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Religion and Identity in a Globalising World

by Chandra Muzaffar

Before I discuss the theme, it is important to reflect upon the concept of identity itself. In broad terms, identity is the condition of being a specified person or thing characterized by certain attributes. These attributes it is assumed would identify that person or thing with other persons or things that share similar characteristics while distinguishing that person or thing from yet other persons or things that do not share most or some of those characteristics.

Thus, a Hindu would be identified by his religious beliefs and practices which distinguish him from say a Christian who would subscribe to beliefs and undertake practices that would be different from those that characterize the former. While there may be a distinct Hindu or Christian identity manifested through beliefs and practices and perhaps buttressed by tradition and heritage, one should also acknowledge that some of these beliefs and practices may evolve over time and, in the process, transform the meaning and content of one’s identity. Equally important, in spite of differences in doctrinal beliefs and practices, the various religions share certain common moral values and ethical precepts. This in a sense challenges the notion of exclusive religious identities.

Besides, one’s religious identity is not a person’s only identity. There is no such thing as a singular identity. A person professing the Sikh religion in Malaysia, for instance, is also part of the larger Indian Malaysian community. She may belong to a particular profession, may be a member of some women’s organisation, may even be active in a certain political party. Each group that she is part of endows her with a specific identity. Taken together, it means that our Sikh lady has multiple identities of which her religious identity is one.

Religious Identity as a Global Phenomenon

In almost all religious communities today there appears to be greater awareness of, and commitment to, one’s religious identity than in the past. Among Muslims, a number of episodes in the last twenty years seem to indicate that segments within the community have become more conscious of their Islamic identity and more determined to defend it. The worldwide protest against the British writer Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in 1989 for instance which had caricatured the Prophet Muhammad and his family was a clear indication of how strongly Muslims felt about the Prophet’s honour and the religion’s sanctity. A couple of years later Muslims in some parts of the world expressed their outrage at some of the disparaging comments made by another writer, the Bangladeshi, Taslima Nazreen, about certain verses in the Qur’an. In 2006, Muslims everywhere were incensed by cartoons that appeared in a Danish newspaper that depicted the Prophet as a perpetrator of terrorism. Other mainly European newspapers and magazines republished those offensive cartoons provoking Muslims even further and inciting some of them to resort to acts of violence. A year later, Pope Benedict XV1 linked Islam to violence in a lecture in Germany which again prompted Muslims to vent their anger against not only the Pope but also the West in general. Come 2008 and a Dutch film denigrates Islam by regurgitating the allegation that the religion promotes violence.

Whenever the Prophet or Islam is attacked, Muslims respond by re-asserting their religious identity. I shall return to this observation later. There are other perhaps more critical events that have also served to enhance that sense of identity among Muslims. The usurpation of Palestinian land by the European Zionists and the subsequent dispossession of the Palestinian people which has continued unabated since 1948 is for Muslims in every nook and cranny of the planet an affront to their dignity and their identity. The occupation of Kashmir by Hindu India since 1947 is also perceived by many Muslims as a challenge to their identity as a religious community. The massacre of Bosnian Muslims by Serb ethno-nationalists in the mid nineties was yet another episode which thrust to the fore Muslim identity consciousness. The sufferings of Muslims in Chechnya at the hands of the Russians have also had some impact upon the global Muslim community or ummah though on a somewhat lesser scale. The invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 by the United States and the continuing presence of US led NATO forces in that country is for the ummah an example of how Western global military hegemony threatens its integrity and its dignity. However, more than Afghanistan, it is the illegal, illegitimate Anglo-American occupation of Iraq since March 2003 which Muslims everywhere view as an attempt to dominate and subjugate a strategically located Muslim country in order to control its oil and its wealth. There are of course other conflicts too—in Mindanao, in the Philippines; in Southern Thailand; and in North Western China for instance—which have also, in a limited sense, increased Muslim identity consciousness.

For a significant segment of the global Christian community, religious awareness seems to have increased as a result of the proselytizing activities of evangelical groups a big portion of whom are perceived as the Christian Right. Many of these groups are not only faithful adherents of the forms and practices of the religion but are also devout advocates of some of the doctrines of the Christian Right such as the belief that the triumph of Israel over its neighbours is a prerequisite for the return of the Christ after which the whole of the Middle East and the whole world will embrace Christianity. In this mission to christianize the world, Islam and Muslims are viewed as a stumbling block. It is not surprising therefore that important segments of the Christian Right endorse the annexation and occupation of Palestine just as they support the occupation of Iraq and NATO’s preponderant military role in Afghanistan.

