Interreligious Relations in the Wake of September 11

ICCJ International Conference in Riga 26-30 May 2002



  Interreligious Relations
  in the Wake of September 11


ICCJ International Conference in Riga 26-30 May 2002


Hans Ucko

  1. Interreligious dialogue is today both accepted and yet regarded as controversial. It is accepted because we have become more and more aware of that no religion is an island. We live next to each other and there is no other constructive way than dialogue as a way of relating to each other. There has in relation to dialogue with people of other faiths been quite a development among Christians. It used to be regarded at best as an academic exercise in the margin and at worst as an example of liberal syncretistic theology, lacking in Christian commitment and zeal.
  2. Today, there is more of an acceptance of at least some expressions of interreligious dialogue. Migration, the exposure through tourism to other cultures and media bringing the whole world into our homes has created more of an interest to get to know better the religion and culture of the other. September 11 added another reason. It really brought about an increase interest in interfaith relations. The outreach to other religious communities has been extraordinary during this period of time. If you look at the number of civic forums, of educational programs by churches, by schools, by civic groups, by Rotary clubs, there"s all of this outreach that says, "Now is the time we need to get to know each other."
  3. In the World Council of Churches (WCC), interreligious dialogue was mostly known as the opposite of mission. Although dialogue grew out of the missionary movement in the early 20th century, it established itself in the 1970’ies as a ministry of the church with its own integrity and its own development. However, the missionary movement has continued to consider the relation between dialogue and mission. The latest missionary conferences of the WCC have worked on a theology of mission relevant in the midst of religious plurality. Other departments of the WCC have realised that religious plurality cannot be confined to an office for interreligious dialogue. The issues of religious plurality have ramifications and implications for what is being done in relation to peace building, youth work, women’s issues, indigenous peoples’ concerns, Christian education etc. The WCC is increasingly realising the dimension of interreligious relations and dialogue as an integral part of its work. The recent opening towards theological exchanges between Faith & Order and ICCJ is a case in point.
  4. However, let no one be mistaken. There are Christians, who are deeply suspicious of dialogue and look upon it as a sell-out of the gospel. Their rationale for at all engaging in dialogue is as a method for evangelisation and mission. Other Christians probably frightened by the prospect of dialogue, instead of engaging in dialogue, prefer to say that they first need to prepare themselves, to brace themselves and their own faith before engaging in dialogue. Dialogue is perceived as a battle. They never get ready for dialogue; they continue to prepare themselves over and over again and preparation becomes the excuse for never actually engaging in dialogue. Some Christians, while affirming dialogue, are fearful of the theological consequences of engaging in dialogue with people of other faiths. They will willingly affirm dialogue as the proper way to relate to your neighbour but they will try to keep far away from drawing the theological conclusions of their engagement in this dialogue of life.
  5. People of other faiths have doubts whether the Christian invitation to dialogue is sincere and is not only another word for mission. They fear that Christians, having realised that mission doesn’t sell anymore, now advocate dialogue but actually mean mission all the same. There is a lot of unlearning and of rebuilding trust before people of other faiths take our words at face value. When we talk about dialogue and the new openings in relations between people of different faiths, we need to acknowledge that it is still a minority phenomenon. The majority of Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Jews are not interested in interreligious relations and dialogue. Their own religious affiliation is enough for them and they see no need to engage in dialogue. Needless to say that this applies also to Christians.
  6. There are however, in spite of many apprehensions and hesitations, expectations that dialogue be an instrument in conflict resolution. In a world, where many conflicts seem to be couched in religious language or have religious overtones, dialogue is called upon to assist in resolving the conflict. But this may be to expect too much of dialogue. Dialogue is not and can never be an ambulance in a sudden crisis or conflict. Dialogue is more of prophylactic medicine, which when often and regularly used will sustain health in difficult situations. Contacts and precious relations between people of different faiths built quietly by patient dialogue during peacetime may in times of conflict prevent religion from being used as a weapon. At times of communal tension or at the peak of a crisis, contacts across the communal divide may prove to be the most precious tool in the construction of peace. What has been built through a long process of dialogue, friendship, trust, a common language, may be of great value in times of negotiating civil peace.
