Practical suggestions for successful interfaith dialogue
Part I: Fundamental reflections
Interfaith dialogue in Switzerland, and in many other European countries, takes place in the context of an increasing rate of migration into the country, and the resulting general debate about immigrants and social integration. In Switzerland, as elsewhere, integration is being increasingly defined as assimilation to national habits and customs. More and more the key slogan is “Fördern und Fordern” – help people to advance socially and economically, but at the same time demand that they make a decided effort to adjust to Swiss society and fulfil certain requirements. They are mainly judged on how far they succeed in adjusting their behaviour to correspond to that of their native neighbours. There is much less public discussion about the level of their participation in society generally, and their access to rights and resources.20
Laws concerning foreigners in general and refugees or asylum-seekers in particular are becoming stricter. At a political level, there are discussions about categorising immigrants as “good” refugees who the country is prepared to accept, and “criminal” asylum-seekers, for example people from North Africa who should be subjected to a “preventive” DNA-test on arrival. Such measures not only injure the human dignity of the people targeted, but also their human rights. They also confirm the general prejudice against foreigners, and deepen the gulf between the members of the majority society and people who belong to minority cultural and religious groups.21
In the context of these social developments one might ask, “What can interfaith dialogue do to strengthen general social solidarity?” Does interfaith dialogue grow out of a genuine interest in the subject, or is it a result of an imperative need to do something about relations between different religious groups living in the same communities? What is its goal?
The answer to these questions will be different according to the status of the people you ask, and their religious identity. But in future it will be a decisive issue – and not only for Switzerland – that we learn not merely to live next door to each other, but actually to live together, enjoying the variety in religious, social and cultural life which changes in our population promise us.
The wars in the Balkans, especially in Bosnia, have – we hope – taught us Europeans, that quietly living side-by-side is not enough to ensure a peaceful and just common life. Our common future needs us not only to live alongside one another, but to live together in a well-informed, well-networked and empathetic way. The movement for interfaith dialogue sets out to contribute to this coming-together.
We have to make it clear that inter-religious dialogue has never taken place anywhere under perfect “laboratory” conditions. The specific social and political framework at the time, and the actual situation in which this dialogue takes place, will always determine or “affect” its content and quality.
The first necessity for dialogue is the presence of at least two different religious communities living so close together that points of contact and overlap exist. Such contact does not necessarily lead to conflict, indeed such relations can be quite mundane, involving points of contact in trading, for example. But this kind of interaction with an opposite number can nevertheless strengthen people’s feeling of identity: “us” as opposed to “them”.
Where equal legal protection applies to all religious communities, where their social and economic status is also relatively equal, and they are of similar size, interfaith dialogue can develop out of pure interest in what the other side thinks and does and a common desire to reflect on situations, out of which a resolve may arise to act together and on behalf of each other.
But in reality – in most parts of Western Europe, and certainly in Switzerland – this kind of ideal situation is not found. Usually the different religious communities are not equal in size, nor are their social and economic situations similar. And generally their legal situation in society is different, too. In almost all Swiss Cantons, for example, the institutions of the Evangelical Reformed Church, and the Roman Catholic Church, are given a special legal status. The Old Catholic Church and some Jewish communities have the same privilege in particular Cantons.
Article 15 of the Swiss Constitution ensures the fundamental rights of freedom of religion, freedom of belief and freedom of conscience. Thus everyone is free to live according to their religious convictions, and confess them openly, whether alone or together with others. But in practice, these legal rights often need to be re-asserted under particular circumstances as they arise. The most important recent example of this has come from Germany. The decision of the Provincial Court in Cologne22 to make circumcision for boys illegal would have meant the end of religious Judaism in Germany, and also for Muslims it would have been a major attack on their freedom to practice their own religion in their own way. It also showed that in our Western society religious acts or religious ways of judging situations – matters which for decades had been in no way problematic – are increasingly being met by incomprehension or condemnation. And this is not only happening in right-wing populist circles, or in circles which are aggressively atheistic.
