Inconvenient Questions, Honest Answers
14 February, 2018

Inconvenient Questions, Honest Answers

Titled “Inconvenient Questions”, this event was one of five simultaneous sessions held at the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles (IRCC) convention on Jan 27.

BY / 2 years ago

HANDS shot up when it was time for questions on Islam. Ustaz Khairul Anwar sat leaning forward on stage at the Suntec Convention Centre. The cleric was very still, looking out into the audience.

“I saw how many hands were raised just now when Islam was mentioned. You can imagine how nervous I am,” said the Ustaz. Laughter broke out across the hall at his honesty. That was what the session was for – a frank space to ask anything.

Titled “Inconvenient Questions”, this event was one of five simultaneous sessions held at the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles (IRCC) convention on Jan 27. Besides the Muslim cleric, there was a Christian pastor, a Buddhist monk, a Taoist monk, and a Hindu practitioner on the panel to address the questions.

Blunt questions streamed out of the audience and the panelists addressed them all.

Why do Christians evangelise so much? It’s uncomfortable, said a participant. They’re doing it wrong, replied Reverend Malcolm Tan. “We must share Christ in a Christ-like way. Without his values, what is the point? But we also cannot say don’t preach or share, it’s a free society.”

Isn’t burning incense and paper for Taoist rites bad for the environment? That, said Master Weiyi, is a Chinese cultural practice and not a religious tradition. It’s a “basic principle” in Taoism to “respect nature”. In fact, many of the nature conservatories in China were a result of the influence of Taoist temples. “It’s considered a sin to fell trees, to hunt… and burning (of trees) is banned” around temple sites.

It seemed though, that most people were more interested in quizzing the Muslim cleric. Two examples: What is Islam’s view on apostasy? Why is it that more women will go to hell?

The Ustaz’s response simply put: There is no compulsion in religion, it’s usually political factors that drive the apostasy laws in parts of the Muslim world. And it’s not true that more women will go to hell. That misunderstanding arose from a de-contextualised reading of a prophetic tradition. God does not discriminate.

It’s not the norm for Singaporeans to be so open, raising blunt questions on race and religion in public, that too in a forum of about 100 people. But they were able to do so due to facilitated group discussions that took place before the panel discussion.

Before the event began, all 12 facilitators listed a few things on the board: “Address the elephant in the room” to be authentic, “to get to the real concerns”, be “pioneers in being candid”, participants speak only for themselves and do not carry the burden of their own community.

For facilitator Ms Ching Wi Yap, to hit the objective of an open discussion, she has to see people getting a little uncomfortable. Otherwise the discussion had not been frank enough. Ms Yap has facilitated interfaith conversations for 15 years.

Facilitator Mr Md Ashraf Anwar agreed. “I try my best to provoke,” so that they open up with their honest questions he said. It’s “what makes us agitated” that hint at the deep concerns people have but are too cautious to ask publicly, added the 25-year-old Muslim cleric.

Head facilitator Mr Farid Hamid set the tone at the beginning of the event: “Let’s try not to make it politically correct, let’s try not to be superficial.” This however was not an excuse to be harsh. To that end, Mr Farid guided everyone to agree on a set of shared values like respect and open-mindedness among others.

More importantly he held the hall to the values they set themselves, often in subtle ways. Like a maestro he sensed the collective mood, guiding inconvenient questions to have less sting even as the thrust of the queries remained.

The approach worked. In the group discussions, participants overcame their usual reticence to raise deep questions both about their own faith, and others’. A young Muslim man asked why Muslims are “so slow to adapt to modernity”. A Hindu man wondered why the temples he visited persisted with religious rituals that were wasteful in its use of honey and milk. The most common questions across the faiths ranged around the issue of inter-religious marriage.

Participant Ms Pei Shan, a Buddhist, regularly goes for such dialogues but in this particular session, she’s “very happy” with the discussions, she said. The questions were probing and it was a “very open space”.

The openness and safe space is what really mattered to banker Mr Yuvan Mohan. The 30-year-old said he turned up because he was curious about other faiths but also wanted an “honest discussion”. Hindu by faith, Mr Yuvan had questions that he was “not comfortable” asking even his close friends of different faiths.

He felt that “most” of his questions were addressed and just as important, the discussions were “honest”. His groups mates did not beat about the bush nor pussy foot around tough questions. Mr Yuvan credited his facilitators for managing the flow of the conversations well.

One key distinction about the Inconvenient Questions session lay in the mindset. As moderator Ms Shahrany Hassan said at the start of the event, the point was “not to have an interfaith dialogue” which might end up being driven by the avoidance of conflict. Instead, raise “a series of tough questions to address”. “Questions which are grounded in day to day interactions and not abstract ideas or policy matters.”

It’s a philosophy she brings forward to two more such events that she’s organising. But this time it will be religion specific. On Feb 24 is the “Ask Me Anything about Buddhism” session and on Mar 3 is the “Ask Me Anything about Christianity” session.

See all upcoming events here.

(Edited by Shahrany Hassan)



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