ASK ME ANYTHING ON ABRAHAMIC FAITHS ARTICLE
Rishi Budhrani is a famous Singaporean comedian known for telling jokes and making audiences crack up in laughter at comedy clubs and theatres. People flock to his sold-out comedy shows to be entertained. Or get impressed with the 37-year-old’s wittiness at this year’s national day parade.
This is why the funny man’s involvement at July 24th’s dialogue on Abrahamic religions as an emcee was surprising because Rishi doesn’t come to mind to host an event that is, well, less light-hearted.
But having Rishi as a moderator at this dialogue was intentional, said organiser Shahrany Hassan of The Whitehatters. She explained: “(It is) to start with laughter, break down barriers and make people feel more at ease, given the issues to be discussed and the faiths being featured.”
Moreover, Rishi comes from a ‘neutral position’ as he is not from the faiths featured, Shahrany added.
The dialogue, held at the Asian Civilisation Museum on a wet Sunday afternoon, was for participants to learn more about Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in a safe space. These faiths are labelled as Abrahamic because they share similarities, notably the central figure of Abraham as their forefather. The Ministry of Culture, Community, and Youth funded the dialogue as part of the Ask Me Anything interfaith dialogue series via the ministry’s Harmony Fund.
The Whitehatters invited religious leaders Dr Lim K Tham (Christianity), Ustazah Lina Salim (Islam), and Rabbi Netanel Rivni (Judaism) to share their thoughts with the more than 100 participants present. Not only those from the featured religions participated, others, such as Sikhs, Buddhists, and freethinkers, did so too.
Tough questions imminent
Perusing the questions prepared by The Whitehatters, it is no wonder the dialogue had to start with some ice-breakers by Rishi. The questions were provocative, and the panellists would probably break into cold sweat responding to them. Any participant who assumed the dialogue would be sterile and superficial would be making a huge mistake.
“How do you view non-believers”
Rabbi Rivni kicked off the first question by saying that Judaism isn’t a missionary-driven religion, and one doesn’t need to be a religious Jew to receive blessings. For Muslims, Kafir is a term often used to refer to non-believers, said Ustazah Lina. However, she said the term has been over-generalised and misinterpreted by Muslims, with some translating Kafir as infidels or deniers. Ustazah Lina clarified that in the Quran, God uses the term in a contextual way and addresses mankind in general terms like “O mankind” and “O people who think”.
Dr Lim, a Methodist preacher, said that non-believers are those who have yet to accept God’s offer of forgiveness through Christ, adding that they are also seen as belonging to God by virtue of creation.
“Why is Jerusalem important to you?”
The capital of Israel is unique as the three Abrahamic religions deem it a holy city. As such, this particular position of Jerusalem is often a bone of contention, to put it mildly. The city has been in the spotlight for conflicts since the mid-20th century, especially the long-lasting Israeli-Palestinian conflict that still casts a long shadow over the region.
With this in mind, the leaders were asked about the significance of this city to their faiths. While Rabbi Rivni only went as far to describe the conflict as a political issue laypeople try to stay away from, he said that Jews believe the world God created started in Jerusalem, and Jews pray thrice daily in the direction of that city.
Ustazah Lina described Jerusalem as a “sister city” of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia because it was the first city early Muslims prayed towards, instead of Mecca. For Christians, Dr Lim said Jerusalem was the city where Jesus Christ lived, was crucified and resurrected, which formed the bedrock of Christianity.
“How are women treated in your faith?”
While the year of celebrating Singapore women has passed, the conversation over gender equality and treatment of the fairer sex is by no means over. This topic remains imperative,
especially in the religious context where some faiths are rightfully or wrongfully perceived as oppressive towards women.
Islam is no exception. While Ustazah Lina shied away from making sweeping statements, she said such a depiction is inaccurate based on her experience in Singapore. She believes she is a living embodiment of Muslim women when she is treated on par with men.
“Do I feel that my religion restricts me from being who I want? Well, I am here, and people are listening to me,” said Ustazah Lina.
Dr Lim acknowledged, regretfully, that in the course of history, there were church leaders who held the mistaken and demeaning view that women were inferior to men. Ustazah Lina, too, affirmed that discrimination against women exists within the Muslim community. That said, the pastor added that while men and women are created equal, both genders are different, complementing the other.
