Sunday, September 6, 2009

Interreligious dialogue

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? Last January 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 forthcoming weekend of 12-13 September 2009, Antwerp (hall Paroza, Bacchusstraat 67-71, all are welcome) will witness a modest conference of all religions, or nearly all. Every religion will have its own little stall for self-presentation and a spokesman from each will give a speech. The major religions will be 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.

Indeed, 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 upcoming conference lies with these small religions, though they found a Catholic priest willing (and others unwilling) to open his church for the oecumenical 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 planned highlight of a truly oecumenical 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, e.g.:. “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. Eventhough 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.


Unknown said...

Dear Mr.Elst,

I love your English. You have got your way with english words like Dr. Ambedkar.

Please clarify the following point.

You say in your book "Who is a Hindu?" in the chapter "Are Buddhists Hindus" on the section "Buddhism as India' state religion" that Nehru had made the Lion pillar of Asoka as India's official state emblem. The 24 spoke chakra was understood to be a symbol introduced by Asoka.

In Dhananjay Keer's Dr. Ambedkar life and mission, keer notes that Ambedkar had told "As a maker of constitution Ambedkar had achieved several things to that end. He mentioned the provision for the study of Pali in the Constituion. The imposition of Buddhist aphorism in the imposing Rashtrapathi Bhavan and the acceptance of Asoka chakra by Bharat as her symbol as his personal achievement".

Please clarify who deserves the credit.

Also clarify if it is right to claiming the Asoka chakra as buddhist symbol since you state that was a Pre-Buddhist Pre-Asokan symbol in uniting the many.

Ghost Writer said...

I am not sure I buy your thesis about such dialogue always being for the good. I saw a youtube debate on Zakir Naik and SS Ravi Shankar about religions. It was obviously a slugfest with Zakir Naik landing a lot of the punches. In India this 'dialogue' endds up being either a loud fight in which the one shouting the hardest is declared 'winner' or it ends up into a syrupy 'all religions are the same' nonsense. There is hardly ever any dialogue in which fundamental items are ever discussed

Gururaj B N said...

If the modified Islamic beliefs of Ahmedias has brought them nothing but misrey and persecution, I wonder why do they continue to cling to Koran and Prophet Mohammed? By claiming to be more staunch Islamists, they are pretending to be "more catholic than the Pope", but bring more ignominy and suffering for themselves.

Anonymous said...

Muslims will not be able to discover the rational truth, not because I consider Muslims to be inferior/fanatics but purely for logistic reasons.
Considering the amount of poverty and illiteracy prevalent in islamic societies how can they ever be able to rational enquiry?
Even educated ones are always struggling to make a living. When will they have the luxury to philosophize about truth like liberals.
And those who are in power in Islamic societies are aware of this. That is why they keep their flock in perpetual misery,poverty and ignorance.
And it may be too late to keep waiting for Islamic societies to reform themselves. By the time the verdict will be decided by demographics.

skeptic optimist said...

Dr Elst,

Since the advent of the Internet, it has now become easy to communicate information and call for a true inter religious dialog. Every Hindu, Most Christians and Jews and also Buddhists will agree to join. But Muslims wont join. The pathological constitution of Islam coupled with Saudi oil money has removed all scope for socially advanced and educated muslims. Their insistence of imposing Sharia in Europe has started the whole Eurabia fear with the entire Denmark Cartoons and the Geert Wilders thing. Israel has long suffered and is asserting itself in new ways. Muslims are the only outcasts in todays globalized world. The US fears China less than it fears the radical Islamic Nuke. Iraq, Afghanistan and now most likely Pakistan and Iran will suffer huge losses in America's heavy handed ways.

With the internet now so wide spread, it wont be possible to wipe out history. Every time Moslem's 7th century mindset is revealed, for every Muslim Zealot, there will be 4 European, 4 American, 4 Israeli and possible 4 Hindu zealots.

The real question is oil. Take out the oil money and Muslim nations are nothing but scum. Indonesia + Malaysia which have been moderate can set example followed by Turkey and Uzbekistan. But rest of muslim world is solely dependent on oil money.

Islamic 7th century ideology has no place in modern world, Educated Muslims like educted Christians are more and more questioning their faith, but I think those stuck with it are in for a murderous revenge in near future when Hindus, Jews and Christians will dry out all arab-persian oil, and dispatch islamic countried into sub saharan african poverty.

ITs there fore pre-eminent for America to make sure Islamic states dont have too many nukes.


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