Interfaith dialogue: The imam and the rabbi

…went to a church

On Monday, the 14th of April, I moderated a dialogue at the University of Delaware, with an Imam and Rabbi. The speakers at the event were Rabbi David Kalender, a senior Rabbi from the congregation Olam Tikvah in Fairfax, Virginia and Imam Muhammad Magid, the Imam of ADAMS Center in Northern Virginia and the Vice President of the Islamic Society of North America. It was enriching and frighteningly frank at the same time. The principal participants later confided to me that this was one of the more enlightening and candid dialogues they had engaged ever participated in.
 
Imam Magid insisted that in an interfaith dialogue it was important that participants be willing to handle the tough issues in good faith and also be willing to examine the religious texts that can be source of discord or misunderstanding. He came down very strongly against anti-Semitism in the Arab world and insisted that, theologically speaking there was little to dispute between Muslims and Jews.  He agreed that American Muslims must do more to combat anti-Semitism and holocaust denial.
 
Rabbi Kalender too argued that it was politics and not theology that was a problem between Muslims and Jews. He made an interesting observation that both Israelis and Palestinians were convinced of their victim hood and were also convinced that their own narrative of the conflict was the true one. He explained how dialogue could help each party understand the pain and suffering of the other. He acknowledged that discourses of intolerance were also generated within the American Jewish community but also claimed that there was a culture of strong self-criticism within the American Jewish community. Given the tough barrage of questions he was getting from Jewish faculty and students, no one would dispute that claim.
 
Both faced very tough challenges from faculty, students and community members. In response to a graduate student, who pointed out that many Imams in the Arab World were not as tolerant as he was, Imam Magid described how American Imams now regularly traveled to Muslim countries to share the vision of tolerance and understanding that American Muslims are living. Rabbi Kalender conceded to another doctoral student that American Jews must reexamine what was being taught to American Jews about Israel and its politics in traditional Jewish educational programs.
 
The outstanding elements of their talks were their willingness to engage in self-criticism, try to understand the other’s perspective and above all maintain dignity and openness in the face of provocation and criticism. They were not just talking about tolerance and compassion, but continued to display it throughout the dialogue.
 
The Challenge is Global
 
In the past few years, an unending series of global events, have conspired to systematically widen the already distended chasm between the West and the Islamic World. Islam today is a global religion. Nearly one fourth of the world is Muslim and Muslims live everywhere. There are more Muslims in America than there are Delawareans in America. The West too is global; it extends from Seattle to Sydney. People everywhere are embroiled in either real suffering or psychological pain directly related to the ongoing US-Islamic discord which has a global presence. We need more and frequent dialogues, interfaith, intra-faith, intercultural and global exchanges, to arrest and slowly rollback the steady spread of inter-communal venom.
 
In one evening, we did not solve the great problems that plague US-Islamic or Jewish-Muslim relations. But Jews and Muslims and others who were there, went home a bit more hopeful, a bit more thoughtful, and perhaps even a bit more enlightened. The Imam and the Rabbi taught us how to respect, understand, admire and even care for the others even as we fundamentally disagreed with the other’s politics.
 
I went home that night, convinced of the need and the healing power of dialogue. When done right, it is a transformative experience.
 
Dialogues of Civilizations in Delaware
 
For over a year now, armed with a generous UNIDEL foundation grant from the Dean of the College Arts and Sciences, I have been organizing various dialogues between Muslims, University of Delaware Students and members of various American religious and professional communities.
 
In September and October last year, we participated in a series of discussions on Islam at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Wilmington. The Church initiated the dialogue, bore the cost and hosted the discussion on Islam, and its faithful congregation attended week after week. The congregation was open and deeply engaged and never left its appetite for understanding at home. For the University students, it was a laboratory where they witnessed communities expanding their horizons to understand and come to terms with difference. For many Christians it was eye opening. Many of them told me that they had never realized how close Islam was to their own beliefs. For the few Muslims who came, it was a lesson in tolerance. They were amazed that a Church would invite an Islamic scholar, week after week, to discuss various aspects of Islam. They prayed that one day our own mosque would be as enlightened and secure to learn about other faiths and interact with other communities.
 
In March this year, the University has hosted a series of lectures by nationally prominent scholars who spoke about the impact of post 9/11 politics in Muslim communities in America. These lectures and the conversations that they engender have a demystifying effect. Participants are no more ignorant about the values, the reality and culture of Islam and Muslims. The erosion of ignorance also eliminates irrational fears and replaces insecurity with understanding. Students who participated feel more eager to learn about Islam and the challenge it poses to America and the West.
 
We have now established an Islamic Studies program at the University and it promises to quench this thirst for knowledge and understanding of our students and will act as a window to the myriad vistas of the Islamic world.
 
The Limits of Dialogue
 
Skepticism is healthy. It is also an antidote to unbridled optimism. Even as I let the euphoria of moments of mutual understanding wash over me, I couldn’t ignore the nagging feeling that most advocates of dialogue assume that conflict is a consequence of misunderstandings and therefore, dialogues can foster understanding and eliminate conflict. Perhaps just understanding the other might not be enough. Even inculcating respect for the other may not douse the fires of conflict. At the core of all conflicts are competing and incompatible interests that may have material as well as moral basis. Conflicts will dissipate when understanding is followed by the replacement of competing interests with common interest.
 
In simple terms, it is not enough that we talk. We must find common goals to pursue together. Imam Magid told us that all faith communities have come together in Northern Virginia to combat domestic violence.  It would be great if Muslims, Jews and Christians and Hindus and others in Delaware can work together to realize some shared value.

Muqtedar Khan is Associate Professor and Director of Islamic Studies at the University of Delaware. His latest book is titled, Debating Moderate Islam: The Geopolitics of Islam and the West.


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