Quest for Covenant Community & Pluralist Democracy in an Islamic Context


 Dialog does not take place in a vacuum. Recognition of contextual pressures and normative ideals


J. C Murray once noted that what distinguishes civil society from a mass or a herd is its ability to engage in ongoing rational deliberative dialogue. Taking a quote from Thomas Gilby he wrote, “Civilization is formed by men locked together in argument.” Conversely, without dialog, civility – and with it civil society – dies. The reason is that without a public consensus that is forged through public deliberation, there is no bond of solidarity to command allegiance to common values that hold civil society together.


Sample chapter from lectures which I gave at the Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia, Trinity Theological  College (TTC), Singapore.


The Quest for Covenant Community and Pluralist Democracy in an Islamic Context [Paperback]

Ng Kam Weng (Author), Mark L. Y. Chan (Editor)

Paperback: 160 pages

Publisher: Trinity Theological College (November 4, 2008)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 981422281X — ISBN-13: 978-9814222815

Available from TTC and Amazon



Lecture 1: Pluralist Democracy and Spheres of Justice

Lecture 2: Religious Dialog and Democratic Deliberation

Lecture 3: Religion and Moral Citizenry


Dr. Ibrahim Abu-Rabi‘ (University of Alberta, Canada).

Robert A. Hunt (Southern Methodist University, USA).

Peter G. Riddell (Centre for Study of Islam and Other Faiths, BCV, Australia)


Chapter Two


 Dialog does not take place in a vacuum. Recognition of contextual pressures and normative ideals

J. C Murray once noted that what distinguishes civil society from a mass or a herd is its ability to engage in ongoing rational deliberative dialogue. Taking a quote from Thomas Gilby he wrote, “Civilization is formed by men locked together in argument.” Conversely, without dialog, civility – and with it civil society – dies. The reason is that without a public consensus that is forged through public deliberation, there is no bond of solidarity to command allegiance to common values that hold civil society together.

Public dialog in Malaysia has traditionally functioned as a kind of social ritual. Community leaders come together to make some mundane speeches to exhort citizens to be virtuous and tolerant of one another. The talks (or more accurately, lectures) are simply delivered with little open discussion. This seems consistent with the tradition of religious authoritarianism in our society. Perhaps people are simply too cautions about seriously engaging with one another’s ideas and passions in case tempers flare and physical abuse erupts.

It was therefore most heartening to see a group of Muslim professionals taking the initiative to engage the wider public in religious dialogue recently. The agenda they were addressing was no trivial issue. Instead, the group intended to set up an Interfaith Commission (IFC).  There has been widespread media coverage on marital conflicts that arose when one of the spouses converts to Islam leading to legal disputes over child custody and distribution of inheritance and burial rites of the deceased.  The country waits with bated breath as the highest court deliberates on these conflicts. It was felt that the creation of the Interfaith Commission would help resolve disputes arising from religious conversion without the parties involved resorting to litigation. The IFC (if approved by the Government) “would be to advance, promote and protect every individual’s freedom to thought, conscience and religion with a view to harmonious co-existence in our society; that such a harmonious co-existence was integral to the happiness, welfare and prosperity of the Malaysian people.” It was stressed that the Commission would be of a consultative and advisory nature without adjudicatory functions.

Some of the functions of the IFC listed included the following: to identify values and ethical standards of universal to all religions, faiths, beliefs and ways of life with a view to promoting the same; to identify and recommend ways in which harmonious co-existence in Malaysian society can be promoted and achieved with a view to national harmony and unity; and to receive, address and make recommendations in respect of complaints or grievances brought by persons, bodies or organizations in connection with the individual’s rights to profess and practice his or her religion or faith of choice.

Alas, the project ended as a stillborn. Fierce opposition from the Muslim community persuaded the Government to reject the proposed Interfaith Commission.

At the same time another initiative was launched to create public awareness of fundamental liberties that are enshrined in the Article 11 of the Federal Constitution. The new initiative was vehemently criticized by Muslim NGOs. To these Muslim NGOs both the IFC and the Article 11 initiative are attempts to undermine the sovereignty of Islam and there can be no parity of religion in the country. Muslim opposition took a turn for the worse when public seminars organized in Penang and Johor were physically disrupted by Muslim activists.  More troubling was death threats directed at leaders of the Article 11 Group.

