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Conference Reports

Title: Conference on Living Together in Plural Societies
Date: 18-Feb-2002

Conference on Living Together in Plural Societies
18-19 February 2002
Grand Hall IKIM
Kuala Lumpur

Organized by Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia (IKIM) & British Council


Objectives:

  1. To gather experts in the areas of "women development" and "best practices of plural societies" from the UK and Malaysia to discuss issues of mutual importance.
  2. To discern the challenges imposed on women during the growing-up years in a plural society in the era of globalization, and suggest means of dealing with these challenges.
  3. To map examples of best practices by the public and civil administrators in managing and energizing a plural society.

Speakers

  From Malaysia From United Kingdom
Session 1: Women in Malaysia & the United Kingdom (18 Feb)
1.  Coping with life during adolescence.
Prof. Dr. Kasmini Kassim
(Prof. Of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry UPM, Board of Directors, IKIM)
Ms Batool Al-Toma
(Research & Education Officer,
The Islamic Foundation, Leicester)
2.  Coping with life as a Career Woman.
Prof. Dr. Sharifah Zaleha Syed Hassan
(Prof. Of Social Anthropology, UKM)
Prof. Haleh Afshar
(Prof. Of Politics/Women Studies,
University. Of York)
Session 2: Best Practices of Plural Societies (19 Feb)
1.  Good Public Governance - Social-Political Aspect.
Tan Sri Datuk (Dr.) Arshad Ayub
(Chairman, PFM Capital Sdn Bhd)
Ms Mafooz Bibi
(Public Involvement Worker, Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council)
2.  Good Public Governance - Legal Aspect.
Mr Ibrahim Ismail
(Lecturer, Ahmad Ibrahim Kulliyyah of Laws, International Islamic University Malaysia)
Prof. Shaheen Sardar Ali
(Reader, School of Law, University of Warwick)
3.  Good Civil Practices in Plural Societies I
Dr. Philip Raja
(Counsultant Pediatrician, The Children & heart Specialist Clinic, Sarawak)
Mr. Saif Ahmad
(Chief Executive, North London Muslim Housing Association)

Summary:

The whole world is a multicultural society. Mono-cultural society does not exist. Even if it does, will it stop conflicts? Conflict is in the nature of humanity, says Prof. Badawi at his keynote address. Cultures should exchange ideas and talk to one another. One should learn to absorb ideas from outside without losing essential elements of one's own culture because in pluralism, different values exist together and actually influence each other. Nevertheless, a pluralistic society expects an overarching element that is unchallengeable: a common value that is culturally based, that is not equal to but derives from the fundamental value of each people group, for example the goal of attaining a good life. Such conditional value changes according to time, space and circumstance but does not lose its essence. However, the problem that we are now facing is the insistence of contingent value as fundamental value, and this therefore marginalizes certain people group.

In matters concerning career Muslim women, both speakers appear to share the view that women, especially Muslim women, are in a disadvantage position. Not only are their lives dictated by religion (which is dictated by male ulamas), they are also bound by their own culture in order to protect their families, husbands' dignity and their own social standing. The challenge of culture on women is more than that of the religion. The Syariah court in Malaysia has so far not been protecting the women who have marital problems. It favours the Muslim men. Even if women do rise up in their career, Prof. Sharifah claims that they are mostly under men who have a broader agenda for their own benefit. The sense of self-worth and respect has not been given to women as much as been given to the men in general.

The problems that a pluralistic society like Malaysia is presently facing are: (1)having the right people to manage the society in a democratic way and with integrity; (2) the question of equity; and (3) accountability. Therefore, the May 13 tragedy was not just racial but more of dissatisfaction towards local government, exclaims Tan Sri Ayub.

Prof. Badawi believes that liberal and democratic governance marks a pluralistic society. Groups of differences are free to negotiate with each other in one country; many "internal" communities are made into one whole community because of how outsiders look at them. Though the law of the land must prevail, Muslims must live under Syariah law. The very word "religion" is difficult to define because you can't leave out any group. Many Muslims who have emigrated from countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh to the UK have indicated that they are happier living in the foreign land as minorities than in their own countries as majority. Under the UK democratic system, the majority rules but it accommodates the rights of the minority. The majority refers to the idea and opinion of the majority, therefore a democratic politic should be idea-based.

Three speakers spoke about their respective social programs promoting harmony in plural societies. Ms Bibi presents her project "National Strategy for Neighborhood Renewal" which tackles the problems of deprivation and decline among the minorities in the most run-down cities and towns. Mr Saif introduces the housing project in North London, which was formulated with the collaboration of Muslims, Christians, Jews, Sikhs and Hindus. Dr Raja shares his experiences as a minority in Sarawak and focuses on the involvement of local NGOs in East Malaysia in promoting peace among communities, as well as the role of ethnic-cultural associations. Mr Ismail's paper touched on the legal aspect of a good governance with special emphasis on Malaysian judicial approaches.

Comments:

Both Malaysia and the UK are countries with plural societies; both are working towards a national framework that emphasizes active & dynamic approach on a common ground for mutual toleration, understanding and partnership among various ethnic groups. This conference is basically an exchange of ideas and information in regards to the lives and conditions Muslims in plural societies and how to handle challenges faced by Muslim community. It also presents the desires of Muslims for a harmonious society and democratic governance.

  1. Two main concerns: Participants are mainly educated moderate Muslims. Only two imams presented papers - Prof. Badawi, a minority in England, and a Malaysian who appears to think (rather falsely) that democracy equals western culture.
  2. Muslims are the minority in England, who definitely appreciate the freedom existing in a democratic society like England which accommodates the rights of minorities to a certain extent even though they may experience a certain degree of prejudice by policymaker. However, the Malaysian Muslims are the majority, as well as the policy makers; hence, what kind of discrimination do they face in comparison with their Muslim counterparts in England?


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