UNESCO Paris, May 5-7, 2003
Part 1: Opening Session
Milagros Del Corral
UNESCO, since its creation, has striven to promote dialogue between civilizations, cultures, and spiritual traditions. This is the most potent way to promote a culture of peace and ethical values based on mutual respect, to promote a true acceptance of the other side, beyond mere tolerance.
So the theme of your conference, Global Ethics and Good Governance, is a very appropriate one, one which proves that in our troubled and uncertain times, dialogue must be seen internationally as the best way to unite people of different religions, convictions, or traditions. This conference may be seen as the culmination of many rounds of dialogues already going on in southeastern Asia, with the goal of bringing together the Muslim and Buddhist communities who live in this part of the world. Relations between those two communities have been born through both harmony and conflicts. History tells us that the two communities have undergone times of interaction and meaningful exchanges in the fields of spirituality, culture and society. The historical proof that relationships had actually existed, even in places where it no longer does, or hardly does, is very important, because the memory of this common past may provide a protection against community isolation, refusal of spiritual exchange and intolerance, problems that we witness in so many places in the world.
Dialogue is probably the best way to prevent conflicts and to solve existing ones. Dialogue is a form of ethics. That means that comportment and attitudes toward others are very important. Quality multicultural governance may be attained only when religious, political, academic leaders and civil society are able to work together for mutual understanding, to build together a common living environment respectful of each identity, to strive to understand the other and discover which values are common to all communities. The ethics of dialogue allows us to appreciate other communities more and to understand that differences are an enrichment for the whole society. Excluding others prevents us from fully accepting who we are, and brings ethnic and religious conflicts. In times when different communities seclude themselves from others, it is most important to realize that we are actually very much alike.
The theme of this conference is how to attain ethics and good leadership through understanding the proximity of the values of different communities. It comes as a response to the shock of September 11 and the endless conflicts we have sadly seen happen ever since. It is very important to prevent those sad and inevitably shocking events from becoming an accelerator for the trend toward cultural, ethnical or religious isolationism.
That is why UNESCO strives to promote the understanding that identity, regardless of its nature, be it cultural, religious or other, is a plural identity, composed of many elements. The continuous and dynamic process of identity building must be understood with the help of history and memory, because they tell us of our common origin as human beings. Reminding us of this common origin, of the existence of a common history and shared memories that we must pass along to our children is a far better way to build international relationships than rivalry in strength and power. With that in mind, each UNESCO conference on the theme of inter-religious relations underlines the importance of understanding other people’s spiritual convictions and traditions as an antidote to misunderstandings and stereotypes which have survived through centuries and become sources of conflict. Hence, educational work is a very important aspect of UNESCO’s programs.
Part of this work are individual tasks, such as the survey on the teaching of intercultural and inter-faith dialogue, but even more important is UNESCO’s net of teaching and research centers for intercultural and interfaith dialogue. We have here with us the delegate of one of these centers as a partner in this conference. Ladies and gentlemen, the current movement of globalization and the loss of values guiding our comportment and defining our identity is an enormous challenge.
To win this challenge, member states, intergovernmental agencies, like the ones you work for, non governmental organizations and academic centers alike must work jointly and efficiently. That means undertaking jointly planned tasks to promote the ethics of dialogue. To conclude, let’s say that UNESCO’s work to inspire and coordinate efforts towards making dialogue present at every level, local, national and international, will be a long one. UNESCO sees itself as a watchtower, a think-tank accepting input from everyone, a place where dialogue is always an option, even for those who are doubtful of its relevance. I wish you success in this conference, which will most certainly be a worthy contribution to UNESCO’s work in the field of intercultural dialogue, in which inter-religious relations play an essential role.
I will be very brief. Perhaps I may be able to discuss the topics that I am going to mention now in a more detailed way later on in this conference. I hope that this gathering can elaborate on the major issues, which include not only the topics that we are encouraged to dialogue about, but also the epistemology and methodology of dialogue. I am very glad that this is a dialogue between Muslims and Buddhists, not between Islam and Buddhism, because these two are very different things. Religions include dogmas as part of their theological identity, and we should talk about how dialogue between dogmas is possible. Anyhow, I think it would be important in our deliberations to also talk about what we mean by dialogue.
Religion has become a sign of identity in many societies, which means people often look at religion as their main identity. Can keeping our identity be compatible with dialogue or not? This is the question. Because keeping our identity means keeping some boundaries, while genuine dialogue means being led by the process, and not leading the process. When we lead the process, it will be a negotiation with established goals in minds, whereas real dialogue is a free process, in which we allow ourselves to be taken to an unknown place. And this is the concept of the search for the truth in all religious cultures. For example, in the Koran we receive the good news from God when he says “give good news to my servants who listen to all words and follow the best”. This is the art of listening which we do need for dialogue. If we are working from the pre-assumption of wanting to keep boundaries as our identity, then we should find out if genuine dialogue is a possibility under those conditions. On one side we have our identity. We cannot talk at all without having an identity. But on the other hand, dialogue should be about some effort in searching for the truth. So, are we going to refer to our boundaries of identity at all times, or are we going to allow ourselves to flow freely towards the truth?
I think that religion is inviting us to the truth. This means that we are relying on religion for an interpretation of the overlying concept which governs the religion. For example, justice is not simply good because religion recommends it. Rather, religion is good because it follows justice. So the concept of justice is governing the religion. Religion can perform under those overlying concepts. In the Koran, the beauty of the Prophet is his call for justice. Justice is something that the Prophet and religions should follow. In this context we could have an interesting discussion about which notion of identity is compatible with genuine dialogue.
A rigid understanding of identity, a classical one, will not be compatible with dialogue. Also, the postmodern theory of identity, which does not admit of a constant and remaining core is not compatible, because dialogue without any stand is impossible. So, if we have a pluralistic understanding of identity, then the possibility of dialogue will emerge.
I think that UNESCO is the best place to investigate the epistemology of dialogue as well as the methodology of moving ahead together. People sometimes say that a common language is needed for dialogue, but I think what we really need in a religious context is a will to listen, a will to learn the art of listening. Even without a common language it is still possible for our hearts to communicate. I am sure that more involvement of the Islamic countries of UNESCO would have made this kind of gathering even more successful.
So what I would like to suggest is that we really open up the spirit of our gathering to dialogue. I suggest that, rather than attempting to find commonalities, we start by listening to each other without preconceived notions about where this dialogue should take us. Let us be open to discovering some pearls of heart and mind in the vast sea of truth.
Ven. T. Dhammaratana
It is a great honor for me to be here at the 4th meeting of the series of dialogue between the Buddhist and Islamic traditions. This is an important event in the context of what is going on in today’s world, paralyzed by violence and terror, war and destruction, political and economic insecurity, ethnic and religious conflict, poverty and illness, man-made and natural disasters, which have taken innumerable lives and ravaged the natural environment.
People began to have confidence in the belief that, as a consequence of the end of the Second World War and the creation of the United Nations System, there would at last be peace, security and co-existence for the development of human dignity, apart from economic prosperity. But unfortunately, such cherished hopes were not to be fulfilled.
In this crucial moment of human history, it is the duty of the religious institutions, pacifists and the international community to find immediate and effective solutions for the establishment of long lasting peace and security in the world despite of their many-fold differences.
I deeply appreciate the initiatives of the United Nations in its Dialogue among Civilizations and the remarkable effort by the UNESCO’s Division of Intercultural Dialogue to find answers to religious and ethnic conflicts by converging different cultural and religious traditions to promote understanding, respect and tolerance among and between them.
Buddhism teaches that all problems are rooted in greed, hatred, and ignorance. The world cannot have peace until and unless men and leaders of nations, renounce, selfish desire and develop tolerance, harmony, respect, universal love, and compassion. Today, the world is divided into different regions, the North and the South, haves and have-nots, and their several ideologies. It is in the minds of men that ideologies are born, resulting in tension and hostility; therefore, it is from the minds of men that these conflicts should be removed to let the green pastures of spiritual love grow in abundance for the human race to saunter in peace and good will.
There is a need, very much so today, to educate people to respect other religions and cultures, as well as their ethical and doctrinal values. It is the intolerance, arrogance and bigotry of seeking to deprecate peoples, cultures and religions different from our own that lead to contention and hostilities. I believe that the religious disharmony comes from misunderstanding, misinterpretation of Holy Texts, lack of knowledge and misconceptions about other religions, and attachment to one’s own religion as the superior.
Wherever Buddhism found its way, it encouraged the growth of a civilization and a culture marked by non-violence, tolerance, and equality. Shakyamuni Gotama, the Buddha, spoke out against all forms of discrimination based on race, caste, color, class or creed, and worked for the establishment of human dignity and freedom. The Buddha met other religious leaders in dialogue. Even though the Buddha refused to accept some of their philosophical interpretations, he never degraded or belittled the other religions or their teachers. There was a peaceful co-existence and, remarkably, we cannot find records of religious wars during the Buddha`s time in ancient India.
Dialogue is therefore a necessary instrument to rebuild harmony and concordance among civilizations in this embittered world situation that we are witnessing to day.
To terminate, let me quote from the Holy Koran the words of the Prophet Mohammed, who shows his deep concern for religious tolerance, in Verse109. He says: “Nor are you the worshippers of Him whom I worship, to you be your religion, and to me be my religion.”
Even though differences exists between Islam and Buddhism, I believe that during these three days of dialogue we will be able to trace common ethical and doctrinal grounds to walk safely to create a Pure Land on this planet, where peace and joy would be in abundance for all to share. May you all be happy.
With the opening this Dialogue-Conference we are going to complete, within the framework of the UNESCO inter-religious program, a more than one year’s regional process of dialogical events on the global level. These events are unique in its intention, and a fascinating inter-personal experience.
The uniqueness is to be seen in the fact that, in our secularized world, religious entities have more or less withdrawn from the political discussion of important topics like Global Ethics and Good Governance. At the end of this encounter here at UNESCO we will realize that the religious communities have to make an important contribution to the global processes of making life more humane.
Global peace and war, its ethics and its visions have throughout the centuries been determined mainly by Western – in religious terms: Christian – sources and assumptions. In the preparation of this conference however, Muslims and Buddhists from very different heritages have started their own dialogue in a very new and globally structured way.
Just during these very days, an ambitious Christian is declaring the end of a war which he pretended to be commissioned by “his God”. Historians may identify this first war of the new millennium as turning-point from the Western understanding of war and peace towards a new vision. This is a vision in which Buddhist and Muslim concepts of ethics and governance will make an essential contribution towards a new peaceful and lively human co-existence.
As the Worldwide Ecumenical Partnership (WEP) is interested in facilitating intercultural dialogue, we feel privileged that we were allowed to be instrumental in the preparation of this important global event in the history of human beings. Thanks and all best wishes for a successful dialogue.
