Celebrating religious diversity without Naik’s brand of comparative religion

By Lim Eu Kit

In Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi’s article, “Is Zakir Naik engaging in comparative religion or insulting other faiths?” published by FMT on July 26, I was disheartened to find that his efforts to Google search and locate any comparative religion professors in Malaysia was an abject failure.

Still, I must confess they are out there. I am, for all intents and purposes, a “professor of comparative religion”. But I am not identified as such by my institution.

I received my PhD in Religious Studies at the University of Denver and the Iliff School of Theology in the United States.

Currently, I am attached to a private university in Kuala Lumpur where I teach introductory courses in Religion, History, and Philosophy. Alas, the (private) education industry in Malaysia is not one that promotes academic disciplines such as Religious Studies.

Nevertheless, I consider myself fortunate to be able to teach subjects related to my field, however minimally that may be.

Now that I have established my academic credentials, I wish to briefly comment on controversial preacher Zakir Naik’s dubious position as an expert in comparative religion. More importantly, I would like to shed more light on the idea of comparative religion as an academic discipline, its uses, and aims.

Professor Tajuddin had rightly pointed out that Naik is not practising comparative religion.

I am not questioning Naik’s religiosity or his academic knowledge in the world’s religions.

I am sure he is a well-learned man. In fact, I don’t even have a problem with him spreading the message of Islam.

However, in an academic setting, religious proselytisation is simply not the task of comparative religion. And while I do not know if Naik is guilty of insulting other religions, certainly scholars who call themselves “experts” in comparative religion, would NEVER assume the supremacy of one religion over the other.

Professor Tajuddin is also correct in pointing out that the task of comparative religion is to “find commonalities and explain conflicts by uprooting the origin of the elements of the religion vis-a-vis an issue in society”.

According to this definition, we can infer that whatever differences each religion possesses is superficial since the core of every religion is the same: different paths to the same mountain top, so to speak.

That being said, one of the goals in studying comparative religion is to promote a more enlightened and tolerant community so that we can all live in a peaceful world.

I want to stress that these aims are not wrong. In fact, I would like to think that this is something ALL Malaysians SHOULD strive to achieve.

Yet, any mention of studying or implementing comparative religion in schools and universities will immediately elicit dirty looks from many Malaysians.

And if you should be so fortunate, you might even get labelled with the now infamous “L” word – liberal.

Even though the aims of comparative religion are noble, I suspect that the idea and language of “commonality” can be off-putting for many religious Malaysians.

If we take any ordinary Muslim or Hindu or Christian aside and ask them, “What is your religion all about?”, we will see that their answers are totally different from each other.

For example, Muslims would never equate the Jesus of Islam to the Jesus of Christianity. Perhaps this is one reason why Naik is so popular among Muslims here. He does not mince his words in showing how Islam is unique and different from other religions.

There is indeed, nothing untrue about this statement. And we would be foolish to simply dismiss these exclusive views as “closed-minded” or “backward”, least of all from Naik’s supporters.

If we want to build a better Malaysia, we need to start taking this idea of difference seriously.

One of the first things that I always do in my religion class is to ask my students if all religions are essentially the same.

Many answer in the affirmative. This is not surprising as many students are aware of the conflicts that arose around the globe in the name of religion. And people like Naik, they opined, are the reason why conflicts happen – by spewing messages of “I’m right and you’re wrong”.

The remedy to this toxic message is to find commonalities within each religion.

But according to American religious scholar Stephen Prothero, we cannot begin to solve these conflicts if we are blinded by what he calls “pretend pluralism”: a feel-good idea that if we could just get rid of these superficial differences, we will see that deep down, we all worship the same God and we want the same thing in life.

There are tangible differences between Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Hindus in Malaysia and pretending that deep down we are all the same obliterates whatever that is unique that each religion brings to the table.

I know that in Malaysia Baru, it is trendy for us to say that we are all Malaysians, as Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng so emphatically declared, “I am not Chinese. I am Malaysian”.

But how can we begin to call ourselves Malaysians when we blindly sidestep our complex multi-religious and multi-cultural identities? Yes, we are Malaysians. But are we not Chinese, or Malays, or Kadazans, or Taoists, or Muslims as well?

In fact, it is utterly disrespectful to the historical struggles each religious community went through to build this nation. No one will disagree with me when I say that there are still many unresolved racial and religious problems.

Flattening religious differences by appealing to a false mantra of “we are all the same” only serves to bury our country’s historical baggage.

We are blessed with a community where a multitude of races and religions live, for the most part, harmoniously with each other.

The onus is on us to develop a study of comparative religion that facilitates authentic and humble dialogue with other religious communities in order to identify the commonalities AND similarities as well as the good AND the bad in each other.

We ought to start by acknowledging that religions are not the same and that it is okay to be different.

We don’t need Zakir Naik’s brand of comparative religion in Malaysia because when we engage each other out of a sense of humility, we do not need to assume that one religion is “better” than the other.

Only then can we begin to make sense of a world in which religions play an integral role in all of us, and truly appreciate each religion’s unique beauty and flaws.

The results of GE14 have gifted us with a golden opportunity to forge a new direction for Malaysia.

At a time when talk of racial and religious supremacy is beginning to rear its ugly head once again, a more accurate and well-rounded take on comparative religion will help resist this toxic rhetoric and propel us toward a Malaysia Baru that cares about integrity, humility, and respect for each other without sacrificing what makes our faiths different and unique.

Lim Eu Kit is a faculty member of the American Degree Programme at HELP University in Malaysia.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.