Leonard Swidler and AbdurRahman Abou Almajd on a Bridge to Islamic-Christian Dialogue.
We have a fresh opportunity to reflect about interfaith dialogue.
At this point Leonard Swidler isn’t going to talk about his views on
Islamic- Catholic dialogue only but also speaks about interfaith dialogue too.
Leonard Swidler is Professor of Catholic Thought and Interreligious Dialogue at Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he has taught since 1966. He is the co-founder (in 1964, with Arlene Swidler) and editor of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies (quarterly).
He is also the founder/president of the Dialogue Institute — Interreligious, Intercultural, International (founded 1978), and the founder/president of the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church (1980–).
Swidler has published over 80 books and 200 articles. He has lectured on Catholicism, Ecumenism, Interreligious Dialogue, and Global Ethics all over the world, including Austria, Bangladesh, Bosnia, Brazil, Canada, China, Egypt, England, Germany, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea, Lebanon, Macedonia, Malaysia, Morocco, Myanmar, Pakistan, Poland, Republic of Congo, Romania, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Sudan, Switzerland, Taiwan, Tunisia, and, of course, the United States.
Q: You are a Catholic scholar, How better to make peace with ones neighbors (the Muslims) ?
LS: The main reason for the lack of peace among people is fear, which arises mainly from not knowing the person or thing feared. If we can get to know the person(s) we don’t really know—but often have just a second- or third-hand image of them—we find out that basically that almost everyone wants the same thing. People want the necessities of life for themselves and loved ones, and an opportunity to live their lives in peace and harmony. That means that each of us needs to reach out and listen to our unknown neighbor. We do far too much talking at our neighbors, and far too little listening to them. If we listen carefully and long enough, we find that we have vastly more in common that separates us—and that lessens our fear of the unknown. The stranger then more and more becomes a neighbor. Then we need to recall, and practice, the Golden Rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself!”
Q: Trialogue. Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Dialogue. could you elaborate on that please?
LS: As far as I know, the first serious Trialogue among Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholars started in 1978 when Sargent Shriver, brother-in-law of U.S. President John F. Kennedy and the Founder of the United States Peace Corps, asked me and my friend Eugene Fisher to bring together ten Jewish, ten Christian, and ten Muslim scholars to launch a scholars Trialogue. For the next years we met semi-annually under aegis of the Kennedy Institute for Ethics in Washington, D.C., and since the latter 1990s annually under the sponsorship of the Dialogue Institute, and known as the International Scholars Abrahamic Trialogue (ISAT)—see Leonard Swidler, “Trialogue: Out of the Shadows into Blazing ‘Desert’ Sun!” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 45,3 (Summer, 2010), pp. 493-509.
Q:You edited of the book series: Religions In Dialogue, could you elaborate on that please?
LS: The term “dialogue,” coming from the Greek, dia (across or together) and logos (thinking and then word), means thinking and talking together. In the area of intra- and inter-religious matters since about the middle of the twentieth century it has come to mean “I want to talk with you who think differently from me so I can learn.” This approach to the Other is totally different from what all humans practiced until about 75 years ago. For millennia we humans assumed that if you thought differently than me, you were simply mistaken, and we had the obligation to teach you the truth, which we of course had. However, starting in the nineteenth century we humans began to increasingly learn that “all knowledge is partial.” If you are one side of a house and I am on another, you can carefully describe what you see—and your statement will be true, it will accurately describe that side of the house. If I on my side also carefully describe what I see of the house, my statement will also be true, that is, it will accurately describe this side of the house. Both your description of the house and my description will be true, but they will not be the same! Both are only partial. Now, if this is true of a simple physical thing as a house, how much more is it true of the most complicated thing in the world, Religion, which purports to describe the TOTAL meaning of life, and how to live accordingly!—that is, the “House of Humanity”? As this reality of how ALL human understanding is always partial increasingly spread, more and more people began to see that Dialogue, learning from other persons (as in the example of seeing only part of the “House of Humanity”), became absolutely necessary—and especially in that most complicated discipline of all, Religion. In brief, we began to say: “NOBODY knows EVERYTHING about ANYTHING! Therefore DIALOGUE!”
Q: Why do you think Catholic writers on the Qur’an and Prophet Muhammad often have a negative view of both?
LS: It must be remembered that almost from the first existence of Islam, right after the Prophet died, Muslim warriors attacked Christianized nations, sweeping all across North Africa, into Spain up to Northern France (Tours), and continued the military attack on Christianized nations all during subsequent centuries, conquering Constantinople in 1452, then all the Balkans, besieging Vienna in 1529, and again as late as 1683. Because all this was done when everywhere in the world there was a “union of religion and state,” of course any protestation by Muslim religious leaders that Islam was totally peaceful in its aim sounded hollow and deceitful. The much protested by Muslims Crusades were, from an overview perspective nothing more than a counter-offensive by Christianized nations to take back lands previously militarily seized by Muslim armies. In this over a millennium long history of almost constant warfare between “Islamic” and “Christian” empires and nations of course the view of the Other was largely that of an enemy, and the “Christian” view of the spiritual leader of the enemy, Mohammed, was of course, also that of the “Enemy.” Such “insider-outsider” views tend to appear in all conflicts. For example, the Catholic scholarship on the initiator of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, tended to be extremely derogatory, shifting only as late as the 1940s (see my book The Ecumenical Vanguard. Pittsburgh, Duquesne University Press, 1966). More balanced scholarship about Islam and the Prophet likewise began to appear only in the middle of the twentieth century—when the rise of Dialogue Movement began to occur. Consequently, there now are many more balanced, dialogue-oriented Christian views of Islam and Mohammed.