This kind of condemnation of religious practice is being articulated more and more by the secular courts. The justification for these judgements is usually based on a reference to fundamental liberties or human rights, which in the concrete cases before the courts are given a higher priority than the fundamental freedom of religion. So when the courts are making a decision about the relative weight of conflicting human rights, as happened in the case concerning circumcision, it is noticeable that religious rights often come off worst. The process of secularisation has taken on some traits which are opposed to religion in general. In this kind of situation, however, it is easy to forget that when discussions about religion and human rights first took place, the objective was by no means primarily the destruction of religion. Instead – in the aftermath of the European religious wars and the political misuse of religion – the objective was to strengthen the dominant position of the state over religious institutions like the church, or at least to use a more or less strict separation of state and religious institutions, to disentangle areas of political and religious influence and power.
The general process of secularisation is not only going on at an institutional level. It also has strong and persistent effects on general perceptions about the significance of religion in our societies.23
There is a widespread feeling that religion is a private affair. One result of this is that fewer and fewer people really understand religious attitudes, and the trains of thought they give rise to. More and more people see a fundamental contradiction between religious attitudes and human rights. So an argument based on religious thinking is less and less likely to come out on top in a court case where the opponent is using secular arguments. Of course, the result of an argument of that kind is neither necessarily correct nor necessarily wrong. But it does make it clear that our society is balanced in a struggle between religious and non-religious standpoints. The challenge in our time, and in particular in the field of interfaith dialogue, is to find a way of tackling these tensions between religious and non-religious thinking.
1.2 Who is in conversation with whom?In the interfaith events held in Switzerland there is often an imbalance between the participants. The majority religion is usually represented by professional experts (theologians), whereas on the side of the minority religions, the participants are often people with no theological training who may be no more knowledgeable about their religion than most Christian lay people are about theirs. It is therefore important to find partners for dialogue who bring as much in-depth knowledge as possible on the planned theme. Furthermore, the representatives of minority religions often find themselves in the role of respondents, answering queries which reflect the ignorance of the majority rather than being able to act as equal partners in dialogue. Muslim dialogue partners in particular are frequently pushed into a defensive position by the need to refute prejudices and criticism regarding their religion. This too hinders the development of a dialogue between equal partners.
A numerical disproportion is often added to the above-mentioned imbalances when, for example, one Muslim individual is expected to speak for the Muslim religion to a whole group of representatives of mainstream society.
It is therefore essential to pay close attention to the question of who is to participate in the dialogue and which roles they will find themselves playing, as well as deciding who defines the framework under which the dialogue is to take place.
Often we find a gender imbalance as well. Traditionally, women are more likely to be involved in the so-called “Dialogue of Life”.24 They are more likely to organise interfaith dialogue on practical everyday issues: traditions and observances around food and eating, for example; the religious education of children; the rituals and customs of birth, childhood and puberty, and the meaning of prayer and fasting for the individual. Women are more likely to want to ask and reflect on questions about how religion can be integrated into everyday and professional life in the context of migration, such as questions around health, religious festivals and living together in the local community, or the role of eating, sharing food and hospitality within the different religions. Women are generally interested in creating an atmosphere of trust and emphasising the shared experiences and mutual points of contact which can be found in everyday life. “Convivencia” is the goal – different people living together in a way that is good, fair and open.25
This focus on practical questions is no coincidence. An important feature of interfaith dialogue among women is the fact that the participants are not usually official representatives of their religions, as the positions of authority are mostly, and sometimes exclusively, held by men.26
Women are therefore more free to voice their own opinions in interfaith dialogues and to address subjects that they feel are important for everyday life in the community and in which they regard themselves as being competent.27 Increasingly, however, these subjects do include spiritual and theological questions. The downside of dialogue among women is that they are often not in a position to speak authoritatively for their co-religionists, and are not always able to carry back insights from their conversations to their own religious communities and implement them in practice.
