Religious Dialog and Democratic Deliberation


 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.


What do we talk about? Benchmarks for Dialog

Why it is that religion is such a sensitive issue? Religion by its nature deals with one’s fundamental values and commitments. Religion, in other words, is the basis of one’s self-identity. Participation in the rituals of a religious community deepens one’s selfhood and contribution to social projects provides one with a sense of solidarity and security with fellow believers. As such, any act that challenges one’s religion is perceived as a threat towards one’s self-identity. Conversely, proper recognition of a fellow neighbor entails recognition of his right to practice his religion.

The Malaysian Constitutional provisions for religious freedom should not therefore be seen merely as a pragmatic solution to maintain social harmony in a pluralistic society. To be sure, social harmony is paramount, but social harmony implies a community of equals who are prepared to extend mutual recognition to one another because each religious community has its own secure sense of self-identity and security. Otherwise, the nation will be plagued by groups of prickly and hyper-sensitive religious communities which will in time give rise to an endless spectre of potential conflicts. Following the laws of the jungle, the stronger religious community will seek to dominate the weaker. In other words, we cannot rely on the law alone to ensure social harmony. On the contrary, the law is often exploited to legitimize religious hegemony.

On the other hand, each of the various religions in Malaysia each has within itself immense ethical resources accumulated through millennia of social experimentation. The challenge then is for each religion to undertake its own self-examination and ask how its ethical resources may be retrieved to promote religious harmony. We suggest three areas for consideration.

1. Can each religion promote self-criticism in pursuit of truth and integrity?  Religion by nature is a potent force for social mobilization. Not surprisingly, politicians often exploit religions to gain support for their political agenda. One can imagine how even lawyers and journalists may be tempted to mislead the public so long as they can excuse their action as directed toward the interests of their own communities. This is particularly true if a religion endorses power in social control. But by the same token it is vital for each religion to develop a built-in capacity for self-criticism. Self-criticism implies submission to the question of truth and integrity. Truth and integrity in turn implies the freedom to follow the dictates of one’s conscience. In the final analysis, a religion in modern society has credibility to the extent it is able to submit power to the question of truth, and to respect religious freedom.

2. Can each religion promote mutual recognition among people who have different convictions and ways of life?  Credit must be given to the Malaysian government for its sensitivity in handling the complex challenges of a pluralistic society. It would be ironical if the various religious communities through their dogmatic self-interests create continual problems of social conflict in the first place. After all, religion should be a source of social harmony. Social harmony implies neighbors with the capacity to give and take, neighbors who are not overly sensitive to their personal interests or offended because they easily misread the intentions of their neighbors just because they are culturally and religiously different. The challenge for each religion would then be to nurture believers with ‘enlarged mentalities’.  By ‘enlarged mentalities’ we mean people capable of empathy and reciprocity in social interactions.

This challenge is particularly acute for religions that claim to have access to absolute revelation and to be the custodians of unchanging divine laws. But surely, humility is required even for such believers notwithstanding their personal convictions.  After all, our understanding of revelation can be culturally conditioned and vulnerable to distortion arising from personal interests. One only needs a cursory reading of recent history of social conflicts to know that the way to hell is paved with ‘holy’ intentions. It is more vital now than ever before that religions promote openness and ‘enlarged mentalities’. Indeed a religion evidenced by such virtues will itself become a highly persuasive and positive influence to social harmony. In other words, an openness characterized by humility towards the more encompassing truths of God is more able to promote social harmony.

3. Can each religion go beyond the bounds of self-interest and extend recognition to others based on common humanity and shared citizenship? The impact of the recent Asian currency crisis has emphasized the need for all citizens to work together in order to ensure the economic prosperity of our nation and the flourishing of our uniquely multi-religious society. But surely, such cooperation implies a prior willingness to accommodate the concerns of wider society. It is understandable that each religious community naturally begins with the welfare of its own members. There is no sin in being concerned for members of one’s own religious community so long as this is not translated into prejudices or hostilities against others. As one commandment puts it, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Put positively, a religion transcends its self-interests in proportion to its capacity to accept its neighbors on grounds of shared civic values and to work together in building a common society. In other words, power must submit to peaceableness if religion is to be credible.

