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Current headlines are filled with examples of religious intolerance, often with a violent twist. Since November 2009, churches have been attacked in Malaysia, the French parliament continues to debate whether to prohibit wearing the niqab (full face veil, often mistakenly identified in the media as a burqa) in public places, Switzerland has banned the construction of minarets on mosques, Muslim-Christian violence has broken out again in Nigeria, and six Christians and one Muslim were killed in a drive-by shooting outside a Coptic church in southern Egypt. All of this suggests not only ongoing fear of the religious "other" but, perhaps more importantly, the lack of understanding that continues to exist between religious traditions.
Fear of the religious other is nothing new. History records many accounts of conflicts with religious dimensions in which the religious other is demonized. Whether we look to the Crusades, European colonialism, or the aftermath of 9/11, it is clear that fear and ignorance continue to dominate public perceptions and portrayals of the religious other. Yet, throughout history, there have also been attempts to engage and understand the religious other, whether due to intellectual curiosity, the desire to consolidate an empire, or simply to promote mutual understanding toward the goal of peaceful coexistence and, sometimes, cooperation.
Historically, most religions have tended to view other religions in terms of incorrect beliefs or practices, theological errors, heresy, blasphemy, apostasy, and inequality. This was derived from the belief, especially among the monotheistic religions, that one's own tradition possessed the one and only truth. Early interfaith encounters therefore tended to take the format of religious competitions in which each religion attempted to explain why it was superior to the others, portraying other religions according to their purported errors when compared to one's own. In these cases, each participant focused on presenting their own arguments, rather than listening to what others had to say.
More recently, meetings between members of different faith traditions, whether local, national, or international, have in many cases made a deliberate shift to more structured encounters in which participants express and explain their own views in their own terms while respectfully and actively listening to the views of others. Rather than focusing exclusively on theological similarities and differences, attention is also being given to increasing mutual awareness, understanding, and respect. The goal is to correct stereotypes and misinformation and to find ways to work together to solve problems of mutual concern, including social, political, economic, and environmental issues.
The impetus for this alternative approach to interfaith encounters is twofold. First, beginning in the late 19th century, a series of missionary and faith conferences helped to spur interest in formal person-to-person encounters with religious others at the theological level. Second, globalization, with its accompanying advances in transportation and communications technology, has resulted in a rising number of interfaith encounters at the informal level, due to the rapid and far-reaching migration of both people and ideas. It has brought increased global access to diverse knowledge systems and exposure to a variety of types of others, whether religious, cultural, linguistic, or ethnic, in daily and working life.
These daily encounters with diversity at so many levels have led many to conclude that it is neither possible nor desirable to try to convince the entire world of the singular truth of any faith tradition or ideology. Instead, attention has been focused on developing constructive channels for people of different faiths and cultures to work cooperatively and collectively for the broader good—or at least to promote positive business and economic relations between countries. Rather than trying to convince someone to abandon their religion, pass international legislation banning criticism of other religions, or criminalize what one religion considers to be blasphemy while another considers it a central tenet of their faith—such as Muhammad's status as a prophet, the crucifixion and divinity of Jesus, or who was worthiest of becoming a caliph—many believe that what is needed is increased respect for the creeds of others in order to avoid clashes between religions.
All of the above-mentioned factors have coalesced into an interfaith dialogue movement, dating to the 1950s when the World Council of Churches (Protestant) and the Vatican (Roman Catholic) organized a series of meetings between Christian leaders and representatives of other religious traditions. These meetings led to the formation of new institutions, including the Secretariat for Non-Christian Religions (later renamed the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue) at the Vatican to study religious traditions, provide resources, and promote interreligious dialogue through education and by facilitating local efforts by Roman Catholics. Several major documents on interfaith relations grew out of Vatican II, particularly during the reign of John Paul II, who emphasized the importance of mutual respect and encouraging each other to engage in good works and to pursue the path of righteousness. As the dialogue movement has grown, other major international organizations have become involved, both formally and informally, including the Muslim World League, the World Muslim Congress, and the Middle East Council of Churches.