Alon Goshen -Gottstein
Dialogue is a road we need to construct, a road that takes us from one place to another. A road through which ideas, understandings, better connections can happen. A road bridges between two places. The two places do not fuse, but if there is no road constructed between the two, it’s not possible for the commerce, trade, and life to flow between two centers. So we are here to construct a road. As anyone looking at a highway will notice, a good road always has margins; you never only drive on the road. There is always this yellow line on the side, and there is a little bit of extra ash felt on the other side of the road. I am the margins of this dialogue. Margins are sometimes invisible, sometimes ignored, sometimes they come from some other place, but as anyone who understands traffic knows, if you don’t have good margins, you can have accidents, because a car can skid over the road when it doesn’t have a good place to rest. We also know that, when you drive, you need to take a break, you need to refresh; you need to bring some things in from the margin.
It’s been a great privilege for the Elijah School for the Study of Wisdom and World Religions, the UNESCO Chair based in Jerusalem, specializing in dialogue among all world religions, to have this opportunity to be involved in organizing a Buddhist-Muslim encounter. We have had the honor over the many years of our activity in Jerusalem, The United States, in Canada, of working with various religious leaders; and it is in fact through our association with some of these religious leaders that the possibility for us contributing to this occasion arose. Two of the people represented in this meeting, President Wahid and Dharma Master Hsin Tao, are both on the presidium of the meeting of world religious leaders that is planned for Seville this coming December. The purpose of that meeting is to form a board of world religious leaders to accompany a project of an inter-faith academy. We are in the process, through our UNESCO chair, of creating some kind of permanent think tank, bringing together scholars of world religions to reflect on issues of contemporary concern. That will be accompanied by a board of world religious leaders, and through my association with them, I somehow have the privilege of moving in from the margins a little bit to the center. I want to thank you, especially Maria, for making this particular thing possible.
So along this theme of margins, I am feeling myself as the marginal Jew in this context. Along this theme of margins, I would like to make three very brief issues.
As everyone knows, there is a proverb that I am not going to repeat, I will simply paraphrase it, and the proverb in its paraphrased form says that if the Dharma Master doesn’t come to Jerusalem, Jerusalem will come to the Dharma Master. And it is in that light that I would like to take this moment to express my gratitude to Dharma Master for carrying the vision of this event. With this, I would like to offer him a token of, a gesture of gratitude, affection and friendship, something small from Jerusalem. The first person that was instrumental in bringing us together, which is David Chappell, had suggested that from the center we could move to the margins and do something in Jerusalem, and I look forward to the day in which we could host you for this type of event also in Jerusalem.
The second point I would like to make also concerns margins and center, and it is as follows. “We in the West”, quote, unquote, have developed the habit of referring to inter-religious dialogue primarily in the context of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And we have recently coined a term for it, we call those religions ‘Abrahamic’, a very problematic term, but this is not the moment to deconstruct it. As a consequence of that, there is the sense that only these religions can talk to one another, and that inter- religious dialogue in the West properly speaking should take place between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is my conviction and it is the practice of the Elijah school to go beyond this so-called Abrahamic paradigm. The reasoning is as follows.
Dialogue, and any attempts to suggest particular relationships between given religions, is never purely descriptive. It is never a description of the fact that these religions have a relationship that other religions do not. Rather it is always constructive. It always takes place in the context of relationships, the context of human needs, to define their relationships. Therefore privileging one religion over another is ultimately a philosophical error, and certainly in the context of a word that has been used already more than once in this opening session, the context of globalization, it is certainly an error because we can not privilege one religion over another. Therefore the very fact that there is a Buddhist-Muslim dialogue that has already taken place in several important world centers and is now having as its culmination this meeting in UNESCO Paris, is a very important indication of breaking certain patterns of center and periphery, in which Buddhism sits in the periphery, and allowing us to redefine what is center, what is periphery and realizing ultimately that everything depends on the relationships that we form.
I would like to take the perspective of one unhappy fact. We are limited by a translator’s ability to work three-hour blocks, and hence we have this very unreasonable way of doing things, namely working for three hours without stopping or being allowed to take a break, and then having another long break and then another three hours. I would like to take this inevitable necessity to encourage us to develop relationships in the margins, because this is what it is. The times that we sit in the cafeteria, or that we have before and after are all margins of the program, but the margins are sometimes where the relationships are formed. And if we really want to have a dialogue of understanding, we have to have that relationship as a basis out of which something more can grow. It’s not going to happen through declarations, and it’s not going to happen through wise statements, announcements, and learned papers. It’s going to happen through people forming relationships. And there are important people gathered here, and the more we can become friends with one another, the more we can use those break times to make those relationships, the more our dialogue can be profitable.
The last point I would like to make on issues of margins and periphery is the following. We are going to be spending three days, hopefully talking with each other, I imagine, because of the fatigue, sometimes talking ‘at’ each other. But we are not only people of talk. When we go home, be it in the Buddhist or in the Muslim community, the Jewish community, in the Christian community, we do other things as religious people. We express our religious and spiritual lives through practices of meditation, through practices of prayer. And in fact, we are not able to bring who we really are into this particular dialogue, through various ways in which it is constructed, through various by-laws that we have to operate by. But that means we somehow have to relegate to the margins some of what is most essential about us. And that somehow means we are missing an important aspect of the dialogue.
And therefore, to conclude, I would like to take a moment simply to evoke the fact that all of us bring to this meeting more than just our intellectual resources formulated in this, or that, brilliant paper. We all have hearts. We all have spiritual aspirations. We all have a life of prayer. At the Elijah school, we recognize very often that we cannot all pray together as we cannot agree on a shared text. And one of the ways we get around that is by opening our spaces to each other through music. We share music, sacred music of the different religions. And in this spirit of evoking a dimension that is more than just the strictly intellectual dimension, permit me to share with you a song for peace.
I will sing it in my language which is Hebrew, but in that I do not intend anything except the fact that it is mine, and I have to ask everyone to bear in mind this, so that maybe in the context of our gatherings together we can have other dimensions of other songs and other traditions. The words are taken from the psalms: “Let there be peace in thy midst, harmony in thy dwellings”, and it is my offering for a prayer of peace, a piece that reminds us that piece is not only something that is created in the head. Peace is something that has to dwell in the heart. Thank you.
Maria Reis Habito
I would rather stay silent after this song for peace, which makes the peace we are looking for so tangible in our midst, but I have to say something, so I will say something. I feel very honored to be here today, and it is also a joy to see all of you, dear panelists and other persons who I have been communicating with over the past six months or even longer, to make this gathering today possible. So, welcome all of you.
Some time before the beginning of the Iraq war, I happened to watch a show on TV, and it was entitled, ‘Christians discuss the war’. And there was a caller who made the following comment. He said to the panel of mostly fundamental American Christians, “You think that God is on your side in this war, but Muslims also believe that God is on their side”. The answer from one of the panelists was, “they believe in the wrong God”. Will there ever be a chance for peace in this world as long as some of us believe, or even proclaim, that others believe in the wrong God?
This is also the question that Master Hsin Tao asked himself many years ago, the question, which inspired him to build the Museum of World Religions. I met Dharma Master for the first time in 1980 in the Chinese island of Formosa. He was a hermit then, and I was a student of Chinese language. Ten years later, Dharma Master had established a monastery and a foundation for the establishment of the Museum of World Religions. I had just finished my PhD, with a thesis on Chinese Buddhism. In the following ten years before the opening of the museum, Dharma Master traveled widely all over the world, to make contact with the leaders and practitioners of various religions, and to invite their cooperation and advice.
When the museum opened in the fall of 2001, shortly after the 9/11 tragedy, several hundred religious leaders, museum directors and art critics attended the opening, in spite of increased fears of flying at that time. But everyone felt that the museum, with its mission of spreading understanding, respect and cooperation among religions, in order to counteract ignorance and hate, was a very timely venture and a very much needed educational institution.
Let me just give you a brief description of the content of the museum. It is located on two floors of a department store in Taipei city. Its initial content was developed by Professor Larry Sullivan, who was then director of Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. And it was designed by Ralph Appelbaum, who also designed the Holocaust Museum in Washington. He created the museum as a journey through religious time and space by using the latest in multi media and exhibition technology.
When you enter the museum, you purify your hands in a stream of water, and pass through a long pilgrims path while contemplating such questions as ‘Who am I’? ‘Where do I come from’? ‘What is the meaning of life’? Then you step into the Creations Theatre where you experience a multi-media show on the various interpretations of the origins of life, and the cycles of creation and destruction. The Journey of Life hall shows the spiritual and ritual functions of religions in the various stages of life, from birth, through old age and death. This hall also contains the Testimony Theater, where you can listen to video taped testimonies of experiences of spiritual awakenings of religious leaders and also lay people. Opposite it there is a meditation room, where you can learn about the functions of meditation in the various world religions. Finally you ascend to the next floor where there is the Great Hall of World Religions, which displays religious artifacts, architectural elements, sound tracks and inter-actives from each of the eight major world religions: Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Daoism and Shinto as well as ancient and indigenous traditions.
The museum not only organizes special educational programs and special exhibits, but, under the umbrella of Global Family for Love and Peace, also sponsors international dialogue conferences such as the one today, which is a culmination of a series of Buddhist Muslim dialogues that has been held in different parts of the world. None of these conferences would have been possible without the help of many people. But today I want to especially thank Dena Merriam who gave us the idea for these dialogues and also helped us organize the first one at Columbia university, Dr. Rosa Guerreiro of UNESCO who supported our project, Dr. Wolfgang Schmidt who was our ambassador to UNESCO, and Rabbi Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein who has supported us all along with his advice and encouragement. And I want also to thank the museum staff and all the volunteer helpers who have put in countless hours up to the last minute to make this possible. But finally, I want to especially thank Ven. Dharma Master Hsin Tao, without whose vision and tireless engagement for peace none of us would be here today. Thanks to all of you and welcome.
Dharma Master Hsin Tao
Thank you, dear distinguished participants and guests from all parts of the world, all of you who care enough about the future of the earth to participate in this conference. It is with a heavy heart that I am hosting this conference. The heaviness is caused by the many unresolved problems that we humans are facing today, the many crises and unbalances, which are also related to the globalization process. The earth is in a very serious condition. It is torn apart by war and violence, children and women are in worse off than before, there is tremendous suffering, poverty, hunger and social unrest. We are facing epidemics, such as SARS and AIDS, which are depriving so many people of their lives. Ethics and morality are on the downward spiral. As a religious leader, I often think about how we can work together to face the challenges of this changing era, how to generate the core energy of life to ensure the survival of our earth.
Addressing this challenge, Global Family for Love and Peace as well as the Museum of World Religions have initiated a series of Buddhist and Muslim Dialogues to explore how Muslims and Buddhists can work together to address the political, religious, economic and cultural crises in the twenty first century. There has been enormous response to this initiative from many institutions and individuals in Asia. The focus of the dialogue today is how to maintain understanding, friendship and cooperation among religions while facing the many challenges of this century together. It bases itself upon the 1994 UNESCO declaration about the role of religions in the promotion of global peace. The dialogue centers on the three major themes, to which the panelists form the different countries and religious traditions, will bring their respective insight and wisdom to share with us.