However, the political dimension of Christian Right thinking is perhaps not as significant as the spread of evangelical Christianity in parts of Asia, including Northeast Asia and Central Asia, Eastern Europe, certain areas of Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. In fact, evangelical Christianity in its present phase with its roots in the United States is perhaps one of the fastest growing religions in the world. Personal and group salvation rather than social transformation is the central credo of this version of Christianity. It appears to be propelled to some extent at least by the attraction that the American ‘way of life’ holds for substantial sections of the global community.

In the case of the Jews, the holocaust was undoubtedly the defining event in the rise of Jewish identity consciousness in the contemporary world. Even before the holocaust, for centuries the Jews as a community had been the constant target of dehumanizing stereotypes and caricatures that only helped to strengthen their sense of identity. Since the creation of the state of Israel, its perpetual conflict with the Palestinian people and various Arab states has further reinforced a distinct Jewish identity that has become almost synonymous with political Zionism. Jewish or Zionist identity, it must be emphasised, is not always expressed through the medium of religion. Sometimes religious sentiments are exploited to buttress a narrow, bigoted, exclusive sense of Jewishness. However, more than religion, it is antipathy, and outright antagonism, towards Palestinians in particular and Arabs in general that serves as a powerful emotional bond preserving and perpetuating Jewish identity and Zionist nationhood.

Hindu identity consciousness is also on the rise in India and in other parts of the Indian diaspora. While there are a variety of reasons that explain the phenomenon, the ‘Muslim Other’ in the context of the Indian sub-continent has played a big role in shaping contemporary Hindu identity consciousness. It explains why in the Hindutva movement—the movement for the revival of a Hindu polity in India—the alleged humiliation that Hindus had suffered at the hands of Muslim conquerors and rulers centuries ago, is a major rallying cry for the re-assertion of a Hindu identity. The accusation that hundreds of Hindu temples were destroyed and desecrated in the days of the Mughals and the Nizams—an accusation that some distinguished scholars with a Hindu background have refuted effectively—is often trotted out by certain Hindu groups as the ultimate proof of Hindu humiliation. Rebuilding these temples, a goal of the Hindutva movement, is viewed by many Hindus as the Hindu way of regaining the community’s pride.

As with the other communities, Buddhist identity consciousness has also become stronger in recent times. And like some of the other cases, a conflictual relationship with ‘the other’ appears to be a factor. This is true of Sri Lanka where the majority Buddhist Sinhalese community and the minority Hindu Tamil community (among both the Sinhalese and the Tamils there are also many Christians) are locked in a long drawn conflict which has now produced a militant Sinhalese fringe comprising even Buddhist monks who advocate violence against the Tamils. It has been argued that even in Thailand the conflict between Buddhists and Muslims in three of the southern provinces is one of the reasons why Buddhists have become more aware of their own religious identity. The Buddhist sense of identity however is not confined to a specific state. When ancient Buddhist statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan were destroyed in 2001 on the orders of the ruling Taliban, Buddhists from different parts of the world responded as a single community. Here again we see how a challenge or an affront emanating from outside the community, sometimes persuades a segment within the community to reassert its identity with greater vigour.

From our reflections on rising identity consciousness in five religions, we may be able to draw some tentative conclusions about the phenomenon. Most of the time, a community or a segment of a community becomes more conscious of its religious identity when it is under some form of attack from outside. This is especially so when the attacker is the religious other. The attack may come in the form of an insensitive remark or a book that disparages the community in question. Or it may express itself through actual physical conquest and occupation followed by massacre and oppression. In general, conflict between religious communities—though the conflict itself may have little to do with religion per se—heightens identity consciousness on both sides. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on the one hand, and the Sinhalese-Tamil conflict, on the other, attest to this irrefutable truth.

Sometimes it is not an affront or an assault from outside that intensifies one’s sense of religious identity. Our analysis has shown that religious proselytization can also increase identity consciousness. When proselytization is associated either directly or obliquely with state power, the nexus between religion, identity and state becomes stronger. In a world where global power is a reality, the link between a particular religion and global power may endow the former with a universal identity of sorts that manifests itself through culture, literature and other such channels of expression. Thus, Christmas, largely because of Western global dominance, has become a universal celebration that transcends Christianity, and yet endows that religion with an international character and identity.