  7. September 11 is indeed in terms of interreligious relations and dialogue in many respects a watershed. It has made us reflect anew on dialogue towards strengthening bonds of friendship between Christians and Muslims but also in a process of reassessment of dialogue see what needs to be more emphasised in dialogue than it was before September 11. I would like to share with you some reflections, which are the result of my own assessment of interreligious dialogue in general and not only Christian-Muslim dialogue post September 11.
  8. I think we need to acknowledge that there were times when the framework and rationale for interfaith dialogue was too rosy. We looked only for commonalities and were sometimes too much focused on finding the lowest common denominator. There was little space for making positive use of difference, strengthening an attitude of vive la différence!
  9. I think it is justified to say that we, as Christians, in some way failed to see the asymmetry in dialogue. We wanted dialogue to be concerned with theological matters and had almost unwillingly to concede that for our counterpart the reasons for dialogue were often less theological and more practical. Jews would e.g. be more interested discussing antisemitism than theology. Muslims would want Christians in dialogue to pay attention to the question of building a mosque or provide space for Muslim cemeteries.
  10. September 11 tells me that dialogue needs to go beyond lifting banners or slogans with the ideals of our religions. It is true that Islam is literally the religion of peace. It is true that Ohm Shanti, shantihi is the emphatic Vedic blessing. It is true that Jesus greeted people with the gift of peace, “Peace be upon you”. It is true that there is an absolute emphasis on compassion and ahimsa in Buddhism. It is true that Judaism has given the world the word shalom. It is true that religions based on their ideals in many cases seek to contribute to building peace, but we know they are also involved in situations of violent confrontation. There is a surprising coexistence of love and violence, of affirmation of inclusiveness and practices of regrettable exclusion. Religions are more than often related to the powers that be and legitimise their decisions for violence. There are also groups within our religious families who seem to need violence to affirm their own beliefs. We cannot run away from the effect of religious language such as “Onward Christian soldiers”, and acts such as the Crusades, the Shoah or apartheid. We cannot run away from the role of religion in the caste system. We cannot run away from the blasphemy law in Pakistan or the settler Baruch Goldstein in Israel. We have to ask the question about the role of religion in violence. I would at this point like to quote Harvey Cox, who in other words says the same: “We as religious thinkers must stop simply making nice about this age of ecumenism, interfaith dialogue and fuzzy feelings among priests, imams and rabbis. We need to take a step toward candor. In response to a secularized intelligentsia, at least in the West, we have tried too hard to put a positive face on religion, when the truth is we know that all religions have their demonic underside. We quote Isaiah, not Joel. We talk about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, not Rabbi Meir Kahane. We favor St. Francis and his birds, not Torquemada and his racks. Alas, however, they are all part of the story. Telling just the children"s version will no longer do”.
  11. We need to support and challenge each other mutually. This can only be done in a climate of trust. The Muslim-Christian dialogue cannot but address the role and misuse of Islam in September 11 as well as the role of Christian values in talking about “the axis of evil”. This is definitely not the only agenda in the dialogue between Christians and Muslims but it cannot be eclipsed from the agenda. How do we extricate humanity from this dangerous moment in history in which we find ourselves? This is a significant and urgent moment of truth. September 11 grew out of a perverse form of the Islamic faith. It represents the shadow side of Islam, just as in Christianity, antisemitism is the dark aspect of this faith. It"s no good denying it, or maintaining that Usama bin Laden isn"t really a Muslim. He believes he is. He identifies totally with this faith, and tries to justify his actions and those of his organisation, in terms of Islam.
  12. We must identify where religions are part of the problem, because they are more often than not just that and more seldom are they part of the solution. Following September 11, this is even more crucial to realise. We may as religionists not have the solution but we should realise that we have a problem. Irving Greenberg is reported to have said to people participating in a dialogue, “I don’t mind where you are coming from as long as you are ashamed of it”. I hope and think he included his own religious tradition in this caution. The doctrines of redemptive violence, the theories of just war and holy war, and the legacies of the crusades and colonisation, have their roots in difficult religious assumptions, the marginalisation of the other. Major strands in Judaism, Christianity and Islam claim in different ways exclusive relations to God, which is a problem. With it follows a notion of being superior to the other. Religion is not innocent.
  13. Following September 11, our interest can no longer only be to affirm our common goal for peace. We need take seriously the ambivalent function of religions. An effort of clarification of the different roles of religious faiths is required before embarking on a reflection on how religious communities can work together for the construction of peace. This dialogue has to be carried forward both on the theoretical as well as on concrete levels.