The first theme is Global Ethics and Good Governance. The current global situation is urging us to think more thoroughly about what resources and assistance we can offer. What are the specific challenges we face while promoting global ethics and good governance? What is the possible consensus we can arrive at in addressing these challenges and their possible solutions?
The second topic is Religions Response to Violence: from Cause to Cure. Through religious exchange and discussion on this topic we are hoping to find out how to convert violence into peace, and how to provide practical solutions for this attempt.
The last topic is Interfaith and Peace Education. Here we would like to discuss the challenges and possibilities of peace education based on inter-religious understanding. Which specific contribution can Buddhist and Muslims offer in this regard? How can we promote peace education in different religions, in different countries and in all walks of life? How can the planned establishment of the University of World Religions promote inter-faith and peace education?
Starting from today, we should deepen each other’s understanding through dialogue. We should share each other’s responsibilities in working toward a future of solidarity, of justice, peace and healing of Earth. I sincerely hope and pray for the success of this conference.
Ladies and gentlemen, as a Muslim I am asked to contribute a little bit to this conference between Buddhists and Muslims. I think that this meeting comes at the right time. We see that Islam has come to different stages, as seen in the war between the United States and Iraq, for example, as well as in the suicide bombings of Israel by so called Palestinian extremists. Muslims have learned from the West, from the Christians and Jews, about our own common heritage. But Islam has come to learn from Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions as well, because many Muslims now see Judaism and Christianity as their enemies they have to confront.
The fact is that dialogues with other religious would erase this kind of misunderstanding, and Muslims at last would feel that there is a group of Muslims who like to have dialogue with other faiths as well. This is important, because, in the psyche of Muslims, there is now a kind of hollow thing that their religion cannot cope with the challenge of other civilizations, although they are wrong to see that kind of challenge in the so called Abrahamic traditions. But impressions are impressions, and people still think in the wrong way. It is good to know that this kind of feeling is shared by other religious as well as people from different faiths as well.
This is important. The dialogue between Buddhists and Muslims, like that which takes place today, is something that should be organized in order to know there are certain qualities of life and the respect for life, which are shared by all religions with a lot of followers. This is important. The quest for peace, for honesty, for understanding and so forth come only if we understand the closeness between different faiths. If the Muslims as large see that Islam, that Muslims as well as people from other religions share the same thing, then they can understand why we Muslims have to share with the other Abrahamic traditions. Sharing is very important. That’s why I think this meeting between Buddhism and Islam is very important.
We from far away have seen how the United Nations has maybe taken too much interest in the so-called political aspects of life, which are producing the confrontational situation between Islam and the West. I think this situation can be erased if we consider that there are things that are shared by Muslim and people from other religions. This will help to explain why Muslims and the Western people also have to come to an understanding. This is important, because the climate has been so much influenced by a series of confrontations, including the theory of “the Clash of Civilizations” by Samuel Huntington from Harvard. He takes care to explore the confrontational attitudes of Islam and the West, which, in my understanding, is totally wrong, because, every year, hundred of thousands of Muslim youth learn and study the West, learn and study the so called Western superiority in technology and science.
This means that both technology and other “parallel qualities” of the West don’t belong to the West only but also to the world at large, and that Muslims can learn it. I said this to Samuel Huntington when we had a discussion in Tokyo several years ago, namely that he is too much concerned with the particular trees, but not with the forest as a whole. But even though I have been saying this for many, many years, there is no change in his perception about the situation. Even his latest articles still talk about the clash between the West and other civilizations, mainly Islam.
So this dialogue will erase that. And I believe that this same conference on Good Governance, on Global Ethics, on finding the origins of extremism or terrorism, and on the democratic rule for the whole world would prove to the Muslims that people from all religions, including our Abrahamic brothers, try to find at least some meeting points which can be used to establish new good governance. This is important with regard to the conflicts in the Middle East as well as the bomb explosions in Bali and in other places, where the misguided Muslim youth think that we would only be able to “prove ourselves to be worthy of the Prophet Muhammad,” Peace be upon Him, by using weapons. We can prove that there are other ways of improving the world for everybody, namely through dialogue with other faiths, with people from different religion. If you look into the matter of Global Ethics, it is plain that we now have a wrong kind of global ethics, because the world has witnessed the emergence of a one- sided interpretation of it.
I remember that, in 1972 in Jakarta, I was a participant in a discussion at an eminent institution, in which the principle of monogamy was upheld as necessary, with the reason that it is universal. I took exception to that, saying that, if you talk about being universal, then you are wrong. I believe in the principle of the necessity of one wife for one husband, but don’t call it universal. If we study the civilizations of Buddhism, of China, of India, even of Israel, of Inca, Maya and especially of the Muslims as well, the so-called norm in every country was to have more than one wife or one husband. So don’t call it universal just because you are Western. And it does not mean that it is universal, just because you impose it upon us. The universal thing is different. So, there is a very big difference between a principle which is necessary and calling it universal. So they agreed to that way of looking at things, and ever since my whole life has been devoted to follow “universal” considerations without calling them universal. I think it is the same with our need for good governance, for democracy, for understanding the origins of violence, for global ethics and so forth. But please don’t call this universal, because universalism means something else, and this is important to know.
Another thing to know also is that the cause of “extremism” and of the later form of terrorism can be traced to the misinterpretation of one’s religion. It is evident that, among the Buddhists, the interpretation of all religions is good. By this I mean to say that it doesn’t produce violence. But among the Muslims, we have found that, beside those who try to find the dialogue as the way to finish all disputes, there are also those who need to use violence, like what was in evidence among the Muslim military in Indonesia, or in the South Philippines, or in Malaysia, or in especially in Israel now.
The feeling of being misunderstood is prevalent among them. But we never try to understand them. That is the point. We have to know that this kind of interpretation of using violence is caused by the fact that many, many Muslims, especially young ones, have lost their heritage, have lost their ability to read correctly the cause of their religion. For example, throughout Islamic history, reinterpretation is the way to formulate the needs of the Muslims for new things. They cannot find it in the holy books, in the prophetic sayings. This is important point is lost and misunderstood by the new ones, the young ones. But for example, many peoples` reinterpretations of things have made it possible for Muslims to adhere to the saying in the Qu`ran: “I have perfected today Islam as your religion. I have given to you my blessings and then I have made Islam for you all.” In this respect then, the principle, which is the content of these words, has to be understood as principle, but we have the right to reinterpret that into details. As long as the details don’t confront or don’t oppose the principle of religion, then there is no problem with that.
Let take the case of family planning in Indonesia. Before 1973, and up to 1975, the Indonesians used the term limitation of births, but beginning that year, they understood that this should not be termed the as the limitation of births, but, because it is controlling the births, family planning. Why? Because, if we continue to show, like in the past, that it is controlling the births, it means that we enter the jurisdiction of God. The jurisdiction of human reproduction belongs to God, and we can only control it; which means family control, family planning. It is important to know that a change of phrases, a change of words and definitions gives a different meaning to all people. The Muslims accept that also. Giving a new interpretation means we are now allowed to have a mechanism and devices that are not opposing the Islamic law. Here we can find the possibility of a fresh understanding of our own religion. We can look into the matter in many, many ways. There are so many pointing to the necessity of reinterpreting our religion according to our own decisions and our own needs. So in this aspect, I think this dialogue will enhance the quality of life for the Muslims. Why? Because in that way then the ability to reinterpreted, the ability to understand the whole thing from new perspectives will emerge.
Another thing I can say is that many peoples’ understanding of their own religion of Islam is limited, because they are not educated to be men of religion, rather they are educated to be technologists, medical doctors, economists, physicists and so forth. So in this respect, when they come to Islam, they take the holy book, the prophetic sayings without looking into the heritage of how those two texts were interpreted by Muslim sages throughout the centuries. I am not saying that they are right, but we have to understand that they come to the conclusion of the “duty” to use violence, to use violent means in everyday life, including suicide bombings. It escapes everybody that we have to really educate them, rather than just dealing politically with the problem. We can arrest the fanatics, we can imprison them, we can do anything with them physically, but the problem remains the same. The problems can be solved only if we understand that the causes of the terrorism lie deep in history, in the historical process. So we have to look into the process of the how the Muslims have become like that today. This is really important.
This dialogue between Buddhists and Muslims will be able to show us how other people and people from other faiths arrive at the “right” way of understanding their own religion. So because of this, I see this kind of meeting as very, very important. Besides that, we have of course to understand that there are different ways of following one’s religion. One way is to follow the precepts and imperatives of the formal teachings of religion, as many Muslims do. I think this is very important to know, but there are the other ways, namely not only studying the texts of classical Islam, but to engage in the so called Area Studies of Islam.
This is important, because the Muslims in South East Asia are different from the Muslims in South Asia in the other areas. Back in 1985, I proposed “A Look into the Area Studies of Islamic Societies”, divided into 6 categories: First, studies of Islam in black African societies; second, studies of Islamic teachings and practices among the societies of North Africa and Arabic countries; third, studies of Islam in the Turko-Persian-Afghan cultures; fourth, study of Islam in South Asian societies – Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka; fifth, Islam in South East Asia; sixth, Islam minorities in the so called technologically advanced countries in the West. It is important to know the differences. Let me just give you one example: in South East Asia, there was a tradition of the so called non-governmental institutions or organizations. This is very different from the Middle East, where this kind of tradition doesn’t exist, and where even the head of the Red Cross or Red Crescent Organization is appointed by the president or by the ruler. This is not the case in South East Asia.
So these kinds of differences need area studies, and I think this conference will be able to identify which ones they are. I identified six of them, but there may be more, I don’t know. Another thing which should be understood as well is that, in Islam, we have to differentiate between two different things: first, the culture of Islam, and second, the institutions of Islam. Many of the so-called Islamic concerns stem from the fact that the proponents think about Islam in an institutional way.
We suffered that a few years back, when, at the end of the 1980s, the former president Suharto took the new attitude of supporting Islamic institutions. He established the so called Indonesian Muslim Intellectual Association and gave the institution everything, but it failed. Why? Because Islam is not only an institution; Islam should also be seen as culture. Within the culture of Islam, there are traditional cultures and modernistic cultures, everything just like in Judaism, where there are the Orthodox, the Sephardim, the Ashkenazim, etc, etc. So if we fail to differentiate culture from institution, then we are always feeling threatened. Every development in the world threatens us, and that is the feeling of young Muslim everywhere, who are militant now. They feel that Islam is threatened by the outside world. Why? Because they identify Islam as a certain institution, and if this kind institution is threatened, then they feel that Islam as a whole is threatened. In fact, an organization is like mine, Natul Ulama, can be destroyed by the rulers, although it did not happen. But the culture remains. For example, after the occasion of Eidal Fitr, we have this so called Halal de Halal in Indonesia or South East Asia. This doesn’t happen in South Asia or in the other parts of the Islamic world. But we have that kind of culture. So if they say that this has to be abandoned, because this is un-Islamic, then we can say that this is our culture, that there is nothing in it to oppose Islam, and that it is therefore allowed.