Thesis 2 – So long as Malaysian politics is negotiated along 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.

Admittedly, the benchmarks proposed above seem like impossible ideals when we are confronted by difficult and discouraging ground realities. Participants seeking dialog with Islam may well despair when confronted by what seems to be a religion that is fixed and unchangeable. Conservative ulamas (scholars) insist that there can be no fundamental reforms to Shariah since the gate to itjihad (new knowledge and new reforms to Shariah) has already been closed in the 10th century.

Indeed, many Muslims take pride in the claim that all that is necessary for salvation and for the ordering of society has already been revealed. Likewise, Syed H. Nasr emphasizing that it should not be the case of divine law accommodating to changing society; rather, it should be a case of changing society to meet the requirements of God’s immutable law.

How can dialog be possible if participants are not open to rational discussion? In this regard, it is encouraging to note the emergence of Muslim scholars calling for reformation of Islamic law as a necessity for successful engagement with Modernity. These Islamic social reformers are only too aware how risky it is for them to suggest making changes to Shariah law since they can be easily stigmatized as apostates who can then be judged to death. The danger is well captured by Abdullah An-Na’im, a Sudanese scholar now teaching at Emory University,

To Muslims, Shari‘a is the “Whole Duty of Mankind,” moral and pastoral theology and ethics, high spiritual aspiration, and detailed ritualistic and formal observance; it encompasses all aspects of public and private law, hygiene, and even courtesy and good manners. To attribute inadequacy to any part of Shari‘a is regarded as heresy by the majority of Muslims, who believe that the whole of Shari‘a is divine. This widespread view creates a formidable psychological barrier, which is reinforced by the threat of criminal prosecution for the capital offense of apostasy (ridda), a real threat today in countries such as the Sudan.[15]

Given such an entrenched attitude, one may well give up hope that dialog with Muslims can ever be meaningful. How can there be dialog if your counterpart claims absolute knowledge that can never in principle be open to change and where death threats are served to scholars who dare to critique the religion? It is therefore not surprising that there are few Islamic activists who dare to suggest fundamental reforms for Shariah law.

However, I find the proposal for reformation of Shariah law by Abdullahi An-Na’im, having the most potential for opening new possibilities for dialogue.

Abdullahi An-Na’im builds on the bold initiative of his teacher Ustadh Mahmoud Mohamed Taha.

The basic premise of Ustadh Mahmoud is that a close examination of the content of the Qur’an and Sunna reveals two levels or stages of the message of Islam, one of the earlier Mecca period and the other of the subsequent Medina stage. Furthermore, he maintained that the earlier message of Mecca is in fact the eternal and fundamental message of Islam, emphasizing the inherent dignity of all human beings, regardless of gender, religious belief, race, and so forth. That message was characterized by equality between men and women and complete freedom of choice in matters of religion and faith. Both the substance of the message of Islam and the manner of its propagation during the Mecca period were predicated on ismah, freedom of choice without any form or shade of compulsion or coercion.[16]

However, the Meccans rejected Muhammad’s early message despite its message of freedom and justice. Evidently, society at that time was not yet ready to implement the Islamic ideal. Muhammad responded with a more realistic message embodied in the Medina message that was more appropriate to the seventh century society. An-Na’im explains,

According to Ustadh Mahmoud, “the Meccan and the Medinese texts [of the Qur’an] differ, not because of the time and place of revelation, but especially because of the audience to which they are addressed. The phrase ‘O believers’ [frequently used in the Qur’an of Medina] addresses a particular nation, while ‘O humankind’ [characteristic of the Qur’an of Mecca] speaks to all people.” This shift in audience was dictated by the violent and irrational rejection of the earlier message.[17]

That is to say, the Meccan message was suspended and replaced by the Medina message out of practical necessity. Ustadh Mahmoud, however, maintained that the suspension of the Meccan message was only temporary. Otherwise, the superior and eternal aspects of Islam would be irredeemably lost. The Meccan message was only postponed, waiting for Islamic society to develop and attain the pre-requisite conditions necessary for its implementation.

