Faith, Politics and Interfaith Dialogue

Nazir Khaja, Board Memember, MCA

If matters of faith were kept clean of politics then life on this planet would be a lot easier. Wherever people of faith gather to ponder over what to them matters at the deepest level of their being, they come up with the same answer. That there is one transcendal Being who we refer to as God, Yahweh, Allah, or any other name regardless of what our religion is. Unfortunately the matter then does not rest here. It goes from there to religion with its demand for rituals and obligations. This creates a divide from others whom we begin to perceive as less perfect or in fact inferior, further drawing a moat around our faith- based group identity.

Historically territorial expansion and acquisition of power and control of resource have all been done in the name of religion and vice versa. That is, the basic ambitions and needs primarily of people or groups to expand, acquire, and control territory and resources, have been given a religious identity in many instances like the crusade/jihad, holy war etc. Thus with all these ideas and attitudes emerging out of one single category of faith, mankind has remained divided, involved in endless internecine battles throughout history. Enormous destructions, loss of lives and resources continue to pile up through our history, all in the name of religion.

If religion has been such a big part of humanity’s problems, surely it also must be a part of the solution. In order to ponder this question and seek a common understanding to its solution, Kind Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has taken the lead. He brought interfaith leaders in Madrid to begin a dialogue for this purpose. Many prominent leaders of the faith community gathered and agreed that there was enough in common among different group of people to put aside their differences and work for the common good.

At a time when there is a level of heightened tension, wars and uncertainty about the world’s future this was an important beginning. Subsequently dialogues continued in Vienna and then the latest took place in Geneva. The Muslim World league organized it at the Intercontinental Hotel where fortuitously the UN was meeting the Iranian delegation in connection with Iran’s nuclear facility.

The atmosphere was cordial and the facilities and the hospitality were excellent. The program was stretched over a two-day period and there seemed to be some redundancy in it. The selection of the invitees and the speakers appeared to lack input from others who have been deeply involved in interfaith dialogues, especially the American Muslim community leaders. This must not be construed as a criticism of the organizers but rather suggestion, which will only strengthen their effort. A few individuals who were present and who have a great deal of experience and understanding in the interfaith dialogue conveyed this issue to the organizers. A critical misstep was that this conference was organized around an important Jewish religious holiday, the Yom Kippur. This resulted in nonparticipation of number of Jewish rabbis and leaders. Another reason for the virtual nonparticipation of this group came to light subsequently and will be dealt later. A group whose virtual absence was glaring was that of women. Despite requests from earlier meetings, this was not adequately remedied.

The first day of the conference, speaker after speaker at least from the Muslim side spent the entire allotted time and many occasions beyond it, in rejecting and denouncing Huntington’s thesis on the “clash of civilizations.”

Muslims are new to the art of dialogue. It appears that between being apologetic and being reactive especially in this post-9/11 era they are as yet unable to draw necessary insights and strength form the Qur’an’s universal call of calling others with “Muwaddatha Hasana” which should be understood now as presenting arguments convincingly in an inclusive paradigm. A special problem with the Muslims is their lack of familiarity with the whole approach and insight into the processes of interfaith dialogue. The Muslim speakers follow the rhetorical orational style speech format commonly of the imams from the mosque pulpits. Though this may be suited for Muslim audiences it does not quite work with others. Also their unfamiliarity with English language which is now the international language of communication also gets in the way. As their words and idioms are translated from Arabic they have to be translated by an interpreter and at times this seems to lack the necessary coherence for a dialogue and occasionally out of sync with the purpose of the dialogue.

Then there is the whole issue of politics and its impact on matters of faith and dialogue. The recent Geneva meetings were targeted by ADL for a Jewish boycott. Apparently the Muslim World League (MWL) had in one of their magazines commented on the Western media bias against Islam and mentioned that there is “Jewish control” of the media. A week or so before the conference this news along with the appeal to boycott the dialogue was sent out to almost all potential Jewish participants. The result was that all but one boycotted. The one who participated is a courageous leader who is actively engaged in dialogue with the Muslim community in Los Angeles and has a deep friendship with individuals in Muslim community. He sees dialogue and listening as the only way to resolve conflicts between different groups.

Also the conflicts in Palestine, Kashmir and other areas where Muslims and others are at loggerheads could not be brushed under the rug. The Israeli occupation of Palestine and the issue of Israeli expansion and settlements were brought up and they will be brought up again. From among some of the hard-line Jewish organizations the immediate response usually is to link this with anti-Semitism - regardless of the fact that it is a statement against the policies of the Israeli government rather than a slur against Jewish faith. Similarly Kashmir and the Indian occupation of a Muslim territory drew sharp exchange from Hindu/Sikh community representatives from India after William Baker of America cited the brutality of Indian occupation and called for allowing free elections or referendum for the Kashmiris to choose their destiny whether to remain under the sway of India government or choose independence for which they have been fighting since 1948.

The Hindu/Sikh attendees totally rejected the underlying injustice of occupation and their response was that India was a democracy which had the 2nd largest Muslim population of the world second only to Indonesia and the Muslims are treated well there. They parroted the official policy of the Indian government that Kashmir was an integral part of India since its independence and partition in 1947 on the basis of religion into two nations. Kashmir was then a princely state with a Hindu Raja as a ruler who had purchased the territory from the British. Immediately after the British left in 1947 Kashmir was overrun by Indian armies and annexed. It continues to remain a disputed territory in the UN roster. The fall-out from the trauma of dispossession and occupation has continued to this day.

The Israeli occupation was also brought up by several speakers including William Baker of United States who is a missionary and thinks of himself as “the Mahdi”! The rabbi reaffirmed in his response a two-state solution and safety and security for Israel. Since he was the lone representative he carried a heavy burden. There was no call for dismantling the settlements without which there can hardly be any progress toward peace in the region.

Needless to say the fallout from the trauma of dispossession and occupation is one, if not the main cause of continuous escalation of violence includes the terror of 9/11 in resent years. It is only fair to point out that several peace treaties between the Israelis, and Palestinians have been forwarded over the years but because of failure in implementation and other political reasons, peace in the Middle East remains unattainable. A comprehensive peace plan forward by King Abdullah six years ago and which calls for a two-state solution, withdrawal of Israel to 1967 borders, guarantee of safely and security for Israel with normalization of relationship between Arabs and Israel, shared governments of Jerusalem has all the elements that could bring about peace in the area. Included in the plan is a right of return for the Palestinians. This for obvious reasons may not be acceptable to Israel; yet this could be negotiated.

The interfaith dialogue if it is to continue and succeed in promoting understanding, and beyond tolerance, acceptance, it has to remain adherent to a value-based agenda and approach. Even the contentious issues cited above must be seen in the light of justice, which is the cornerstone of all faiths. From justice spring a whole host of other human rights issues including the rights of the minorities and gender issues within Muslim societies. Interestingly the rights of the minorities were hardly mentioned. The gender issue that came up was female circumcision and it was rightly pointed out as an area-specific cultural practice and not related to Islam.

For the interfaith dialogue to be productive and successful it has to be rooted in justice, which is the core of all religions and may not be of politics

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