Muslim activists (Coalition from TERAS/PEMBELA etc) in turn organize a counter gathering of 10000 at the National Mosque to protest against the Article 11 initiatives. A massive rally of 50000 was announced but was denied permission by the authorities to prevent further escalation of the controversy.

The Muslim NGOs submitted a memorandum to the Home Minister which included the following stipulations (amongst others):

– Every threat to Islam signifies a threat to the dignity and position and the Malay Rulers who are the heads of Islam in every state and to the integrity of the Islamic institutions;
– Efforts to overhaul and erode the position of Islam in the Constitution and national laws should be stopped while the laws on Islam should be upheld and strengthened to prevent such efforts;
– Religious rights and freedoms should be understood in the framework of Islam, not according to individual inclinations;
– All state and federal legislative assemblies should pass enactments that prevent the propagation to Muslims of religions other than Islam, and these [enactments] should be implemented immediately;
– The government should reject efforts of the West and non-governmental organisations to co-opt and use local NGOs, members of the academia, and individuals to influence laws and policies connected to Islam;.

Given the chorus of protests from the Muslims, it came as no surprise that the Prime Minister declared there should be an end to discussion on the IFC and Article 11. The ban was justified on grounds that “the people’s freedom to debate any current issue does not cover discussions on sensitive religious issues” (STAR 22 Aug 2006). Later the PM’s Department clarified that the ban does not prohibit further religious dialog if it involves government sponsored scholars from JAKIM, IKIM and the National Unity and Integration Department.


Recognizing Reality

The recent controversy highlights the difficulties faced when interfaith dialog moves from the polite and rarified atmosphere of the academia to the wider public platform especially when influential Muslim leaders see dialog as a strategy to undermine the sovereignty and special position (kedaulatan dan keistimewaan) of Islam. The task is made even more difficult by activists who politicize the issue and exploit it as an occasion for political mobilization of party faithfuls who are prepared to use threat of violence to disrupt public discussion.

It is granted that the pressure groups have succeeded in persuading the authorities to ban public discussion of the Interfaith Commission and Article 11 of the Constitution. Nevertheless, it must be questioned whether the negative reaction from Muslim activists need bring the project of dialog to an end. If Interfaith dialog is inherently profitable, there is no need for the project to gain prior support from Muslim activists in order for it to be a legitimate project. Neither must the Interfaith Dialogue first secure approval from the authorities or gain formal legislation in order to be legitimate. Activists can still go ahead and promote interfaith dialog among adherents of the other religions even if Muslim scholars decline to be included. Indeed, if the interfaith dialog becomes common place, Muslim scholars will eventually be happy to be included when they can see for themselves that interfaith dialog can rational and non-threatening when mature leaders different faiths meet on equal terms.

The project lost momentum precisely because Malaysia does not have a strong democratic tradition based on public deliberation. To be honest, one may suspect that this deficiency is not restricted to the Muslim community. Of course, the authorities rejected the creation of an Interfaith Commission. But the question is why the activists do not go ahead and form a body for Interfaith Dialogue on their own – regardless of whether the authorities recognizes it or not and regardless of whether the Muslims choose to join in or not. To be sure, there is the MCCBCHS which itself was formed as a consultative body. However, religious representatives in MCCBCHS mostly focus on practical problems and skirt around suggestions for interfaith dialog.

Perhaps immediate challenge of social activists is not to pressure (not that they can succeed) the authorities but to build a strong culture of public deliberation and rational dialog in wider society. I shall in this lecture restricted my discussion  to what specific reflection and action the Church needs to contribute to such an immense long term project.

What do we talk about?

