18 April 2010

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Interfaith dialogue, media and the world

Over the past decade the world has been faced with some of the greatest challenges to remove distrust, misunderstanding and confrontation between religions, civilizations and cultures.
Although much has been achieved, cross-cultural tensions have carried on and the unfortunate fact remains that Islam has enjoyed a rather bad reputation within the western sphere. On the other hand, there is also no denying that those who kill in the name of religion are mostly Muslim. This, however, is no justification that some politicians and religious leaders have been exploiting Islam as a religion of hatred and violence with their vested political, economic and ideological objectives.
In today’s turbulent world where religious extremist groups have been striving to scare people and overpower them with obscure ideas and violent acts, most victims have been Muslims. Moreover, in post 9/11, the daily life of Muslims in the West has become more difficult as they have been faced with increasing prejudice.

Regretfully, intellectuals in the Muslim world often fear talking about the true face of Islam, which like any other religion preaches peaceful coexistence. As a result, the media generally only catches bad news. The media, however, has been a powerful tool that easily reaches masses throughout the world, and which may play a more stimulating role to bridge gaps and erase misconceptions.
Negative stories on religion sell well and Islam is no exception. But when the media speaks ill about any group, culture or religion this undoubtedly generates a response from those who feel affected, which consequently does not need much more to generate a dispute on a larger scale.
A concrete example is that people often consider the hijab (veil) as a sign of oppression. It will be a
sign of oppression only if it is forcefully imposed on women. Many Muslim women also in the West have deliberately chosen to wear the hijab, which by no means should be considered a violation of women’s rights.
To help counter the forces that fuel polarization and extremism, in 2005 the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations was established by the initiative of the UN secretary general. The Asia-Europe Foundation promotes greater mutual understanding between Asia and Europe through intellectual, cultural and people-to-people exchanges.
Despite efforts of such organizations to bridge the growing divide especially between the West and
the Muslim world, the need for the continuation of the dialogue is essential in the struggle against religious extremism.
During the 6th ASEM Interfaith Dialogue where top religious leaders from both government and religious organizations came together earlier this month in Madrid, its members concluded that dialogue among leaders and religious groups should reach the general public, which would be help avoid misunderstanding and conflict, religious or otherwise.
In this regard, the media has an indispensable role in helping to reduce prejudice and effectively take interfaith dialogue to the broader public.
In Indonesia, people with different religions, cultures and ethnicities have lived in relatively peaceful harmony over centuries. Like other societies, Indonesia has also been confronted with religious tension and conflict. Strong involvement of people from the grassroots to the highest echelons is required to generate a peaceful society. Respect, tolerance and trust are some keywords in achieving this goal.
The dialogue among civilizations, however, is not enough. Prompt and intensified action should be taken against today’s major political conflicts, which lead to some of the root causes of religious extremism and consequently the growing divide between the West and the Muslim world.
In addition, 40 percent of those living in the Muslim world have been living below the poverty line and have limited or no access to healthcare, education and social justice.
Whether it is in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan or Kashmir, many millions of Muslims have been victims of war, conflict and oppression. They often lack access to very basic human rights such as security, shelter, food and potable water. Instead, they have been exposed to the atrocities of armed conflict.
These unresolved political issues of which Palestine and Kashmir have been involved in for more than six decades, are a grave threat to world peace.
Change, however, starts with a change of mind, and a change of mind may ultimately alter the dimension of today’s conflicts.

Laura Schuurmans, The freelance writer is based in Jakarta. She participated in the 8th ASEF Journalists’ Colloquium held in Madrid on April 5-6 2010, on the sidelines of the 6th Asia-Europe (ASEM) Interfaith Dialogue

Opini The Jakarta Post 14 April 2010