So I think it is very important to know that the misunderstandings between extremist and other Muslims come down to the fact that Muslim extremists don’t differentiate between culture and institution. So I think in this respect, the Buddhists can learn and also can help us learn about how they deal with these kinds of differences in their own tradition. I understand, for example, that Dharma Master follows a tradition different from that of other Buddhists, because he takes dinner, but the Buddhists in our country do not eat after noon. So we can we can say that the differences are cultural, and do not concern belief or creed. The Muslims have the same kind of thing, and I think my friend Alon could also describe to us how in Judaism, there are different traditions within the same creed. The same applies to Christianity as well. If we know these, and if we can formulate our own views on them, then the Muslim extremists will understand that Islam can be seen in many other ways.
Well, forgive me for talking too much about Islam, but that is the only creed I know. I know intimately the way of life of a Muslim, but not the others. When I attend the worship of other religions, it is only for my own understanding, and sometimes that understanding is very limited, because I am not living in that kind of tradition. So please accept my apology for only speaking about Islam. I think that the points I mentioned are necessary for consideration on this occasion. We have to consider how these points can be translated into statements concerning democratic and good governance, global ethnics, the study of the cause of extremism and so forth.
Part 2: Questions and Comments
Thank you Mr. President. I am the UNESCO delegate from Tunisia. I have found tremendous interest in all the presentations, and I want to react to President Wahid’s speech. Experiences in plurality exist nowadays in the Islamic world, and have existed throughout all the history of Islamic civilization. A condition for the success of this experience of plurality and dialogue is self-knowledge. And I think, Mr. President, that we Muslims don’t have a sufficient knowledge of ourselves. Our intra-Muslim dialogues are not frequent, quite rare actually. A point which is, according to President Wahid, essential to help the Muslim civilization out of its present crisis, namely the interpretation of religious texts, of the Koran, drew all my attention.
I think I am not mistaken in believing that the interpretation differs from country to country, from region to region. I will mention the example of how we Tunisians were able to solve a number of problems stemming from the challenge of modernity. For instance, the status of women was settled as soon as we became an independent country. Polygamy has been forbidden since 1956, the year we gained independence. Family planning was the object of much attention, as were the social and economical status of women, abortion, and birth control. Those experiences are worth a close look, and we Muslims of the world will gain a lot from mutual discussion, enhancement of communication with one another, because successful plurality needs self-knowledge.
On the subject of Buddhist-Muslim dialogue, I would say that it should be strengthened and structured, and to ensure its continuity, we could use the model of the Jewish-Christian dialogue. The example of how Jews and Christians, through successful dialogue, managed to attain a common understanding on a number of points may be a model for us, Muslims and Buddhists. Thank you.
I have a remark about what Dr Wahid said at the beginning of his conference, namely that dialogue between Islam, Judaism and Christianity is difficult. I think there may be confusion between the political and the religious realms. As the president of the Association for Intercultural and Interfaith Dialogue, I believe in dialogue, and I make all my efforts to contribute to exchanges between people belonging to different religions, different cultures. I believe that dialogue between the three religions of the Book, and particularly between Islam and Judaism, is very positive at a religious and cultural level, while it is not very successful at the political level.
So I would like to point out the importance of avoiding confusion between religious and political levels. Dr. Wahid mentioned individual terrorism, but I believe that we can find terrorism everywhere in the world. There is even state terrorism. Terrorism is not the domain of only some individuals or political parties. Thank you.
Well thank you, I think you are right in saying that political dialogue often shows domination of one party over the others. Because of that, that kind of dialogue would result in furthering the misunderstandings. I agree therefore that the dialogue between people from religious beliefs or creeds should be apart from the political process. I think it is important to have this kind of dialogue, because the Buddhists and the Muslims involved here as well other people from other faiths are embracing that kind of non-political friendship and understanding between different creeds. But in order to understand fully and not only on a shallow level, we have to examine the process and point out the lack of re-interpretation of texts, the inability to understand the need for re-interpretation, and so forth.
So we have to learn very much from each other. That is the reason why this kind of dialogue is necessary and should be organized more and more. I can point out to the example of myself. Several years ago, I was asked to be a founding member of the Simon Perez Peace Center in Tel Aviv. As you know, Indonesia has no diplomatic relationship with Israel. As soon as I did that, I became to object of all kinds of attacks on me, saying I was an agent for the Israeli government, etc. But now you see, as long as we are steadfast, people will understand what’s really motivating us to do something like that. I did it because I would like to find peace in the Holy Land. So this kind of thing should be shared by everybody. And I’m glad that Judaism, Christianity and the followers of other religions as well have carried out the task of creating understanding between people from different religions and faiths. This is important. I agree totally.
Islam is in very deep crisis. As I said before, that crisis is partly caused by the fact that the Muslims cannot differentiate between culture and institutions. I think we have to focus on this very important point to be able to reeducate the Muslims, especially the youth. But I would like to say also that Islam has been used. I would like to stress the word “used”, because every kind of ruler in Islamic society use religion for their claim to truth and have used Islam as a way to support their claim to truth. This is important to know and the reason why we have to know the difference between culture and institutions. Rule is in an institution, but culture is different. So we have to know that the word is the cause of the problem. Another thing that is very important as well is that, if we want to understand Islam, we have to open the whole book, from A to Z. But the Muslims don’t like to do that. Yet that is a worthwhile thing to do.
I remember that, when I was learning or studying in Iraq in between ’66 to ’70, I had a good friend, a Jew, explain to me everything about the Holocaust, the diaspora, and even the Kaballah. This helped me to see the problem of how to understand Islam from the context of its cultural development. As long as this is not well understood and explained by the “old generation” of teachers, then our young people will be misled by their “shallow” understanding of their own religion.
For those who are not Buddhist here, perhaps you may not realize that, compared to Islam, the religion of the book, we Buddhists have either too many books or no books at all. But by and last, I think all Buddhists will agree that the teaching of the Buddha is to transform greed into generosity, to transform anger in to loving kindness and compassion, and to transform ignorance or delusion into wisdom or understanding. I think most Buddhists will agree on that. And the Buddhists are quite good on a personal level. But the Buddhists are very hopeless when it comes to how to deal with greed in its modern form of capitalism and consumerism; how to deal with anger in its modern form of militarism exported by the superpowers; and of course, how to deal with the ignorance displayed by Buddhists blindly worshipping Western technology and modernization, Westernization including modern communication.
By and last the Buddhists don’t know how to deal with violence, although the teaching of the Buddha is confronting violence. Somebody once asked the Ven. Nagarjuna, the greatest commentator on Mahayana Buddhism: “What is Buddhism put into one word?” The answer was “Ahimsa, Non-violence”. But the world is full of violence now, and I think that, unless the Buddhists come to terms with that reality, Buddhism is in a very shaky state. Of course, most Buddhists would feel that Buddhism is expanding. Many Westerners have become Buddhists, but most of them also only develop personal liberation. They have not yet come to create any concrete proposal of how to confront violence. And in this sense, both Buddhists and Muslims ought to learn from each other about how to confront such violence. And regarding the youth, the Buddhists are also in a very pitiful predicament. We don’t deal with youth properly. And with regard to the gender issue, even though the Buddhists claim that they treat women equally, we don’t. We still have to come to a real understanding of these issues in our tradition.
I think that this kind of example of Muslims talking to each other as well as to others is very important. This is an answer to our Tunesian friend. But one very important issue is how to make those “hardliners”, the extremists, fundamentalists and terrorists talk to other Muslims. This is very, very important, because as long as we are just only using violence to capture them, we will not erase the causes of the problem. So that is the reason why we have to do many things at once, which is not easy, but we have to do that.
And I also want to share one observation with our Muslim brothers and sisters, namely that, unlike in other faith traditions, many learned and intelligent Muslims cannot live in their own societies, because their own societies are very cruel to them. Look at what happened to the dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim in Egypt. He got seven years in prison just because he questioned the social structure of that area. It is political, but it concerns Islam as well, because he discovered many treaties about Islam. Also, reinterpretations made by the so-called “Non-Muslim experts”, experts in other things, but not in Islamic studies, often don’t count. For example, the former chief of justice of Egypt, Said Al Ashmawi, said that every penal code which entails or contains punishment and deterrence, which is essential for the “Canonical Islamic Law”, can be regarded as in accordance with Islam. This kind of view was not accepted by Al-Azhar in Egypt. How can it be accepted by others if his view doesn’t count in his own country? This is difficult to know. As I said before, we faced with so many facets of the problem that so many things have to be done at once. Thank you.
Michael v. Brück
I would just like to give an example of how we really could combine these two issues, the very well taken issue that we need to deepen the understanding of our own traditions and the issue of dialogue. As we have seen, we have that problem in all our different traditions and in all walks of life. Not only the youth, but very often or more often the religious leaders are ignorant of their traditions and especially of the tremendous variety which is there in the traditions, historically as well as phenomenologically.
Just to give you an example of how we dealt with the problem over the last few months. The German government, which, as you know, is opposing the American approach to world problems in a very strong way right now has instead provided funds for universities and cultural institutions in Germany, especially the Goethe Institute, or Max Mueller Bhavan in India, to organize dialogue meetings in different countries. So, for instance, as scholars in religious studies or in Buddhism, we have been asked to go to several Muslim countries in order to provide a panel or to provide a platform where different people in those Muslim countries could meet.
Now we have been in Bangladesh, we have been in Pakistan, Iran, Egypt and several other places. It was possible to bring together several Muslim groups and scholars that would hold very different views on their history and culture. So they discussed their concerns, their self-identity, or their deepening understanding of their own culture in the presence of an outsider, an outsider who would not be able to define their culture or their religion for them, but who might just ask questions from his own experiences, such as hermeneutical questions, methodological questions, how to actually understand a culture, how to understand the richness and diversity of a tradition. So somebody from another situation who asks questions will help those who are one tradition or claiming to be one tradition, such as Islam, Christian, or whatever, to talk to each other and to diversify their understanding of their own tradition. We found that extremely helpful and a good example. And I could quote excellent examples from these different countries for a long time. And a good example of combining those two interests of self-understanding and dialogue was beautifully worked out as building roads from one city to the other. These cities do not merge, but the traffic between them will certainly change the atmosphere in both cities. That is dialogue and a deepened self-understanding of our own traditions.
Look into China, look into India, look into Germany, look into America and into France. Wherever we go, the understanding of our traditions has become so shallow, as the president has said, because of the mass media, because we do not know the richness of our traditions. We even don’t know anymore the food, far less the intellectual and emotional food we have from our traditions. So those two can be bridged, I think. Thank you.
I dare say I know Islam fairly well, my own grandchildren with whom I have been working for a while now, being Muslims. I have a good knowledge of Islamic civilization, particularly of the Caliphates period, which was a wonderful period of tolerance and culture. Henri Corbin`s excellent and widespread books are reference material on the subject. This period, which already lies behind us six hundred years, gives us a shining example of tolerance. For instance, you could at the time celebrate interfaith weddings in mosques and cathedrals. This extraordinarily open-minded attitude is unheard of today, as we all have had occasions to deplore.
