About Norani Abu Bakar

This gallery contains 26 photos.

A Malaysian, Norani Abu Bakar is currently a Post Graduate Fellow at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture (YCFC) and her research work focuses on “Faith, Society, and Leadership.” She is also the Asia Director for Pathways For Mutual Respect (PFMR), a non-profitable organization which vision is to forge mutual respect in diversified communities. […]

HIMPUN – Proselytizing Issue in Malaysia (1)


In the hyper-connected world where information travels fast via the border-less cyber space, an attempt to control confessional faith conversion via laws that prohibit a human being from engaging with others is superficial. No proselytizing effort can convert a person into any faith as believe in God is a free will and a matter of conviction in ones’ heart. As for Christians, it is by the work of the Holy Spirit that one is born again. Christians and Muslims need to put extra effort to engage with each other so that misinformation and distrust that layered throughout the history of the Muslim-Christian relations is reduced or eliminated. The boundaries of da’wa and evangelism must be agreed and followed in a way that promotes mutual respect and flourishing of the whole community.

A Brief Background on HIMPUN and Response from Key Religious Groups

About one thousand people from 25 NGOs have responded to join the One Million Gathering of Muslims or ‘Himpunan Sejuta Umat’ (HIMPUN) at Shah Alam Stadium, Malaysia on Saturday, 22nd October, 2011. And the permit for gathering was issued last Tuesday. The planned rally is against some Christians who are viewed as “challenging the sovereignty of Islam.”

This sentiment has been simmering due to the insurgence of unprecedented events related to faith such as; Lina Joy’s court case on apostasy; the banning of the word ‘Allah’ in Christian materials publication; confiscation of 35,000 of Indonesian language bibles and other Christian books; stamping the page of the Indonesian language Bibles with the words “For Christians Only”; cow head protest against the construction of Hindu temples; bombing of Christians, Muslims and Sikhs’ worship places; the exaggerated figure of 250,000 Muslims leaving Islam; and the August 2011 raid of Damansara Utama Methodist Church (DUMC) by Selangor’s Islamic Affairs Department (JAIS) where fifteen Malays were found attending this HIV patient fund-raising dinner event. The alleged is the proselytizing of Malay Muslims, mainly into Christianity.

Some medias report that the gathering also receives support from political parties even though it claims to be apolitical. In general, the public response has been both; positive and negative. Islamic Renaissance Front for example objectively commented online, “In this there are two outstanding questions that should occur to any sincere and concerned Muslim. If it is true that apostasy is as serious a problem as it is claimed, then we must ask, what is it about Muslim culture and education in Malaysia that is compelling many Muslims to leave the faith? In addition, what can Malaysian Muslims do as a community to reform that culture to further enlighten, rather than alienate, its own members?” Another interesting comment came from the Communication Director of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (a coalition of opposition parties) who questioned on lessons that can be learned from the positive growth of Islam in the West in spite of its lack of governmental and institutional protectionism.

The President of Council of Churches Malaysia (CCM) Rev. Dr. Thomas Phillips, who is also the President of the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) disagreed with calling the rally off, saying every individual in the country reserves the right to freedom of speech and assembly. Like many others, he agreed that the gathering may provoke religious tension between people of different faiths. Some of the Christian leaders in Malaysia responded that the fight against proselytizing via the gathering is irrelevant. The National Evangelical Christian Fellowship (NECF) chairman Rev Eu Hong Seng spoke with the Malaysian Insider that the Selangor Sultan had already decreed that there was insufficient evidence of proselytization in the raid made by JAIS to DUMC.

Malaysian teenagers joyfully celebrating Depavali November 2011

Where is Malaysia as a Member of a Global Faith Community Heading Tomorrow?

Will the number of participants that respond via Facebook increase by Saturday? This is hard to speculate. Regardless of the number, the lesson learned from the Arab Spring indicates that the root of any problems cannot simply be resolved via demonstration.

From HIMPUN leaders meeting with Cabinet’s Special Committee, which is set-up to promote Inter-religious Understanding and Harmony, yesterday night, one of the demands that was brought forth was the enactment of a law punishing those guilty of proselytizing the Muslims. Will this resolve the growing number of conversion of Muslims to Christianity or to other faiths in Malaysia? What are the roots of the problems?

