On Dialogue


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Asghar Ali Engineer

       Increasing inter-religious and intercultural conflicts throughout the world has made it very necessary to promote inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue. The reasons of these conflicts are many. The world has been divided into north south poles, north being highly developed and south afflicted with underdevelopment and mass illiteracy and poverty. The educated youth in the South does not find jobs to fulfil its aspirations. It looks to the North for better paid jobs. Also, most of these underdeveloped countries were once colonies of the North and hence people from these former colonies are attracted towards the metropolitan countries. When large number of people migrate the native white people resent and racial tensions intensify, specially when there is economic downturn in the metropolitan countries and available jobs are few to go around. Though the underlying causes may be economic or political, the conflict expresses itself through religious or cultural channels. Though ultimately tensions could be reduced only by addressing economic causes, its religio-cultural tensions also need to be tackled effectively. The religious and cultural expressions do great deal of damage and spread misunderstanding even among others who are not affected directly by the economic downturn. Due to high pitched propaganda by extremely vocal sections of fundamentalists, cultural and religious prejudices spread like wild fire. 
       The media also plays very important role in spreading these prejudices. The media, needless to say, is more interested in sensational news than sensible constructive news. Repeated negative reportings in the media leads to widespread prejudices against certain religious or cultural groups. It is well known fact that Islam bashing goes on in the western media. It is very important to understand that the western countries led by the USA adopt extremely hostile attitude towards certain Islamic countries like Iran, Libya, Iraq who dare defy the USA authorities. The USA not only punishes them severely (as for example bombings on Iraq or on pharmaceutical factory in Sudan etc.) but also starts a propaganda war against Islam and Islamic countries in their media. Also, out of sheer frustration, some militant youth carry out violent attacks on some American establishments (for example, explosions on the World Trade Centre a few years ago). As a result of all this an average American has terrible prejudices against Islam and Muslims. Islam is thought to be a religion of fanaticism and violence. 
       Similarly the internal extremist violence in Algeria has spilled over to France. The Algerian extremists carried out some bombing attacks in Paris too as it believes the Government of France collaborates with the Algerian authorities in wiping out Muslim militants. Naturally this leads to strong prejudices among the French against Islam. The Germans are facing a severe economic recession these days and there is wide ranging unemployment touching as high a level as 12%. But during the sixties when German economy was booming and foreign labour was needed large number of Turks were brought to Germany. Now with economic recession the Turks are looked down upon and tensions between the Germans and Turks has increased. 
       Due to ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka a large number of Tamils have also migrated to several European countries including Germany. In last few years quite a few attacks have taken place on Tamils by neo-Nazis. It is strange but true that it is in East Germany which was formerly under the Communist rule that neo-Nazi movement is spreading and the East German Youths are involved in the attacks on the Tamils and Turks. This is because the levels of unemployment among the East Germans is far higher than the national average. It is supposed to be as high as 20-25%. And hence like an average American, an average German is highly prejudiced against Islam and Muslims as well as against Tamils. The migration of Muslims from Bosnia has further aggravated this religio-cultural conflict. 
       Apart from the religious and cultural conflict in the west there is increasing conflicts among different religious and cultural groups within the developing countries in Asia and Africa. Hindus and Muslims in India (and now Hindus and Christians too), Muslims and Christians in some African countries like in Nigeria and Sudan are embroiled in conflict. Similarly various ethnic and cultural groups within these countries are involved in mutual violence for example Bodos versus other tribals in Assam, Nagas and Meitis in Manipur, Bengalis and tribals in Tripura and so on. There are also prejudices against South Indian in North and Western India. The Shiv Sena is a militant Maharashtrian Hindu organisation in Bombay which attacks both Muslims and South Indians. It has spread militancy among the Maharshtrian youth. 
       There are various reasons for such conflicts mainly political and also economic in some cases. The developmental processes are quite uneven and leads to in-migration from rural to urban and from less developed urban to more developed urban areas. Thus one finds different religious and cultural groups jostling with each other in these urban areas. Thus one finds more conflict in Urban than rural areas. Rural areas are more homogeneous and less amenable to such conflicts. Many urban areas have become real hotbeds of ethnic or religious or cultural conflicts. Each religious or ethnic group wants to establish its own domination in a particular area and wants to cleanse it of other 'polluting' groups. And to mobilise members of their own group religious or cultural discourse is used thus creating strong prejudices in the minds of the other religious or cultural groups. 
       It should, however, be noted that it is not a new phenomenon. Throughout history there have been such migrations from one country to another and from one area within a country to other areas. These conflicts are also not new. The Christians and Muslims fought on the question of control over Palestine and these wars in history are known as the crusades. The zeal with which these wars were fought between Christians and Muslims made 'crusade' synonymous with zeal and a new phrase 'crusading spirit' came into existence. 
