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Interreligious dialogue: smokescreen or real utility?

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Interreligious dialogue: smokescreen or real utility?
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Interreligious dialogue is very fashionable these days. But what achievements does it have to show?

Interreligious meetings are ten a penny nowadays. It is obviously better for people to spend their time talking to each other than to smash each other’s heads in. But apart from this elementary use, do they have any merits? A few years ago, I attended a conference on Religion in Asia after 9/11 at Jamia Milia Islamia, Delhi. There, Swami Agnivesh, the Hindu equivalent of a liberation theologian (“Vedic socialism”), was asked to evaluate his long experience with interreligious dialogue. His conclusion: “No, it has no use. Have we achieved anything with it? No, we have not. It is time we tried something else.”

Yet, some people keep on trying. In the weekend of 12-13 September 2009, Antwerp witnessed a modest conference of all religions, or nearly all. Every religion had its own little stall for self-presentation and a spokesman from each gave a speech. The major religions were present, though they mistrust such meetings as (1) conveying the theologically unacceptable impression that their own message is on a par with that of other, “false” religions; (2) giving undue importance to small religions, since each one sends one delegation regardless of the size of its flock.

One knows how all this pans out: neo-Druids, neo-Templars, non-Muslim “Sufis”, would-be-Amerindian sweatlodgers and other Wiccas will stake their claim to an equal seat at the table with the billion-plus religions of Catholicism and Islam. Biblical and Quranic orthodoxies dismiss such syncretism and “equal respect for all religions” as Pagan par excellence, an insult to the sole revealed truth. The initiative for the conference lies with these small religions, though they found a Catholic priest willing (and others unwilling) to open his church for the ecumenical celebration. Some Catholics have gone soft under the impact of the Zeitgeist, represented by the political authorities of the city, who are always eager to patronize such chummy interreligious affairs.

This highlight of a truly ecumenical celebration is theologically very risky. For example, many traditions impose specific purity requirements for a ritual to be effective, requirements which outsiders don’t observe and generally don’t even know about. Therefore, the usual scenario is that at such gatherings the delegates pat each other on the shoulder a lot in the plenary session, intone the predictable mantras about “mutual understanding” and “respect”, but insist on celebrating the intimate moments of religious worship separately (e.g. at the Assisi gathering hosted by Pope John-Paul II). Let us just see how it works out.

Meanwhile, my own experience with such gatherings is that they may have their uses at the personal level. On 3 May 2009, I participated in an interreligious dialogue session organized by the Belgian Ahmadiya community in the Basilica of Koekelberg (Brussels). It worked out very nicely, at least for me.

The Ahmadiyas are a Muslim-yet-non-Muslim tradition. Founded in the late 19th century in British India by Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad from Qadian, they claim to be Muslim and even excel in their zeal for Islam, yet they are considered non-Muslim by other Muslims including the Supreme Court of Pakistan. The reason is that the Ahmadiyas consider their own founder as another prophet, completing and reaffirming the message of Mohammed. But Islamic orthodoxy holds that Mohammed was “the Seal of the Prophets”, the final prophet whose word is definitively authoritative until Judgment Day. The Prophet’s status is belittled by the claim that he could have any use for a self-styled helper. Because of this alleged disrespect for the Prophet of Islam, Ahmadiyas are actively persecuted in Pakistan and other Muslim countries, hence their massive presence among our bonafide asylum-seekers.

One of their tactics to wriggle out of their persecuted condition is an emphatic veneration for Mohammed, the very prophet in whose name they are persecuted. An Ahmadiya spokesman and religious teacher explained at the Koekelberg meeting that the name “Ahmad” does not so much refer to founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, but to the name’s literal meaning, “praiser (of God)”, of the same root as Mohammed, “praised one”.

He mentioned only in passing the belief dear to the Ahmadiyas that Jesus had migrated east after the crucifixion and resurrection, then lived most of his life in Kashmir, there to die at the high age of 115 of natural causes. A Catholic priest was pressed for his view on this matter, and upheld the Christian belief that Jesus was buried in Jerusalem, in a grave identified three centuries later by Emperor Constantine’s mother. It was a friendly meeting, so this dissonance caused no unpleasant reactions. However, the priest could have been even more diplomatic by avoiding this negative answer yet sticking to the Gospel truth, the way Jef Ulburghs did at the Islamist mass meeting in Genk (Limburg, Belgium) of 6 April 1992. Ulburghs, a Catholic priest and then socialist MP, dismissed the Crusades as a sad mistake: the Crusaders had gone to Palestine to liberate the Holy Grave, but that was a perfectly unimportant place as “Jesus was no longer in that grave, he was resurrected!”

Each of the Ahmadiya speakers denounced the Jihad-mongers in the Muslim community, at least those who justified terror as Jihad: “Other Muslims reproach us for not waging jihad. But this is jihad, this interreligious get-together here!” If such convivial meetings are really jihad, I wouldn’t mind jihad too much.

They were very strict about the peace-loving and tolerant reinterpretation of Islamic scripture. Thus, they highlighted Quranic verses seemingly implying that Hell is not eternal, that even those condemned to hell (which includes all unbelievers) will get a chance to enter heaven eventually. They accepted the Quranic doctrine that God alone decides who becomes Muslim and who non-Muslim, and that it is only up to Him to punish wrong human “choices”. The orthodox reading is a fatalistic one, viz. that man has no real choice and that God is the only real agent in the universe, the rest of us being mere pawns in His game. But these Ahmadiyas said it means that God has willed the existence of different religions, and that this is a Quranic basis for religious pluralism.

Even more surprisingly, they effectively nullified the notion of “false gods”, since other gods but Allah are in reality merely other names for the same Allah: “There is no god but Allah, He is the god worshipped by Zarathustra, Krishna, Buddha and all other prophets. Mohammed accepted that messengers had been sent to all nations. Even though not mentioned by name, Zarathustra, Krishna, Buddha and others are acknowledged as valid by the Prophet.”

This comes close to the notion of the “common truth underlying all religions”, preached by Baha’ullah, Mahatma Gandhi and other moderns. Mirza Ghulam Ahmad lived and worked in the same colonial, proto-globalist context, the time when Ludwig Zamenhof a.k.a. “Dr. Esperanto” launched his “international language” as an instrument for world peace. The Baha’is and Ahmadiyas are two sects of Islam that came under the influence of the internationalist spirit of the age and increasingly started taking the “common truth underlying all religions” seriously. This is the philosophy underlying most contemporary interreligious initiatives. It sounds nice but is abhorred by religious orthodoxies, and I’m afraid it only convinces those who already take a liberal view of religious truth claims.

The liberal interpretations of Islamic scripture by the Belgium-based Ahmadiya community are theologically questionable, indeed they are sharply rejected by the orthodox. But there is no question that the people I met were entirely serious about them. Maybe the Quran does not truly support religious pluralism, but these people clearly do.

This, then, is my personal reason for supporting interreligious dialogue in principle. It doesn’t get the participants doctrinally closer, they are in no mood to change their minds about their cherished beliefs, not even by their dialogue partners; but it brings them humanly closer. Perhaps my speaking some Urdu had something to do with it, but I found the Ahmadiya hosts a very friendly group, in the sense that I felt like being among friends. The use of personal encounters with people representing other religions, even gravely distrusted ones like Islam, is to remind us that they are not abstract quantities in a discourse on “jihadist infiltration” and “demographic aggression”, but real people.

I get a lot of criticism these days for allegedly going soft on “the threat of Islam”. I remain perfectly aware of the problem that Islam poses. But I insist that any solution must start from the realization that Muslims are human beings who, like the rest of us, have merely developed an identification with the religion they happened to be born into. It is possible to outgrow one’s early conditioning, as I have done to quite an extent. We should not deny them the opportunity to go through a similar growth process, but we should respect their human freedom and capacity to discover the truth for themselves. Underneath the crust of religious doctrine, there is in them the same lava of longing for truth, pushing to break free.

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Koenraad Elst

Dr. Koenraad Elst earned his Ph.D., from the Catholic University of Leuven based on his research on the ideological development of Hindu revivalism. Author of more than a dozen books on Indian society and politics, he has worked in political journalism and as a foreign policy assistant in the Belgian Senate. He has also published about multiculturalism, ancient Chinese history and philosophy, comparative religion, and language policy issues. In the ongoing Aryan homeland debate he has played a key role.