WASHINGTON, Feb. 16 (UPI) -- One of the lessons or developments that emerged from the tragedy of 9/11 was the realisation among many parties -- especially non-governmental organizations, policy makers and educators in Western societies -- that they had little knowledge of Islam and Muslims. Another was the realization by Muslims in Europe and the U.S. of how secluded their lives had been in such societies.
As a remedy for such mutual ignorance, many organisations, both public and private (including universities and NGOs), began offering introductory 101 classes on Islam and its basic practices. In many cases some of these organisations initiated face-to-face interaction with Muslim communities, especially with certain Muslim leaders or figures who were willing to converse and assume the role of representing Islam and Muslims. Unfortunately, fewer initiatives were launched in Muslims societies to deepen learning about European and American societies.
These interfaith, intercultural, or intercivilisational dialogue meetings initiated in the West have been gaining more and more support from both government and private individuals. Even former Presidents Clinton, Carter and Rafsanjani, and Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan (who is among the champions of this dialogue), among others, have declared their interest and led some of these meetings.
What can such meetings accomplish?
For Muslims, interfaith dialogue can offer an opportunity to accurately present their faith and correct some of the basic stereotypes and misperceptions regarding its practices and principles. For example, non-Muslims will learn that Islam and Muslims have contributed greatly to human civilization: many of the modern world's sciences and humanities benefited from Muslims and from Islamic science and philosophy during the Middle Ages when Europe was in the dark age of its internal wars.
Other participants often express their surprise when they learn that Islam spread outside of the Middle East and into the likes of Indonesia, India and Malaysia through persuasion and invitation (da'awa) rather than by the sword -a widespread misconception. Even when it comes to the sensitive issue of terrorism, many discover that most Muslims are against the use of violence and the destruction of innocent life. Other benefits of these face-to-face dialogues include the re-humanizing of Muslims for many Western participants. For many Muslims, they are also an opportunity to strengthen interaction with other members of society and with local communities.
The interfaith dialogue circles help in breaking the enclave mentality of the closed communities in which many Muslims live in "self-imposed social and cultural isolation". This isolation increases the likelihood of a violent backlash when there is a terrorist attack on a European or American city. The more bridges Muslims build with their communities, the less likely they will be attacked and accused of supporting or harbouring terrorist elements.
Despite the above benefits of interfaith dialogue, there are sharp voices (both Muslim and non-Muslim), which express doubt about its effectiveness and necessity. Some Muslim groups mistakenly view these professional, interfaith dialogues as an attempt to convert or threaten their beliefs, and have therefore launched attacks against them as 'kufr' or non-believers.
Others have argued that interfaith dialogue cannot fix structural problems in the relationship between Islam and Western governments. The main cause of tension between Muslims and the West is not necessarily one of communication as implied by those who repeat the phrase "we do not need to love them or become friends with them...".
The problem rather relates to Western policies with regard to Palestine, Iraq and the Muslim world in general. Interfaith dialogue cannot offer a remedy for any economic exploitation carried out by European and American private corporations and government-owned concerns. It can do nothing about the oil and other natural resources being extracted on a daily basis from the Muslim world. Critical voices will add that interfaith dialogue is reminiscent of a gravely ill person receiving cosmetic surgery: even if we give that person the most beautiful new face, how would that help in stopping the cancer invading that body?
Another major critique of interfaith meetings, especially those of short duration with no follow-up, is that they provide participants with the illusion of being "activist." People do feel good after a meeting and have less need to act or do something against the structural policy of their governments. Such a shortcoming is true of those meetings that focus on learning about the basic principles and rituals of the other religion while participants are not expected to commit to further action. These processes and models obviously cannot counter terrorism and its causes, nor deter perpetrators.
Moreover, some critics of this type of interfaith effort suggest the funds spent on these interfaith meetings be donated to economic and social development projects that systematically counter poverty, especially in Muslim countries where poverty and illiteracy often attract violent strategies for change.
As someone who has researched and led many of these interfaith meetings, I must admit that there is truth to some of the above criticism. But such a critique fails to consider the fact that personal and individual change is essential to any desired larger, social and political change in any relationship. Thousands of stories of hope and transformation have been documented by people who have attended these interfaith meetings, and in many cases such individuals have acted in their own personal sphere to change the images and negative stereotypes which exist about Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
In addition, efforts in interfaith dialogue are like any long-term educational investment in building a global and local culture of peace, in that its fruits will only be seen and felt by future generations which will be better-equipped to counter all forms of violence more effectively.
Making such efforts more effective requires more sincere involvement by a wider circle of Muslim and non-Muslim religious leadership; the linking of these efforts to practical and concrete outcomes; and the systematic engagement of policy-makers in these efforts.
(Mohammed Abu-Nimer is Associate Professor of International Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University's School of International Service in Washington, DC, and is the Director of the Peacebuilding and Development Institute.)
(Distributed by the Common Ground News Service - Partners in Humanity.)