Nevertheless, in my small work area in Normandy, we have in our collegiate church a framing of the main prayers of the three religions of the book. This too is worth to be noted, because I can say that Normans are not always so open-minded on religious matters. This is a small step forward, and we should go on progressing in this direction in our parishes, in our Muslim groups, in others concerned groups too, because small groups of people coming together can exert a tremendous influence on the society they live in.
A religious colloquium was held in Vernon in 1990, and it was attended by, among others, an Indian dancer and an Israeli friend of mine who shared with us about Shabbat – a truly extraordinary experience. There were also Catholics and Protestants, it was wonderful. This experience changed a lot of persons. This is all I have to say – a small contribution to the edifice we are trying to build here together.
What our lady friend just told us is somewhat idealistic. While it is good to have idealism, the fact remains that life is so full of misunderstandings. Regarding the example of the Caliphs, I have to say that those Caliphs which we can see as “good caliphs” are usually followed by cruel caliphs, like Sultan Akbar of the Moghul empire in India. That was an Islamic empire in which people’s hands were cut. I think this issue falls into the political domain. But that is why we have to always reiterate that religious independence is necessary for us, in order not to be politicized. This is something that has been happening in the Islamic world since the second part of the 19th century.
I read a very interesting dissertation about Shakip Al Salaam. Shakip Al Salaam is a man respected by Muslims throughout the world because of his book in which he analyzes why Muslims are backward and the others progress. Al Salaam was the grandfather of Kamal Jumblatt, the head of the Druze in Lebanon, and member of the Ottoman Empire parliament. On one hand, Al Salaam opposed the Arabic Nationalism, because he had no place in this milieu, on the other hand, as a member of the Ottoman empire, he had to “pedal” Islamism.
This now happens in so many countries in the world, even in Western countries like France. Here we see how everything influences the Muslims – political, non-political, cultural aspects. What happens in situations like these is that the religious understanding becomes shallow, as a result of which we now have a shallow understanding of Islam. The root of all things is that we have to deepen. We have to deepen the knowledge of Muslims everywhere to achieve an idealistic meeting like the one you just described. Thank you.
I wanted to speak about an issue that has to do with Indonesia. It was always extraordinary to me to know that within the constitution of Indonesia, there are specifics that mention that in fact that the diversity of other religions should be not only respected, but their holidays should also become the holidays of the country. And I was amazed that, in a country where most of the population is Islamic, there are special holidays for Buddhists, Hindus and Christians that are respected by all the country. I would like Pres. Wahid to speak to that. Is it still respected in the country? Is that part of something that people in Indonesia believe? Or is it just something in the constitution, that in fact is there, but no longer part of the life of Indonesia?
I think Dr. Sulak’s observation about the Buddhists shows that, in Buddhism as well as in Islam, we have certain developments that should be understood as a kind of reinterpretation. But we have to put this into the right perspective. This perspective is for mankind to develop a new outlook toward our own situation as man-kind or person-kind, human-kind. For example, the word “Globalization” which should be understood as the development of a global perspective on everything, now has unfortunately come to mean standardization of things and of life according to the dictation of the big companies everywhere. We can see fast food everywhere, and with that the development of a different kind of taste. Indonesian children now don’t know the folklore from the past or even the myths anymore, because nowadays they watch Japanese cartoon films. So they understand those cartoons but they don’t understand their own heritage.
So it is important to develop a balanced approach to “new global taste” and also vis-a-vis our own heritage, because if we only cling to the past heritage, then we will victimize our children. But if we continue to only follow the dictation or domination of certain companies, then we will also make them into victims. So in this respect we have to balance. This is my observation, and I agree totally with Dr. Sulak that there are many ways to look at structural changes and many ways to learn. But we must not forget that there are certain developments that should not just be tackled in a personal way. Thank you.
As for Dr. Hermès’ question, I cannot answer that. Actually, we are still following the tradition of holidays, and have added to that the Chinese Lunar New Year. Our problem now is that we have too many holidays on which we don’t work, and because of that I have proposed that we have a so-called facultative holiday and a “whole nation” holiday. The adherents of a certain religion could have time off to observe their holiday on the “facultative holiday,” but not the others. Thank you.
I have a comment, which I hope will lead to a question very quickly. If one looks at all the major social movements associated with civil society in the last 20 odd years, if you look at the women’s movement, environmental movement; if you look at what has emerged in the last few months as a powerful transnational movement, the peace movement, you’ll find that in all these movements, and other activities associated with global civil society, starting with the Rio summit, the forum about issues pertaining to racism, ethnicity and sustainable development organized by civil society and culminating in Durban and Johannesburg, you’ll find that in all these endeavors, which, to my mind, have far reaching implications for the future, religious groups- meaning those groups operating with a perspective germane to religion- have not played a major role. Most of the time, the initiatives have come from groups which one would describe as secular. This to my mind is something that is very, very important that we have to reflect upon. The examples that Gus Dur gave about South Africa, Desmond Tutu, India, RSS and so on, these examples of religious organizations throwing their weight behind certain political trends doesn’t mean that they bring a spiritual, ethical perspective into politics or into social change. Now this is something that we really have to reflect upon. Why is it that religious movements have not been able to bring a humanistic, ethical, compassionate perspective into issues that are very important to human kind? Thank you.
I think, one reason why major religious organizations or communities don’t abide by the civil society, is the fact that the civil society imposes upon the cities and so forth so called ‘foreign elements’. In this regard I can give the example of Mary Robinson, the former UN high commissioner for human rights. She said that our task now is to put the Indonesian armed forces back to the barracks and out of politics. So statements like this make it more difficult for us to act, to do our things in the country, because if we forgo of the civil society, then we are against a certain important element in our own society.
So that’s why, for example, I was never in a contradictive position towards the still important totalitarian entities in the country, like the army, the bureaucracy, the traders and so forth. Because I sense that, by taking sides, I will be far away from them, not acceptable to them, and instead, people with different views from mine will be accepted by those important factors in the society. So this is what we should consider as well, that in trying to implement our own ideas, we have to use the language or traditions of the existing institutions. And well, this is a kind of different approach between Chandra and myself, for example, but a very important difference. Nevertheless, we are brothers, fellow activists.
For example, since in the middle of the 70s I have been active in trying to fight for the rights of the minorities here in Indonesia, namely Confucianism, because the government at that time said that Confucianism is not a religion but a philosophy of life. As for me, a religion is a religion because it is seen so by the adherents, not by the government.
Our own constitution forbids the government to enter into religious affairs. In this sense then, we are using different approaches to life, one is secular, the other one is non-secular. And we have to consider those differences as the most important fact. We should not fight against each other in trying to achieve the same thing, but instead get more involved in dialogue.
Part 3: Reports on the previous Buddhist-Muslim Dialogues
Prof. David Chappell
Dr. Chandra Muzaffar
Dr. Chirzin Habib
Rabbi Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein (summary)
It’s very interesting coming to France from America. I was coming in at first as an apology, and to learn, but the way things are going in America, I think I may be coming asking for asylum. Did you know that now, in America, they do not even want to use the name ‘French Fries’ anymore, and call them ‘Freedom fries’ instead? It’s bizarre. It’s frightening, almost.
We are to talk about the first meeting, the Buddhist Muslim meeting at Columbia University, but really the beginnings did not happen there. I like very much what Alon was saying earlier this morning about coming from the margins, an important role. The beginnings of the Dialogue are really in the heart of Master Hsin Tao.
Master Hsin Tao, we should remember, was born in Burma, moved to Taiwan, and not only practiced Buddhism in a regular monastic way, but is famous in Taiwan for practicing for many years in cemeteries. And it is reported that the hungry ghosts would visit him and even clamor after him, and he negotiated with them and cared for them after he was prepared. And now he leads every year in Taiwan the largest gathering of those who seek repentance on behalf of the hungry ghosts and their ancestors.
He is really coming from the margins of the cemetery, traveling from Burma to another country, someone who has experienced transition and living on the edge, someone who has the sympathy of heart that is foundational to this dialogue. Albert Schweitzer used to say that “there is a fellowship of those who bear the mark of pain,” or, in other words, empathy. How does empathy develop in a human heart? The beginnings of the Buddhist Muslim dialogue, I believe, really start in the human heart. And those who are active supporters and participants are those who have that sensibility. So while we began at Columbia University, we began in the lives of everyone here in their own way.
The prompting of the Columbia dialogue was of course 9/11. It is unfortunate that Imam Feisal Rauf could not be here with us. His mosque is twelve blocks away from the world trade center that received the devastation in New York. He really was the prime speaker at our meeting. But in addition there was Dr. Amir Al Islam, an African American. In America, the largest Muslim constituency is African American. The largest area where they are recruited and converted to Islam is in prison. So again, there is a source of suffering and sensitivity to suffering. And Amir emphasized again and again the importance of just meeting together, because it demonstrates a respect for each other, that we take one another seriously, that we care about one another. So again, that sense of the human heart is the source of the meeting.
But we are fortunate to have Master Hsin Tao here, who was able to prepare the foundation for the meeting by the Museum of World Religions, where he shows how seriously he takes religions by preserving and cherishing their most sacred heritage. I was one of the Buddhist representatives in Columbia as well. The moderator was Bawa Jain, someone who again has spent his life in interfaith dialogue. He helped organize the World Parliament of Religions in Cape Town, and the summit of religious leaders in 2000. And so he lent experience to our discussion. The format of the event however was a series of speeches. Bawa Jain tried to move it along and asked people questions, but we were not speaking to one another. And so I think that we have to appreciate the fact that dialogue, as Alon was saying, happens at lunchtime and other occasions where the real dialogue goes on. Also at that event, as at this afternoon’s event, there were no women among the speakers. Therefore, a serious concern that we should have is to be as much as possible gender balanced and gender inclusive. The other thing about today and that time is that, unlike in Indonesia, I do not see youth. How do you prepare the human heart if you don’t have young people actively involved so that they can have the experience, and grow and continue the activities? So having women and youth involved are important lessons that we should keep in mind.
Turning to the dialogue, the most central question seemed to be focused on divinity. And Imam Feisal was very articulate in talking about divinity from the point of view of Islam. Buddhists are a little awkward when asked about divinity. I tried to deflect it, but he came back and said, “What is your concept of divinity”? And again I want to invoke Alon’s comment about the margins. The margins as context for the development of Islam and Buddhism respectively are quite different. And to understand the emphasis of their teaching, one has to understand their context.
Within early Islam, there were tribal rivalries as well as ideological rivalries in a sense between gods or deities, and therefore being able to receive a revelation from the One God, the universal creator, was extremely important in bringing justice and order, in bringing mutual respect, in bringing equality among people. On the other hand, for Buddhism, the concepts of divinity that were functioning in the Buddha’s day were already universal. But they were universal in such a way as to be oppressive. The doctrine of Karma and related to that, the doctrine of caste bound people, and it was the role of the Buddha to challenge the doctrines and concepts of his day, and to ground things in experience and practice. Now, the practice that was liberating for Buddhists has been the Dharma.
