Religious exclusivism remains a huge challenge in our society today. The threat of exclusivist and segregationist thoughts that could harm the social fabric of human beings living together is an enduring one. Countering the threat is further challenged as the threat mutates and transforms in the light of global conflicts and instabilities How can we recognize its unique challenges and move forward in dealing with this threat?
Innovative and practical initiatives both top-down and ground-up are equally valuable in meeting the threat. Though largely based on misconstrued readings of religious scriptures, the entire strata of society has to be mobilized and engaged to challenge in order to invalidate the exclusivist claims and to replace them with a more robust, acceptable model of social interaction vis-à-vis religious outlooks.
Dangers of Exclusivist Thoughts
Religious exclusivism is widely defined as the belief that only one particular religion or one version of a religion is true. In a world where multiple religious beliefs exist, exclusivism can be expressed as a desire to see a particular religion or belief to triumph.
Hence, instead of harmonious co-existence, exclusivism aims to polarize humans into two opposing entities: us versus them.
An immediate danger to this way of thinking is on the social fabric and religious harmony of a particular society. It breeds fear, mistrust and hatred among the different communities. An example of an exclusivist claim is that Muslims should not reside under a non-Islamic political system. As such, Muslims must migrate to the so-called Islamic State (IS) or avoid interactions with the broader community. Such a claim is not only invalid, but it has wider negative implications in a plural society.
Second, it tarnishes the image and good name of the religion it espouses to represent. This is because all religions preach respect, tolerance and peace amongst all of humanity.
Third, a sense of exclusivism can be so severe such that they do not stop at condemning followers of other religion. This extreme worldview can include legitimizing the annihilation of those who do not profess the same beliefs. For example, claiming that all non-Muslims, apostates and even Muslims who do not adhere to a specific sect or understanding of Islam must be killed.
Invalidating Extremist Exclusivist Claims
To deal with the threat, it is crucial to invalidate these extremist and exclusivist thoughts. Recognising that religious legitimacy is the heart that drives such views, the key to deconstruct these damaging ideas is to invalidate its religious legitimacy.
Religious views that instructs violence and destruction is antagonistic to Islamic teachings. There is an immediate need to nullify arguments that Islam suggests violence and destruction as a solution to address the problems befalling the community.
Contrary to a simplistic, barbaric kind of solution like mere killings, positive values like forbearance, forgiveness, cooperativeness that are preached by the various religions should be jointly promoted under the umbrella of pluralism and inclusivism. The positive values shared by the various religions should be highlighted as a way to co-exist harmoniously.
In secular countries, these efforts to introduce concepts that are compatible in multi-religious settings would be more effective and powerful if those in authority work together with the religious leaders.
Endorsing a Contextual Understanding of Islam
Another important way forward is for the religious authorities to endorse a contextual readings of Islamic scriptures. In this regard, religious scholars must not only guide the community against misguided religious views, but also instilling mindfulness on the importance of a contextualised understanding of Islam.
This is a challenge in a globalized world where varied interpretations of the same Quranic text is rampant and accessible on social media. The main concern are the youths, where idealism, fervour and shallow knowledge can be a dangerous mix for religious misinterpretations and misunderstandings.
Since it is almost impossible to control what the youths are reading and thinking, contextualization ability has to be strengthened from within. These youths and the general public has to be given tools to filter, analyse and judge the information they receive. Safe, readily available and widely-known avenues have to be provided for them to enquire and process the doubts or questions that may arise as a result of their interaction with the global community. As such, it is less likely for the radicalisation process to escalate, irrespective of the ever-changing political and social climate that befall the community.
The ability to contextualize the understanding and practice of Islam is not the exclusive ownership of the Muslim scholars. It is the right of every Muslim to attain this tool. Hence, the responsibility lies on the shoulders of the religious authorities to ensure that they are continuously assessing the needs of the community and to adjust any approach or strategy to ensure maximum engagement of the community.
Invariably, there is still a lot of work to be done in the area of intellectual reform. To sum up, invalidating extremist claims and endorsing a contextual understanding of Islam is crucial for two reasons.
First, the consequences of applying the extremist thoughts and teachings are serious – arguably it promotes a life that is insular and hostile towards non-Muslims. As such, there is a need to reach a legitimate meaning and position of Islamic principles such as Shariah (Islamic law) and Hijrah (migration) as it applies to contemporary Islam in light of the primary Islamic resources. More importantly, religious authorities must include indicative markers to ensure that the true message of the religion has filtered down to the masses.
Second, a contextualised understanding of religion will guide direction of integration for Muslims especially those living in plural societies. This is crucial to assist Muslims to confidently lead good lives wherever they may be.
*Dr Mohamed Bin Ali is Assistant Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He is also the Vice-Chairman of the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG).