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The Asymmetry of Interfaith Dialogue

There’s an elephant in the room of interfaith dialogue, and I want to name it.

Many of us are deeply committed to interfaith dialogue as a source of promoting understanding and mutual knowledge. I have been engaged in interfaith understanding for over 25 years, probably giving more talks in churches and synagogues than I have in mosques. We are called to be bridge-builders.

Effective interfaith relations assume that we are speaking out of the depth of our own tradition — remaining rooted in our communities — even as we reach out to one another in fellow communities. There is no way of having love for the world community unless that love begins at home, until it spills over and washes over everyone.

Yet in order for these interfaith relations to be meaningful, we have to be able and willing to acknowledge our own indebtedness, our own rootedness in the soil that we call home. Herein lies one of the great tensions in interfaith work.

Real interfaith work assumes that we have something to teach one another, something to learn from one another. We have to be open to the possibility of learning from, and learning with, one another.

And yet it remains absolutely and indispensably the case that the ground upon which we stand is extraordinarily differentiated. We share radically different levels of access to power, wealth, and privilege that are based on our gender, socio-economic class, sexual orientation, nationality, and other markers. And there are fundamental structural inequalities that shape the parameters in which this conversation takes place.

All of us live in diverse societies, and none of us have the option of living in ignorance of one another.

Interfaith dialogue used to mean Catholic-Protestant exchanges. As a response to the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, it turned into a Jewish-Christian dialogue which, in many ways, has established the parameters of the whole interfaith enterprise. Given the intense polemics between Judaism and Christianity, and the long-history of theologically justified anti-Semitism within Christianity, it is indeed a long overdue enterprise.

At a certain point, what had been a Jewish-Christian dialogue became an “Abrahamic” initiative. The move to Abrahamic initiatives necessitated the inclusion of Islam — and Muslims. This pattern continues, and has only increased post-9/11. Abraham is back, and so are the sons and daughters of Abraham.

Interfaith dialogues don’t take place in a vacuum. There is always a host, an institution that serves as the convening place. These institutions often incur a great deal of cost in offering these programs. For the more prominent national interfaith conversations, there are costs to fly in speakers, offer them honoraria, reserve a venue, etc.

The Jewish and Christian institutions have been generous hosts, but generosity and hospitality are not the same as a level playing field. Until Muslim institutions cultivate the same institutional capability to be equal partners, Muslim speakers are likely to be at an institutional disadvantage.

Both the transnational Muslims (first-, second-, and third-generation “immigrant Muslims”) and indigenous African American, White, and Hispanic convert Muslims are usually lagging behind in terms of building and supporting the institutions that their Christian and Jewish neighbors possess — and have cultivated over the last few decades). When it comes to these interfaith initiatives, Muslims often lack the institutional base to host these programs and as such tend to function as the “third wheel” without the means or the capacity to reciprocate.

Many of my friends are long-time participants in these interfaith operations. This includes Muslim friends. I do not wish to belittle their time, energy, and effort. What I want to do is shine a light on the structural issues that have a tremendous impact on these interfaith initiatives. Let me share a recent personal experience that elucidates this point.

The day that this blog post appears, I was scheduled to participate in an interfaith gathering in Michigan. This lovely convening has been going on for many years in the Grand Rapids area, bringing together Jewish, Christian, and Muslim community members from the local community.

Over the summer, the organizing committee and the invited speakers (including me) had a number of discussions on the theme. And, in part due to my input, we had come up with the title, “To Repair the World: How Does Religion Help or Hinder?” We decided that each of us would speak about our own tradition, and acknowledge that religion can and does both help and hinder the cause of peace, justice, and healing. To avoid a situation of critiquing each other, we would each focus on our own tradition, our own community, our own history and present state.

This was not my first visit there.

In 2007, I was invited to talk about a progressive Muslim point of view. Three years later in 2010, I was invited back to discuss “Where is the love? Where is the justice?” — addressing the intersection of Islam, America, and social justice. While the topic was challenging, it was received well by the audience. As part of the same visit, I gave two additional talks: one on the Prophet Muhammad and another for business leaders about developments in Iran.

The third time, in 2012, I was part of a tripartite Muslim, Jewish, Christian gathering focusing on “faith in times of suffering” with Cynthia Campbell, president emerita of McCormick Theological Seminary, and Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Cynthia Campbell was kind and thoughtful. Rabbi Hartman was debonair, with a dash of panache. The event had gone so well that the organizers invited all of us back for 2015.

This year was to have been the fourth time.

I love going back to communities for repeat visits, as it provides a chance to deepen one’s connections and build on a relationship of trust. The organizers and I had become friends. We even shared an interfaith journey in Turkey together. The main organizer talked about how his friendship with me had pushed him to become a better Christian, something that I take as a lovely compliment.

In light of these friendships, it came as a particular shock to receive the news that I had been uninvited from the October conference. What had happened to make the conference organizers decide to disinvite a speaker who had been with them before, who had a reputation for being committed to peace and justice and pacifism, and spoke about the spiritual dimension of Islam with a concurrent commitment to the legacy of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.?

In short, the politics of Israel intervened again. For Muslims in the public spotlight, this is an increasingly frequent, and almost always problematic, occurrence.

This brings me back to the elephant in the room. Interfaith dialogue in the United States is usually conducted as a “theological” exercise in order to get people in the room; sometimes there is a commitment to leave aside political differences that presumably we cannot achieve consensus on.

