Practical suggestions for successful interfaith dialogue
“The end of the common world has come when it is seen only under one aspect; it exists only in the multiplicity of its perspectives.” (Hannah Arendt) 3
Europe has always seen itself as a Christian continent. But people usually forget that there have often been periods when large minorities of Jews and Muslims lived on European soil and mutual exchange and enrichment across religious boundaries flourished. In the collective memory of the Christian majority in Europe the relationship with the other two monotheistic religious communities is remembered as one always characterised by enmity and hatred. That false perception has had terrible results.
In recent decades, however, more and more people have realised that in our globalised world, cultural and religious plurality is here to stay. This plurality can enrich us all. But suspicion and fear of other cultures and religions is still actively present among us. Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are not simply things of the past. The people who experience this hostility are, above all, those who have abandoned their homes not just to work in Europe, but to live here. Many were caught up in the great movements of migration at the end of the Second World War. Others came in the aftermath of decolonisation. Still others are coming as a result of the major new conflicts which have happened recently, or are going on at the moment. In secularised Europe, religion and the practice of religion have quickly become a very obvious sign of difference – of plurality – and have therefore become a major element in arguments and conflicts between “indigenous” people and immigrant groups.
The Inter-Religious Think-Tank responsible for these Guidelines is a group of Jewish, Christian and Muslim women, who have all been active for years in the field of interfaith dialogue.4 We have concentrated our efforts on the relations between these three monotheistic religions, because it seems to us that the potential for tension and conflict is greatest here. We, as individuals and as a group long for a world in which everyone can enjoy a good life and just treatment. Our own experience tells us that it is possible for Jews, Christians, and Muslims to live together peacefully in a spirit of fairness and mutual respect. We are convinced that every individual can contribute to making our society into a place where each of us can live a full life. But this needs, on all sides, more knowledge about each other, more sensitivity to peoples’ different needs, and more understanding of the different contexts in which people live their lives. And it needs patience for the long process of learning more and more profoundly about each other.
Living together in a multiplicity of cultures and religions can be tiring and demanding, both in our public and our private lives. Tolerating difference needs inner strength and fundamental goodwill. This goodwill must include the readiness to respect other people and their concerns and take them seriously. This is all the more important now, because at present a polarisation between religions is taking place, rather than a coming-together – a polarisation fuelled partly by events in the world at large, but also by local difficulties that arise when people with different religious identities live together in the same community.
Interfaith dialogue may not be fashionable, and many people are feeling frustrated because it does not seem to have any real lasting success. But the challenges with which our common life presents us are growing, and these are issues which affect us closely. We are dealing with questions of everyone’s human rights. We are working to build trust, to create a basis for exchange and conversation between equals. We are seeking to work out pragmatic solutions to problems which would benefit all groups in our society.
This is what interfaith dialogue is all about.
With these Guidelines we are hoping to offer concrete suggestions and help for people reaching out to work with other religious groups.
For many years now we have gathered experience in dialogue projects, and learned a lot. We have experienced dialogue situations which went well, but we have also experienced how interfaith communication – in spite of everyone’s good intentions – often fails. Our experience is that dialogue essentially needs good will and the firm intention to structure our common life as well and as harmoniously as we can.
Unfortunately in practice such efforts are not always successful, and these Guidelines are intended to help by naming the frequent stumbling blocks and suggesting ways of avoiding them as far as possible.
We are not setting out here to write a theory of how to conduct an ideal dialogue. We are drawing on our own knowledge and experience of what we have learned in the practice of interfaith dialogue as Jewish, Christian and Muslim women.
Indeed, one special feature of these Guidelines is that it has been written by Jewish, Christian and Muslim women working together. So it is based not only on the experience of adherents of the Christian majority religion in Switzerland, but above all on the experience of adherents of the Jewish and Muslim minorities. All three of these backgrounds are presented and reflected upon here.
The Guidelines are aimed at helping people who are just starting out to plan interfaith projects and events. But they are also aimed at people who have been engaged in interfaith dialogue for some time, and may have experienced every now and again that they have done or said something dysfunctional – they are aware that they have “dropped a brick”, but do not quite understand what happened.
We start with some fundamental thoughts. Part II then moves on to writing about examples taken from the praxis of dialogue situations, where stumbling blocks are liable to be found, and how we can avoid them.
At the end a check-list of things to be aware of is intended to help people to identify mistakes or potential causes of conflict already at the planning stage.