But Ustadh Mahmoud’s proposal seems to go against the Islamic doctrine of Abrogation, naskh, which suggests that later texts (Medinan) permanently abrogate the earlier texts (Meccan). Mahmoud rejects this doctrine as self-defeating since it renders the earlier revelation pointless. More seriously, the doctrine of permanent abrogation amounts to denying Muslims the best part of their religion. An-Na’im defends Mahmoud with an alternative interpretation of the crucial Quranic passage.

God said: “Whenever We abrogate any verse (ayah) or postpone it (nunsi’ha), We bring a better verse, or a similar one. Do you not know that God is capable of everything?” [the Qur’an 2:106]. The phrase, “When we abrogate any verse” means cancel or repeal it, and the phrase “or postpone it” means to delay its action or implementation. The phrase “We bring a better verse” means bringing one that is closer to the understanding of the people and more relevant to their time than the postponed verse; “or a similar one” means reinstating the same verse when the time comes for its implementation. It is as if the abrogated verses were abrogated in accordance with the needs of time, and postponed until their appropriate time comes. When it does, they become the suitable and operative verses and are implemented, while those that were implemented in the seventh century become abrogated… This is the rationale of abrogation. … [In other words, it was not intended to be] final and conclusive abrogation, but merely postponement until the appropriate time.[18]

Abdullahi An-Na’im’s and Mahmoud Taha’s proposal turns the doctrine of Abrogation on its head. The traditional Islamic scholar view is that the superior Medinah revelation abrogated the earlier Meccan revelation. But Taha suggested the contrary – it is the case of temporary abrogation, that is, the Meccan revelation was only postponed temporarily in response to limitation of historical circumstances. As such, when better circumstances are achieved in the evolutionary development of societies, it will be time to abrogate the Medinah revelation and apply the superior Meccan revelation.

Undoubtedly, many conservative scholars reject strongly the radical proposal of Taha’s. Indeed, Taha was executed by the Islamic government of Sudan and Abdullahi An-Na’im himself was imprisoned and eventually went into exile.

Nevertheless, Taha’s view has gained acceptance among Muslims scholars who teach in higher institutions of learning that are not controlled by traditional ulamas. These scholars represent the most promising participants in inter-religious dialog between Christians and Muslims, since they are at least in principle open to more universally accepted views of fundamental liberties and equality to all people regardless of religious affiliation.


Adding Concreteness to Dialog: Covenant and Social Critique

Social philosophers like Peter Berger have pointed to the necessity of ‘plausibility structures’ to sustain belief systems. Michel Foucault likewise emphasizes that knowledge is not an eternal abstraction. Knowledge is ‘material’ and linked to power relations. Real change is achieved through change in power relationships in social restructuring, and redistribution of wealth and political power. As such, those who want to see social change must be prepared for a long haul struggle. Reinhold Niebuhr himself observed that “There is as yet no evidence that a privileged class, which yields advantage after advantage peacefully, will finally yield the very basis of its special position in society without conflict.”[19]

The word ‘struggle’ would raise eyebrows among Christians brought up in traditions which emphasize passivity and submission in authorities.  However, the fact is that no change is arrived at through passivity. Those who advocate passivity should realize that Christian love is an active concern, whether for one’s personhood or for the rights of one’s neighbor. J. Philip Wogaman counters such attitudes.