When it comes to official committees and forums for dialogue, however, where the participants are attending as representatives of their respective religions or denominations and where the aim is often to define the terrain of one’s own religion, we mostly find men taking part. Theological subjects and questions of doctrine are more often discussed among men, and therefore tend to result in the defining of boundaries rather than the promotion of dialogue and communication.
There is an increasing number of women representing their religions at cantonal and city events in Switzerland, and in dialogue groups such as the “Round Table of Religions” and the workshops and prayers for peace which are organised as part of the Swiss “Week of Religions”. And within the religious communities themselves, such as for example in the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities (SIG) or on the advisory panels of the evangelical-reformed and the roman-catholic state churches and free churches in Switzerland, there is an increasing number of highly qualified women in positions of leadership. Within the new Muslim communities in Switzerland, this process is still at an early stage for several reasons. There are various Muslim women’s organisations, often sub-groups of an existing Muslim community. In public, however, and when official statements are called for, the lead is almost always taken by men. Increasingly, though, women are being heard as individual, “non-organised” Muslim voices.28
This last question is especially important, because if you do decide to include questions of international politics, you need to be aware of the difficulties involved. You must choose the theme very carefully, and make detailed preparations. The main speakers must be carefully chosen. With discussions about international politics there is always a danger that an encounter which is intended to be inter-religious will slide off into an unproductive and emotional dispute with no good end. In many Western countries, including Switzerland, it is important to make sure that Muslims are not forced every time to state that they are opposed to acts of violence perpetrated by extremist Islamist groups, wherever they may have made their presence felt recently. It is also important to make sure that Jewish people are not automatically regarded as being responsible for the Israel-Palestine conflict.
One point which often comes up when people meet for dialogue is the role of women and their position in the various religious communities represented. Members of the majority group in Switzerland often take it for granted that the position of Muslim or Jewish women is much worse than that of Christian women. This is a theme on which an effort at education and the communication of proper information is especially important for interfaith learning. As the Anti-Minaret Referendum in Switzerland29 showed quite clearly, it is very easy to disseminate prejudice and old clichés about the sad position of women in Islam and other religions, and so to present these religions as primitive and fundamentally at odds with Swiss policies about the equality of the sexes.
The themes “Human Rights and Religion” or “the Rights of Women and Religion” are constantly cropping up in public debate, above all among people from left-wing parties and from Women’s Rights groups, who tend to regard all religions as inherently fundamentalist, unfair to women, and generally unenlightened. There is a need for a more open and constructive dialogue between secular and religious feminists. Secular feminists might well then come to realise that religious belief and the rights of women are not necessarily incompatible. They may also realise that, although there are traditions in Christianity, Judaism and Islam that discriminate against women, there are also traditions in all three religions that can liberate women, and that we, secular and religious feminists, need to work together to establish and protect women’s rights in our societies.30
Questions of human rights and women’s rights can – and should – be looked at from a religious and inter-religious angle. However, you have to avoid creating a hierarchy in which religious and secular concepts about rights are placed on different levels. An attitude that takes it for granted that either human rights or religious laws are clear and fixed, and are not subjects for discussion, blocks dialogue from the very beginning, and hinders attempts to deepen understanding, to clarify the issues, or to reach a rapprochement when different views are in conflict.
When you compare human rights with the requirements of a religious law you must be aware that quite different perspectives and experiences come into play. Human rights are “universal rights appertaining to every individual, which have been recognised as such by political organs representing the population of the whole world, and of which an individual may not be deprived.” Religious laws, on the other hand, define the rights of individuals on the basis of “the inalterable laws given by God”. In the history of the development of the idea of human rights, a key motivation was actually to limit the role of religious institutions in defining what makes a human being. For many people under religious law, the colonial experience is an important cause of their determination not to be influenced by the West. In spite of this, representatives of western states often see themselves in the role of those bringing enlightenment and development, for example to the Muslim world. Unless the influence of these different backgrounds is made explicit no productive discussion of this aspect of inter-religious dialogue will be possible.
