Fifty Years of Interreligious Dialogue--the Way Forward

In my last post on the future of Interreligious Dialogue, in the light of fifty years of "The Dialogue" since the promulgation of Nostra Aetate in October 1965, I focused on the roles of education and cooperation, mostly among Christians and Jews. In this blog post, the second in a series, I want to broaden our perspective. In the years ahead, The Dialogue needs to not only occur between Christians and Jews, but it must include leaders and followers from other religions, especially Muslims.

The document "Nostra Aetate" specifically called for dialogue with Muslims, not only with Jews!

The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God.....
Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom

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Over the years, the Catholic Church developed a very healthy dialogue with the Muslim community, based on this document. Much of this was done during the term of Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, who served as the Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Relations (which handles dialogue with many other religions, other than the Jews,) and who now lives in retirement in Jerusalem ( and is a personal friend). Moreover, in recent years, both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have continued to reach out to Muslims, as did their predecessors since Vatican II.

But what are ordinary Catholics or their local and regional leaders doing to reach out to Muslims lately? Not very much!

And what are we Jews doing about reaching out to Muslims through genuine dialogue and encounter? The unfortunate answer is: also not very much!

Why?

• Because we are all afraid. We have become Islamophobic! Some of our fear is rational. Yet, much of it is a "phobia", an irrational fear, fed by rumors and stereotyping of a whole community and a whole religion and all of its followers.
• Because we and our communities have largely been influenced by the media--who only portray the work of fundamentalist extremist radical cut-throat Muslims--ISIS, Al Qaeda, and all the rest. The media is constantly indoctrinating us that this is who Muslims are! And we--most of our leaders and our communities--blindly go along with it!
• Because we don't really try to come to know Islam from the inside. We don't study the sacred texts of Muslims and their holy teachings with excellent, credible teachers. Rather, we rely on the internet and the tabloids to "teach" us what Islam really is.

This has got to stop! Fostering hatred of another's religion--due to the fanatical acts of certain extremist groups who claim to be inspired by this religion but actually distort it unrecognizably--is not a good prescription for building a better world for all of God's children.

Accordingly, I would argue that developing a genuine dialogue with Muslims around the world--beginning in our local communities--is one of the highest religious and ethical imperatives for Jews and Christians now and for the future. We can no longer engage in denial and apathy on this issue.

I have been engaged in dialogue with Muslims in Israel for much of the past 25 years, and in so doing, I have come to know well another kind of Islam, not the one in the news every day and not the one on the internet every minute. I have encountered many kadis, imams, sheikhs and ordinary Muslims--both in Israel and internationally (through my involvement in Religions for Peace)-- who preach and teach a moderate brand of Islam that I can live with, one that is rarely reported on by the media, one that espouses ethical and righteous ideals, which are very similar to the basic humanistic values that are shared by mainstream Judaism and Christianity.

For the sake of peace and justice--and to prevent ongoing wars and bloodshed-- we Jews and Christians need to engage with Muslim leaders and followers sensitively and substantively in the years ahead.

As Eugene Fisher, a Catholic partner in dialogue with me for many years, said at the end of our film, "The clean-up has begun, and we can now structure the future so that certainly the next 2000 years will be more productive, so that, for that period, Jews and Christians (and I would add Muslims) will be able to stand together to address the problems of the world."

[This blog post is the second in a series on this topic. It is based on lectures that I recently gave at conferences in Toronto--sponsored by many local groups--and in Utrecht, The Netherlands, sponsored by the Catholic Council for Church and Judasim.]