However, neither external challenges to a community nor the power of a global hegemon nor the proselytizing zeal of a religion provide a complete explanation for the rise of religious identity consciousness in recent times. There are larger trends that have been unfolding over decades that have also helped to strengthen religious identity consciousness. The reaction against the secularization of society especially in various parts of Asia is one such trend.

When countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia, and India and Pakistan, freed themselves from colonial bondage, their ruling elites sought to fashion the social order on models derived largely from the West—models of social transformation which were essentially secular in the sense that they did not reflect in any way worldviews and visions embodied in the great religious philosophies that these Asian societies were heirs to. More specifically, the Philippines dedicated itself to a laissez faire market economy more akin to what its former colonial master the US pursued, while Indonesia in 1945 and for at least a decade and a half after that, flirted with ideas from both socialism and capitalism, ideologies that grew out of the womb of a secularizing Europe in the nineteenth century. The ruling elite in India led by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, an outstanding intellectual in his own right, experimented with Fabian socialism while the founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, was committed to a form of social democracy which in its articulation was more European than Islamic since it made no reference to values and principles of justice and equality drawn from Islam’s own rich heritage.

Though the ideas that these elites espoused were rooted in ideologies that had evolved in another socio-cultural environment, it was their inability to address the fundamental challenges facing their people that eroded their credibility. It was because they failed in many instances to eradicate mass poverty, to reduce the gap between the have-a-lot and the have-a-little, and to curb corruption and greed at the elite level, that the people began to lose faith in their secular ideologies and outlooks. To make matters worse, a number of these elites became authoritarian and oppressive, often displaying utter contempt for the people’s feelings and aspirations. Consequently, the people’s confidence in their leaders plummeted dramatically. They knew that what their leaders professed invariably contradicted what they practised!

Religious resurgence in India, Pakistan, Indonesia, parts of rural Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand has a lot to do with this: the betrayal by the elites; their inability to deliver; their failure to live up to acceptable standards of governance. In other words, if whole sections of Hindu society have begun to identify with the Hindutva movement in India since the early nineties; if young Muslim men and women have become enthusiastic torch-bearers of Islamic movements in Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia since the eighties; if a segment of Thai society equates its aspirations with a conservative brand of Buddhism today; if Christian conservatism has been getting stronger in parts of the Philippines for more than two decades now, it is partly because justice, freedom and equality remain pious platitudes in some of these societies and the basic tenets of good governance have been violated with impunity.

There is perhaps another reason why the tendency to identify with religion has become stronger in a number of societies. It is linked in a sense to secularism as an ideology. Because secularism conceives of progress and change in materialistic terms, and because development—even when it has been successful—appears to be estranged from religious values and principles, a lot of Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and others with religious roots feel that there is something missing in their lives, that there is a spiritual vacuum within that has to be filled. That secular development and the secular lifestyle creates a spiritual vacuum, and that it cannot quench the perennial human thirst for the sacred and the transcendent, is a view that is gaining currency even in the West. In fact, scholars such as Daniel Bell, Charles Taylor and Fred Dallmayr, among others, have argued that this is one of the reasons why there is a religious resurgence in the US and in other parts of the Western world.

It appears therefore that the secular revolution which has brought a great deal of good to humankind, has also provoked a religious reaction, a desire to re-establish one’s religious identity, to re-connect with the transcendent and the sacred. There is another current and contemporary revolution that is also contributing, willy-nilly, to the strengthening of religious identity. This is the process of globalisation. Since the flow of labour across national boundaries has intensified as a result of globalisation, and hitherto religiously homogenous societies have become heterogeneous, individuals and families are now forced to accept the reality of multi-religious neighbourhoods. While in some instances this has encouraged people to reach out to the religious other, it has also made many others more conscious of their own religious identity. It has led to a renewed emphasis upon religious rituals and practices that distinguish one religious community from another. To put it differently, the reinforcement of one’s religious identity is, in some cases, a response to globalisation.

