Ikim will continue to play its part in not only explaining the ‘whys’ and ‘wherefores’ of dialogue in the religious context via the intellectual mode only, but also providing opportunities for ‘real-life’ experiences of ‘living together’.
IT was a beautiful sunny morning with a gentle breeze.
We were surrounded by acres of open rice fields in a local village famous for its homestay industry called Kg Sungai Haji Dorani in Kuala Selangor.
We were listening to Ikim’s workshop with young multiracial participants on “Malaysians Living Together”, sharing what their impressions were of the three days and two nights of being together and what values and lessons they thought they had imbibed.
Present together with the course organisers were also their “proud” foster Malay rice farmer parents.
What and how the students shared through their presentations really made us feel that an honest interfaith/intercultural dialogue really did take place among the youths who were of different religious backgrounds.
Listening to the young participants’ description of their activities together, the opportunity to understand and appreciate how rice farming families live their lives, and the “new” understanding they had of each other’s religion and culture made what Daisaku Ikeda said about dialogue sounded real.
He said: “Dialogue is a heart-to-heart symphony. It can produce a dynamic rhythm of progress, a harmony of mutual trust, and a melody of fresh creativity.”
In the same vein, Danish educator Hans Henningson also declared: “Dialogue has meaning precisely because or when opinions, views and personalities are different from each other.”
It takes courage to initiate a dialogue actually, and this was the role of the workshop organisers – to provide the opportunity, and when we do so, we open the way for fresh understanding and agreement/convergence of commonly accepted ideals.
Through their group activities, (laden with purpose and meaning) which included catching catfish in the mud with their bare hands, pounding padi the traditional way (which increases appreciation of the rice we eat from our plate everyday), batik designing, doing the kuda kepang dance (whilst understanding the purpose and meaning behind the movements), eating together kampung style, night walking in the rice field with a natural torch to observe the night fauna and night sky with the full moon and brilliant stars, the youths and their facilitators truly experienced “living together”, which inevitably resulted in mutual care, mutual respect, mutual appreciation of not only one another but also of the lifestyle of the farming community (most participants were urban dwellers), and the unique natural, albeit man-made environment of the padi fields.
The students’ presentations included skills in public speaking, singing and composing, pantun, drama and comedy and each group exhibited the spirit of teamwork and esprit de corps, which to the observer seemed such a vital asset for Malaysia now and in the future.
The ease with which the students marshalled creativity together was amazing to watch, especially when they had to rely a lot on their spontaneity which itself bespeaks their honesty.
One group gave itself the name Wu Xian which means “infinity”, and judging by the laughter and spirit of togetherness that were displayed, everyone seemed to not only be able to cope with diversity but was actually enjoying it.
For Muslims, at least, understanding of others is a virtue as the Quran says: “O men! Truly We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes that you might get to know (and be kind to) one another. The noblest of you in the sight of Allah is the one most deeply conscious of Him among you (not in accordance with the nobility of lineage or ethnicity). Truly, Allah is Most Knowing, Most Aware (of your state and deeds) (Surah al-Hujurat, 49:13).”
Moving away a little bit from interfaith and interreligious dialogue per se, if we think more seriously what is more basic in living a harmonious life in a diverse society is multicultural understanding.
In fact, what we need more of these days of so-called increasing polarisation is multicultural literacy, which is the capacity to understand each others’ culture.
People are born, in a sense, culturally illiterate and we know that cultural (religious) conflicts cannot disappear by us ignoring them.
This in effect is what is happening by us not doing anything to promote a “living together” with consciousness.
The difference between the workshop and our everyday “multicultural encounter” perhaps lies in the element of being conscious of how we are affecting the “other/others” through our words and actions.
How do we build cultural literacy? To begin with, we may be unconscious of our cultural imcompetence due to our ignorance.
After understanding and accepting our incompetence we should start to learn non-judgmentally about “the other” with the spirit of humane honesty.
We should then become competent and able to move spontaneously “across” sets of cultural norms with appropriate skills as we also become more aware of the fact that the world is full of diversity, but yet is increasingly connected.
More so than before, because of our increased exposure to different cultures through rapid advances in communication and transport technologies, it is essential for us to maintain a healthy multiculturalism in the context of our work and life as a plural society.
We need to be aware of and take seriously the fact that there are alternative ways and skills all around us, and that our ways and our skills that are personally and culturally appropriate for our group, may not be applicable to other groups/people.
Ikim will continue to play its part in not only in explaining the “whys” and “wherefores” of dialogue in the religious context via the intellectual mode only, but also providing opportunities for “real life” experiences of “living together” especially for young Malaysians who may otherwise lack the opportunity to have the platform for engaging in dialogue.
Perhaps the “module” for such workshops should be fine-tuned to be used more widely to complement courses such as TITAS (Tamadun Islam Tamadun Asia), which is taught in all government universities in Malaysia, which also aims at intercultural understanding among young Malaysians.
DR AZIZAN BAHARUDDIN views expressed are entirely the writer's own. The STAR Online Home Opinion Columnist IKIM Views 17 Sep 2013