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GTU Voices - Reflections on Interreligious Dialogue from Singapore

Reflections on Interreligious Dialogue from Singapore

By Rachelle Syed

Our GTU community includes not only different faith traditions, but tremendous diversity within each tradition, as well as persons who align themselves with multiple traditions or none at all. We have the resources and opportunity to put interfaith relationships into action, not just in our academic work (where many of us are deeply involved in dialogue and interdisciplinarity) but also through the connections within our diverse student body.

I was fortunate to attend the inaugural International Conference on Cohesive Societies in Singapore from June 19-21, 2019. The event included representatives from more than 40 countries from North America, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Australia. A thorough overview is not possible here, but let me offer some takeaways, and suggest a few opportunities that the conference highlighted for our GTU community.

Leading up to this conference, Singapore’s religious leaders constructed the “Commitment to Safeguard Religious Harmony,” which Singaporean President Halimah Yacoub effectively ratified and reflected on in her address. Diversity in itself is a strength, she contended, but that strength can be activated only through a dialogue that upholds a commitment to harmony. King Abdullah II of Jordan called for participants to address narratives of hate and rhetoric of exclusivity wherever they are found, especially online. Lastly, Karen Armstrong spoke of Divine transcendence--that no matter what any single faith tries to say about the Divine, it will never be totally whole or even accurate, as all religion is an attempt to understand something that is beyond human understanding. This insight, I believe, is a reminder that arguments of exclusivity are inherently false, thereby creating a clearer paradigm for interfaith relationships.

While I am grateful to Singapore for their hospitality and work in hosting this important conference, some of my greatest takeaways suggest areas where I believe there is more room to grow. The conference lacked diverse voices; for example, there were no women on the Singaporean interfaith panel, no voices from Latin and South America or Africa, and no voices of indigenous peoples. Christianity and Islam were well represented, yet there was very little participation from Sikh, Tao, and Baha’i representatives. Some conference participants also noted the lack of LGBTQ voices. This might be unsurprising as non-heterosexuality is outlawed in Singapore, in direct contrast to the inclusivity that this event sought. In short, despite its good intentions, the conference represented primarily the voices of those in positions of power and focused on the easiest places to begin interfaith relationships, while carefully avoiding more difficult discussions that might upset the air of cooperation the organizers worked so hard to display.

These concerns point to areas where I believe the GTU is uniquely equipped to offer progress. We have the capability to bring together diverse voices and move beyond the common simplification that acknowledges the complex diversity of Christianity while generalizing other faiths. Our GTU community includes not only different faith traditions, but tremendous diversity within each tradition, as well as persons who align themselves with multiple traditions or none at all. We have the resources and opportunity to put interfaith relationships into action, not just in our academic work (where many of us are deeply involved in dialogue and interdisciplinarity) but also through the connections within our diverse student body.

The GTU is well positioned to contribute to the very issues that the conference struggled to address. For me, as a bisexual Muslim woman seeking to grow through an immersive dialogue with Hinduism, the conference heightened my awareness that interfaith relationships are a constantly evolving project in both the academic and spiritual spheres. Perhaps more than ever, we must work to ensure that such relationships remain an integral part of our study and practice. To do otherwise would be to do a disservice to our scholarship and to stagnate our own development. In that spirit, with great hope, let us move onward.

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