Article 11 of the Federal Constitution ensures that every Malaysian has the right to profess and practice his or her religion of choice. However there is a jurisdiction granted by Article 11(4) of the federal constitution to permit the state to control or restrict the propagation of religion among people professing to be Muslims. The question is; can the propagation of any religion be curbed by one law or a set of laws when there are so many means to disperse and acquire information in this knowledge and information technology era? What are really the so-called acts of proselytizing? Would an azan or a call for prayer from a minaret considered proselytizing?  Would distribution of the Bibles considered proselytizing?

The discourse on Muslims apostatizing from Islamic faith goes on but what is unspoken in the space of this dialogue is that many are also embracing Islam. For example, a youtube screened a story of Pastor Yohannes and his father, also a Christian, who used to head 15 Churches in Sabah, converted to Islam. Examples of three world renowned male who convert into Islam are Malcolm X, Mike Tyson, and Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Steven. And an example of a prominent female convert is Dr. Ingrid Mattson a professor at Hartford Seminary USA, a Canadian who became the first woman President of Islamic Society of North America – the largest Muslim association in North America. Unlike Lina Joy, Dr. Mattson enjoys the freedom in converting into Islam in this Christian majority country.

One of the most controversial cases related to apostasy was the conversion of a Coptic Church priest’s wife Camilia Shehata. The rumor said that she was abducted by a Coptic Church and this triggered bloodshed and the burning of churches. Al-jazeera news recently reported her appearance with her family in a television program saying that she has never converted and is now back with her husband.

Extinguishing fire from the burning Coptic Church in Cairo, Egypt

We also read on the imprisonment of Syed Mossa from Kabul, Afghanistan and Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, an Iranian, who is now on re-trial for a new charge. Both were initially sentenced to death for apostatizing from Islamic faith. The response from Islamic scholars on this matter varies. Mustafa Akyol, the author of ‘Islam without extremes: A muslim case for liberty’ wrote that death penalty is only applicable for specific context:

apostasy” in that context meant changing your side in battle. (That’s why the Hanafi school of jurisprudence gave the death penalty to only males, assuming that they would become enemy combatants, whereas females were not expected to join any war effort.)

Perhaps, opting to the guidelines developed by Oslo Coalition for the Freedom of Religion and Belief on Proselytism and Human Rights will somewhat be helpful. Or, opting for common ethical values in dealing with such issue from within the Islamic and Christian traditions would be the solution? After all, both are of Abraham faiths and loving God and loving neighbors, although interpreted with slight differences, are part of their traditions.

Today, the Bible and the online Quran in their original and vernacular languages, commentaries of the Quran by Yusof Ali, al-Jalalayn, al-Tabari, al-Baydawi and al-Manar, various Bible versions – King James, American Standard Version, New International Version, and other faith related materials are available from the countless number of websites and Youtubes. They are also accessible via IPhone, IPod, kindle, and blackberry. It is too late to reverse the clock. There are far too many informative mediums in this IT age.

In this 21st Century, no government that considers itself a modern nation can curb their citizens’ accessibility to the information and communication technologies (ICTs) and prevent them from engaging critically with this virtual epistemological space. In other words, in the hyper-connected world where information travels border-less in a short span of time, an attempt to curb confessional faith conversion via laws is superficial and futile. The last question still remains. If mitigating conversion or enforcing constitutional religion is still possible, would God judge our faith by what is coerced written on a legal document? Perhaps, many bandwagons will lose their passengers if they failed to give the right answer to this simple question.

Peaceful Coexistence – ‘Interfaith Generation’ in the USA?

“the surest way to the heart of a people is through their faith” – Huston Smith

A people? Who are they? All ages and genders? All colors? All faiths? No faith? What is faith? What is religion? – NAB

The Birth of Interfaith Generation

In the foreword of the book, Building the Interfaith Youth Movement – Beyond Dialogue to Action, Diana Eck director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University wrote that, “This generation of young people is what we might call the first interfaith generation.” She continued, “Anyone under thirty today in the U.S and Canada has grown up in a religious and cultural world markedly different from that of their parents.”