Thesis 1 – Democratic rights are not just ideals but the outcome of political power, law and public policies enforced through social institutions. Activists must fight for the rights for all citizens and not for just a sectarian group. In turn this approach is premised on an understanding that social solidarity and social justice best based on a Covenant Politics

Thesis 2 – So long as Malaysian politics is negotiated on racial/religious terms, political discourse and public policies will increasingly become Islamic. Only an Islam that undertakes a process of Ijtihad which reforms the Shariah Law can prevent the eventual emergence of an Islamic state.


Thesis 1 – Democratic rights are not just ideals but the outcome of political power, law and public policies enforced through social institutions. Activists must fight for the rights for all citizens and not for just a sectarian group.

Democratic freedom can be sustained in the long run only if it is supported by social institutions that are relatively autonomous. It is therefore imperative for Christians to understand the theological and social underpinnings that enable the Church to operate as a relatively autonomous community. The Christian community may take pride in its possession of divine truth but this truth must be embodied in social institutions before the Church can succeed in mobilizing its members to act collectively to shape public policies. One important pre-requisite is the development of ‘peoplehood hermeneutic’ to strengthen the self-identity and moral formation of the Christian community.[1]

Dialog must be Critical – Challenging Hegemony

One of the tasks of a ruling ideology is to convince every subject that the present rulers are accountable only to the present political arrangement. The past is referred to only within an overall ideological myth which supposedly gave rise to the present political system. From this perspective, our common future has already been entrusted into the charge of the present governing authorities. The present actions of political authorities are accordingly legitimized by an ideological myth. It has often been said that those who do not know the past are condemned to repeat it. It is even more important to realize that those who surrender their past already have their futures hijacked.

Islamic hegemony is thus sustained by falsifying the past and manipulating our consciousness with the language of deception.[2] Consent and submission continues even in the face of blatant injustices. Steve Lukes has pointed out how discursive unavailability represents the ultimate and “the supreme and most invidious exercise of power.” He explains how those in power attempt to prevent people, to whatever degree, from having grievances by shaping their perceptions, cognitions and preferences in such a way that they accept their role in the existing order of things, either because they can see or imagine no alternative to it, or because they see it as natural and unchangeable, or because they value it as divinely ordained and beneficial. To assume that the absence of grievances equals genuine consensus is simply to rule out the possibility of manipulated consensus by definitional fiat.[3]

Steward Clegg, drawing insights from Gramsci, explains how hegemony can even elicit the active consent of dominated groups by: 1) taking systematic account of popular interests and demands; 2) making compromises on secondary issues to maintain support and alliances in an inherently unstable political system (whilst maintaining essential interests); 3) organizing support for national goals which serve the fundamental long-term interests of the dominant group; and 4) providing moral, intellectual and political leadership in order to reproduce and form collective will or national popular outook.[4]

Coercion and intimidation seems the preferred strategy adopted by the authorities. To be fair, the Islamic community in Malaysia has eschewed the violence that is common elsewhere in the world. But, power exercised with the velvet hand is still power nevertheless.

Hermeneutics of peoplehood is an attempt to remind the Church that freedom is preserved if the Church attains freedom in its linguistic self-consciousness which defines its self-perception and identity. Such consciousness arises from a deliberate hermeneutical retrieval of the common memory of the church.[5] The hermeneutical retrieval of its memory has as its purpose a rejection of any state ideology that claims final and exclusive loyalty. Specifically, the common memory of the church relativizes the claims of the State with a primordial set of sentiments which is more fundamental than allegiance to the State.[6]

Stanley Hauerwas explains how:

by making the story of such a Lord central to their lives, Christians are enabled to see the world accurately and without illusion. Because they have the confidence that Jesus’ cross and resurrection are the final words concerning God’s rule, they have the courage to see the world for what it is: The world is ruled by powers and forces that we hardly know how to name, much less defend against. These powers derive their strength from our fear of destruction, cloaking their falsehood with the appearance of convention, offering us security in exchange for truth. By being trained through Jesus’ story we have the means to name and prevent these powers from claiming our lives as their own.[7]


Covenant Politics and Shared Understanding

Michael Walzer argues that a given society is just if its substantive life is lived in a certain way – that is, faithful to shared understanding of its members.  It is propitious that both Muslims and Christians share and accept the covenant way of life. We shall therefore explore how covenant politics provide common grounds for both communities to work together in the social project of building a pluralistic democracy.