       It was these crusades which caused great deal of misunderstanding about Islam in western countries during the medieval period. The image of Muslims Qur'an in one hand, and sword in the other', was creation of these crusades. Similarly, the Muslim invasions on North India led to image of Islam as violent religion in the minds of many Hindus (though quite a few Hindus were collaborators in these invasions). These images are being revived in the modern context to serve contemporary political interests. However, due to propaganda hype an average Hindu thinks of Muslims as fanatic and violent. The media again plays an important role in spreading such ideas and images. The whole Ramjanambhoomi-Babri Masjid movement drew its vigour and zeal from such images. Muslims were seen as fanatical Hindu temple bashers by an average Hindu. The BJP, itself a Hindu fundamentalist party, played an important role for mobilising the Hindu electoral support.  In medieval ages such mass mobilization for political purposes was not required and the monarchs could maintain inter-religious balance in their own interests. In modern times compulsions of democratic mobilization has its own logic. Masses are sought to be manipulated by political interests. This manipulation is made easy by the might of mass media. Such medium did not exist in the old times. Thus we see that need for manipulation of the masses and the role played by the media - and now not only print but also electronic media - plays great role in spreading inter-religious and inter-cultural prejudices. 
       The images about some religion or culture built by media may not be true but can play absolute havoc by spreading strong prejudices against particular group. The role of media has become extremely crucial in modern times. Electronic media is even more  so. But the media can play very constructive role too provided it has interest in promotion of better inter-religious or inter-cultural understanding. It should also be pointed out that entire media is not responsible for sensationalising the conflict. A section of print and electronic media does play a very positive role in this regard. It is for those interested in inter-religious or inter-cultural dialogue to make proper use of both print and electronic media. We have to do everything possible to promote this dialogical spirit among the conflicting groups. 


       Dialoguing is the only way out for promoting better understanding between the conflicting groups. As the spread of misinformation through whatever means is largely responsible for misunderstanding dissemination of correct information is highly necessary to contain the conflict. This can most effectively be done through dialoguing. We would like to throw light on the rules and processes of such inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogues. 
       The dialogue can take place between different kinds of groups: 1) political groups; 2) religious groups and 3) supporters of political or religious groups. Also, there are different levels of dialogue and a comprehensive process of dialoguing will involve all these levels. It can take place at the level of political or religious leaders; at the level of intellectuals from different groups and also at the level of masses. The nature of dialogue will vary at these levels. 
       At the level of intellectuals it will be more of analysis of events and understanding of the nature of forces involved in promoting conflict. At this level the dialogue will also deal with the strategies of promoting inter-religious and inter-cultural harmony. At the political level the dialogue may deal with those politicians who believe in secular politics and oppose based on ideological convictions, the politics of religious or cultural confrontation. At political level the dialogue may comprise strategies of bringing secular alliances to isolate the communal and fundamental forces. 
       At the religious level, the dialogue, on the other hand, will have to deal with religious and theological aspects. A religion too has to be understood at different levels i.e. at the level of rituals, theology, institutions and values. While rituals, theologies and institutions might vary from religion to religion, values are bound to be complementary. For example Hinduism emphasises non-violence and Buddhism compassion; Christianity emphasises love and Islam justice and equality. It will be seen that all these values are complementary to each other. 
       Rituals, theologies and institutions are unique to every religion and this often leads to misunderstandings. Each religious tradition emphasises importance of certain rituals and theological dogmas as central to that religious tradition and also exerts superiority of its own rituals and theology. For example the Islamic system of worship prohibits worshipping or bowing before idols. Islam lays central stress on unity of God and considers associating any other being with Him as a sin. The Hindus, on the other hand, believe in idol worship and bow before idols. These differences often lead to violent conflict between the two communities in India. However, it is also to be noted that this conflict is not promoted by religious leaders as much as by political leaders who hardly care for religious rituals and dogmas. 
       But that does not mean that religious leaders do not differ. These differences, for a proper dialogue, have to be understood and appreciated rather than fought about. Many sufis and bhakti saints did precisely that. They not only tried to appreciate these differences but also often tried to even reconcile them. Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, for example, showed great respect both for Islam and Hinduism and worked out a creative synthesis between the two. He had great regard for Sufis of Islamic tradition and included the verses of Baba Farid, a great Sufi saint from Punjab, into his Adi Granth. 
       Dara Shikoh, the Moghul prince who was greatly interested in sufi traditions had deep appreciation of Hindu religious traditions and he wrote a treatise called Majma' al-Bahrayn (i.e. meeting of two great oceans Hinduism and Islam). He compared, in this treatise, the terminologies of both the religions and showed striking similarities between the two. He also believed, and believed so on the basis of comparative study of Islamic and Hindu scriptures that Hinduism though apparently polytheistic, was not; and quoting Upanishads, the sacred Hindu scriptures, showed that basically Hinduism too is a monotheistic religion. 