One can agree with Dr. Eck by simply analyzing the current trend on the demand and supply within the social environment in the USA. The demand is the need to maintain peace and order which translates to human flourishing. Peaceful coexistence prevails if the future Americans are nurtured to be a generation with a deeper understanding on one  another religion, ideology and cultural values so that the social capital, especially the human potential is optimized. And the observable supply side in this demand-supply chain is the uprising of the initiatives in the intercultural and interfaith studies and collaborations that go beyond classrooms activities and dialogues all over the USA.

Temple University, one of the academic institutions that has been running its intercultural and inter-religious studies for the last decade, on its website for the graduate study in the department of religion stated that, “The department has always been fueled by the wisdom that if you know only one religion, you really don’t know any, and by the notion that scholars who are also engaged in religious cultures are in the best position to teach about them, emphasizing the study of world religions and the dialogue among them.” Such statement articulately reaffirms what is in vogue in the USA religious landscape.

Of course, the September 11 incident and the voices and initiatives of the marginalized minority catalyzed this transformation too. The post 9/11 incidents such as the murder of a few American Singh men who were mistakenly identified as the potentially radical Muslims due to the turbans they worn justified how unfamiliar some Americans are on the other’s culture. Those coming from South and Southeast Asia may find it appalling that one cannot differentiate between a Singh’s turban and a Muslim man’s head gear and that such ignorance takes the lives of the innocence.

Interfaith Generation versus Inter-religious Generation

Coming back to Dr. Eck’s proposal on the first interfaith generation, the question one may ask is the difference between this generation and their parents’ generations? Have those who are in their forty and fifty, especially the urban folks, not lived in a faith diversified community and therefore, can fall under this ‘interfaith generation’ band?

The fact that the first inter-religious world conference was organized in Chicago in September 1893 by the Parliament of World’s Religion indicates that the US was already officially engaged in this matter since a century ago. Eboo Patel too, in the same book, captured the existence of multi religious community in the USA in 1960s by quoting what Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote on “the world house,” in a book titled Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community:

This is the great new problem of mankind. We have inherited a large house, a great “world house” in which we have to live together – black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Moslem and Hindu – a family unduly separated in ideas, cultures, and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, we must somehow learn to live with each other in peace.

Perhaps, the difference between the faith or religious dynamic in this generation and their parents and forefathers’ generations can be developed by, first, questioning the meaning of interfaith and inter-religious generation. One possible and plausible answer may be derived from the definitions that the Institute for Interfaith Dialogue In Indonesia (INTERFIDEI) give on the terms; interfaith and inter-religious. The latter refers to religion as an institutional structure and the former, inter-faith, emphasizes the essential aspect of religion as well as common concern of individual believers.

This also means that the interfaith initiatives collaborators come from all levels of society including the grass roots, while the inter-religious are normally participated by those in the senior positions in academic and religious institutions, which some identified as the ‘elites.’ Thus, one may conclude that an inter-faith generation is made-up of communities that are engaged in sharing the commonalities of their faith traditions and mutually respecting the differences at both, institutional and personal levels.

The Impact of Globalization on the Dynamism of Interfaith Generation in the U.S.

What strikes me is the last sentence that Patel, the founder of The Interfaith Youth Core, and Brodeur wrote in their conclusion in Building Interfaith Youth Movement, “to anyone who dreams of a day when religious people use their hands, heads, and hearts to build a new world of equity for all human beings……?” Why? Because of the contested definition of the word ‘equity’.

When the USA citizens celebrate the commemoration of 9/11, I sink in sadness thinking of the innocent civilians that died from the War on Terror outside the United States. Are we resolving one form of interfaith crisis and unintentionally create another? In Afghanistan alone, various media agencies reported about 20,000 people; civilians, foreign and Afghan troops, and insurgents died between 2001 and 2006. And between 2007 to 2011, it is estimated that another 10,292 died.

I cannot help to sympathize with the new interfaith generation of the U.S.A on the heavy responsibility that is inherited from the current leadership and the challenge that they will face in “building a new world of equity for all human beings.”

Today the U.S citizens strive for what Martin Luther King Jr. hoped four decades ago on the “world house.” And tomorrow, I hope we can collaterally strive for the hope of the youths worldwide for “global world house” – that peace and dignity belong to everyone. The global peaceful coexistence is still promising if a movement among the ‘Transnational Interfaith Generation’ emerge whereby all animals are treated equal; among the old and the young, rich and poor, and men and women.