Dharma signifies both a guide to be followed as well as teachings, and so we did talk in Columbia about the role of Dharma as a collection of teachings. The books of Buddhism are called Dharmakaya, the body of the Dharma in the teachings. And so one common ground that Buddhists have with Muslims is the recognition by some Muslims that Buddhists can also be people of the book. So, Dharma is book, and Dharma is truth. The Buddha always empathized the truth as beyond our conceiving, as liberating, and in a sense, Buddhism is kind of iconoclastic in as far as conceptual frameworks are constantly challenged by Buddhist thought. But Dharmakaya is certainly a universal sense of reality and truth. And then, Dharma is of course a guide to action, a guide of ethics, a guide to live.
And I want to make reference to Lama Denys Teundroup, whose Institute is going to be putting on a conference on Islam-Dharma for three days in June. This conference will focus on the dialectic of concepts and experience, and it will be looking at the concept of the absolute, and of love in Islam and Buddhism. So the themes that we took up in Columbia University will reach greater fruition in a more private and extended discussion here in France. So, that was our humble beginning, and we now turn to Malaysia.
Ven. Dharma Master Hsin Tao’s visit to Kuala Lumpur in May 2002 had a positive impact upon Buddhist-Muslim ties in the country. Before I discuss its impact, let me take a brief look at Buddhist-Muslim relations in Malaysia.
Buddhists and Muslims have co-existed peacefully in Malaysia for centuries. There has been no conflict between the two religious communities — meaning by which there has been no conflict involving Buddhism or Islam. Or course, in the past, there was some uneasiness between the Chinese minority, (Buddhism is one of the major religio-cultural influences within the community) and the Malay majority (the Malays are all Muslims), but this had nothing to do with religion. The issues which created some tension and led to a riot in 1969 revolved around the indigenous-non-indigenous status of the Malay community as against the Chinese community; economic disparities; political roles; language and so on. Today, these dichotomies within multi-ethnic Malaysia are no longer as problematic as they were in the sixties and seventies. This means that the larger socio-political and socio-economic situation is less likely to impinge negatively upon Buddhist-Muslim ties today.
Seen against this backdrop, Master Hsin Tao’s 2002 visit was to a country where Buddhists and Muslims are on an even keel. In the course of his visit he met with various Muslim and Buddhist groups, gave media interviews and participated in public talks. The Non Governmental Organization (NGO) that I lead, the International Movement for a Just World (JUST) took part in some of these activities.
JUST and the Master’s group also exchanged ideas on two campaigns that both of us are involved in. JUST is in the midst of a campaign to persuade global civil society and governments to adopt an international convention to protect all places of worship. Master’s group is committed to the restoration of sacred sites. We promised to keep each other informed of our respective campaigns. At the same time, I have also accepted an invitation from Master Hsin Tao to serve as an adviser to the Museum of World Religions that he has established in Taiwan.
More than these concrete attempts to cooperate with and help one another, a real bond of friendship has developed between Master Hsin Tao and myself, and between his colleagues and my comrades in JUST. This bond owes a lot to the Master’s warmth, his compassion and his sincerity. In a sense, it is perhaps this bond between Buddhists and Muslims at the personal level which was the greatest achievement of the Master’s visit to Malaysia.
Since the visit, I have written a fairly lengthy article on ‘Muslims and Buddhists in Asia’ which was published in the JUST Commentary in November 2002. The Commentary reaches about 4200 groups and individuals in 130 countries. In October 2002, a Buddhist group, the Soka Gakkai Malaysia, organized an international conference on “Civilizational Dialogue” with the National University of Malaysia. This has never happened before. At the end of November, JUST held an International Roundtable on “The Spiritual and Ethical Basis of Globalization,” which brought together individuals of different faiths, including Buddhists and Muslims. In March 2003, a well-known Buddhist intellectual, Sulak Sivaraksa of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) was one of the five signatories to a multi-faith Asia-Pacific public statement protesting the war on Iraq. And finally, from February right up to April 2003, Buddhist groups played a significant role in campaigning for peace — against the background of the Iraq war — in a mass movement called ‘Peace Malaysia’.
While there is more interaction between Buddhists and Muslims today than even a year ago, it is undeniable that relations between the two religious communities have a long way to go. There is a need to develop empathy and understanding for each other’s fundamental spiritual principles and ethical concerns. Indeed, at the ethical level, there are many similarities between Islam and Buddhism. A common commitment to these shared moral values and a willingness to translate these values into action would serve to bring Muslims and Buddhists closer together.
It is indeed a great honor for me to share with all of you concerning the third dialogue between Buddhists and Muslims held in Jakarta. Actually it was organized by the women’s group and the youth, and I only facilitated the room and dialogue for a sincere and creative communication among both faiths. We invited participants from different faiths as well, Christians, Hindus, as well as from indigenous people. So it was not only a Muslim Buddhist dialogue, but also involved Dr. Wolfgang Schmidt from the World Council of Churches as moderator.
So, I am actually here on behalf of those women groups and the youth who organized the event, and I would like to inform you that actually the dialogue was not only held in the hotel or the office, but also during the visit to the Museum of “Bait Al Qur`an”, a three or four story museum with artifacts not only from Muslim communities, but also from different faiths. But mostly it shows different styles of the Qur`an from different parts of the world. But we also went to the “Istiqlal Museum” (Museum of Independence), a cultural Museum founded by the former president Sukarno and dedicated to liberation.
And during that visit, we also had a dialogue on the future cooperation in the preservation of the world’s sacred sites, because we are concerned about this. Also, the youth had organized some events on dialogue of civilizations for two months before Dharma Master Hsin Tao`s arrival. There were altogether five dialogues on topics as varied as “Islam in Asia”, “On the Future of Youth and Student Movements in South East Asia”, “Global Ethics and Role of Islam in Promoting Human Values”, “The Challenge of Globalization, Youth and Spirituality”, “Human Rights, Human Duties and Responsibilities” and finally, the “Millenium Youth Interfaith dialogue”, which was co-sponsored by the Museum of World Religions.
There was a proposal from the Youth dialogue that they would like to have another dialogue on the Interfaith Youth Network for Peace, Harmony, Culture and Common Future. They are concerned about the common future because the common future does not belong to a single group, or community, culture or faith. The future needs to be established on common ground and on common interests.
The Youth-Network is also involved in the campaign for the protection of Sacred Sites. My son is a student of history and has had the honor of being invited by Dharma Master Hsin Tao to visit the Museum and Ling-jiu Mountain Buddhist Society in November 2001. So this group organizes campaign activities to raise the awareness of people with regard to our human, cultural and spiritual heritage, and to sacred sites. In Indonesia, we have Borobodur, we have thousands of temples in central Java, we have Hindu temples and we have Buddhist temples dating from the 5th, 6th and 7th century. We have preserved those sacred sites up to now, and the youth would like to be involved even more actively in the campaign for their protection.
Finally, the Youth-Network also held a meeting on “Global Spirituality and Alternative Consumer Culture”. They are concerned about globalization and its effect on the consumer culture, because they are the victims of this consumer culture. They would like to develop a spirituality which could prevent the effects of standardized consumerism and greed, and at the same time develop their own lifestyle and common culture based on understanding and spiritual life.
And then, my wife and my son had the honor to be invited by Dharma Master Hsin Tao to come to Taipei to participate in the launching and opening of the Museum of World Religions, and to visit Ling Jiu Mountain Buddhist society. In return for this blessing, the youth and the women’s groups tried to prepare and organize Master Hsin Tao`s visit to Indonesia, and all thanks and recognition goes to their efforts.
The Islamic Millennium Forum for Peace and Dialogue is a forum that is dedicated to provide a public sphere, to foster intercultural understanding through a constructive dialogue among civilizations. It also strives to develop a Global Ethic based on religious and spiritual values to foster peace, justice, humanity, and sustainable development. And being a non-profit organization as well as cultural and intellectual foundation, the Islamic Millennium Forum for Peace functions as a forum for scholars and social activists, both Muslim and other faiths, to discuss and analyze issues related to inter-civilization dialogue, inter-cultural understanding, peacemaking, reconciliation and social harmony. And one of our activities is to publish a journal on these topics.
Now, in the Millenium Dialogue in Jakarta, we discussed Spirituality and Globalization, because we think that, in this globalized society, we need a new spirituality that could actually cope with the issues of consumerism and homogenization of culture, liberalization in the economic and financial institutions as well as privatization of all public services from the health to education.
So we talked about the right to education and the right to health, and also about cultural ethnicity and diversity, which is the richness of our country and our origins. We are concerned about this diversity and the identity of the people, also including the indigenous people, because we live in a country with, as some scholars claim, more than four hundred ethnic groups, and more than four hundred and thirty dialects. Globalization presents a new threat to this cultural diversity because of the hegemonic and oppressive way in which the international financial institutions are globalized, and health care and the water are privatized and turned into profit. So rights to water, land and education were among the issues.
To close, I would like to tell you that we deeply wish to continue this dialogue, and that we want to include in it our personal experience in the process of reconciliation and healing from conflict. For instance, we have organized a National Indonesian Moral Movement for Reconciliation, and twenty Sultans, leaders and kings from different ethnic groups from Bali, Moluccas and Sumatra came to Jakarta to my office. Together, we shared our common historical and collective memory as a nation and as a community with regard to our future as a community. So we tried to reconcile our culture, our history, our cultural heritage. There was one prominent figure, a former vice president and former chief of staff of the army, and now the supreme commander of the army. He came because he thought that this was the time to reconcile for the future of the nation, the future of humanity, because there is no future without forgiveness, there is no future without reconciliation. So reconciliation is a part of our dialogue for the common future. Secondly, we would like to pursue further the campaign for the protection and preservation of sacred, spiritual or cultural sites. And third, we are interested in the establishment of the University of the World Religions. We could begin with a cyber university, or using the existing institutions, or instigate an exchange program that could be done in the future.
Part 3: Questions and Comments
Maria Reis Habito
Dr. Habib, you mentioned how, in Indonesia, Muslim women organize meetings and are also engaged with the youth. However, there is this general perception that the position of women in Islam is not very proactive, that they are not allowed to do as many things as men. These are criticisms that we have heard in previous conferences. So how do you explain that, in Indonesia, Muslim women take many initiatives to get politically, socially and religiously involved?
Women were not only involved in the organizing, but even in the dialogue itself. There is a historical background to the women’s activities. At the beginning of the 20th century, in 1912, some Islamic movements emerged, especially during the awakening of the nations, and aside from the men, the women also established their own organizations and were very active. But due to the political situation during the war against the Dutch, the women became more and more restricted. But after the war, in the 1940’s, the women became more active again and organized schools, orphanages, health care and cooperatives.
