Is Asia Pacific? Interreligious conflicts, dialogue and inventiveness in today’s Asia

by on 週五, 13 八月 2010 評論

There is no need to underline the dizzying diversity of Asia’s religious landscape. I do not intend here to attempt even a preliminary sketch of the patchwork of faiths and traditions that extend from Pakistan to Japan… I just would like to point out some general trends that have emerged in the last two or three decades, trends that have been partly reshaping the setting of Asia’s religions. Also, I would like to reflect on the challenges that these trends are creating. Furthermore, I’d like to suggest a few possible answers that Christianity could articulate in response to current developments, provided that Christians wish indeed to become “peacemakers” as the Sermon on the Mount calls them to be. Such responses may also inspire the ones brought forward by other religions. In any case, interreligious dialogue in Asia has become an endeavor that no religion can escape from, not only for spiritual reasons but also in order to achieve the following goals: (a) progressing towards national and ethnic reconciliation (b) ensuring religious freedom and other civil rights (c) tackling global challenges (dialogue of civilizations, ecology, struggle against consumerism, development of a global ethic.)

Revivalism and Identity Crisis

Revivalism has become a predominant religious trend. The clearest example is provided by the new vitality found by Islam in Asia, as is also the case in other parts of the world. Such fact is of utmost importance: Indonesia is the most populated Muslim nation in the world; Bangladesh and Pakistan have overwhelming Muslim majorities, and Malaysia has also a Muslim majority, though not as pronounced; India has a strong Muslim minority; and Muslim populations are located on conflict-prone frontier regions in the Philippines, Thailand and China.

The point here is that such “vitality” - experienced with different feelings according to the standpoint of the observer - encompasses an array of very different phenomena that have to be carefully distinguished:

- A kind of revivalist atmosphere stressing both Islamic and ethnic pride on a background of post-colonial sensitivity and widespread religious education, affecting the consciousness of Muslim populations all around Asia.

- Marginal violent movements carrying attacks, movements often fostered by international networks.

- Pervasive political strategies trying to impose and enforce Islamic laws and Islamic state apparatus; such strategies threaten the fabric of the secular state (which was a feature of post-colonial Asia) or lead some states that from the start were not altogether secular to become openly theocratic.

- At the same time, it is important to note that, since 2001. Muslin communities often suffer from accrued hostility and prejudices, especially in countries where they are a minority - and these prejudices can reinforce violence and deviant behaviors. Some of these communities also suffer from disadvantageous social background and economic conditions.

A few additional remarks are in order:

- Among these trends, the third one might be the most preoccupying one. In history, such strategies have led to the annihilation/assimilation of populations living in Muslin societies and professing other faiths. Strategies vary according to the size of the proportion of the Muslim population and the overall political situation. A distinction is to be made between Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia on the one hand, and the other countries of the region where Muslims are a vocal minority, sometimes with complaints rooted into national history. At the same time, further comparison between Bangladesh and Pakistan for instance might help us to assess better the role of cultural or international factors in religious attitudes: Bangladesh prides itself of a spirit of tolerance and accommodation seemingly lacking in Pakistan. This opposition of style between two Moslem countries leads back to an array of cultural and political factors deeply anchored into the collective memory of the two protagonists.

- In countries with Muslim majority, Christians of tribal origin generally constitute the most vulnerable population when it comes to forced conversion and discrimination. At the same time, Christians who are social leaders because of their wealth, occupation or educational level are often at the frontline of ongoing confrontations (this is patent in Pakistan).

- Of course, besides the Islamic revival, other sources of concern exist, which strongly influence interreligious conflicts and cooperation on the continent as a whole: authoritarian States manipulative of religions or even of interreligious dialogue; revivalist political/religious currents and organizations that might go with the assertion of a “national’ religion (in a Buddhist context, the phenomenon can be observed in Sri-Lanka); materialism and consumerism as they are cutting off the very roots of interreligious dynamics and dialogue.