       Another Sufi saint of eighteenth century India, Mazhar Jan-i-Janan believed that idol worship among Hindus is not essentially polytheistic as idols are a way to reach God, not God by themselves. Much earlier, Muhiyuddin Ibn Arabi, an 11th Century Sufi Saint from Spain laid central emphasis on love of God and considered his heart as centre of love and hence centre of God. According to his doctrine of wahdat al-wujud entire creation is the manifestation of God and hence all barriers between human beings following different religious traditions are artificial and needed to be demolished. His was truly a universalistic approach. These sufi saints laid more emphasis on spirituality rather than rituals and hence they could visualise the basic unity among all faith traditions. 
       The Hindu scriptures also talk of equal respect for all religions and religious traditions. The Bhakti saints in the Hindu tradition laid great emphasis, like the Sufis, on intense love in the form of bhakti i.e. devotion to God, the Supreme Being. For them too rituals were secondary and it is spirituality which was fundamental. In the Christian traditions too, the mystics stressed spirituality and devotion to God. 
       But this does not mean that rituals and theologies do not matter for the people. There are millions of people who give great importance to their respective ritual and theological systems. An inter-religious dialogue should, as the very basis of the dialogue should accept the central importance of the ritual and theological systems. Here I would like to lay down some ground rules for inter-religious dialogue. The following rules would be of great help in carrying on inter-religious dialogue: 
1) Those who enter into dialogue should be firmly rooted in their faith tradition and should have inner conviction. It is true conviction without being sectarian which becomes the firm ground for dialogue.
2) There should not be any feeling of superiority of their respective traditions in the minds of dialogue partners. The feeling of superiority can mar the very spirit of dialogue.
3)  Dialogue should never become polemics. Polemical style is he very anti-thesis of dialogue. Polemics try to prove the other wrong while dialogue is conducted to understand the other. 
4)  Dialogue should not only be conducted to understand the other but also should respect the integrity of the other. No dialogue can be conducted if there is no respect for integrity and convictions of the other.
5)  The idea of dialogue should be to explain ones point of view and not to convert the other to ones own point of view. Even a slightest attempt to convert the other to ones point of view will destroy the spirit of dialogue. It will then be an attempt at conversion and this will lead to resentment. Attempt at conversion also implies that the person sought to be  converted has belief system not as good as that of the convertor.
6)  The dialogue partners should be prepared to recognise the uniqueness of the others belief, ritual or theological systems. It is this uniqueness which makes it different. It is not the question of right or wrong, but rather of uniqueness and diversity.
7)  The dialogue partners should also recognise that diversity is the very basis of life. Without diversity life will become drab and would loose all its charm. The Qur'an not only accepts this diversity but also legitimises it. It is Allah's desire to have diversity (5:48; 2:148). Lack of diversity and enforcing one faith system or one ideological system can ultimately lead to fascism and authoritarianism. Thus theological states, like ideological ones, tend to be highly authoritarian.
8)  Dialogue should promote the spirit of accommodation and adjustment to minimise conflict in the society. The dialogical spirit consists in appreciating others difficulties and complexities of their situation. Accommodation is the very essence of dialogical culture.
9)  One has to understand the difference between dialogue and monologue for effective dialoguing. The desire to dominate in the dialogue leads to monologue. Each dialogue partner should get equal opportunity to explain her/his point of view. Dialogue can take place only in true democratic spirit recognising the rights of all concerned in the dialogue. 
10)  Lastly one must understand that an effective dialoguing is possible only when not only listens to the others point of view but understands and appreciates it in the given context. Even the scriptural text has to be situated in a particular context unless it be a value-statement. Criticism of the text is often based on ignorance of the context. 
       If these ground rules are followed in inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogues the result will be quite encouraging. No country today can boast of being strictly mono-religious and or mono-cultural. The rapid means of transportation have brought most diverse religious and cultural groups together in every country. And one wants it or not one has to live with such diversity. One cannot wish it away. Some groups will be in numerical majority, others in minority. Or several minorities put together can constitute majority as is likely to happen in Canada in near future. The mosaic model of society can retain its beauty only in harmony; conflict will only reduce this mosaic into complete disjunction due to stress and strain. 
       Lastly I would also like to refer to what is called the dialogue of life and this dialogue is continuously taking place at the level of the masses. The dialogue of life consists in living together with all its problems and stresses and strains and sharing each others joys and woes in human partnership. We witness this living in togetherness and celebration of life at the level of masses. There are no theories, theologies and concepts to quarrel about; there are only problems and difficulties to be shared together. This is real dialogue of life, a dialogue through living together and sharing together. 


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Last updated: February 23, 2000 .