When Christians mistakenly allow the denial of their basic civil rights (such as freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of worship, freedom from arbitrary arrest and detainment, and the right to vote) they weaken such rights for others. For democracy to function, it is important to insist upon the rights of all, including oneself.[20]

Indeed our refusal to protest against infringements of our democratic rights may be due to a lack of courage and integrity which we hide under a cloak of faith. What ought to be without controversy is the necessity for Christians to take active measure to preserve the democratic freedom which they enjoy. Undoubtedly, realism must be kept especially with regard to the prospect of change in the short term. Christians may claim the high moral ground, but as a minority they cannot expect to be treated with greater toleration just because they appeal to some universal values or moral sentiments of the majority. Christians need to develop strategies which resist any attempt to unseat the delicate balance so as to ensure that no group may acquire so much power that it can abuse weaker groups with impunity. Christians engaged in political struggles need to be supported by a community which affirms the social values they are fighting for and to be nurtured by a common faith in the future. Wallis urged,

We have to create a base that is internally strong enough to enable us to survive as Christians and to empower us to be actively engaged in the world. The community is the place where the healing of our lives become the foundation for the healing of the nations. The making of community is finally the only thing strong enough to resist the system and to provide an adequate spiritual foundation for better and more human ways to live.[21]

These insights suggest the necessity for an embodied vision if Christian values are to be effective. For this reason, John Yoder comments on how the Church may succeed in its social witness.

What needs to be seen is . . . that the primary social structure through which the gospel works to change other social structures is that of the Christian community. Here, within this community, men are rendered humble and changed in the way they behave, not simply by a proclamation directed to their sense of guilt but also by genuine social relationships to other persons who ask them about their obedience.[22]

Aristotle once boasted that if he were given a place outside the world, he would find the leverage to move the world. In the same way, the Christian community will find moral authority to change society if it is prepared to stand outside the securities offered by the world. Such freedom is achieved if the community is freed from the rewards and inducements of the world. Freedom to be oneself allows one to offer oneself to live for a cause one believes to be true.

It is when Christians band together and exhibit their faith as a sociopolitical reality that they incur hostility from the government. After all, governments consider the control of social groups to be their exclusive domain. Political authorities are prepared to tolerate Christianity if it is held only at the level of personal beliefs. Isolated Christians may be ignored as politically irrelevant but a sociopolitical faith represents a challenge to the powers that be. It is a well known fact that both the Nazis and the Stalinists concentrated their attacks not so much against Christian beliefs per se, but sought to destroy the institutions of Christianity.

It would clearly be disastrous if the churches in Malaysia succumb to Islamic propaganda that claims Christianity is merely an individualistic belief to be excluded from the public square. The claim is made to project the superiority of Islam as a comprehensive way of life. But if we should reject such suggestions to confine Christianity to private beliefs, we can expect the government bureaucracy to attempt to suffocate any effort by Christian to institutionalize their faith. The challenge then is to creatively explore how Christianity may express its values in a public manner sufficient to influence our social ethos to ensure the preservation of democracy and religious freedom.[23]

The Covenant that the Bible describes goes beyond legal requirements since the two parties enter into a special relationship, pledging a mutual commitment of an intensely personal kind. Hence, loyalty and faithfulness are the central qualities of the Biblical Covenant. Christianity offers resources for social renewal. In particular, the Biblical Covenant supports the creation of a community which embodies a way of life that upholds justice and integrity, emphasis on mutual accountability in the presence of a transcendental authority and peaceableness and hope in a world rent by tragic conflicts.

Covenant solidarity results in a caring and supportive community. Nevertheless, solidarity must not be confused with collectivism where the individual is sacrificed on the altar of social engineering. Sociality does not absorb individuality. Every person is held to be responsible both for his individual acts and for the acts of his community. Specifically, each member is expected to fulfill his obligation to maintain the covenantal social order. A religious vision leads to a struggle to secure a social arrangement congruent with that vision. On the other hand, the vision takes practical effect only in the context of a concrete social order.


What happens if the Covenant community becomes a minority within larger secular society? Under such circumstances, implementation of the ideals to wider society is not given up. Submission to superior ruling powers must not lead to abandonment of the self-identity of the community. Interestingly, the secular authorities were seen as limited but relatively legitimate. Some specific responses include the following.

1. God’s people are urged to pray for the rulers and even seek their welfare (Jeremiah 29)

2. God’s people should be ready to serve under secular governments with integrity and for the common good so long as religious integrity is not compromised (Book of Daniel).