There are many methods of interfaith dialogue in use today. Some focus on the structure of the dialogue, such as parliamentary methods, which gather large assemblies for interfaith discussion, and institutional methods, which use institutions like the World Council of Churches and the Vatican to initiate and facilitate dialogue meetings. Others focus on the content of the dialogue, such as discussing theological and philosophical questions within the context of religious pluralism; addressing practical issues of common concern in order to encourage both formal and informal common action; and centering dialogue on the development, nurturing, and deepening of spirituality through interfaith encounters, such as by engaging in joint worship services or fasting, praying, or reading scriptures together. In each case, the purpose is to shift away from past patterns of religious competition and superiority claims in favor of building and expanding relationships that can lead to interfaith cooperation.
Two major interfaith dialogue initiatives have been undertaken in recent years: A Common Word and King Abdullah's Interfaith Initiative. Although both began as the work of scholars and leaders, both seek ultimately to engage laypeople at the community level.
A Common Word grew out of a letter titled "A Common Word Between Us and You," issued in October 2007 under the patronage of His Royal Highness Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan and signed by more than 138 Muslim leaders and scholars from around the world, including Sunnis, Shiis, Salafis, and Sufis. Sent to leaders of Christian churches and communities around the world, the letter called for Muslims and Christians to reach a better level of peace and understanding with one another based on two theological commitments central to both traditions: love of God and love of one's neighbor.
To date, four conferences on this initiative have been held—at Yale University (July-August 2008), Cambridge University (October 2008), the Vatican (November 2008), and Georgetown University (October 2009)—with more planned in order to set the global agenda for change, identify the challenges facing religious pluralism in the 21st century, and establish the framework for addressing religious, historical, social, and practical issues between the two world communities. As basic theological foundations have been clarified, the next step will be to expand engagement in specific and actionable projects to assure peace between Muslims and Christians globally, particularly by partnering with nongovernmental organizations. A Common Word has been incorporated into interfaith religious curricula in many schools and universities, and a joint religious reading list resource website has been created.
King Abdullah's Interfaith Initiative seeks to bring humanity together on the basis of shared values, the good teachings of all religions, and joint efforts to resolve problems and challenges common to all people regardless of religion, culture, or country, including family disintegration, moral degradation, drug abuse, poverty, terrorism, protection of the environment, human rights violations, and preventing weapons manufacturers from exploiting conflicts and wars. The ultimate proclaimed goal is the achievement of world peace by 2015 with religious diplomacy playing a central role alongside political leadership in resolving issues of global concern.
The first meeting took place in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in June 2008. Subsequent meetings have taken place in Madrid (July 2008), the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, and Geneva (September 2009), with more scheduled to take place in Africa, Southeast Asia, North and South America, Eastern Europe, and a number of Islamic countries. The meetings bring together members of different faith traditions to discuss coexistence among various societies, the role of religion and culture in promoting dialogue, the impact of religious values in reforming societies, and the role of the media in strengthening dialogue and human values.
King Abdullah has placed particular emphasis on the constructive role the media must play in promoting interfaith dialogue and cooperation given its past and current practice of promoting stereotypes and extremist voices while failing to recognize the good works undertaken by the majority. The ultimate purpose of this initiative is not to convert people, but to build respect and prove that the "Clash of Civilizations" insisted upon by some can be prevented. Such a vision requires a shift away from attention to ritual correctness and judgmentalism in favor of leaving judgment to God so that attention can be focused on shared moral values and better understanding and communication between faiths. Rather than simply discussing their faith, participants are expected to demonstrate through their actions and conduct what their faith means to them. In the aftermath of 9/11 and the ongoing global war on terrorism, King Abdullah believes it is particularly important for Saudi Arabia to play a leading role in proclaiming this message.
Other initiatives for interfaith dialogue and increasing cooperation across religions and cultures include the Archbishop of Canterbury's Building Bridges Project, which brings Christians and Muslims together in small groups to study scripture and build mutual trust, friendship, and recognition of legitimacy; the nonprofit Coexist Foundation, which engages Christians, Muslims, and Jews both individually and communally in dialogue, mutual education, and research and provides training for teaching religion in schools and colleges; ongoing meetings of the Parliament of the World's Religions, which seeks to address interfaith education by bringing members of different faith traditions together in mass gatherings; the Harvard Pluralism Project, which brings religious leaders together to identify and discuss the challenges of being a person of faith in the 21st century; and calls for a satellite television channel to promote interfaith dialogue.
