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Confronting Our Internal Voices

By Mohammed Abu-Nimer


….. Acknowledging the enormous challenges any tradition has in confronting its own destructive tendencies, one has to ask, in order to embrace the constructive, healthy, beautiful dimensions of our traditions, how do we deal with our shortcomings? How do we call out and transform religion when it is destructive? What can we do personally, corporately, to promote the ‘light’?

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One of the main challenges in dialogue is reflecting on our own shortcoming and limits in dealing with conflict and its dynamics, particularly in relating to people from the other side/s. Self-examination and reflection constitutes the ultimate, central aspect of the dialogical process. Facilitators who seek transformative experiences in dialogue always seek moments when the participants in a group engage in identifying and exploring destructive patterns of thoughts, attitudes, and behavior that have been obstructing their capacity to constructively interact with the each other. Most participants find walking this path painful and risky, especially in deep rooted conflicts where people are raised on distrust and animosity towards other communities.

In the context of interfaith dialogue, I find self-examination of our own traditions (beliefs, rituals, institutions, and history) even more challenging for participants. In fact, many interfaith dialogue programs come without a hint of self-examination, without any critique of one’s own faith tradition and its role in perpetuating violence, exclusion, and discrimination of others.

As a result, many interfaith encounters are perceived and characterized as opportunities for participants of different faith groups to share, but only their common positive goals and beliefs. This can create an important safe space for developing harmonious relationships; but it is only an introductory step. Underneath many of these interreligious exchanges lurks another layer, which can include attitudes of exclusivism, absolute beliefs in core “truths,” and motivation in some followers to demonize or act violently against other faith groups. Then the big hurdle: because hardly anyone thinks of him or herself as bigoted, intolerant, or violent, this layer – the shadow – is often hidden from our consciousness, buried subconsciously, emotionally, and therefore difficult to confront.

Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople by Gustave Doré (1832–1883) – Photo: Wikipedia

Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople by Gustave Doré (1832–1883) – Photo: Wikipedia

In assisting dialogue to move from the comfortable zone of a “harmony narrative” into an uncomfortable lens of critical self-examination and reflection, I have used the following exercise:

Participants are asked to consider their own faith tradition and to “identify and discuss beliefs, values, rituals, and practices that exist in your own faith which have been utilized/manipulated to cause exclusion, discrimination, violence, or animosity against other faith groups or communities.” Be forewarned though; since this discussion in mixed faith groups is challenging and risky, it should only be introduced and explored after participants have built a basic trusting relationship with each other and feel safe enough, as a group, to venture into a reflective self-critical exchange.

The outcome of discovering that your own faith traditions and some of your core beliefs have in reality been utilized as an instrument to provoke violence and prejudice against other faith groups generates all sorts of different feelings. Reactions can include shame, shock, defensiveness, confusion, denial, regret, and/or a sense of new learning and insight, with a deeper, more nuanced understanding of one’s own faith. Nurturing this critical discourse, processing the meaning of our self-ascribed or imposed identities, including our religious and spiritual identities, is an essential component in building constructive relationships among faith communities.

Interfaith or intrafaith groups who have explored how beliefs and practices can lead to violence and exclusion, discover how their faith practices are perceived in other communities and the effects they generate. Through this process, followers of Christianity realize how certain of their beliefs and practices have led to enormous bloodshed in the name of Christ; for example, the Crusades, or the doctrine of “no salvation outside of the Church.”

Similarly, some interpretations of the belief in being a “chosen people” have led certain Jewish groups to engage in violence and atrocities against Palestinians and Arabs. The belief in jihad in Islam has been used to justify horrendous acts of violence against other faith communities. This manipulation of religious beliefs and practices is not exclusive to Abrahamic faith groups. Hindus in India and Buddhists in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Burma have engaged in such violence.

Critical self-examination ought to be an integral part of any serious interfaith and intrafaith dialogue. The success and failure of these encounters can be measured by how participants have strengthened and gained new insight into their capacity to confront the destructive forces in their own faith.

The Dialogue Starts at Home

We cannot rely only on interfaith space to counter the manipulation of religious belief and practice for violence and exclusion. We need to start the process within each of our religious institutions. In this context we can ask questions such as –

Why do some groups in my own faith succeed in mobilizing followers to acts of “religious violence”?
What is it in our faith that seems to provide space and legitimacy for violence and exclusion?
Historically how did political agendas and power shape and influence how we understand and construct our own faith, beliefs, and practices?
What does it mean to deprive other groups from the right to practice their faith?

Integrating these questions into the religious education offered to both children and adults, in seminaries and public schools, is a crucial step in preventing prejudice and religiously motivated violence.

Then Buddhist monks in Burma or Sri Lanka will not be able to easily mobilize their religious constituencies and justify their attacks on Muslims. Christian evangelical missionary groups will have less support for their massive efforts to convert indigenous communities in Africa, Latin America, or Asia. Certain Christian groups will not be able to use scripture to justify U.S. domestic or international policies in the “War against Terror.” Similarly certain Muslim groups will be unable to justify the massive sectarian, intra-Muslim violence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Nigeria. Jewish right-wing politicians and settlers in Israel will find it more challenging to justify violence against Palestinians in the occupied territories and inside Israel.

In addition to integrating self-critical examination of discourse in religious education and interfaith dialogue, legal regulations need to be reformed and enforced to hold individuals and groups accountable when they call for exclusion and violence in the name of a specific faith. In most of the religious conflicts mentioned above, religious values and practice have been abused and manipulated to serve political ends with complacency or explicit support of the local political establishments. For example, without the implicit endorsement of the Burmese government, Buddhist monks would not be able to publically mobilize for violence. Similarly, governments in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Israel, and many more would choose not to confront the voices of religious bigotry and violence.

Shalom, Salam, Peace – Graphic: Wikipedia

Shalom, Salam, Peace – Graphic: Wikipedia

Addressing the destructive forces in faith traditions cannot be accomplished with weapons and bombs. A primary lesson we’ve learned in countering terrorism is that no matter how much weaponry you deploy, without the active engagement of the local communities, violent ideologies cannot be successfully confronted or delegitimized.

Governments can continue fighting religiously motivated violence through traditional national security measures and military means. However this approach is limited in its capacity to change people’s perceptions and beliefs. On the contrary, followers of any ideology will not question their identity when they are under attack, aggression which only inspires further defensive resistance. For example, in the West, Muslim preachers can continue calling for correcting the image of Islam and Muslims here; but without safe, constructive engagement between Muslims and communities here, old stereotyped images will continue to thrive.

Historically, all religious traditions – along with major secular ideologies – have had their share of violent followers, justifying themselves with supposedly religious, ethical beliefs and practices. To enhance the capacity of individuals to confront destructive and exclusionary voices in their own communities, we need to intentionally insure shared and safe spaces in which we can see our own image and critically ask ourselves: What is our image of the other? and How do they perceive us?

Considering the degree and scope of structural and cultural violence in global human relations, creating safe spaces for serious dialogue should be a top priority of all international institutions. Our advanced technology and evolving media capabilities can provide us with enormous potential to meet, learn, and connect with each other in less threatening and exclusionary ways.