Developing and fostering good ways of living together within communities can be another purpose of inter-religious dialogue. In a similar way to intercultural dialogue, the dialogue between religions can help to prevent conflict, contribute to mutual understanding and strengthen community cohesion by identifying and formulating joint values which can lead to joint actions to improve life for everyone. One way of trying to achieve this is to use ethical questions within the various religions as a starting point for dialogue – ethical questions regarding economic or ecological issues, for example. Often parallels and similarities can be found when discussing these questions and the dialogue can lead to new perceptions and understanding.
However, in current social debates we often find the opposite happening. Conflicts within a given society are defined as conflicts between different religious value systems, despite the fact that they may have little or nothing to do with religion. Whereas in the past social conflicts were liable to be “ethnicised”, nowadays they are often given the label “foreign religion” and attributed to religious differences or, if the conflict includes Muslim people, “islamicised”. Religion is now used as an explanation for cultural differences and for things that differ from mainstream society. For example: people say that Muslims are not capable of living in a democracy; or that they adhere to patriarchal family forms which are not compatible with the concept of gender equality, etc. Conflicts that have been labelled “religious” are more likely to lead to the intensification and consolidation of differences than to facilitate differences being lessened and resolved.31
Furthermore, it may turn out that events include the intention – stated or implicit – that dialogue will be actually staged as a “Clash of Civilizations”. Such events can serve the purpose of flagging up differences and incompatibilities, with participants being intent on holding their ground and representing their viewpoints as superior. Often inter-religious discussions follow a pattern of attack and defence, whereby the attacking side decides on the themes to be discussed and dictates the level and tone of the debate. Insecurity when confronted with things that are perceived as strange and different, and a fear of losing something of one’s own identity, are a major factor here. The main interest shaping this sort of dialogue tends to be the confirmation of participants’ own leading positions, be that on a personal level or within society. Polemic downgrading of the “other” helps to create a feeling of superiority and to cover deficits of one’s own or the real reasons for fears of loss and letting go. People with no experience of communicating with members of other religious groups may fall back on stereotypes, using these stereotypes again and again until they become inscribed on public consciousness as incontrovertible truths.
Then there are forums for political dialogue which aim to improve communication between Governments and Muslim groups and individuals, and to encourage integration. Examples of such political forums are the “German Islam Conference” (Deutsche Islam Konferenz) in Germany, and the “Muslim Dialogue” in Switzerland. The latter is a forum for communication between the Federal Government and representatives of Muslim communities which was set up in the wake of the “minaret vote” of 2009, a referendum in which the Swiss population voted “yes” to a ban on the building of minarets in their country.32 In these examples the request for dialogue usually comes from the representatives of the majority. This means that there is a basic asymmetry between participants right from the start, as the aims and objectives are decided by the representatives of the majority society, sometimes without being explicitly declared. These dialogues are often really more about the question of the compatibility of Islam with the political system and cultural framework of the host country – and the loyalty of its adherents to these – than they are about the needs and concerns of the Muslim minority.
We feel it is important to stress that dialogue on its own cannot address and resolve all the questions that arise when different religions live and work together within a society. We are referring here to questions about matters such as inclusion, being assured of one’s rights, and having opportunities for participation. Inter-religious dialogue cannot take the place of political process and negotiation when it comes to basic rights and the rights of citizenship, questions of law and the distribution of goods, or the implementation of equal rights in terms of religious sites, religious feast-days, customs and rituals etc. Dialogue can, however, support the development of a broad, supportive foundation upon which equal rights and opportunities can be built.
If freedom of religion and belief is recognised as a fundamental human right in a state, the majority society must create opportunities for everyone to practise their religion within reasonable limits. This means in practical terms that they need to be able to gather to practise their religion collectively, to carry out religious customs and rituals, to build places of worship and set up their own places for burial. The right to places of worship is an empty promise unless public authorities help with the search for appropriate land for a mosque or a temple and support the process of applying for planning permission etc. This cannot be left to the minority groups, who are often not in a strong position financially or structurally. Churches and political authorities should also contribute with their support.