Between my previous 2012 appearance and the scheduled 2015 appearance, there had been the latest Israeli assault on Gaza in 2014, one that had resulted in the death of 2,203 Palestinians, including more than 500 children, and 72 Israelis. What did we as a people of faith have to say about this violent episode in our shared history, one that witnessed suffering in an asymmetric way on the Palestinian side?

As citizens, and as people of faith, many of us are deeply involved in issues of peace and human dignity, though our commitments are shaped perhaps by the communities that we call home and/or whom we perceive to be on the right side of history. Rabbi Hartman has spoken out as an adamant supporter of the Israeli war on Gaza and has written a number of blog posts and op-ed pieces in both Israeli and American outlets defending Israel’s right to “self-defense.” His writings appeared in Times of Israel and blogs in the United States. In these pieces, he applied his religious authority to legitimize and justify the war on Gaza by stating:

“I do know that Operation Protective Edge is a just war, and as such, needs to be fought. The injustice of non-combatant deaths, when they are the consequence of the illegal and immoral actions of our enemy, cannot serve as a moral shield to protect them, and allow the terrorizing of my country to continue.”

In a particularly egregious comment about another war on Palestinians, Rabbi Hartman characterized Palestinians as viewing their loss of civilian life as “a public relations success.” This was part of a long-standing Zionist diatribe against Palestinians going back to Golda Meir’s statement, “Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us,” as if the Palestinians do not already love their own children, as if the Palestinians are motivated by hatred, as opposed to being outraged by a 67-year occupation and dispossession. My own experience around the world tells me otherwise, that everyone loves their children. My friendship with Palestinians teaches me that they have the same hopes and dreams for their children to live lives of dignity and purpose, free from coercion and occupation.

As an advocate of freedom of speech, I honor and celebrate Rabbi Hartman’s right to voice his opinion, even when I believe his opinion is wrong, callous, and disregards the humanity of Palestinians. The response to morally misguided speech is better speech, higher speech, more morally uplifting speech. So I attempted to respond by insisting that the lives of all Palestinians and all Israelis was sacred, that all of us are made in the image of God. Following the prophetic tradition of Jesus and Muhammad, Rabbi Heschel, and Rev. Martin Luther King, we had the responsibility to hold up the sanctity and dignity of all human life by starting with the “least of these,” the most vulnerable and marginalized of God’s children. I voiced my objection, and focused my comments on Muslims seeking a principled stance vis-à-vis the suffering of Palestinians.

There is perhaps no more heated political issue in our American landscape than Palestine/Israel. But let us be clear about how this issue frames and shapes the conversation about interfaith discussions in America.

Clearly, the objection of the conference organizers in rescinding their written invitation was not about the right of the participants to make political statements. Had that been the case, both the rabbi and me would have been disinvited. There was, and is, an asymmetry in the ground rules.

The fact that there is a two-tiered policy, where one participant (who speaks on behalf of Israel) is invited back and one participant (who speak on behalf of Palestinians) is disinvited points to a discrepancy in terms of the ground rules. It is this discrepancy that I wish to explore. As I conveyed to the conference organizers, this discrepancy is part of an increasing national trend which restricts the public space in which Muslims can give voice to our own moral imagination. That restriction is not only a matter of personal prejudice, but also tied to structures and institutions which make interfaith dialogue possible (and in this case, impossible).

Image by United States Mission Geneva/Flickr, Attribution-NoDerivs.

Which brings me back to the elephant in the room. There is an asymmetry in the parameter of this dialogue. My experience is not isolated. Muslims are often excluded from these Abrahamic dialogues if they have made statements in support of Palestinians or critical of policies of the Israeli government, whereas the Jewish participants can have public records of staunch support for Israel.

There is a frequent conflation of Jewish identity and support for the policies of the Israeli state. All too often, the unqualified support for Israel is also shared among Christian Zionists, who in terms of sheer number dwarf their Jewish counterparts. That is of course their right to do so. But when Muslims make statements that are critical of policies of the Israeli state, or in support of Palestinians, they are deemed to have violated the allegedly apolitical nature of interfaith cooperation, and are eliminated in favor of Muslims who remain silent vis-à-vis Palestine/Israel or (worse) play the “good Muslim” game of repeating pro-Israeli claims. (Many of the Muslim “personalities” that are frequently paraded on Fox News fall into this second category.)

The question, and ultimate concern, is how do we create level playing fields — or, to be more precise, level speaking fields. To insist that one group of participants be allowed to speak out politically on a contested issue while others have to remain silent is to create two-tiered model of conversations that belies the very notion of the equal dignity we strive for. The same could be said, of course, about marginalizing and excluding the many Jewish voices who are critical of official Israeli policies, such as Jewish Voices for Peace.

To retreat into the corner of finding politically domesticated and neutered Muslims, or worse, Muslims who champion profoundly problematic political positions that betray the highest and deepest aspirations of their own community, that too is not consistent with a genuine call for interfaith understanding.

I wish my friends in Michigan this week a lovely gathering. The organizers are good and beautiful people, and the Muslim scholar who was invited in my place is a bold, courageous, and wise Muslim leader. We have to make sure that the structures and institutions of these conversations are equally lovely and just. May it be real, grounded, rooted, and bring them closer to God. And may we have the courage to build truthful dialogues.

Ultimately, there is no “politicizing” of these conversations. Our lives are already political lives. The structures and institutions that mark our lives differently continue to shape us when we meet for dialogue, prayer, and worship. The best we can do is to be honest and truthful, and to allow us to speak from the depth of our humanity, including both the pain and suffering as well as the highest hopes for healing and reconciliation. As former Archbishop Desmond Tutu says:

“True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.”

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