3. The religious identity of believers must be nurtured by renewed dedication to the laws of the Covenant.

4. Religious devotion must seek to sustain hope in God’s final deliverance and vindication of the believing community.

In this regard, both Daniel and Joseph served as exemplars on how to serve fruitfully under an unbelieving authority. Believers should try to influence and shape public policy for the welfare of the economically deprived and socially marginalized.  Ezra and Nehemiah suggest the remarkable possibility and indeed the responsibility, of believing officials to avail the resources of their public office for the betterment of the community of faith.

Old Testament eschatology relativizes the present ruling powers, granting them only provisional validity. Nevertheless, since these powers are ultimately subjected to God’s divine rule, they indirectly promotes the work of God in sustaining life in a broken and fallen world. Therefore, the Covenant community cannot retreat into a ghetto given her responsibility to contribute her share in the promotion of relative peace and justice.

Commitment to the Covenant community does not entail rejection of the believers’ social status, whatever station they are in. The Christian will conscientiously explore new and creative ways to serve Christ and the neighbor. Cultural forms and social roles are relative. The Christian is free to accept them as provisionally valid provided they are subject to the law of the love and freedom in Christ. The Covenant community allows for a diversity of cultural roles and celebrates pluralism.

It should be stressed that the Covenant community exists not only to cater for the needs of the well-off and socially adjusted. The remarkable role of the Covenant community lies precisely in its ability to attract and integrate the socially marginalized groups and the underprivileged of society. The message of hope in the Gospel motivates them to release suppressed energy and redirect them constructively towards building a common community. Marginalization should not generate social apathy. Believers are to strengthen their communal identity and through their caring relationships testify to an alternative and more attractive society. In a sense we may view the Covenant community as a special social experiment to practice a set of values different from larger society. Still, such commitment should not be used as an excuse for social disengagement.

Christians may draw lessons from the early Church which was successful in engaging an oppressive regime like the Roman Empire. First, Christianity was not merely concerned with abstract beliefs. It provided a way of life where members often lived together sharing resources in looking after the welfare of one another. Second, Roman society was disintegrating. But Christianity provided a place of refuge, security and order. Third, Christianity successfully adapted a revered social model. The Christian household was proffered as the highest of all types of family structures. John H. Elliott observes,

Christianity’s response to society is given an integrated accentuation. In its message the strangers, the rootless, the homeless of any age can take comfort: in the community of the faithful the stranger is no longer an isolated alien but a brother or sister. For the paroikoi of society there is a possibility of life and communion in the oikos tou theou, a home for the homeless.[24]

In summary the Christian accepts the relative validity of contemporary earthly institutions as the arena wherein he discharges faithfully the divine vocation to be a responsible and caring citizen. The community of faith exists to nurture such responsible faith and promotes such ideals that declare God’s agenda of transformation of social and cultural life.

III. Toward a Constructive Compromise: Constructive Religion in Context of Social Diversity

Democracy has emerged as the unchallenged political ideal in the third world.  But democracy requires disciplined citizens in order to function properly.  John Wogaman explains,

A democratic society is well served by a citizenry not fanatically attached to single issues or causes but capable of rounded judgment and a careful weighing of ambiguous alternatives.  That maturity is grounded, first, in a secure sense of personal worth.  And it is at this point that the personal faith of Christians is a distinct contribution to democratic disciplines.[25]

It is vital that each religion spells out how its beliefs specifically contribute to the building of a common society where human dignity is respected and where the only force accepted is the force of truth in a fair and equal dialogue. The purpose is to set up a  social and political mechanism that promotes virtue and compromise. Public democracy is sustained by private virtues that enable individuals to set aside personal interests.  A sense of transcendent authority typified by the Christian God of grace will encourage politics to be conducted by rules of courtesy, mutual respect, fair dealings and personal integrity that cross communal lines.  With such democratic disciplines in place, potential conflicts are more likely to be resolved and demagogues will find it more difficult to exploit ‘primordial sentiments’ for their personal gain.

It is admitted that such ‘primordial sentiments’ are double edged factors for democracy. The recent explosion of communal violence in Indonesia shows that inter-communal hostilities remain deeply embedded within different sub-communities. Violence will break out in the absence of the slightest restraining power of a centralized civil state. All too often our bases for loyalty, solidarity and commitment only serve the self-interests of our own community.