If participants do start referring explicitly to a particular political conflict, it is important to respond initially by pointing out how religion is constantly being instrumentalised to serve political objectives. Such conflicts are indeed primarily about power and control over territory, about national interests and the influence of specific groups of people. They are not primarily about religion. Arnold Hottinger, a leading Swiss journalist specialising on the Near East, argues that, “Wars of religion are never wars between religions, but between religious communities which are using religious symbols and religious emotions in the service of their own desire for power.”33
For example, in the most recent Balkan wars, religions and parties or denominations within religions were clearly misused in the interests of power and nationalism. Adherence to a particular religious group was firmly linked to a specific national identity.
Religions, however, are never simply “good”. They are always fundamentally ambivalent in their impact on human society. Religion can support behaviour which contributes to the peaceful process of human history. But religion can also be used to legitimise and promote behaviour which leads to conflict and violence.
For many years, white South Africans justified the policy of Apartheid, and their discrimination against the black population, by using the idea that they were both based on the Bible – indeed, that the Bible taught and propagated racism.
Muslim extremists, on their part, use texts from the Koran to call people to fight against unbelievers. A conflict which is basically about the possession of land – as the Israel-Palestine conflict was, at least at the beginning – quickly becomes insoluble when one side bases its claims on its special divine calling, promised in its holy scripture.
These experiences from our own times show us that religious teachings, and religious symbols, give specific behaviour and policies a legitimacy which needs no further justification. They can be used to advocate quite worldly aims and interests.
A digression: the Israel-Palestine conflict in inter-religious dialogue
The Israel-Palestine conflict is a theme that threatens to block every attempt at inter-religious dialogue or trialogue. So if you plan to set up a dialogue it is very important to decide beforehand whether the theme of Israel and its politics really needs to be addressed in your programme. This theme arouses strong emotions, and is apt to lead to heated discussion. If questions about Israel are to be discussed productively, the meeting will need the skills of an exceptionally well-qualified moderator or chairperson. For the early stages of an inter-religious dialogue, therefore, it is advisable to set questions to do with Israel on one side, and to concentrate instead on the religious and cultural background of the Jewish participants actually present.
However, even after careful planning, questions about Israel may come up. Here are some hints about how to handle the situation.
Not all Jewish people are Israelis, and not all Israelis are Jewish. So questions like, “What do you, as an Israeli, think about the West Bank?” are best avoided. A question like this can, indeed, create embarrassment and difficulty for Jewish participants in your discussion, since it is very likely that they are not Israeli citizens, and they may not even be particularly well-informed about Israeli politics. So your Jewish participants may well feel that they are under attack for things for which they have absolutely no responsibility. They may react by “clamming up” and saying nothing, or by feeling they must reply aggressively. Either of these responses can lead to a very unproductive situation. The mere fact that people are Jewish does not mean that they approve of Israel’s policies. Still less does it mean that they are in a position to respond to questions as representatives of Israel or its policies, or that they have adequate knowledge to talk in a well-informed way about Israel. (How would Catholic participants feel if people asked them, “How can you, as a practising Catholic, support the Papal policy on the use of condoms, in the face of the AIDS epidemic in Africa?”)
It is necessary to respect all the passion which discussions involving topics like the Arab-Israeli conflict can give rise to. With themes like this, rational arguments are soon forgotten, and participants switch to reacting emotionally. The tensions which will certainly arise can best be met by treating outbreaks of emotion or vigorously presented personal opinions as what they are, and not as hard facts. Often a gesture of respect and understanding for the feelings and experiences of other people helps, even when these do not correspond to your own. That can reduce anxiety and make it possible to create a basis of sympathy and trust.