Those who resist dialogue tend to express concern that engaging in dialogue will weaken or undermine their faith, mission, and/or witness. Some are concerned that embracing dialogue will necessarily mean an end to missionary work or da'wah (calling), which is central to many faiths. Others wonder if their own religious identity will be jeopardized by accepting the right of others to fully express their own religious beliefs. Still others question the sincerity of Western attempts to engage in interfaith dialogue, charging that this is simply an attempt to revive past missionary activities aimed not only at conversion, but also ultimately at invasion of and control over foreign territories. They point to the early presence of American missionaries shortly after the US invasion of Iraq in support of this contention. Because many remain unable to move beyond stereotypes of the religious other as a threat—due to a combination of lack of knowledge and understanding and stereotyped media portrayals—such threat claims often seem plausible to laypeople and leaders alike, leading them to support greater security measures and legal restrictions on the religious other, thereby not only perpetuating the cycle of fear but also impeding genuine problem solving and conflict resolution.
Perhaps the greatest challenge to the pluralist ideal of complete acceptance comes from religious extremists. Does accepting difference of beliefs or practice necessarily require the acceptance of all beliefs and practices, or should limits be set on the boundaries of what can be accepted? If limits are set, does this challenge the very foundation of acceptance? When members of different faiths stand together to condemn religiously motivated attacks, does this demonstrate their commitment to the common values of compassion, mercy, and social justice for all people, as the pluralists believe, or does it demonstrate their own inherent intolerance of difference, as claimed by the extremists? This fault-line boundary constitutes the major battleground today between the pluralist ideal and the quest of extremists to become accepted as major players in mainstream debates.
Although 9/11 remains an obstacle for some in embracing interfaith dialogue, for many others it represented an opportunity to move beyond stereotypes toward genuine understanding. This is seen most notably not only on college and university campuses where coverage of Islam and the Muslim world has increased exponentially, but also in churches, temples, synagogues, and mosques where leaders and laypeople gather together for both formal and informal discussion.
As interfaith dialogue has continued to expand and attract new voices and interests, new theologies and types of dialogue have resulted. One outcome has been the development of the theology of pluralism, which is a deliberate theological stance recognizing the inherent value, equality, and truth of every religious tradition. While some pluralists continue to believe that there may yet be only one single truth, they also recognize that no one has a monopoly on that truth. Other pluralists believe that multiple truths may coexist simultaneously.
Another outcome has been the development of comparative theology, in which the approaches of two or more religious traditions to a particular topic are discussed simultaneously, with each tradition explaining itself according to its own terms, concepts, and historical experience, rather than through the lens of another tradition. Major academic institutions providing leadership and programs centered on this kind of vision include the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University and Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.
A third outcome has been rising interest in and dedication to the promotion of cultures of dialogue, including the "Dialogue of Civilizations" proposed by former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami and embraced by leaders such as former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim of Malaysia as an alternative to the "Clash of Civilizations," intrafaith dialogue (dialogue held between members of the same faith tradition, such as between Sunni and Shii Muslims or between Protestants and Roman Catholics), and dialogues within societies. The last of these include the discussions taking place during the National Dialogue sessions in Saudi Arabia that have addressed issues ranging from dealing with the religious other to women's rights and healthcare reform. These discussions have led to additional side dialogues within Saudi Arabia, such as the promotion of a culture of family dialogue in order to promote women's rights, curb domestic violence, and prevent child abuse. These alternative dialogues have grown from recognition not only of the importance of dialogue between religions and nations in preventing conflict, but also from following the adage that peacemaking literally begins at home.
All of this makes clear that interfaith dialogue is but one aspect of a growing global culture of dialogue both between and within nations, religions, and cultures that all share the common goal of increased understanding, peaceful coexistence, and expanded cooperation in addressing the most serious issues facing the global community today.
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- Clash of Civilizations
- Interfaith Dialogue
- Muslim World League
- Muslim-Christian Dialogue
- Saudi Arabia
- Shi'i Islam
- Stereotypes in Mass Media
- Sunni Islam
- World Muslim Congress