Globalisation is impacting upon religion in some societies in yet another sense. Since lifestyles and various forms of culture and entertainment are easily and rapidly transmitted from one place to another through satellite television and internet and other modes of communication, religious communities which adhere faithfully to certain time honoured ways of conducting inter-gender relations and dressing, feel threatened by this aspect of globalisation. They are reacting to the challenge by insisting that the state or religious authorities or both adopt tough measures to curb these “undesirable” foreign influences. Such calls are heard in parts of Hindu India as they are heard in parts of Muslim Indonesia. Indeed, because these influences via globalisation’s new technologies are so pervasive and penetrative, protecting pristine religious values has become part and parcel of the political agenda of a number of political parties in Asia. It is only too apparent that such agendas buttress a religious community’s fidelity to its identity.

The Muslim Concern for its Islamic Identity

While the above factors may help to explain why identity consciousness has increased in all religious communities, it is true that Muslims as a whole seem to be more concerned about, and attached to, their Islamic identity. Compare for instance Muslim reactions to films or books that denigrate our religion or our Prophet to Christian reactions to similar attempts to defile their religion. Neither The Last Temptation of Christ nor The Passion of the Christ nor the Da Vinci Code elicited the sort of mass anger that we witnessed in the Muslim response to the Satanic Verses or the Danish cartoons or the Fitna film. Of course, we know that Muslims, more than other communities, have been consciously targeted for a much longer while and in a much more systematic manner by the West. If anything, Islamophobia which has a thousand year history behind it, is getting worse. The objective realities confronting the ummah, as we have seen,—Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan—have also heightened Muslim identity consciousness. While all this is granted, there is perhaps another reason also why the majority of Muslims tend to be very conscious of their identity.

The Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad endow Muslims with a feeling of oneness, of unity. Apart from a belief in the Oneness of God and in Muhammad as God’s messenger, they are also held together by religious practices such as the daily prayers with Mecca as the kiblat, the zakat (the wealth tax), the annual fast and the hajj (the pilgrimage). These beliefs and practices furnish Muslims with their sense of identity. At the level of religious sentiment, this notion of identity is global and transcends all other identities. As a sentiment it appears to be much stronger than what exists in other religious communities.

It is becoming increasingly evident that within this notion of identity, the pivot is the Muslim attachment to the Prophet. Though it is loyalty to God that is the essence of Islam, in reality it is the Muslims’ profound love for Muhammad that unites and inspires the ummah. This is why any attempt by anyone to demean and denigrate the Prophet evokes an immediate response from Muslims all over the world.

It is unfortunate that sometimes the response assumes a violent form. Resorting to violence in defending the Prophet and Muslim identity is antithetical to what Islam teaches and what Muhammad himself stood for. The Qur’an advises Muslims to counter lies and slander about God and the Prophet in a civil and courteous manner. Even when the Prophet was attacked physically while disseminating the message of Islam, he maintained his dignity and composure and did not retaliate. This is why those who justify defending Muslim identity through violence are in fact guilty of betraying the Qur’an and the Prophet himself.

It is not just on the question of violence that some Muslims undermine the Qur’anic message and the Prophetic tradition. Sometimes they interpret Muslim identity in terms that are so narrow and bigoted that it conveys the erroneous impression that Islam is a dogmatic religion that is insistent on unquestioning compliance with rigidly prescribed forms and symbols. In such circles, a Muslim woman’s identity is equated with her attire and her headgear when it is her modesty and her character that should determine who she is and what she is. There are Muslims who regard the beard as the defining characteristic of the identity of a Muslim male. Here again, what is needed is a more profound understanding of identity anchored in a person’s character and his values rather than a superficial obsession with appearance per se. Similarly, there are some Muslims who argue that male-female interaction or interaction between Muslims and non-Muslims or partaking of a meal in the home of a non-Muslim even if it is halal, will compromise one’s Muslim identity. These are advocates of an ‘uncontaminated’, ‘unadulterated’ Muslim identity that they feel is the religion’s only bastion in a world teeming with challenges that threaten the integrity of the faith. It is this sort of thinking that tarnishes the image of Islam and diminishes the dignity of the Muslim.

What explains such narrow thinking on Muslim identity? Why is such exclusive, somewhat parochial thinking gaining more and more adherents these days in Malaysia and in a number of other Muslim countries? We have already provided part of the answer in our analysis. Foreign occupation of Muslim lands, Washington’s hegemony and the subsequent control over oil in Muslim countries and the oppression and slaughter of Muslim children, women and men, have, as we have observed, made Muslims more conscious of their identity—a consciousness that is being directed towards exclusive forms and practices since such forms and practices make one more safe and secure in a situation where one feels more threatened and besieged. If anything, secularisation and globalisation, as we have pointed out, have also compelled a lot of Muslims to fortify their linkages to their identity. Again, the actual expression of identity has been through channels that are narrow and exclusive for the reason that we have cited. Then there is the failure of governance in so many Muslim countries with its adverse impact upon the people that has also persuaded some of them to turn to Islam as the solution. This in turn has led to a strengthening of Muslim identity consciousness which is manifesting itself through predictable forms and symbols that aim to enhance one’s sense of security and confidence.