The challenge faced by any covenant religious community is to nurture citizens who are able to transcend their religious and ethical framework and adopt what Hannah Arendt calls ‘enlarged mentality’ or ‘representative thinking’. Seyla Benhabib describes this as “the capacity to represent to oneself the multiplicity of viewpoints, the variety of perspectives, the layers of meaning which constitute a situation.”  In other words, good and acceptable moral judgments arise from an exercise of reversibility of perspective either by actually listening to all involved or by representing to ourselves imaginatively the many perspectives of those involved.[8]

However, Arendt has been criticized by Liberals like Bruce Ackerman and John Rawls for failing to be attentive to the institutional preconditions that must be fulfilled for genuine dialog to take place. Such recognition will make evident and address the connection between power and legitimacy by proposing a procedural solution.

It is granted that participants in public deliberation working out democratic consensus operate with different conceptions on what constitutes a sufficient context for dialog. In this regard, Benhabib offers some valuable insights on different conceptions of dialog situations (or public space). She begins with Hannah Arendt who notes that the public space becomes agonistic when participants in a morally homogeneous and politically egalitarian society compete for recognition, precedence and acclaim. In contrast, an associational public space emerges whenever “men act together in concert” whether as pressure groups in a democracy or as dissidents under a tyranny. Constructive collective action arises when men of good will converse together in the associational public space.

It is unfortunate that the influential Rawlsian form of procedural democracy envisages a posture of ‘conversational restraint’ where participants – in the name of neutrality avoid – raising concrete differences. The problem is that this amounts to an amputation of political deliberation from the other dimensions of social life from which political action draws its significance, such as life in voluntary associations. Benjamin Barber remarked that the move appears to be “an antipathy to democracy and its sustaining institutional structures (participation, civic education, and political activism) and a ‘thin’ rather than strong version of political life in which citizens are spectators and clients while politicians are professionals who do the actual governing.”

One recourse is to work towards thin and overlapping consensus. This is typified in many communiqués and media statements which are usually issued at the close of conferences that have attracted media attention. Such thin consensus is not without value, insofar as they encourage further dialog and possibly call for more inclusive social policies.

A more critical and inclusive model of public space and dialog is found in Jurgen Habermas’ proposal of ideal speech situation and discourse ethics. Habermas suggests, “The goal of coming to an understanding is to bring about an agreement that terminates in the intersubjective mutuality of reciprocal understanding, shared knowledge, mutual trust, and accord with one another. Agreement is based on recognition of the corresponding validity claims of comprehensibility, truth, truthfulness and rightness.”[9]


Habermas’ ideals demand that participants come in good faith and lay out clearly the grounds of their assertions, backed with rational argumentation with the expectation that the validity of these claims will be tested critically. Habermas insists that views that prevail under such conditions are those that are more rational – arguing, persuading and winning consent without coercion. By the same token, views that prevail exemplify and promote positive social conditions such as genuineness, integrity, fairness, equality and democratic consensus. These outcomes are more than pragmatic expedient since they flow from rational consensus with its immanent normativity. Habermas, however, rejects the arguments that these norms become normative because they spring from an overarching metaphysical framework. Instead, the norms gain acceptance if they create free space that resists instrument, system rationality that “colonize of life-worlds” while promoting good life of individuals through democratic means.

Habermas adopts a cognitive approach, confident that moral problems can be solved through rational and cognitive means. He is confident that norms derived from his discourse ethics will be accepted since the discourse merely universalizes moral principles embedded in the dialog situation and is impartial in its implementation. In other words, a norm is valid only if “all affected can accept the consequences and the side effects its general observance can be anticipated to have for the satisfaction for everyone’s interests (and these consequences are preferred to those of known alternative possibilities).”[10]

Notwithstanding the rigor of Habermas’ analysis, I cannot help but feel that his confident expectation of moral agreement through a universalized rationality and his ideal speech situation has an unreality about them if we bear in mind the fact that interminable disagreements do exist among the best minds in the academia. They are other weaknesses in the approach. First, focusing on universal rationality leads to insufficient attention given to the role power plays in dialog especially in dialogic situations which bring together partners with unequal resources. It is only too easy for the assertive participants to overwhelm the weaker ones under the guise of more winsome articulation, or for the majority to impose their views on others.