The Rabbi invited Alice, a Jewish lady, to respond on his behalf since this is a question relating to women. She said that in Judaism, the position of women is no less important than men. For instance, she said that women in her faith are entrusted with the responsibility to uphold Jewish laws relating to food and lighting candles during the weekly Shabbat.
Away from the glare
The religious leaders were not the only ones sharing their views and stories. Other participants, too, narrated their lived experiences during the small group discussions. As the dialogue was held under Chatham House rules, which guarantee confidentiality to promote free discussion, there are limits to what one can divulge from the session. Without contravening the guidelines, here is a peek at what transpired during that hour-long segment.
The group I belonged to is one with a potpourri of faiths. There was me, a Christian, as well as a Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, and a freethinker. Away from the glare of the larger audience, we raised intimate and touchy issues, sometimes going beyond the scope of the three featured religions.
A group member, for example, sought my views on fundamentalist Christians, especially those who tend to be more vocal and, at times, encroach into secular space with their questionable behaviours.
On a less sensitive note, another member shared how he found it tough to organise similar inter-faith dialogues at the grassroots because older Singaporeans shun discussing religion.
Although sensitive issues were raised, everyone was mindful and responsible with their words, which is hard-pressed these days in the online space without accountability. Of course, it helped that facilitators moderated the discussions. Through a slide projected on the screen, participants were also reminded to be respectful, honest, and listen to each other with an open mind.
Did LGBTQ issues loom large in the dialogue?
Towards the end of the dialogue, one can’t help but wonder if LGBTQ issues took centre stage in the final segment, which was not surprising. In recent months, there has been heightened public interest in repealing Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises consensual gay sex.
A few prominent LGBTQ activists were also spotted at Sunday’s dialogue, ready to pick the brains of Dr Lim, Ustazah Lina, and Rabbi Rivni on the controversial issue, which they did during the Questions and Affirmations session. They asked what the three faiths can do to love the LGBTQ community and what Muslims, Jews, and Christians should do if the colonial-era law is eventually repealed, among others.
Given the flurry of activities recently—the government’s consultation with various stakeholders, surveys and public statements made by political and religious leaders—it appears that abolition of 377A is on the cards. Since homosexuality is contentious for these religions, an anticipated question for the leaders would be: What will they do about it?
Earlier in the dialogue, the religious leaders were asked about their faiths’ position on the LGBTQ community. All three religions held similar theological positions.
Reading from prepared notes, Dr Lim said his religion does not condone homosexual practices, which is the same position taken by the National Council of Churches of Singapore. However, he added that there are two dimensions to the issue: homosexual acts and homosexual disposition—that is, the sin and the sinner. Ergo, while the sin (homosexual behaviour) is condemned, sinners themselves are not.
The same goes for Judaism, said Rabbi Rivni, who added that people from the LGBTQ community had sought his approval of their homosexual lifestyle, which he could not do so according to Judaism. What the religion could offer, however, is acceptance and support when needed.
For Ustazah Lina, she said that in Islam, sexual acts outside of heterosexual marriage are prohibited. Where homosexual inclinations are concerned, the Ustazah noted there are differences of opinions among Islamic scholars. “But there is a movement towards understanding and being more inclusive,” she added.
Much has been said about homosexuality, same-sex marriage and whether we should still keep 377A on the books. The Whitehatters in January held a dialogue addressing queerness in Christianity. If 377A is to be repealed, it will be decided among lawmakers in Parliament.
The overarching point here is that in a multi-religious society like ours, how do religions reconcile and reach a common ground, especially when social norms conflict with what is demanded in a faith?
I directed this question to the three religious leaders, who responded by singing similar politically-correct tunes about continuing to respect and love those whose values may diverge from us. But, in my view, a more valuable piece of advice came from an anecdote Ustazah Lina shared earlier in the dialogue.
As a Muslim who spent two decades studying in the Madrasah and Islamic schools, she did not know many people outside her faith. It was during her bachelor’s studies when a professor challenged Ustazah Lina to strike an interfaith dialogue with someone from a different religion but within the Abrahamic faiths.
For the religious folks, perhaps the answer lies in her story: create more interactions with those not aligned with us to better understand and empathise with them. The way to go about this is to be detached from one’s bubble.
Only then, with a firm grasp of one’s religious doctrines, do we know what compromises to make and the consensus to reach. It is time for us to talk to each other rather than talk about each other or talk within ourselves.