 “Besides, one’s religious identity is not a person’s only identity. There is no such thing as a singular identity. A person professing the Sikh religion in Malaysia, for instance, is also part of the larger Indian Malaysian community.”

This brings us to the second part of the answer. It is doubtful if issues related to the external world of a Muslim—global hegemony and its attendant injustices; the secularisation of society and globalisation; and the adverse consequences of weak governance—would have resulted in the strengthening of exclusive identity consciousness if there weren’t certain forces within Islamic theology and doctrine that lent legitimacy to such an outlook. An exclusive notion of Muslim identity which eschews an interactive relationship with non-Muslims and emphasises that dimension of theology that promotes Islamic distinctiveness has been part of Islamic jurisprudence for centuries. At certain stages of history, this notion of identity was stronger than at other stages, depending upon the inclination of the ruler or the prevailing circumstance and situation. Some scholars have suggested that the theologian who provided the intellectual rationalization for the growth of an exclusive notion of Muslim identity was the Hanbali jurist Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328). Ibn Taymiyyah had influenced the thinking of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism, an eighteenth century revivalist movement in Arabia for the reconstruction of society, which has emerged as the most exclusive, literalist and dogmatic interpretation of Islam in the contemporary world.

“Global hegemony and its attendant injustices; the secularisation of so ciety and globalisation; and the adverse consequences of weak governance—would have resulted in the strengthening of exclusive identity consciousness (among the Muslims).”

There is no need to emphasise that an exclusive notion of Muslim identity with shades of Wahhabism will be antithetical to the demands of a globalising world in which religious boundaries are becoming more and more porous. Indeed, in a globalising world it is only an inclusive, accommodative, universal vision of Muslim identity which will enable Muslims to work together in a spirit of comradeship with people of other faiths and people who do not subscribe to a particular faith or to any faith at all, for a better, more just and peaceful world. Within every religious community, such an inclusive, accommodative, universal perspective on identity will have to make its presence felt.

National and Global Challenges—and Identity

From our analysis it is obvious that governance at the national level will have to improve considerably to dissuade disenchanted segments of the masses from turning to conservative, reactionary religious movements and political parties to champion their often legitimate grievances related to poverty, widening economic disparities, abuse of state power and corruption. In some societies there have some attempts to address these grievances. What is more significant, in a number of countries regardless of their religious demographics the popular clamour for good governance is getting louder and louder. This is happening in Hindu majority Nepal as it is happening in Buddhist-Christian South Korea as it is happening in Muslim majority Indonesia.

While awareness of the importance of good governance is increasing, there are also groups which are still on the margins of society who are consciously relating some of the principles of good governance such as accountability and transparency to their religious and spiritual philosophies. Some have gone beyond that and are asking searching questions about the very nature of secular, materialistic development. The global environmental crisis has served as a trigger of sorts prompting activists and intellectuals to delve into their own philosophies for visions of balanced social change that cherish the intimate nexus between the human being and nature and, at the same time, urge humankind to exercise restraint in the use of nature’s resources. These alternative ideas on development guided by a spiritual-moral ethic that repudiates greed and selfishness are being discussed and debated in India and Thailand, in Iran and Turkey, in Venezuela and Bolivia. It is an ethic that serves as an antidote to the sort of alienation that spawns narrow, bigoted notions of religious identity.

Similarly, as a counter trend to some of the conservative, reactionary movements opposed to globalisation, groups and individuals in a few countries are now utilising spiritual and moral values from their own religious philosophies as the criteria for embracing the positive and discarding the negative in globalisation. This approach is being applied by some civil society groups in Iran, Indonesia, India and South Korea, especially in the realm of the arts and culture. Though they have little influence or impact upon the rest of society, their rational, even handed approach to globalisation can help to check both blind rejection, on the one hand, and total emulation, on the other, of the globalisation process. This alternative offers an authentic, inclusive defence of a people’s identity. In a sense, some Iranian films which are rooted in the nation’s Islamic Sufi tradition and yet embody universal themes that appeal to everyone, are an outstanding illustration of this approach to the challenge of globalisation.

