy religious freedom comparable to the freedom enjoyed by Muslims in the West. Of course, any alliance between Christian and Muslim activists should champion the rights of all citizens regardless of their religious affiliation.

To conclude, dialogue in the Malaysian context obviously addresses a host of sensitive issues. Dialogue is not just an occasion for academic discourse. It is an ongoing negotiation of power between elites of different social-religious groups. It goes beyond exchange of abstract ideas and aims to forge alliances to build common society.

It takes much courage for anyone to critique social policy in the context of an authoritarian government. For this reason, it makes sense to begin dialogue at the informal level. The obvious advantage is that the participants are not cornered into any defensive position. Although one cannot hope for an immediate translation of agreements into just social policies through such informal channels, patient interaction is undertaken in the belief that dialogue inherently promotes peace and reduces communal tension.

This does not mean that Christians should eschew entering national debates on social issues; they should, in fact, use all opportunities available in the mass media. True, their rhetoric will have to be less direct or forceful. Indeed, their voice is often excluded by the government-controlled mass media. Nevertheless, Christians should recognize that there are still people of good will in authority and it is possible to find openings, however rare, for Christian input at the operational level in departmental planning and development of the civil services. Christians should be alert to make use of such opportunities.

Religious harmony is always a precarious blessing in pluralistic societies. It would be unrealistic to expect significant transformation of deeply held prejudices in the near future. But surely, this reality makes it all the more urgent and necessary for Christians to dialogue with their Muslim neighbors.

6 Comments

  1. Jason Loh says:

    The whole point of dialogue is to enhance mutual understanding of one another embracing the entire spectrum of faith, meaning both dogma and practice. It’s no point for Christians in *Malaysia* to have dialogue when they are not made to be sensitive and appreciate and learn to emphatise with the concerns of Muslims, especially in the area of morals. To put in other words, Christians should reflect on the impact and implication their cultic and secular expressions convey to Muslims. In this respect, there is much the modern Christians can learn from certain aspect of Islamic habits. At the end of the day, the cultural capitulation of modern Christians to the here and now does not make for a good witness on behalf of the Law *and* Gospel.

  2. Trencherbone says:

    “Christians living in Muslim majority countries remain guarded.” Yes indeed, check out the links under CHRISTIANS at http://crombouke.blogspot.com/2010/01/everything-you-need-to-know-about-islam.html

  3. Malaysia Harapan says:

    THE KINDS OF JUDGES THE NATION NEEDS:

    1. Judges who are God-fearing and who will stand up for real justice for all the people, regardless of race, religion, culture and political persuasion.

    2. Judges who are neither beholden to nor rub shoulder with any political coalition or party, but who intentionally adopt an arm’s length approach in dealing with the Government-of-the-day and the opposition political parties, ensure a level playing field for all parties to the dispute, seek the truth including rigorously scrutinising the processes in obtaining the evidence that are produced in the courts, as well as dispense justice promptly and equitably.

    3. Judges who are non-compromising and wise-acting in abstaining from all appearance of evil (to borrow the words of Paul of Tarsus) at all times, so as to maintain their credibility, avoid bringing the judiciary into disrepute and mostly importantly honour God in their lives and court decisions they make.

    Pray for more of such judges in the nation.

  4. And Yet... says:

    And yet the number of muslims are increasing in US and Europe tremendously……..

  5. Abe W Ata says:

    Your staff and students will be interested in a recent publication of mine ” Us and Them: Muslim Christian relations and social harmony in Australia” by the Australian Academic Press, of great interest. The publication has been recommended as a reference to all NSW and South Australian government and private schools, and is being nominated for the Prime Minister’s Book Award in 2010.

    Several of the chapters contain findings from nationally funded survey conducted in a large number of SCHOOLS including Protestant (Anglican) , Catholic and Muslim throughout Australia.
    I have enclosed the table of contents and back cover as a broad guiding statement, below, as several staff would consider using it as a primary reference.

    We would value you drawing the attention to them by copying the flyer attached to them,; or directing them to the Australian Academic Press : http://www.australianacademicpress.com.au/Publications/Books/4-921513190.html

    or, Melbourne University bookshop link:
    http://www.bookshop.unimelb.edu.au/bookshop/p?AU.ata//all

    Thanking you.

    Abe W Ata (Prof)
    Senior Associate Fellow

    St Patrick’s Campus – Melbourne
    Australian Catholic University

  6. vincent says:

    Why hatred between malaysian chinese and native malaysian never ends.

    1. Gods forsaked us?

    2. Are chinese really wrong to appear on earth at the first place? Wrong creation by Gods?

    3. Why the whole world hate us?

    4. What people really want from us? Should we be gone and never come back to earth?