- With the exception of Vietnam maybe, one notes everywhere a strong growth of Protestantism, most of the time under a fundamentalist and proselytizing garb, which often exacerbates tensions already existing. Proselytism also characterizes new religions, which are in the rise in many countries. As a consequence of this increase of religious communalism, a country like China is much less “syncretistic” than in the past and, witnesses a new assertiveness of believers who are conscious of clear-cut confessional divisions.


bv_buddhist_temple_bkk_2010

In a Buddhist temple in Bangkok (July 2010)

What is to be done?

1) In a context marked by potential or actual confrontations, but also by encounters and fluctuating frontiers, believers should not renounce the ideal of living and praying side by side as a privileged form of dialogue. Sometimes, and in different circles, there have been hesitations and reservations on a form of interreligious dialogue rooted into the fact of praying side by side. Still, one can reasonably think that God takes more pleasure in seeing people praying together than killing each other… Prayer often manifests itself as a kind of “revolutionary force”, and religious leaders are well advised to let and encourage people find their own way of associating their prayers in times and places of conflicts, natural disasters, or just for building up brotherly neighborhoods. Actually, what might be the most dangerous feature of violence is the fact that it exercises a kind of fascination that leads all people involved to a hardening of their own identity, fostering a chain of violent reactions - violent in spirit even when not in deeds. In this light, and even if such posture looks “idealistic”, the importance of a spiritual, even “mystical” approach towards interreligious understanding cannot be overlooked.

2) At the same time, it is impossible not to tackle directly the political dimension of interreligious encounters (understood as dialogue and tensions): ethnic or national revivalist movements and religious revivals are associated phenomena; ethnic, partisan and religious lines are often blurred. In the Catholic Church, a document of the Second Vatican Council, Dignitatis Humanae, has established the principle of religious freedom, associating it with a reflection on the mission, nature and duties of the state. At the same time, the text was strongly influenced by the American constitutionalism tradition. Asian religious leaders now need to clarify their stance about the secular state (which most of them tend to belittle or flatly reject.) Asian religions should debate of their political principles and, hopefully, agree on a few pressing tasks: (a) definition of the secular state, (b) pushing towards further regional union, encompassing a bill of rights emphasizing the spiritual roots of Asia (both their diversity and their strength), (c) working for equality among sexes (which might constitute the most important check against radical Islam on the long run)… Also going along this “political imperative”, arises the exigency to be always truthful about history. Interreligious and inter-ethnic encounters are made possible or are blocked by narratives that are shared or are conflicting. When they happen in a context where conflicting narratives are honestly recognized and retold, such encounters operate as a healing of memories.

3) Asia is a region marked by an irreducible linguistic, cultural and religious diversity. Traditionally seen by Christianity as a practical and theological challenge, such diversity is actually a treasure that needs to be assessed, appreciated and interpreted. Peace-building is thus to be seen as an ongoing endeavor inseparable from the development of interreligious dialogue: both tasks are anchored into an interpretative process through which cultures, creeds and world-views are perpetually reshaped. On the long run, the “translation” of traditional languages and narratives that the in-depth meeting with the Other makes possible nurtures a creative reinterpretation of one’s spirituality and faith.

4) Value education and other actions conducive to a culture of dialogue must target in priority women and the youth, as these two sectors are the ones who are susceptible to foster in the future a less rigid and more compassionate social culture. Value education starts from existential requirements such as the importance of honesty, mutual respect and joy. Interreligious cooperation is actually anchored into the nurturing of basic values that, ideally, could and should be taught in the schools of a pluralistic secular state.

A “musical” metaphor might help us to ascertain what is at stake in such encounters: we all have different musical tastes, different “ears”, and yet we are called to do music together. What then will come out of our musical disagreements? At the end of the day, we cannot bet for sure on the kind of music that God likes and composes. Maybe He does not compose in the C scale or in B moll, maybe He composes a kind of serial or computer-generated music that goes through disharmonies and rhythmic breaks – music that we do not immediately appreciate. Creative music generally challenges our listening habits - and we can assume that God indeed is a creative composer.

Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

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