From globalisation we now turn to conflicts between different religious groups which we had pinpointed as one of the factors that leads to a hardening of religious attitudes and identities. None of the conflicts we had alluded to—Israeli-Palestinian, Hindu-Muslim in Kashmir, Sinhalese-Tamil in Sri Lanka, Buddhist-Muslim in Southern Thailand or Christian-Muslim in Mindanao, Philippines—appear to be moving in the direction of a just and amicable settlement. What this means is that attempts to assert identity in a negative way as a result of the prolongation of these conflicts will persist for some time to come. This is a pity because religion is not, as we have hinted, the primary cause of any of the conflicts. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict for instance is about usurpation and annexation of land. The Hindu-Muslim conflict in Kashmir is related to occupation and territory. The Sinhalese-Tamil conflict is closely linked to political rights and territorial independence. In Southern Thailand too political participation and the right of self-determination are at the core of the conflict. In Mindanao, the right of self-determination is compounded by the problem of ancestral lands. Since the fundamental issues in these conflicts—which are non-religious—are hard to resolve, the religious identity of the protagonists has become a ‘victim’ of sorts.

“Strengthening a universal and inclusive approach to religious identity... is the only approach that will ensure peace and harmony in a world where the religious other has become our neighbour.”

With global hegemony which we have identified as one of the causes of the spread of right wing Christian evangelism, on the one hand, and Islamic resurgence, on the other, the situation is somewhat different. There is no doubt at all that Washington helmed global hegemony is on the decline. Resistance to hegemony from the people of Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan; the repudiation of US economic dominance in Latin America; the economic ascendancy of China; and the military reassertion of Russia have in different ways and to different degrees, challenged Washington’s power. The US itself is beset with monumental economic woes which inhibit its ability to dominate and to control the affairs of the world. As US hegemony declines, it would be reasonable to expect aggressive right-wing Christian evangelisation to also recede. Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist groups which have been reacting to evangelisation will feel less besieged and be more prepared to engage with the other. This in turn will have a positive effect upon their notion of identity. Likewise, Muslim groups with a narrow, exclusive view of identity who have sworn to fight US hegemony with blood and fire, like Al-Qaeda, will lose their raison d’etre. Indeed, if Muslim societies do not have to confront US hegemony, it is quite conceivable that reform oriented ideas on women, non-Muslim minorities, and the application of Islamic law in the contemporary setting, will grow and develop since it will no longer be possible for Muslim rulers and religious elites to use the threat of an external power to snuff out progressive thinking on religion that differs from what they subscribe to. It is only when reformist ideas are rooted in the heart and mind of the Muslim that the Muslim’s view of identity will also become more universal and inclusive.

The Complexity of Identity

If overcoming national and global challenges is important in the quest for an inclusive, universal vision of identity, it is equally important to make the adherents of the various faiths understand that identity is a complex phenomenon. Once that complexity is understood and appreciated, one will be less inclined to adopt a rigid, doctrinaire position on identity which is inimical to a globalising world.

The first and perhaps most pernicious myth on identity that one should endeavour to demolish is that of religious exclusivity, of religious purity. Every religion, the argument goes, should protect its pristine character. It should not allow itself to be ‘contaminated’ by outside influences. Its rituals and practices, its values and principles, are exclusive and unique. They have nothing in common with what other religions have to offer. Most of all, the religion that one is affiliated to has an exclusive claim to the Truth. God is its monopoly. The only way to know God and the Truth is through that particular religion.

These inter-related notions of religion and its identity are found in most religions. It is true that every religion has its own history and heritage. This has to be recognised and respected. Some of the doctrinal beliefs of the various religions are also distinctive. Tauhid (the Oneness of God) in Islam is very different from the Trinity in Christianity. Karma in Hinduism is a totally different concept from Divine Judgment in Judaism. Even religious rituals and practices are dissimilar. Muslims and Buddhists have different ways of performing their prayers. Jews and Hindus have different dietary prohibitions. Marriage and funeral rites are different in the various religions.

Nonetheless, we should acknowledge that in spite of all these differences there are also significant similarities. As we have seen, all religions celebrate the precious bond between the human being and nature. All of them treasure the family as the foundation of society just as all religions seek to foster a sense of community. Similarly, moral leadership is the essence of good governance—two intertwined principles enshrined in all religions. That the means of livelihood should be ethical is a precept found in all our religious philosophies. Religion teaches us that education should seek to develop character and character is the kernel of both individual and society.