So in Indonesia, religion is not seen as a ritual thing, but as a way of life, because Islam itself is “a way”. In the Qur`an, there are different names for Islam, which all-mean “the way”, including “sharia”, which also means the way. Sometimes I tell my friends that Islam is not the name of a religion. Islam means “submission”. Islam is total submission. When you are a Muslim, you are totally submissive to love, to peace, to goodness. Therefore, women in Indonesia feel free to participate in all social and cultural activities, including the political life. And during the struggle for independence, the women’s organizations were even the most active ones.
In my own organization, I work more with women because they are more active, more creative than the men. I have here with me my uncle, Dr. Khudori. We come from the same community. He could also share with us how the women in our community are more creative than the men, because the men sometimes try to preserve the status quo, while the women are very practical and creative in the diversification of activities. The men only engage in certain social activities, but the women are involved in various different activities from food policy to public health care, issues of environment and consumerism. They also engage in politics and the arts. So the men are sometimes limited to some prestigious social activities and therefore trapped in the status quo. That is why the women in Indonesia have a tradition to be social activists.
Picking up on the topic of cultural diversity, I think of Master Hsin Tao, who is moving from his own culture, first to New York, then to Malaysia, then to Indonesia, to explore the cultural diversity in those different constituencies. We are not only in danger of loosing biodiversity; we are also in danger of loosing cultural diversity. And enhancing and being more sensitive to the richness of the different heritages and communities is extremely important.
People sometimes talk about the issue of women and Islam, but what about the problems that the Buddhist communities have had? The Chinese tradition today is exceptional, and I think in fact that there are many more Chinese Buddhist nuns in Taiwan than there are men. But in South East Asia, the women within Buddhist cultures have struggled deeply. Fortunately, it is just in this kind of interfaith gathering that the women’s movement has gained energy. The first international Buddhist women’s meeting was in 1987, which was the beginning of the international Buddhist women’s movement. Within a decade, I think in 1998, there was a large ordination service, because many cultural traditions of Buddhism did not have full ordination for women. So, speaking for the men in both communities, I think we all need to both repent and correct this situation. Through the international contacts and conferences of the Buddhist women’s movement, women from the different cultures have fortified each other and made visible options available. I think there is hope for us all if we can follow the model of Indonesia, which it happens to have a woman president.
In commenting on the Indonesia dialogue itself, Habib is absolutely right. The participation of women and young people was really remarkable. And it is something that didn’t surprise me at all, because I have some familiarity with Indonesian society, which shares certain characteristics with Malaysian society. This whole question of women in Muslim society in South East Asia I think is very important. Let me make the following points.
Number one: If you look at pre-colonial South East Asia, you will find that women were very active in society. Habib, I am sure, will agree with me that you have a phenomenon which is really out of the ordinary in what is today Indonesia. This is the role played by the queens of Acheh. This is one region of South East Asia which is one of the most Islamic regions that you can think of. And they had queens who were not just queens in the symbolic sense. These were substantive rulers, and we know from historical records that some of the queens were actually leading their navies in war. They were heads of the Admiralty in a sense leading their navies, which gives you an example of what kind of a society it was. Now, in the colonial period, Habib had alluded to this, in both Malaysia and Indonesia, Muslim women played active roles in the nationalist movement. In postcolonial Malaysia and Indonesia, women have been very prominent.
In my own country, for instance, you have Muslim women holding positions, which women seldom hold in any other part of the world. For instance, the Governor of the Central Bank of Malaysia is a woman. We have three women ministers; we have deputy ministers, parliamentary secretaries, women members of parliament. It may not be the same percentage as Sweden, or Denmark, but nonetheless, significant.
Now, these things are not highlighted, because there is a tendency within segments of Western society to look at the Muslim world through the prism of the Arab world. One tends to ignore what is happening in other parts of the Muslim world. I think it is important to remind both Muslims and non-Muslims that Arabs constitute only a little more than fifteen percent of the Muslim population. The biggest Muslim country in the world is in South East Asia, Indonesia. And there is South Asia that has millions and millions of Muslims, so I think this is a point that is sometimes ignored when we talk about Islam, and we have to correct this very distorted picture of Islam. Now what is equally important is to find out why this is so. Very quickly, I would submit that these are the following reasons.
Number one: One of the reasons why Muslim women in South East Asia have been very prominent is linked to the agrarian history of the region. In agrarian economic structures, you find that women play a prominent role, unlike in a tribal society where there is a certain system of protection and power related to protection which makes the male far more important than the female. But in agrarian societies, because of the roles that they perform in the paddy fields and other agricultural holdings, you find that women become very important. So it has something to do with the economic base of South East Asian society.
Number two: I think it has also got something to do with the fact that in both Indonesia and Malaysia, a reform movement developed in the name of Islam. From the early part of the 20th century, it was stronger in Indonesia than in Malaysia, but nonetheless, the reform movement recognized the importance of women. In the 1920’s for instance, you had leading intellectuals write about the importance of equal opportunities in education for women, the importance of women playing political roles. There were novels written about this. And in the case of both Malaysia and Singapore, after independence, there was a lot of governmental support for the enhancement of the role of women in the public sphere. And that has been continuous since 1957, when we became independent. So I think these are reasons which we have to keep in mind when trying to explain this.
Now, even in the Arab world, it is forgotten that there was a woman minister in Egypt in the late 50’s, and that Iraq had a woman cabinet minister in the 50’s at the time of King Feisal. We forget these aspects, these fragments of history. Now, we have to look at what has happened in recent times, not just in the Arab world, but also in other parts of the Muslim world. We have had a movement in the name of Islam, an Islamic resurgence, which unfortunately has attempted to impose restrictions upon women’s public role, which has come up with all sorts of strictures against women. But this is a phenomenon of the last fifteen or twenty years, and this is what is unfortunate about the so-called Islamic resurgence. In fact, in many of my writings, I have even asked this question: “Is it really Islamic resurgence that is happening, or is it something else?” It is something that is very reactive, tends to be atavistic, wanting to go back to the past. So I think these are phenomena that we should try to understand in greater depth. Thank you.
I would like to follow up on what we were saying with a rather general reflection. When we look into the history of our different traditions – Buddhism, Christianity or whatever, we see clearly that the institutionalization of these religions is dependant on the formation of institutions in these societies. So the present day religious institutions are very much male dominated, and the whole power structure of these institutions, I think, is in many ways unredeemable. But what we can observe is that, in all of these traditions, as you just mentioned, it is particularly the women’s groups, the youth, but also elderly women, who come together, and in cases where it is possible, do influence the Sangha or the churches.
I come from a country, Germany, where we have three Protestant bishops who are women. And they make an impact just by being women in such an office. But generally speaking, we have some kind of NGO’s within religions, and they are usually the women’s groups. They are environmental groups, groups that take care of education of children, which are politically active in their community, and they play a tremendous role on the local level. And I think we need to be more aware in these international conferences, where these groups, and certainly these women are under-represented, that on the grass roots levels, much of what is going on is carried out by these groups instigated or led by women.
Audience (Dena Merrian)
I have found myself working with a number of women religious leaders quite by chance over the past few years, and recently I was speaking with a Catholic Benedictine nun from the US, Sister Joan Chittister, and she told me that she has begun bringing together Catholic and Buddhist nuns for a sharing of stories.
She was recently at such a meeting on the West coast, and a Buddhist nun from the US got up and told her story, and she said that the audience was really stunned to hear what she had gone through. And she got up and spoke herself, and said you couldn’t tell which one was Catholic and which one was Buddhist, because the one thing that women from all traditions have in common is the experience of being a woman in the faith tradition. It’s a shared experience. I thought that was very interesting, and I know there has been a lot of movement in recent years for the women from the faith traditions to come together and support each other.
However, I have also experienced that I cannot work together with two well-known Buddhist women monastics from Thailand at the same time, that I cannot bring them into the same events. There are such barriers, and I hope that in the next few years we could resolve some of that, because those things are very outdated. I think it is just a leftover from an earlier time. And I think we will see a lot of progress in the next few years.
First of all I would like one of you to tell me more about how the Buddhist Hindu pre- Islamic culture over South East Asia influence has influenced the vision of Islam that you have regarding the position of women in that part of the world? And how does this relate to the inter-religious dialogue with Buddhism? The second question is how does this so called Islamic resurgence influence the inter-religious dialogue with other communities? And is it true that you have the impression that these Islamic groups import a model which is more the Arab vision of Islam rather than the Indonesian vision of Islam? Do you feel they are importing traditions that do not correspond to the country itself?
There isn’t actually evidence to support the view that the pre-Islamic period has shaped certain attitudes towards women. What we do know is, if you look at the 1st to 7th century period connected with the Srivijaya Empire, that the attitudes towards women that prevailed within the larger Hindu Buddhist world were, I think, just as negative as you would find in most other cultures. So I don’t think the role of women in pre-Islamic South East Asia would be able to explain their position in the Islamic culture now.
But the point about the way in which Islam spread in South East Asia is a very important one. It is true that it was the Sufi sages and traders who played a major role in the spread of Islam there. Now, this is an important point, because depending on the way in which Islam spread, one finds that subsequent attitudes towards the communities associated with the pre-Islamic period have taken on certain forms. There wasn’t antagonism towards those communities in South-East Asia, unlike say, if you look at northern India. By and large, in parts of northern India, the relationships between the communities have been characterized by conflict. But when it comes to parts of southern India, it is different because of the way Islam spread there, in contrast to northern India, where you had battles and armed conflicts and so on. So that I think is an important point. But the question of women, to my mind, is something else.
You had also asked about whether one was importing a model from outside. In certain aspects, yes. In imitating what they think are Arab robes for instance, the way Muslim women dress in South East Asia seems to suggest that there is a certain fidelity towards Arab culture. Now these things are alien, but let`s also not forget that some of the concerns which have propelled Islamic resurgence in South East Asia are actually rooted in these societies, for instance concerns connected with urbanization and with a certain type of modernization that challenges one’s religious sensibilities. Now these are things that are not linked to the Arab world, so one has to make that distinction between those elements that are linked to the Arab world, and those elements that are not linked to the Arab world.
You also wanted to know about the importance of interfaith-dialogue and how it shapes Muslim attitudes. To my mind, it shapes Muslim attitudes in two ways, which is why I think the milieu of interfaith-dialogue is very important.
Number one. In many societies where segments of the intelligentsia have developed a certain attitude towards religion, where they have become somewhat skeptical about religion, you find that those people who are very religious and who want to maintain their religious identity are challenged intellectually. So once you are challenged intellectually, you have to elevate your thinking about why you believe in certain things. And I think that is happening in large parts of the West, where Muslims who are a part of interfaith dialogue have to think at a much more fundamental and profound level about what religion means to them, which I think is very important.
Number two. There is this other phenomenon that is happening in other parts of the world, namely that societies which were mono-religious have become multi-religious. And so you find that Muslims, for instance, are living in societies where the majority would be from some other community. There are 450 million Muslims who live as minorities all over the world, which is a good one third of the total Muslim population, which means that the fact that you are in this kind of situation compels you to think about your environment. And you have to interact with that environment, and live cheek by jaw with people who are different from you. And this, I think, makes a lot of difference to the thinking of Muslims, and is one of the reasons why in Malaysia, for instance, you have Muslims who have a more open attitude. This is because of their environment. You can’t run away from the fact that almost 42% of the population of Malaysia is non-Muslim. So that reality has been very important as far as changing attitudes are concerned.