  14. There are some concepts, maybe dear to us as religionists, that we need to seriously dialogue about if we are not to realise that concepts such as jihad, mission, hindutva, chosen people and a holy nation are beyond redemption. We should in dialogue encourage each other to reflect on these concepts and really learn how they are received outside the community brandishing them. It is one thing what we say, it is another thing what we are heard saying. Then it is up to each community itself to draw the final conclusion as to the usefulness and value of the concept in question. Christians should in dialogue with people of other faiths listen to what mission means to Jews, Hindus and Muslims and then ad intra and between themselves in the light of what they have heard reflect on the significance of and rationale for mission.
  15. There is a risk of globalisation, particularly in the wake of September 11, where Islam and Christianity are pitted against each other as universal entities. This fits the doctrine of the "clash of civilisations" and plays into the hands of Usama bin-Laden. We therefore need to de-globalise. As a result of globalisation, conflict situations in one part of the world can spill over into, or have negative repercussions in other parts of the world. Religious dimensions of conflicts and religious labelling of conflicts travel easily. Efforts to prevent polarisation between religious communities at the world level are more important than ever. Today media tempts people to instantly perceive a conflict in one place as part of a conflict in another. Enmity in one part of the world spills easily over into other regions. An act of violence in one place is used to confirm the stereotype of the “enemy” in another place provoking revenge attacks elsewhere in the world. It is tempting to say that the conflict between Christians and Muslims in Indonesia is a conflict between Islam and Christianity. But it is too simple to translate in such categories. There is a need to de-globalise such situations and analyse each conflict within its own context.
  16. There is a risk of bringing too close together religion and ethnicity. Not counting Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, violence has broken out in more than fifty places around the world between peoples who share the same terrain but differ in ethnicity, race, language or religion. In some parts of the world, religion is increasingly identified with ethnicity. In some situations, religious identity becomes so closely related to power that the communities without power, or who are discriminated against, look to their religion as the force of mobilisation of their dissent and protest. In some situations, religious identities begin to take distinct place in the conflict that tears communities apart that have lived in peace for centuries. These conflicts tend to appear as, or are represented to be, conflict between religious communities, polarising them along communal lines. When communities identify themselves or are identified exclusively by their religion, the situation may become explosive. It must be the task of interreligious relations and dialogue to help prevent religion from becoming the fault line between communities.
  17. We need to take care not to end up in simplistic thinking. It may be that religion is sometimes the cause of conflict, but more often is religion the intensifier of a conflict. We therefore need to scrutinise the role of religion and violence, how religion is used or allows itself to be used to fuel conflict. Religious sentiments are often misused to fuel communal tensions. Religion speaks for some of the deepest feelings and sensitivities of individuals and communities; it carries profound historical memories and often appeals to undiscerning loyalties.
  18. The WCC together with the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC) organised recently an African Christian-Jewish consultation, where the question of memory was discussed in the context of the Shoah and the genocide in Rwanda. There is, it was said, a risk with excessive memory, where the past conditions the present. Is there a place for silence or amnesia in memory or how do we deal with excessive memory? One must be wary of simplistic metaphors, dividing the world into good or evil in too facile a way. One must realise that one sometimes has to consciously discontinue remembering and realise that there is a relationship between memory and idolatry. When one becomes a slave to one’s memory, there is a risk of becoming idolatrous.
  19. The last fifty years have seen the development of interreligious relations and dialogue, something we should celebrate each in our own community and even more together in jubilation and thanksgiving. There is a growing interest today in multifaith approaches to issues of common concern. This interest is paralleled with a proliferation of different international interreligious initiatives. Interreligious organisations addressing vital questions for the well being of humankind have been established and are promoting and encouraging multi-religious cooperation for the sake of peace and understanding. Numerous interreligious initiatives, varied in scope, impact, and the actors they involve, are following in the steps of the interreligious organisations. A main interest is at best to promote and stimulate debate and exchange of ideas, facilitate the recognition of shared values and foster respect and tolerance for diversity. Some initiatives seem however mostly to add to the “marketing of religions” and put on show rather ephemeral and superficial events, where the image seems to matter more than the content. There is a need to address together the mushrooming of multifaith initiatives, some of it is good and expresses a yearning for a voice of peace in the midst of the turmoil of our world. Some of it is facile harmony, where the initiators have their own agenda and where one tries to sell things with interfaith dialogue without considering the integrity of religious traditions. There is a risk of trivialising religion in some of the recent multi-religious initiatives.