There are other precepts and principles that most religions share in common. ‘Do not do to others what you do not want others to do to you’, otherwise known as the golden rule of life, is one such moral principle. ‘The end does not justify the means’ is another principle that embodies eternal wisdom. The advice to judge a person by his deeds rather than his words is also a shared religious axiom.

If religions share certain fundamental principles, they also share certain basic universal values. Love and compassion, justice and freedom, honesty and humility, responsibility and restraint, peace and harmony are a small portion of the values that all religions cherish. More than that, even in their articulation of the transcendent and the sacred, religions that are as diverse as Christianity and Buddhism have something in common.

If people are made aware of the similarities among the different religions, they will begin to realize that their own faith is not as exclusive or as unique as it is sometimes made out to be. There is no need to add that this realisation will make them less obsessed with maintaining an exclusive religious identity and more amiable to an inclusive, universal approach towards religion. They will not regard inclusiveness or universality as a threat to their religious identity since inclusiveness and universality are germane to every religion. Through their recognition of our common humanity—the human family is one is an idea found in all religions—all religions embrace the dignity of the religious other.

But that raises a question. If it is possible through faithful adherence to one’s religion to embrace the religious other as a human being, how does one explain the widely held view that the Truth is exclusive to one’s own religion, that God is the monopoly of the followers of a particular religion? Many Jews, Christians and Muslims in particular subscribe to this view. It is the ‘I own God’ credo.

It is a credo that diminishes the universality of God and the inclusiveness of God’s Eternal Truth. How can any one religious community own God and monopolise the Truth? In fact, the Torah, the New Testament and the Qur’an provide ample evidence of a vision of God and the Truth that is diametrically different from what the ‘I own God’ proponents advocate: a vision that is universal and inclusive.

This is why the time has come for us to assert that neither God nor the Truth is the possession of any one community. Since God is the Truth, the Absolute, Eternal Truth, we are all merely humble seekers of that Truth. We may have chosen different paths in our journey towards the Truth. That is our right, our right of choice. I am convinced of the correctness of the path I have chosen but I recognise that someone else may be equally convinced of the correctness of the path that he has chosen. I will not allow our respective choices to be a bone of contention between us. I will walk my path with integrity and humility, ever conscious of that Ultimate Truth and the guidance that God offers the human family.

Towards a Universal and Inclusive Identity

Once we adopt such an attitude, our different religious identities will cease to be a barrier in our communication and interaction with one another. Since interaction with the religious other is inevitable, given a globalising world, an approach towards one’s religious identity that is both universal and inclusive, will be a tremendous asset. However, for such an approach to succeed, the influential stratum of society should acquire in-depth knowledge and understanding of not only the similarities and differences among the various religions, but also their perspective underlying values and principles. I am not aware of any multi-religious society anywhere in the world where its influential stratum comprises men and women who are immersed in the philosophies of the different religions and are committed to enhancing understanding and empathy among the adherents of the different faiths. It is this lacuna that we should endeavour to overcome through inter-faith, inter-civilisational dialogue which has become one of the urgent imperatives of our age. Genuine dialogue will not only increase our understanding of the other but will also help re-shape our notion of our own religious identity and the identity of our dialogical partners.

Of course, all these efforts to strengthen dialogue will not achieve our goal of evolving a more inclusive and universal approach to religious identity if conflicts involving people of different religious backgrounds drag on, or if a hegemonic power of a certain religious persuasion conquers the land and usurps the resources of the religious other, or if the negative aspects of globalisation fortify a siege mentality among adherents of different faiths. An inclusive and universal approach to religious identity will also be undermined—as we have shown—by the growth of narrow interpretations of religion arising from mass disillusionment with an elite that is incapable of addressing the fundamental needs and aspirations of the people. Bad governance, in other words, is also an enemy of a progressive, enlightened approach to religious identity.

The challenges are formidable. But it should not deter us from persevering in our mission of strengthening a universal and inclusive approach to religious identity. It is the only approach that will ensure peace and harmony in a world where the religious other has become our neighbour.

Chandra Muzaffar is a leading Malaysian intellectual. He is associated with the Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang and runs the Just World Trust in Kuala Lumpur. For details about the Just World Trust, see