Chicago, Illinois - Over the past five years, as part of a project on religious fundamentalism, I've studied and talked with Muslims from Houston to Auschwitz. And as I've gained a better understanding of how Christians and Muslims see each other, I've learned that how we communicate is as important as what we communicate.
Take the term jihad, for starters. It's often used by those who want to raise temperatures and inspire hatred of Muslims. They tend to define it as a murderous campaign against non-Muslims. But scholars and moderate Muslims will tell you that the word's root concept is "struggle" – and that the struggle often refers to the one within ourselves over our own failures.
The word crusade inspires a similar misunderstanding. For many Christians, it is an honourable endeavour. Billy Graham innocently defined his gatherings as Crusades, benefiting from the positive connotations that went with promoting the cause of Christ. Among Muslims, however (and many Eastern Orthodox Christians, for that matter), "crusade" evokes images of bloodthirsty warriors exploiting the land and people as they travelled to the Holy Land – a land that was holy not just to them but to their enemies as well.
There are some less obvious examples of words that don't translate well. Tolerance is a well-intended but not always helpful and sometimes offensive concept, for example. Before Christians call for "tolerance" of Muslims, they should ask themselves: Do they want merely to be "tolerated"? If not, why would a Muslim? Asking for "tolerance" can come across as condescending, as if the speaker were saying, "I have things figured out, and I'll tolerate you with most of your flaws." In many encounters, a call for tolerance may simply be an attempt to get others to take their beliefs lightly.
My dialogues with Muslims over the last several years have not been all misunderstandings and explanations. We have made real progress. Sometimes it's small and specific – such as using hospitality instead of tolerance, to convey the opening of one's spiritual home and soul to the other, especially to those who profess strong and clear faiths. In general, though progress comes from a set of general approaches.
The first step is to hold up a mirror to yourself. Examine what beliefs your community (in my case, Christians) holds and how they hold them. On the positive side, you are likely to find there some features which can improve relations. Informed and empathic Muslims also speak well of many elements of Christianity. On the negative side, the mirror will reveal flaws, and to acknowledge them — without grovelling or in a spirit of self-hate which can come naturally to Christians who are fighting their own heritage — will enrich the conversation. It is disarming when neither party in a dialogue has to keep up appearances and both can meet each other honestly.
Another crucial step is to educate yourself about the other's religion, especially by reading their scriptures. In times of tension and terrorism, agitators tend to highlight the tense and terrifying texts in the others' books — the Qur'an or the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament. To suggest that violence is what the other faith is all about is dishonest and always alienating. I have never met a Jew or Christian who thinks that the texts in the "Holy War" books of Joshua and Judges (or try I Samuel 15) — which license and even command genocide — are what Judaism or Christianity is about. Those scriptures instead climax in messages of peace and healing. So does the Qur'an.
Finally, it's important not to expect too much. If interfaith dialogues are advertised as steps toward Utopia, they will lead only to disappointment. Creative conversation and common action will not mean that terrorism in the name of Allah or counterterrorism in the name of God will disappear. (See, for example, Nigeria.) Yet, wherever there are genuine efforts to build upon the better moments of the Islamic and Christian pasts, and upon empathic efforts of present-day leaders, we can profit from contributions to a climate that will slow the advance of extremism. Such efforts offer the vast majority of peace-loving Muslims and Christians some measure of hope, as well as the chance for better approaches to issues that separate their communities.
* Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago, co-director of the "Fundamentalism Project" and an "On Faith" panellist. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.
Source: On Faith, 25 July 2007, www.newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/
Reprinted with permission from On Faith(www.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/), an online conversation on religion on washingtonpost.com and Newsweek.com.
(c) Copyright 2007, Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive. All rights Reserved.
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