I would like to share something that Indonesia is still in the process of making, namely the process of inventing Indonesia in terms of culture and social life. This process of Indonization is a kind of layer cake. The layers of Indonesian culture start from the pre-Arian religions, with the great migration about 2500 years ago. And Hinduism and Buddhism mixed in the 12th century, even sharing a temple together around that time.
So when Indonesia became Indonesia, it was another layer of the cake. There are layers of understanding, layers of worldview, cultural identity, tradition that enrich the so-called Indonesia of South East Asia. We are still in the process of making the future of South East Asia, and each ethnic group, its faith or tradition, its shared values help to strengthen the future. There has been also some tension, of course, but there is always tension and consensus between culture, faith and traditions.
I would like to mention something that is not generally known, namely that Indonesian Muslims read the Mahabharata. My ideals about social life, social ethics, were formed from reading the Mahabharata. The strong point of both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are the values of loyalty, love and dedication, and they blend with Islamic values. But their ethics are not black and white. That makes our approach towards social life not black and white. In 1984, I participated in the peace walk in Sri Lanka, and we were meditating together and sharing our prayer, and then went to the mosque and temple. Even though this was stopped by the president, because he was afraid that the armed people from both sides would interfere, our gathering nevertheless initiated the national reconciliation in the Parliament in 1984. So the making of the so-called Indonesia is at the same the making of the so-called South East Asia, a process that is on-going.
Summary: Alon Goshen-Gottstein
One thing we all agree on. It has been a long day. So I am going to try and make a long day short, not by being short as I never learned how to be short, but by trying to bring together some of the ideas, and I will attempt now to create a kind of a map of the various topics that we have covered. My goal in doing that is two fold. A: To give some kind of structure to the rich ideas that we have discussed, but thereby also to start to create a narrative that we can take with us from one day to another. Because in fact, everything we do today is only a preamble, an introduction. We haven’t really entered the conversation yet. That we will be doing in the coming days. And by setting up this map of topics, issues, concepts, I hope to take some of the ideas that have come up in today’s discussions and to create a framework through which our Venerables, Eminences, distinguished guests and friends can all make their contribution to the conversation on the various panels that we will have tomorrow.
So let me begin by making a series of observations, and I hope I have been able to tie in the major themes that we have looked at today. The first point that I think is very important emerges from a whole series of issues that were raised today. It is that, in fact, we can never look at religion as something that stands on its own, completely isolated from other forces. Religion is always in some way contextualized. And two important issues have arisen in today’s conversations. The one is the political context and the other is the cultural context. In fact, very often the conflicts or problems that we attempt to address when we come together in the context of an inter-religious dialogue are not really problems of religion, but either problems created within particular cultures or political systems, or problems that could theoretically be solved through particular cultures or political systems. And therefore I think it is important for us, as we begin these conversations, to clarify some notions that most of us probably don’t carry, namely some notions that would tend to see religion purely in isolation. We have to realize that it is very difficult to look at the pure essence – in fact some people look down on this possibility of looking at the essence at all – and that we have to see the more complex picture of religion as it meshes with culture, politics, geography, regionalism etc. That makes our task not impossible, but certainly more complicated.
Now, beyond that, the next point that I would like to make is a breakdown of three different types or purposes of dialogue, each of which has come up in today’s conversations. I think it would be useful to separate them and to look at each one of them as distinct. We tend to overlap them and to move freely from one to another, and I think it is normal and necessary to do so, yet it is also useful to keep those three levels distinct.
The first level that has come up in various comments today is the question of breaking down stereotypes, getting to know the other as the other really is. The other is much richer, has greater resources, is much more interesting than our stereotyped images are. Very often, what we have to do is to fight against images generated through the media, through mass perception, and our way of breaking down that is through knowledge, study, conversation, dialogue. The first function of dialogue is simply a better knowledge of each other and a discovery of a deeper intellectual recourse that each of our religions brings to the knowledge of the other. That’s level one.
Level two. Helping each other to grow. This is a completely different, of course related, but much more mature, much more advanced level at which the inter-religious dialogue operates. I think this came out in this morning’s session and in this afternoon’s session. And I think, very penetrating questions were raised by both President Wahid, and also by Sulak. The question is what do we have to give the other? And how do we grow through dialogue? Questions that came up here were questions of the crisis in each of our religions, the need of learning from the other in what way we can see paradigms and models of things that are deeper. Chandra mentioned this just a moment ago, when he spoke about the fact that in societies where you are challenged by the existence of another, you are forced into a sense of deeper self-understanding. Now, here we are moving from the first level, which is breaking down stereotypes. Getting to know each other, to the level of actually making the dialogue something that is productive, that’s helping each of us grow, if we are able to come to the table as we have done this morning, bringing to it the frank recognition that all of us are in crisis.
The third level, which is again distinct, is not one helping the other or knowing about the other, but facing the world together, moving from dialogue to collaboration. What we have here is the recognition that religion has a contribution to make to the world, to society. That society as a whole has various issues for which it seeks answers from religions and that religions can make a contribution if they can unite and face those issues together. This issue came up time and time again, especially in the reports and discussions of previous meetings, where we discussed questions of religion in contemporary society, and how to face the world together. Of course, the project that I am involved in, that Master Hsin Tao and President Wahid are involved in, is based precisely on that. It is religions coming together, facing the world together and making their contributions to common issues.
I think it is useful, when we look at religious dialogue, to at least be aware of what level we are talking about when we talk to each other. I think very often we either worry too much about breaking down stereotypes or rush into trying to save the world hand in hand. I think the level of the deeper reflective inter-religious dialogue, which was spelled out this morning by President Wahid, of how we need each other to grow, to help us to see our own problems and to go beyond them, is a level which is too quickly glossed over and skipped. I would personally like to recommend to participants that we should try as much as we can to make a contribution to that. I think that that is where the real growth or inter religious-dialogue as such may happen, because most of us have come here already convinced in some ways. Most of us have good thoughts of how to heal the world, but we may not necessarily walk out of here with a plan, but very often our ability to come up with deeper insight into how the other can help us can be one of the treasures to walk away with.
Before I conclude I would like to break down the question of facing the world together into a series of problems. Before I do that, I want to raise a kind of meta-question that I think has come up time and time again today, and I think will continue to haunt us. Who is it who will be engaged in this level of work? This is the broad category. If we look, religions are abstract creations, they are abstractions of the scholar or historian, but religion has to consist of people on the ground, societies on the ground, that have to carry out whatever collaboration or good work they want to do. And I see here some important insights that have emerged in the course of today’s conversation that I want to pull together.
One very important issue is the issue of individual versus society. When do our religions work on the level of the individual? This was the case that Sulak made for Buddhism. When do our communities work on the level of society? Now, society has to be further complexified, and let me go back, even though I don’t remember who said this anymore, to the problem of whether, in the Muslim context, we have this in-between unit of civil society, the NGO. This is a problem I recently heard addressed by Bernard Lewis, when he spoke of the fact that traditional Islamic societies, excluding those of South East Asia, basically made the leap of the individual to the state without having that space for free enterprise of civil society that we know as NGO. This situation is in a sense hampering various kinds of initiatives. The question is, “Who is going to be doing the acting”? Is it going to be the individual or the state? And what are the resources that we have within each of our religions for locating different groups? And it seems to me (if I listen properly), the former president of Indonesia provides us with a very interesting precedent for the possibility of different ways of working that break down the Muslim Paradigm.
But there is another very important issue that came up, and I want to frame the last hour’s conversation in this context, looking at the question of who is it that is going to be engaged in, who is going to carry out the work. We may think of other ways of schematizing this beyond looking at individual and society, and that is the question of finding large sections within society that have responsibilities for carrying these works out. And here what has emerged very prominently is the issue of women.
Now the question of women has emerged here primarily from the perspective of whether women have status or don’t have status. Are they important in religion or are they not important in religion? Ok. We know that. But there is another angle to it, namely what is the contribution of women going to be towards the advancement of increasing understanding? I of course refer to the work of Dena Merrian in trying to bring together women religious leaders. What is it women can do?
Another issue that has emerged is the issue of youth. So suddenly in thinking about who is going to do the work we come up with a rich stratification of different components within our groups, our societies, each of which can do this work. I dare say that the phenomenon that we encountered in Indonesia, of this strong involvement of youth, is probably unique to Indonesian society, and I suspect it cannot be repeated on local soil. I think that there is only so much we can blame the postal strike in Paris for the fact that this room is not full with hundreds of youth. I think that there is something culturally contingent about the fact that youth were able to act in one particular culture. I expect that there is something equally culturally conditioned about the fact that youth are not going to attend this particular meeting, which does not mean that youth do not have a task to carry out. But it does mean that we as thinkers have developed the resources that later get carried out into the work of youth. Let us not confound those issues. It’s not the same. I am not personally convinced that this meeting is the ideal venue for bringing in several hundred boy scouts from different religions and saying ‘listen to the big guys talk and go out and make peace amongst yourselves in your youth camps’. And I think what works in Indonesia may not work here, because we come back here to the relationship between religion and culture. This means again that we have to think of how to spell all these issues out in different societies.
So having looked at the issue of ‘who is it that is going to carry out this work of dialogue at the different levels, I want to finally look at the specific issue of what it would mean to be involved in this third category. Remember we spoke about knowing each other, helping each other grow and fixing the world together. So going back to this third category, of facing the world together, some interesting issues have come up. And I would say in general, there are two kinds of issues. There are issues that are specific to religion, and there are issues that are specific to society. Very interesting for me to hear about the kinds of issues that have been discussed previously, which are specific to religion, prominent among which seems to be the issue of sacred space in the different religions. Interesting to me as someone who comes from Jerusalem, which is the site of contested sacred space and a source of much violence that happens because of sacred space. In dialogues that we have in Israel between Jews and Arabs, the issue of sacred space goes well beyond the Temple Mount to the issue of abandoned mosques. So the issue of sacred space is a very interesting one that could be a very fascinating concept to initiate some kind of United Nations resolution. And then there are the contributions that we, as religions, can make to society as a whole. Women again here become an issue, and there are any numbers of projects where religions can and should collaborate.
So I haven’t really said anything, even though I have filled up my time slot, but what I have tried to do is to map out the various concerns that we have had over the day. And for those, who for some inexplicable reason may have lost sight of where the conversation was going, just when they were dreaming of their coffee break, I at least hope that I was able to tie some of these ideas together to give us some kind of structure and that with this structure we can then attempt to look at the different issues as they come up. I think it will be helpful for our conversations as we make contributions to see if this fits more into this function of interfaith dialogue and this is more appropriate to this group of society we can work here together, and if there is some order in our proceedings then at least we can walk away with piece of mind, and isn’t that the goal of it all.