The challenge then for each component cultural community in Malaysia in general and for the Christian community in particular is to demonstrate that its deeply held primordial sentiments do not undermine the bonds of common humanity which is vital for the unity of any nation state. It is natural to look to religion to help overcome the divisive tendencies of pluralistic societies. It is equally necessary to recognize the responsibilities entailed in relating religious sentiments to social issues. We do hear frequently the charge that Christianity is a religion for the weak, that it has no ability to exercise political power and therefore it has no relevance for social life. Islam is often portrayed as a better alternative that has succeeded in exercising power to foster nationhood. We are faced with the contrasting models of the ‘soldier-saint’ and the ‘crucified Savior.’

However, the Christian rejects the argument that exploitation of the sword of Caesar is the best way to attain social justice. First, Christianity rejects the idea that force is somehow acceptable if it is used in defence of religion. Indeed, the converse is often the case. Religion can intensify inter-communal conflicts and magnify injustices.[26] The secularists’ call for the separation between the religion and politics afterall, was in part triggered by the religious conflict in the Hundred Years War in Europe.[27]  However, Islam rose as a victorious power in its founding history. Its universal exemplar is a ‘soldier-saint’. A separation between religion and politics is inconceivable. Perhaps this helps explain its failure to recognize the inherent tendency of fallen human nature to abuse power. Perhaps it needs to be more sensitive to the tremendous suffering brought about by various regimes throughout history which tried to imposed a monistic political ideology on other peoples. The quest for homogeneity often demands unjustifiable and unnecessary human suffering of great and tragic proportions. The Islamic community also has the responsibility to assure the other communities that the mosque will not abuse the power of the sword and deny them justice. Islam has yet to demonstrate that its political system grants equal rights and justice to minorities under its rule.[28]

Second, given the fact that Malaysia is a pluralistic society, the responsibility is for each community to demonstrate that within itself are resources that promote common life with social values that best preserve democratic freedom and justice. We begin with the realistic expectation of Christianity. This realism is encapsulated by Reinhold Niebuhr, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”[29]  Such realism is vital if only to avoid political disillusionment and indifference which often lead to tyranny.

[1] This suggestion comes from John Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (Uni. NotreDame, 1984). See also “The Legitimacy of a Sectarian Hermeneutic: 2 King 18-19” in Walter Bruggemann, Interpretation and Obedience (Fortress, 1991).

[2] For insights into how oppressors always attempt to define the terms of political discourse and the perception of the world see Paulo Fierro, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Penguin, 1972) and Cultural Action for Freedom, (Penguin, 1972). For the concept of hegemony see A. Gramsci, Selections from Prison Notebooks (Lawrence and Wishart, 1972) who suggested that hegemony occurs “when the intellectual, moral and philosophical leadership provided by the class or alliance of class fractions which is ruling, successfully achieves its objective of providing the fundamental outlook for the whole society.”  Jurgen Habermas and Michel Foucault have alerted us to the inextricable relationships between truth, power and social relations. See The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (Pantheon, 1984).

[3] Steve Lukes, Power: A Radical View (Macmillan, 1974), p. 24. Vaclav Havel agrees and writes, “When a powerful government controls all mediums of information and utilizes them to legitimize even its arbitrary demands of power the character of legality is no guarantee for justice. Havel observes how the legal system is exploited to put authorities in good light; after all, the authorities provide the rules and procedure for the whole game. In effect the legal code provides a facade of legitimacy. “It wraps the base exercise of power in the noble apparel of the letter of the law; it creates the pleasing allusion that justice is done, society protected and the exercise of power objectively regulated.” Vaclav Havel, Living the Truth (Faber, 1986), p.95.

[4] Stewart Clegg, Frameworks of Power (SAGE, 1989), p. 160.

[5] On the role of the church in moral formation see my article, “Moral Formation of the Church: A Socio-Theological Inquiry”, Macrux (1990), pp. 5-23.