Thomas L. Friedman, in an interview on his book The World is Flat, said that, we are now moving from a connected world to hyper-connected world. He commented that in 2004, when the book was first published, the word ‘Facebook’ was not even included in its index. Today, the birth of Arab Spring proves that social media and cyber space have the power to create an unpredictable social and political dynamics.

It is reasonable then to say that in this hyper-connected era, the USA domestic and international agendas may unintentionally create a greater unprecedented global interfaith crisis unless the U.S government values the lives of the people outside its countries too. Therefore, a discourse and diplomacy between the interfaith youth leaders and the current leadership as an agenda of the new interfaith generation movement is important to ensure that the stakeholder of the future world has a voice over their own stake. They are to represent the voice of hope of the youths abroad to their government for the sake of the future peaceful coexistence.

The truth is, either we see the world from within the USA or outside, the world is always round. It is hard work to make the top and bottom come to a flat level. But one can always continue pressing.

Peaceful Coexistence – Diplomacy for Conflict Resolution

Judge your worth in the Creator’s sight by how much space He occupies in your heart, and your worth in people’s eyes by how you treat them. Do not neglect the Truth even for a moment. And yet, “be a man or woman among other men or women.” Fetullah Gülen

Love Malaysia by loving Malaysians- Treat others the way we want to be treated

Modernization is inevitable. With it comes byproduct – an introduction of new elements into our social, economic and political landscape. The demography of our community also transforms gradually as the development demands human capital of different skill sets to come together for a common good. Before we know it, more and more people of different ethnicity and faiths are cluttering around our neighborhood. What are we going to do with these ‘aliens.’ Who are they and can we trust them? Likewise, we could be on the other side of the coin. We are the aliens who are migrating into their long-lived homeland. Can we be accepted by the local community?

The situation gets worst when more and more of these ‘aliens’ migrate to ‘our area’ and one day we realize that their voices are challenging ours. The scene like in the movie “Guess who is coming for dinner,” is becoming more apparent in our own community. Our children embrace some of their traditions and challenge our ancestors’ traditional values and meta-narrative. Interracial marriage is popularizing. We say ‘hooray’ when their children embrace our faith, but our lives almost come to an end when our children also embrace their faiths. Our livelihood, cultural, and faith values are threatened! Is this the so-called human flourishing?

Have you heard the complaint from some Belgians on the blood on some streets coming from the animal slaughtered during the Qurban? Muslims in Xinjiang complain about the Han Chinese merchants selling pork at the wet market in their neighborhood, the workers from mainland China complain on the smell of curry coming from their neighbors’ home in the HDB flats in Singapore, and the story goes on.

If we do not take a firm action today, they could be the demography majority that can dislocate and dehumanize us tomorrow. Will our dignity prevail as our status quo slowly diminish? Should we ask them to leave and forfeit the human flourishing that we celebrate as a result of our coexistence? Should we let go the capitalization of human potential that can be tapped from a diversified community like ours? Should we continue to live our lives as ‘us’ versus ‘the other’ instead of ‘us as one community?’

This is our dilemma – we are so interdependent on each other but yet we do not really know one another. We want to receive without troubling ourselves loving the givers. How can we deal with the issue objectively? Are we still who we are without them? Has our identity been shaped by their presence in our lives?

We are left with two choices as antidotes to our xenophobia. We need to know them and they need to know us. So, let’s ‘Keep It Simply Simple’ – KISS. We can either use a mediator to express our discontentment and appreciation towards them and their way of lives, or we simply knock on their doors and say, “can we talk?” There is no other choice left. We need to engage in a meaningful and sincere conversation.

Opting for diplomatic conversation on what we think about ‘the other’ and hope from ‘the other’ and likewise, to inquire what ‘the other’ think of us and hope from us, is a good beginning in accepting the reality on our inseparable life journey in this diversified community – the by-product of modernization that we fervently hold on to. How do we sincerely work within ourselves and rework our mind set that our culture is no more superior than theirs. As people of faith, how can we look at them and say that God loves them as much as God loves us.

In this 21st century, you and I are not alone in resolving such conflict. So, let’s converse with love to our neighbors who have tremendously contributed to our wellness and be a part of our lives, either directly or indirectly. This is what I call ‘diplomacy.’ It is not the absolute solution to our crisis but it is one of the most necessary tools for conflict resolution in today’s diversified community.