Rabat - When you operate with several hats, as I often had to do, it happens to you to be in places and with people who would hardly meet or be part of the same events had your career been limited to a single occupation. It is for this reason, that I very often was in situations in which issues related to religion were discussed. While a few of these were highly structured official encounters addressing "Interfaith dialogue" among duly mandated religious figures, others were formal academic meetings of different genres and formats, others were rather informal talks among peers who think of themselves as intelligent enough to take the stakes so seriously as to invest money, time and energy to promote such exchanges wherever they hear they are being undertaken.
Rabat – When you operate with several hats, as I often had to do, it happens to you to be in places and with people who would hardly meet or be part of the same events had your career been limited to a single occupation. It is for this reason, that I very often was in situations in which issues related to religion were discussed. While a few of these were highly structured official encounters addressing “Interfaith dialogue” among duly mandated religious figures, others were formal academic meetings of different genres and formats, others were rather informal talks among peers who think of themselves as intelligent enough to take the stakes so seriously as to invest money, time and energy to promote such exchanges wherever they hear they are being undertaken.
A last type of such talks, by far the highest in number and perhaps also the most edifying, was with students and concerned individuals from the various parts of the world that for reasons of their own have at some time felt they had listen to others and/or let others listen to them and who had joined discussions I have organized for many years for the purpose. Some called these seminars, others took them for courses, others thought of them as intercultural opportunities. I called them conversations.
The Big Three, namely Judaism, Christianity and Islam have been the most frequently addressed in these events. It seems, in fact, that the highest concern for dialogue in the triad North Africa, the Middle East and the West is with these three. Should any of the triad feels a threat from competing religions in other parts of the world, which is easily conceivable, they see none of it in the three. On one single occasion have I seen scholars and monks speaking for other religions invited to such events. I must add to this, too, that they were hardly given time to present their opinions, talk or respond to others’ comments.
What has often made the whole issue more exciting, however, is that multitude of derivatives, competing outgrowths and opportunistic trends that mushroom in the vicinity of the major religions which often see them as nuisances damaging their natural ecosystem and challenging what they would very much prefer to be legitimate for them alone. It was interesting to watch the efforts of speakers for mainstream and major trends to contain their composure and maintain decent levels of patience and civility in their presence and when they take turns in a discussion. This has usually made the exchanges more lively and spicy and attending them a more gratifying learning experience.
In this text, I will not indulge in what interfaith dialogue has been or should be like. I will limit myself to a few observations and questions. Without inviting anyone to extreme terminological mania, I would like to recommend strongly that a lot of caution must be heeded when using the terms faith, dialogue and interfaith, both while looking into the concepts and when preparing for settings to host discussions about them.
In fact, the more the concept is taken to the field for actual practice, the more the initiatives find reasons to refer to themselves in different ways. The practice has developed a range of appellation including interreligious dialogue, interbelief dialogue, interpath dialogue and, transbelief dialogue. Notwithstanding, the distinctions which many are making between these, they all refer to an intention or purpose to bring followers of different religions together, to create conditions conducive to intelligent interchange amongst them so as to improve their attitudes towards each other through the promotion of better knowledge of who they are, their beliefs and their values. The hope of all these is to build the capacity for each to respect the others and to accept them without, however, breaching their own rights to their own beliefs and faith and, whenever possible, even comfort them in their own relationships with the gods they have chosen to worship.
Looking back on my modest experience, I think that the conditions most conducive to meaningful exchanges in the area have been, paradoxically, those that were organized along secular lines. In fact, these, more than any religious principle or tradition, guarantee freedom of speech, critical approaches to thinking and to assessing thought and they do it all in respect of the beliefs and convictions of each and all. Also, because a secular set up does not exclude any issue from the discussion, it allows a more open and detailed outline to the discussion, and therefore ensures exposure from a wider perspective and ensures more comprehensive knowledge of that which is subject to debate. One important advantage a secular set up offers for such dialogues is the technical arsenal of professional communication that ensures true listening, equal participation to all, equal respect of all propositions, neutral reformulation techniques, nonjudgmental facilitation and contractual management of the dialogue sessions.
Likewise, one of the major conditions that have made exchanges progress is the initial clear identification and statement of the principles, tenets and values on which the convictions and the dogma of each Faith are constructed. The mutual nonjudgmental understanding of the respective Faith systems of all the participants to the conversation is a pre-requisite for it to be possible.
