Speaking for Peace
The mere mention of the words "interfaith dialogue" elicits derision from many people who deem the practice to be a meaningless gesture.
It's a constant frustration for Loskota. She has seen positive impacts of dialogue through her past work with Seeking Common Ground, a Colorado-based organization that brings together people from regions of conflict, including Israel and the Palestinian territories. Yet Loskota is aware that the dialogue label often has negative connotations.
"People think it's about inaction. They think it's about just talk."
Jacob Rich, a second-year law student at USC, is among those who are cynical of at least some types of dialogue. Rich, who regularly attends Shabbat services at USC's Chabad House, inadvertently walked into a Muslim-Jewish event there last November, and was not particularly impressed. A speaker at the event stressed that Jewish people need to help combat Islamophobia in the United States, but Rich felt that was an impossible task for Jewish Americans to accomplish on their own and should be addressed by Muslims themselves.
While Rich said dialogue is important, he believes rhetoric alone is insufficient.
"I don't care about words," Rich said. "I care about action."
Some critics believe that certain types of dialogue can even be harmful. George Bisharat, a Palestinian Christian and prominent advocate for Palestinian rights, said dialogue groups that help enhance understanding among people of different faiths might be helpful; however, he thinks such efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are detrimental in the context of war and occupation. He compared the dynamic within Israeli-Palestinian dialogue groups with that of rape victims conversing with their rapists or robbery victims dialoging with thieves who stole from them.
"People who are being bombed don't want to dialogue with the bombers," he said.
Many other people are not opposed to interfaith discussion, but they consider it to be a waste of time. Gustav Niebuhr, an interfaith dialogue advocate who is a Syracuse University professor, former New York Times religion reporter, and author of the book Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America, has noted that the stereotype of interfaith dialogue often involves sitting in a circle, singing "Kum Ba Yah." Ironically, he says people within the interfaith community do not use that term, which literally is a request for the Lord to "Come By Here."
Niebuhr has heard people claim that those who engage in interfaith dialogue are often the same people who tend to be more open to other faiths anyway, but he said those people also have friends and family who don't necessarily see the world the same way they do. Their involvement in such groups can have a ripple effect, he said.
"I don't think it's just talk," Niebuhr said. "I think it serves a purpose."
Dialogue proponents list a host of reasons for inter-religious conversation. Those include doing away with stereotypes and sometimes even getting a better grasp of one's own beliefs as they compare them with others. Dialogue allows for people to form relationships and to strengthen community ties among people of different faiths.
In countries where political violence is commonplace, Loskota notes that it is often revolutionary for people from different sides of a conflict to meet together to converse. While she says criticism should not be brushed aside, she theorizes that some people deride dialogue groups because they are afraid to participate in them. People may be intimidated by the process because they are conflict-averse or in some cases may want to avoid certain groups that have a "touchy-feely" approach, she said.