Nevertheless, Habermas’ requirements serve as an effective regulative ideal which effectively unmasks majoritians who are more interested in manipulation rather than dialog. Selya Benhabib builds on these Habermasian ideals by formalizing a procedure of “historically self-conscious universalism” which includes among other things a set of procedural rules that reflect the moral ideal that “we ought to respect each other as beings whose standpoint is worthy of equal consideration (the principle  of universal moral respect)” and that “we ought to treat each other as concrete beings whose capacity to express this standpoint we ought to enhance by creating, wherever possible, social practices embodying the discursive ideal (the principle of egalitarian reciprocity).”[11]

Benhabib also argues that the liberal principle of dialogic neutrality “is too restrictive and frozen in application to the dynamics of power struggles in actual political processes. A public life conducted according to the principle of liberal dialogic neutrality, would not only lack agonistic dimensions of politics, in Arendtian terms, but more severely, it would restrict the scope of public conversion in ways that would be inimical to the interests of oppressed groups. . . . Liberalism ignores the “agonistic” dimension of public-political life.”[12] As such, dialog must highlight the inherent differences that we must accept and incorporate into social policies. It should seek to identity normative premises that all political participants find reasonable.

Second, the dialogic selfs envisaged by liberals like Habermas lose their moral concreteness given the focus on abstract criteria and rarefied universal rationality leading to a neglect of the positive resources embodied in the moral traditions of participants. In fact, we doubt if there are unencumbered selfs with universal rationality. As Mary Midgley once quipped, no one speaks universal languages. In contrast, dialog promises depth and fruitfulness only if participants are able to bring maximum input in the first place. Therein lies the dilemma: inclusion of moral diversity enriches the dialog. But this also increases the likelihood of irresolvable conflict. Perhaps Habermasian dialog should take note that conflict only serves to confirm the essentially contestable nature of concepts like good life, justice and diverse primary goods of democracy.

On the other hand, acknowledgement of the essentially contestable nature of dialogic issues will encourage a more tempered acceptance of pluralism which need not be subsumed under some universal criteria or rationality.  Still, dialog must address the issue of pluralism without succumbing to relativism. After all, is it not the fear of relativism that leads some participants to resort to power manipulation? The insights of Alasdair McIntyre and Charles Taylor on evaluating tradition-bound rationality offer some promising alternatives to coercive universal rationality on the one hand and sentimental and subversive relativism on the other.

McIntyre agrees that we cannot appeal to ‘neutral’ criteria to adjudicate between competing traditions. Nor should we compare rival positions against independent facts, rather we should lay out how the new conclusion must be accepted on premises which both sides accept. Taylor explains MacIntyre’s position as follows: “What may convince us that a given transition from X to Y is a gain is not only or even so much how X and Y deal with the facts, but how they deal with one another. . .  In adopting Y, we make better sense not just of the world, but of our history of trying to explain the world, part of which has been played out in terms of X.”[13]

Taylor modestly suggests that the claim is not that Y is absolutely true, but that whatever is ‘ultimately true,’ “Y is better than X. It is, one might say, less false . . . .: whatever else turns out to be true, you can improve your epistemic position by moving from X to Y; this is a gain.”[14]  Taylor emphasizes that this approach does not amount to a claim to have arrived at the final rational explanation. It is rather a choice for the best explanation so far. More important than merely being more rational is a concomitant requirement to be morally responsible for our epistemological choices.

Being tradition bound, we must acknowledge that moral discernment and responsibility never occur ex nihilo. Our choices and ethical justification are inherently the outcome of the moral resources that we draw from our religious and cultural traditions. We must therefore address the reality that there are different ethical traditions in our pluralistic society. That being the case, the challenge then for each religion in a pluralistic society is to demonstrate that it has the resources necessary to build an inclusive society that is just and moral.

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