Saturday, June 6, 2009

Face to Faith

Inter-faith dialogues sound good, but they ultimately fail to make any progress, writes Sunny Hundal

Sunny Hundal The Guardian, Saturday 6 June 2009
Barack Obama's speech in Cairo this week to Muslims across the world was a great piece of political positioning. The American president is good at illustrating that he understands and respects conflicting views, while assuaging the concerns of different sides in a conflict.

Of course it had foreign policy objectives, but it was ultimately a good example of what we call "inter-faith dialogue". The speech was littered with Arabic words, quotes from the Qu'ran and began with the Muslim greeting, as-salam Alaykum. From a Muslim perspective, what was not to like? Perhaps, the action that follows from here.

And this is where most inter-faith dialogue fails. I was recently asked my thoughts about two separate initiatives: one trying to resolve problems between British Sikhs and Muslims (mostly gang violence), and other between British Muslims and Jews (foreign policy).

Over the years I've attended quite a few events hoping to create better relations between the adherents of two or more religions. Most of the time they utterly fail. They end up satisfying the parties involved but rarely lead to resolving wider issues. Why?

First, inter-faith dialogue is rarely tied to real-world issues and flashpoints that increased tension in the past. For British Jews and Muslims, the Israeli invasion of Gaza was the latest flashpoint: with parallel demonstrations in support of Israel and Gaza, and a vitriolic war of words played out over the media. This has an impact because tension between Jewish and Muslim organisations increase and they find it difficult to work together.

Between Hindus and Sikhs the problems are longer-standing and go back to the early 90s when trouble-makers on both sides spread rumours of Sikh and Hindu girls being forcibly converted to Islam, or Muslim women being drugged at university by non-Muslim men. Of course the problem is that the people engaged in inter-faith dialogue rarely sit around the table, bring up these issues and create a strategy to deal with them.

The second problem is that such attempts to smooth things over rarely involve a wide range of opinion. These days, most inter-faith dialogue is an Abrahamic love-in. Get a bishop, rabbi and imam to sit around a table and the world will soon become a better place. After all, Christianity, Judaism and Islam have much in common.

But what about the Hindus and Sikhs? And what do the secularists and atheists have to say? Including a wider range of groups would force this sort of dialogue to go back to asking why there is tension among religions, and between believers and atheists. And it would also force them to concentrate on particular contexts and devise a strategy to deal with that.

It may be an obvious point to make but most tension between religious groups is borne out of events and history rather than ideology itself. So there's actually very little point in getting well-meaning religious people to sit around and discuss what they have in common.

But main reason why inter-faith dialogue doesn't get anywhere is because the loudest voice on each side is unwilling to acknowledge the other side has legitimate concerns, or empathise with them. Addressing that is the first step and Obama did exactly that in his speech.

He talked of issues such as Holocaust-denial, anti-semitism, rights of women in the Middle East, illegal Israeli settlements, the plight of Palestinians and the attacks of 9/11.

If only people here did the same. The first step in dealing with rising tensions among groups of people belonging to different religions would be to persuade authoritative figures to openly recognise the other side has a point. When was the last time we saw that?

• Sunny Hundal is a writer on race, faith and identity politics