Sunday, May 10, 2009

Religion and the public square at Veritas

I was at the Veritas Forum at Oxford University on Thursday Night. I very nearly didn't go, as I was quite tired and I knew I had a pretty full Friday coming up. But I didn't really want to let my inviter down, and besides, the topic was a good one: the role of religion in the public square. The speakers were Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer, Head of Jewish-Muslim Relations for the Chief Rabbi of the U.K., Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, who's currently at the forefront of the debates regarding the future of the Anglican Communion, and Professor Tariq Ramadan, who teaches at the University of Oxford and whom you see regularly quoted in the (British) media.

As you can imagine, the debate was pitched at a pretty high-level, and it took supreme effort on my part to concentrate. I didn't take any notes either, so I'm afraid there won't be any blow-by-blow account of the evening here! But it was certainly interesting. I was especially intrigued by Tariq Ramadan. His opening statement (all the speakers were given 5 minutes to make one) was essentially a lecture in hermeneutics, where he went on for a little bit about the need for context. He also distinguished between two authorities - here I lost him a little because either he was mumbling or my seating position wasn't great for the acoustics - but it seemed to me like he endorsed some version of a public/private split. I can't remember the exact phrase now, but he did have some pithy statement on the relationship between principles and ethics; basically, he defended his right to believe while accepting the need to negotiate with rival traditions in the public square.

But his biggest point, which he repeated throughout the evening, was the need to be consistent with one's own values. And after setting such a high standard for himself, he failed to meet it, it seemed to me. On the one hand, he would uphold "universal values" such as equality, but on the other hand, he would revert to some form of social constructivism at points. The other thing I struggled with was figuring out how distinctively Islamic Professor Ramadan's position was. I knew he belonged to the reformist camp within Islam, but I don't remember him quoting the Quran even once, or using Islamic doctrine as a springboard, although Bishop Nazir-Ali, more than once, invited him to do so. In some ways, I almost wonder if his views could have come from a secularist, although that's probably overstating it, and I'm sure Professor Ramadan would insist he is working within an Islamic framework. For him, the thing most needed in the Muslim world was simply more education. By contrast, both Bishop Nazir-Ali and Rabbi Dr. Brawer were not afraid to use the Torah/Talmud and the Bible as sources for their reflections, as they should. I don't think I was the only one who thought so, during the Q&A, a Muslim student in the audience challenged Professor Ramadan to show how his views were part of mainstream Islamic thought. (Obviously, I have insufficient knowledge to make a judgment).

Dr. Brawer was arguably the clearest of the speakers, but also the least interesting, as he didn't really say all that much. Bishop Nazir-Ali, I thought, acquitted himself pretty well. Although there was a point in the discussion where it was all about just war, and I wasn't sure if that was just a tangent. Towards the end of the evening, we got an especially sharp disagreement on what constituted "Judeo-Christian tradition" and its impact on European civilisation. Professor Ramadan insisted that the contribution of Islam to Europe must not be overlooked, whereas Bishop Nazir-Ali defended the Judeo-Christian tradition as necessary to provide the necessary undergirdings for Europe as they cope with the challenges of the future. To put it another way, Bishop Nazir-Ali thinks that we need a Judeo-Christian foundation if we want an increasingly plural society to remain inclusive. (Nazir-Ali had earlier made a distinction between civic and religious pluralism, which I think is an important one)

Like I said, it was a sprawling discussion, and certainly quite academic, so I'm not even sure if I represented anyone fairly! But this continues to be an important topic, especially as mainstream commentators are beginning to recognise that God is back on the agenda.

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Anonymous Hedonese said...

Sounds like an interesting kind of discussion we should have more often in msia :)

1:17 pm  

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