  20. We need to find ways of true and serious co-operation. Religions state that their intention is to work for peace among the peoples of the world. This involves working towards a culture of peace. In our present history, given the magnitude of the problems that threaten the life of our societies in different places of the world, the effort to construct a culture of peace cannot be a matter of concern for religious families separately. There is an ecumenical principle from the work of Faith & Order, which is called the Lund-principle. I would like to take this ecumenical principle to have a bearing on our interfaith dialogue: “That which we can do together, we should not do separately”. It is a challenge to all religions, and it is important to consider how to respond to it jointly without forgetting what more than a few religious and secular organisations are already doing.
  21. September 11 is contemporary with the second intifada. As far as the Jewish-Christian dialogue goes, it cannot remain aloof from what is going on in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We cannot shirk this responsibility. Silence has reigned (or almost) within the community of the Jewish-Christian dialogue. It may be a silence of sadness that things have come to this point. It may be a silence hoping that this too will pass; it may be a silence of closing ranks. There is a fair amount of defensiveness (“Why don’t you devote the same time to what is happening to people in Sudan, Tibet, Coptic Christians, etc. You are unbalanced in your criticism of Israel.”). I am therefore personally very glad at the latest statement by ICCJ on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
  22. There is a risk of antisemitism as a consequence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the worst part of it being that Jews themselves bear the responsibility for antisemitism, “given their behaviour in Israel”. There are references to “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and talks about a worldwide Jewish conspiracy. An ecumenical leader I met recently said in critiquing US foreign policy about the US press secretary, Ari Fleischer, “Isn’t that a Jewish name?” Such innuendoes should tell us that antisemitism is up and running again. We see examples of it in the attacks on synagogues in France and Tunisia. It is possible that it is not antisemitism to begin with: it is maybe a frustration over what is happening in Israel-Palestine that needs to find a scapegoat and has it out on elderly Jewish couples, youth, Jewish sanctuaries and centres. As much as we should be focused on human rights violations in Israel and Palestine, we need to be attentive to the resurgence of antisemitism. Almost as a basis of confession, the WCC said in 1948: “antisemitism is a sin against God and man.”
  23. We need to address suicide-bombings as a particular ethical and moral problem. It is not enough to condemn violence in general terms and so to say be done with the question of suicide bombings. It does not work to put all in one bag, the bag of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What do we have to say about suicide bombings per se? In their own "right", as a challenge that actually goes beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? While one cannot separate the suicide bombings from the conflict and linked to a situation of despair following more than 30 years of occupation, one should nevertheless be able to speak to suicide bombings as a particular moral dilemma. Religious communities should separately and together address suicide bombings and not only see these as one of many ugly ingredients in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When trying to say anything on the issue, it is not enough to have general statements on Israel"s right to security “within secure and recognised boundaries” or expressing sorrow over the tragic deaths of so many innocent people, Israeli and Palestinian. Although one can understand that the suicide-bomber may do what s/he does because of hopelessness and despair, there is an organisation behind sanctioning and advocating suicide-bombings. As Christopher Langton and David Ucko point out in an article "Suicide attacks - a tactical weapon system", published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a suicide attack "is often the result of a collective strategic decision by an organisation, involving an extensive support structure dedicated to recruitment, authorisation and planning. Indeed, the argument has been made that the suicide bomber should be considered no more than a "sentient missile" - a convenient delivery option for the "real" terrorists who recruit for, plan and authorise the eventual attack." How do we as religious people address the question of human beings turned into sentient missiles?
  24. September 11 is used in so many different contexts, and some of the responses to September 11 are very aggressive, militaristic and revengeful. It is important that our commitment to interreligious relations and dialogue is not slacked. In the wake of September 11 it is vital that we build and strengthen coalitions of people of different faiths to address the role of religion and violence. The WCC is presently engaged in such a project called Thinking Together, bringing together Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus in an ongoing conversation of how we can, “in the midst of our religious diversity, express common convictions and explore core issues present in all our religious traditions? … How do our commitments as people of faith translate in our encounters with each other? Does the other in his or her otherness challenge my faith or religion? Does my religious tradition provide space for the integrity of the other in his or her otherness?” It seems to me that this is an important direction for interreligious dialogue today.

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