Q: You invited at dialogue and its role in defending prophet Muhammad conference. I wonder how you like prophet Muhammad’s dialogues with the other.
LS: Let me try to comment on this and the previous question together. Neither the Prophet nor anyone else before a hundred and fifty years ago thought of “dialogue” as it is now used in the area of religion—as I described above. Hence, we should not expect to find the Prophet carrying on dialogues as we attempt to do today. However, the Prophet is always portrayed as respecting those of other religions, particularly Jews and Christians. He also is shown as learning from others, again particularly Jews and Christians. Were he alive in today’s Dialogue culture, he doubtless would be leading the way of Dialogue as we understand and use it today, that is, deliberately talking with those who think differently from us so WE can learn.
Q: What about the future of American Islamic novels?
LS: I suppose you are asking here about the role novels which are about Muslims living in America might have in building bridges between American Muslims and non-Muslims? My reading of novels is extremely limited, and in my scanning reviews about new novels, I confess that I cannot think of any such novels that I read about. However, it seems to me that novels that portray Muslims in sympathetic ways will have a positive role in tearing down the walls of ignorance between Muslims and non-Muslims. Presumably the same would be true about modern sympathetic novels about Christians and Jews written in Arabic and distributed in the Muslin world.
Q: No doubt the Western media has set up Islam as a big threat to the civilized world but you were against this kind of flawed and mischievous reading of Islam is his contribution to clearing some prejudices before the much needed dialogue between Christian and Muslim. Calling for a New Dialogue between Islam and Christianity, I would in principle be interested in making true dialogue. Do you agree with me on this principle "To come to a word equal to us and you - that we worship none but God, and that we associate no partner with him, and that some of us don’t take others for Lords beside God."?
LS: There are basically two separate, though related, questions here, and I would like to treat them separately. First, we need to stop blaming the news media for the negative image of Islam. The media for the most part simply is doing its job, namely reporting what is happening in the world. And the facts are that there are Muslims who are deliberately using Islam as an instrument of destruction—think, for example, of Muslim suicide-bombers! Now, the vast majority of Muslims claim that such acts of violence are contrary to Islam, and those non-Muslims who know anything about Islam realize that Islam, like all religions, is committed to peace.
That means at least three things must be done by Muslims, in my judgment—we non-Muslims also have responsibilities in this area (we need to learn in a an open-minded way about more Islam, and reach out in dialogue to Muslims, even more than we have already), but these vital following measures can only be taken my Muslims.
1. Denounce widely, loudly, and long such violence done in the name of Islam, declaring that it is a betrayal of Islam! This must be done repeatedly, and not by just one or two Muslim voices. If in fact a billion Muslims reject such violence in the name of Islam, there need to be something close to at least one million out of the one thousand million Muslims who shout one way or another: No! This is not Islam!
2. Closely related, Muslims must develop alternate paths of communicating the positive image, and reality, of Islam. For example, the New York Times ran a story (December 26. 2013) by journalist Carlotta Gall: “Archbishop and Imam Are United Across Battle Lines in Central African Republic.” Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed, National Director of the Office for Interfaith and Community Alliances of the Islamic Society of North America (www.ISNA.net) very creatively forwarded this positive article about Islam to his ever widening email network of of mon-Muslims. Other Muslims need to become equally creative and energetic and make the positive, peace-loving dimensions of Islam widely known through new, creative means of communication: e.g., blogs, listservs, facebook, twitter….
3. Most important, Muslims need to transform and modernize the teaching of Islam to the masses of Muslims, stressing their shared humanity with non-Muslims. See the excellent writings on the history of Islamic education by my friend Prof. Fazlur Rahman (unfortunately now dead). With such education such anti-Islam ideas as suicide bombers could gain no support among the masses of Muslims, but young Muslims—in contact with young Jews, Christians, and others—would become builders of Bridges of Peace!
The second part of your question above speaks about the working together with all believers in one God, all monotheists. Now this is extremely important to do, especially as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam make up more than half of the world’s present population!
At the same time, however, I think that it is also extremely important for us members of the monotheist Abrahamic religions also to be open to and engage in Dialogue with members of those other religions—and with those of no religion! Think of the billion+ Chinese and the billion+ Indians. Think of the hundreds of millions of secular humanists. They too are fully human; they too can teach us in Dialogue, for they see yet another side of the “House of Humanity” which we monotheists do not see from our side of the House!
AbdurRahman Abou Almajd: Thank you very much.
Leonard Swidler : You are most welcome, and may I invite your readers to engage me in positive Dialogue, wherein each of us comes to learn from the other: email@example.com.
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