Critical comments about Israel sometimes seem to have an undertone of anti-Semitic sentiment, although the non-Jewish participants may not be aware of this. Anti-Semitism in European culture is complex and deeply rooted, and this often makes it impossible to decide exactly when criticism of Israel turns into anti-Semitism – and vice versa. Moreover the subjective reactions of individual Jewish participants to criticism of Israel may well be very different – one Jewish participant may hear anti-Semitic undertones in a particular comment, and another will not find the same comment at all disturbing. However, it is an important step forward when people involved in a dialogue understand the impact this difficult phenomenon can have on a discussion.
Many Jewish people feel insecure and unprotected in the world at large, and become scared when Israel is criticised. And regardless of the actual situation today, the long history of anti-Semitism and the persecution of Jews in the West is a part of Jewish collective experience that cannot simply be ignored. It is no excuse for unacceptable policies or political manoeuvring. But it can be helpful to keep it at the back of our minds.34
This diversity within religions means that when it comes to specific positions and viewpoints, the differences between people within a religious group can be greater than the differences between members of separate religious communities. A dialogue within a religious group can be even more challenging for those involved than a dialogue between groups from different religious backgrounds. For example ‘conservative’ members of different religions will often understand one another better than evangelical Christians speaking to feminist theologians, or ‘liberal’ and conservative Jews talking to orthodox Jews.
When planning interfaith dialogues and panel discussions, the organisers should be aware of which stream within a religious community the participants represent. If for example a profoundly orthodox Jewish woman and a female Christian feminist theologian are brought together, the basis of the dialogue will be very different from that between a Jewish and a Christian woman who are both feminist theologians. This diversity within religious communities can lead to surprising and unexpected situations. For instance, in a Muslim and Christian discussion group, Roman Catholics may suddenly find themselves “defending” their own understanding of Christianity in a context where a more evangelical viewpoint is equated with “Christian” as a matter of course. This can of course happen the other way round.
Furthermore, it is important to remember that interfaith dialogue is not just about the dichotomy between conservative and progressive positions, but that there is also always a concrete background of tension between majority and minority groups because of the differing amounts of power they can command.35
There is also the problem that members of some religious groups are afraid that inter-religious dialogue is just “a clever form of mission”, and if they agree to participate it will prove to be a ruse for the attempt to convert them. This fear is present above all among people who are members of one of the smaller minorities. It can usually be dispelled by careful conversation at a personal level, but everyone involved must be conscious of this fear and take it seriously, whether it is clearly stated, or only hinted at. Some of the anxieties are justified, in view of the way missionaries worked in previous generations, and the missionary methods of some evangelical groups even today. Successful dialogue will be based on a strict renunciation of all attempts at mission.36
The fears of people from minority groups when they are confronted by members of the majority are rarely a theme for discussion in interfaith dialogue. But in fact Jewish people who can be identified as Jewish by their appearance still frequently experience verbal insults, and may be molested or even threatened with physical violence. And Muslim women who wear a head-scarf have similar experiences. Painful memories of this kind are often part of the background when people meet for dialogue. They make members of religious minorities very sensitive to the half-conscious expressions of traditional dominant attitudes on the part of people from the majority when they are voiced in discussions, and they may well feel that they are being attacked personally.
This underlying fear on the part of our Jewish and Muslim fellow-citizens is not only fed by their own personal experience of difficulties of this kind. It is also nourished by the growth of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in Europe today. A new study by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, carried out in eight European countries, shows that anti-Semitism is found all over Europe. It is deeply rooted, and is a phenomenon by no means restricted to small marginal groups.37
Prejudice, and indeed xenophobia, directed against Jewish communities, is above all linked to economic difficulties, unemployment and poor standards of education. In some European countries there is still a widespread view that Jewish people exercise far too much influence, or they are regarded as a group characterised by egoism and greed. Large sections of the population in the countries of Europe studied in the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung survey also feel that present-day anti-Semitism is justifiable in view of Israel’s policies towards Palestinians.
Enmity against Islam is also growing in Switzerland and in Europe as a whole. A large proportion of the population the study covers are of the opinion that there are too many Muslims in their countries, that Muslims demand too much special treatment and consideration for themselves as Muslims, and that they practice a religion of intolerance.38