The Need For Interfaith Dialogue In America

In December 2014, faith leaders visited the Vatican to sign a historic declaration against modern slavery--more efforts like
In December 2014, faith leaders visited the Vatican to sign a historic declaration against modern slavery--more efforts like this need to be initiated in the United States in an effort to demonstrate unity.

As I wake up every morning, like probably most of us do, I reach over to my iPhone and begin to take a look at my emails and social networking apps, only to see them filled with images of war-torn children, news of bomb blasts, intense poverty and more violence. Due to how often our eyes bear witness to such images, we probably let out a brief sigh, then continue on with our day, using the images and news blurbs as talking points with our colleagues and families for the remainder of the morning.  

Yesterday, we heard the news of the Yazidi teenager who set herself on fire to avoid rape by ISIS soldiers. Last week, we saw the image of Omran. How much more do we have to see in order to decide that it is vital to take even the smallest steps to work to eradicate such tragedies?

A quick survey of the socio-political circumstances across the world today demonstrate the need, that now, more than ever before, strides to shatter the veils of ignorance and intolerance are imperative. Amongst the major obstacles humanity is facing at this moment, and perhaps a cause for the experiences of the Yazidi teenager, and children like Omran, is religious intolerance; a disease that has inflicted every fabric of modern society. For history, religious minorities have been at the brunt of persecution, and this sentiment is echoed across the globe right now—Burma, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Russia, Pakistan, China, under the so-called ‘Islamic State’ in Iraq and Syria, and too many other places that go without mention. The mounting pressures of persecution are from both governmental organizations, as well as non-state actors…and that is where WE step in.

As an American Muslim faith leader, born and raised, my community is facing an almost unprecedented period due to the rampant rise in Islamophobia. In light of the rhetoric that we hear from politicians, the Burkini ban in France, the Imam who was gunned down in New York, and the experiences that almost all of us have to deal with while walking on the streets or shopping for groceries, there is still an optimism that we can work to implement positive change. Without a doubt, there is an opportunity to work to build tolerance with other faith leaders and pray that the light of respect and understanding emanates to the masses.

The reality is, I do not want to raise my 15 month old daughter in a climate that breeds intolerance and hate of a particular group of people for the way they look or for what they hold to be as their faith. As a father, as an American, and as a Muslim, I need to make my very best effort to combat this type of negativity. And in reality, it is something that every person would consider to be their natural right. So again, what measures are we taking in order to cultivate a culture and environment of tolerance and respect?

I, like many other faith leaders and activists, have partaken in numerous interfaith seminars and prayer vigils these days—and the time has never been more ripe due to the turbulent political climate. Faith leaders need to work to build in dialogue with one another.  And by dialogue, I mean dialogue, not debate. For too long, there have been barriers that have segregated synagogues, churches, and mosques. But in America today, in order to work for this positive change, strides have to be made. Interfaith dialogue may be the single, most powerful practical step that we can take in order to shape the future. But interfaith dialogue, contrary to popular belief, should not be relegated to the religious faith leaders, but can be a practical thing that everyone can partake in. Everyone has the opportunity to be a vessel for respect and tolerance. 

The first step that we need to make in terms of creating an environment that prides itself on the commitment to dialogue is to admit that we have a problem, and sincerely believe we can work to fix it. This cannot be limited to religious faith leaders—but collectively, everyone needs to recognize that work needs to be done. We have to face the harsh reality that over the last several decades, we, as Americans, have not done nearly enough to combat racism, discrimination and intolerance. This is evident due to the fact that election season has highlighted key issues like the gender pay gap, Black Lives Matter, the refugee crisis, and numerous other matters. But true progress is to bear witness to the fact that these discussions do exist, and we need to be open to discuss them and try to work to solve such problems. The same circumstances apply to religious intolerance. We have to admit to the fact that in our homes and communities, we have a problem, of not being willing to accept other faith practices. When we are witness to the tragedies taking place on the other side of the world, so many of them being due to religious differences, are we also admitting that we have the same problems in our own country? Individually and communally, if we submit to the fact that we are not cultivating a society of acceptance, than we should not sigh upon seeing images of Omran on Twitter or Facebook. When we realize we need to work harder, we can begin to initiate conversation with one another and strive to grow and evolve as faith communities.

The second step that we need to make in terms of interfaith dialogue is focus on commonalities. In the Islamic tradition, the Qur’an (Chapter 3: Verse 64) outlines the goal of interfaith dialogue as advocating discussions on similarities, as opposed to differences—“Say: Oh People of the Book (Jews and Christians)! Come to a word common between us and you…” Speaking on commonalities breaks down barriers on very personal levels. When I sit on an interfaith panel with other faith leaders at a place of worship, or a university, for instance, I discuss my theological beliefs and themes that are shared across all different faiths—themes like God, peace, love, mercy, justice, etc. But for someone who does not have the background in theology, interfaith dialogue can be a conversation between people of different faiths and backgrounds discussing similarities in terms of their favorite food, educational interests, sports, entertainment, etc. Conversations on normal things humanize one another, and we no longer look at each other as a Christian, or a Hindu, or a Sikh, or a Jew, or a Shia or a Sunni, but rather we see one another as people.

America prides itself on being a socially pluralistic society, where all societies, cultures, communities, and religions can peacefully coexist with one another. Yes, we all have different opinions on just about everything, including politics, contemporary affairs, and our favorite flavor of ice cream— but none of these should be a hinderance toward effecting positive change in the world we live in. Thus a third step in working toward interfaith dialogue is to recognize differences and embracing them. Recognizing differences allows us to understand that we all have different baggages, ideologies, upbringing, and forces us to marginalize our judgements of the people who surround us and puts us in a position to illuminate the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12); “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.” The natural laws that we are bound by—our appearances, languages, cultures, fingerprints— should be something that we reflect upon and appreciate, for at the least, we are all neighbors on this shared planet. The 7th century scholar, and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad, Imam Ali, states, “People are of two types: either your brother in faith or your equal in humanity.” Imagine what the world would be like if we all made small attempts to look through that type of lens!

Yes, it is true that interfaith dialogue is not going to work miracles in terms of putting a halt to the genocides that are taking place in other parts of the world or the images that we see on a daily basis. But, at the very least, it is a practical and realistic step to try and eradicate the negative rhetoric and violence that we are so accustomed to hearing about. And more importantly, for me, it is a potential means to allow my 15 month old daughter to grow up and live a life where she does not have to worry about the way she dresses and won’t have to worry about defending her beliefs while walking in a park or while shopping for groceries. 

Interfaith seminars have potential to build bridges--Lee Weissman @jihadijew and myself.
Interfaith seminars have potential to build bridges--Lee Weissman @jihadijew and myself.
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