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Why engage in interfaith dialogue?


10 September 2008

I was recently asked to set down my thoughts on interfaith dialogue and how it should be conducted, if at all. Having done so, I thought it might be worth sharing with a wider audience.

My own experience of interfaith dialogue is almost entirely Muslim / Jewish although I do have some limited experience of dialogue also involving Christians.

As a preliminary point, one needs to consider the goals of engaging in interfaith dialogue. The goal is clearly not to convert the people with whom one is having dialogue. Apart from being an unrealistic ambition, I believe that no one comes to Islam unless Allah calls them. Instead, I see the benefits of dialogue being as follows:

  1. It significantly improves your understanding of the "other". While you can learn a significant amount about another religion from books, talking to people who practice that religion about what they believe, what they do and how they feel about it transforms your knowledge and more importantly your understanding. At its most trivial, reading books will not get you the experience of what it is like to attend a synagogue and take part in Jewish prayers.
  2. Dialogue helps the people with whom you are talking to understand Islam. Most Jews or Christians know few, if any, Muslims. Their experience of dealing with Muslims is limited to situations such as the workplace where you never talk in any depth about your religion, what you practice and how you feel about it. By taking part in interfaith dialogue, you can help Jews and Christians to understand that Muslims are intelligent, sympathetic people who can discuss their differences with members of other religions while remaining completely confident in their own Islam.
  3. A paradoxical benefit of engaging in interfaith dialogue is that it helps you to understand Islam much better. You may have been brought up practising the religion but that is not the same as studying it in depth to find out how it addresses fundamental issues. I have had to do a significant amount of research on the Quran and the Hadith when preparing for my formal interfaith dialogue discussions. I regarded it as essential to put forward propositions which are firmly grounded in the texts rather than being at risk of simply conveying my own assumptions about what I think Islam says. I have found such research illuminating.

Interfaith dialogue helps society as a whole by producing better mutual understanding among the believers of different religions.

Looking specifically at the Muslim and Jewish communities, Muslims have an enormous amount to gain by combining with Jews on issues of mutual interest. For example, every so often the animal welfare lobby tries to persuade the government to ban kosher and halal slaughter. It is extremely helpful to Muslims that this issue affects Jews as well; although the absolute numbers of the Jewish community in the UK are relatively small they are well represented in the media and politics. Similarly, the most effective opposition against Alan Johnson's recent attempt to force all religious schools to take a high proportion of children from outside that religion came from the Jewish community.

It similarly helps the Jewish community on such issues to have the support of the Muslim community. When it comes to absolute numbers, there are only about 250,000 - 400,000 Jews in this country, so having the support of about two million Muslims adds weight on issues affecting both communities.

I started getting involved in interfaith activities about four years ago when the Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester was set up under the leadership of Afzal Khan CBE (recent Lord Mayor of Manchester) and the late Henry Guterman MBE, past president of the Jewish Representative Council in Manchester. I was also one of the founders and serve on the body's Council and as Treasurer.

What has made the Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester a success is the concentration on small-scale, often informal dialogue focused on issues that are directly relevant to the Muslim and Jewish communities in Greater Manchester. We recognise that we are in no position to directly influence the situation in Palestine and furthermore debating it would be an endless and divisive process. Accordingly we simply decided that such non-UK matters were off-limits to the forum, and instead concentrate on what we can influence, which is the situation in Greater Manchester.


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