[6] The idea that “primordial sentiments” playing a more fundamental role than the State is observed by Clifford Geertz, “The network of primordial alliance and opposition is a dense, intricate, but yet precisely articulated one, the product, in most cases, of centuries of gradual crystallization. The unfamiliar civil state, born yesterday from the meager remains of an exhausted colonial regime, is superimposed upon this fine-spun and lovingly conserved textual of pride and suspicion and must somehow contrive to weave it into the fabric of modern politics.” See Clifford Geertz, “The Integrative Revolution: Primordial Sentiments and Civil Politics in the New States”, in Geertz, ed. Old Societies and New States (Free Press, 1963), p. 119. A more theological discussion can be found in James Gustafson, Treasure in Earthen Vessels: The Church as a Human Community (Uni. Chicago, 1961).

[7] Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (Uni. of Notredame, 1981), p. 50.

[8]  Selya Benhabib, Situating the Self (RKP 1992), pp.53 – 54.

[9] Jurgen Habermas, “What is Universal Pragmatics?” in Jurgen Habermas, Communication and the Evolution of Society (Heinemann, 1975).

[10]  Jurgen Habermas, Discourse Ethics: Notes on a Program of Philosophical Justification (MIT Press 1990), p. 65.

[11] Benhabib, Situating the Self, p. 31.

[12] Quoted in Benhabib,  p. 100.

[13] Charles Taylor, Philosophical Arguments (Harvard UP, 1995), p. 43. See Appendix

[14]  Ibid., p. 54.

[15] Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, Toward Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights, and International Law (Syracuse Uni. Press 1996), p. 11.

[16] Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, Toward Islamic Reformation, p. 52.

[17] Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, Toward Islamic Reformation, p. 55.

[18] Abdullahi An-’Naim, Toward Islamic Reformation, p. 59-60.

[19] Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society (Scribner, 1932), p. 210.

[20] J. Philip Wogaman, Christian Perspectives on Politics (SCM, 1988), p. 168.

[21] Quoted by Howard Snyder, Liberating the Church (IVP, 1983), p. 127.

[22] Quoted by Miguez Bonino, Toward a Christian Political Ethics (Fortress, 1983), p. 35.

[23] For an instructive discussion on the possibilities of resistance in everyday life in a Malaysian setting see James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (Yale UP, 1985).

[24] John Elliott, A Home for the Homeless (Fortress, 1981), pp. 266-268.

[25] J. Philip Wogaman, Christian Perspectives on Politics (SCM, 1988), p.175.

[26] We refer to the insight by Rene Girard of the need for a religion which demands solidarity with the victim as the solution to human aggression banded against the ‘outsider’ in the scapegoat complex. See Andrew Mckenna ed., Rene Girard and Biblical Studies (SBL, 1985). Christianity is the only religion among the world religions that makes this identification central to its faith.

[27] Muslim polemists like S. N. Naquib al-Attas in his book Islam and Secularism (ABIM, 1978) echoes the standard charge that Christianity is responsible for the spread of secularism and therefore implicated in its ills. I shall only note that his discussion fails to convince without supporting evidence drawn from an analysis of social history. See the discussion by Owen Chadwick, The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century (CUP, 1975). There is even a failure to define precisely the basic term “secularization”. The complexity becomes evident with Larry Shinner’s six meanins of secularizations, viz., the decline of religion, the shift of attention to this world, the disengagement of society from religion, the transposition of religious beliefs and institutions into products of human making and responsibility, the desacralization of the world, the movement from a fixed sacral order to the acceptance of social change. See “The Concept of Secularization in Empirical Research”, in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 6 (1967), 207-210.

[28] We have in mind the dhimma system which despite Islamic rhetoric effectively reduces non-Muslim subjects to second class citizens. See Bath Yeor The Dhimmis, (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1985). See also S. Abul A’la Maududi, Islamic Law and Constitution, rev. ed., translated by Kurshid Ahmad. (Lahore: Islamic Publication, 1992 [1960]).

[29] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (Scribners, 1944), p.xiii.

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