Furthermore, the professional secular management of such dialogue that is expected to help overcome the feelings of hatred and aggressiveness that have been increasingly building among different faiths will secure that it does not defeat its own objectives and avoid its being highjacked to become a platform to invite others to a different faith or to demean their own.
A difficult, but necessary condition to obtain prior to the Interfaith investigation per se is the formal expression of the objectives for which each is seeking the exchange. This is achieved through sharing the fully written expression of everyone’s expected takeaways. The intentions motivating everyone’s engagement in the enterprise must thus be clearly formulated and known to all parties in the conversation. No intention should be concealed nor discarded for moral or ideological reasons.
Furthermore, prior to addressing issues of Faith and interfaith, a thorough discussion should be conducted of the various powers and influences, both material and immaterial, which religious institutions hold or have held in various times in the sociopolitical, economic and cultural environments of each participant. The discussion of the institutional status of religions usually uncovers how Faith has been affected by manipulative mechanisms through various attitudes towards education and roles in the orientation of science and scholarship, the organization of cultural networks, the control of public expression and, command of economic systems.
The ecological situation of each religion has thus to be dissected and analyzed in sociopolitical cultural and economic terms to reveal attitudes towards the various representations and manifestations it perceives as hardline trends, dissident deviations, minor movements, infected versions, ideological schools, threats to its stability, etc. and identify how it has faced up to each throughout its history.
This step is followed by a historical survey of the feelings, sentiments, attitudes and memories of behaviors that may have marked the history of those that have been involved in various types of relationships of the religions to be talked about. In fact, the history of the contact of religions has been marked by cases of one suppressing the other-s, humiliating them, cases of severe language abuse, ideals of primacy, positions of supremacy, propensity to have the final word, firm conviction of right and wrong, strong beliefs of exclusive legitimacy, etc. These have to be identified and cleared both within each religious tradition and among religions in contact.
This survey also covers previous “relationships,” “reasons” and/or “coalitions” which might have caused some religions to implode or that might have brought some closer or pushed them farther away from one another. Actually, the pursuit of thoroughness in prior knowledge about each other is important as it is the extent of initial knowledge of and about issues to be discussed that determines the attitudes, the responsibility and the care with which one indulges in the whole interchange project as well as the ability to respect those involved in it.
Unless the total spectrum of the variants of a Faith are accepted in the process of a particular dialogue, it will be flawed by recurrent false notes coming from marginal sources. Likewise, unless both institutional doctrines and interpretations of religious establishments, on the one hand, and opinions of individuals proposing diverging assessments and different experiences and of scholars holding opposing stances are included in the dialogue, whatever conclusions it will reach will lack overall coherence and will remain fragile.
Making sure the event will not result in further complications, difficulties or negative sentiments and attitudes is critical prior to the launch of the Interfaith exchange. This calls for the verification of the legitimacy of mandates, when there are some and of the authenticity of intensions and objectives but also of sound and shared knowledge about the religions against whose background Faith will be discussed. A measure of the success of any human interchange can be the extent to which positive influences have resulted in changes of the initial elements and advancement towards objectives set ex ante. Leaving a discussion as one had entered it is evidence of its failure.
What any one engaging in such an enterprise needs to know, however, to avoid unnecessary frustration is that no matter how hard they will try to keep things under control and regardless of the good will of all partners, the course of development of the group will always remain uncertain. No matter how earnest and good willed individuals are and regardless of how hard they try, they will not add up to make a coherent community of though in a few days, let alone a few hours. They will often start with the firm determination to make breakthroughs towards true understanding of each other and towards concord and to keep passions under rational and reasoned control. Long held convictions will, however, most often pop up when they are expected the least, over a word said or unsaid, a comment or simply a smile or a look that may be interpreted as judgmental, denying a right to difference or as pooling antagonistic attitudes towards one.
Reason will rarely aver not to be the only argumentation strategy. But is that not to be expected in a discussion of the non rational? And is it not a true privilege, one worth all investments, being part of such rich and authentic, albeit fiery and overheated at times, rare and precious moments of eagerness, total involvement and humane attempts to tame provoked passions, rising tensions, exposed nerves and to hold back drives to fight roughly for one’s own survival as well as for the protection of the most sacred elements of one’s identity? Such dialogues make a life!
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