We often think of education in the context of a classroom environment, where one teaches and the others learn; a monologue between the learned and the one seeking to learn. No doubt, classroom environments and traditional learning are very important elements of education. However, when we reflect on what we know, we very quickly realize that learning through experience adds immense color and depth to the knowledge we possess. Not only is our knowledge developed, but our whole being can be impacted through experiences.
The learning that takes place through interfaith dialogue is one such example. The insight, emotions and experience generated by interfaith dialogue simply cannot be generated through reading textbooks. The color and depth that dialogue can add to understanding other's faiths, one's own faith, human psychology and society can in no way be attained through theoretical knowledge.
However, not everyone gains depth and understanding from such dialogue experiences. While some attain great levels of knowledge and wisdom, others gain nothing. Why is this so? How can two people with the same experience have such differing responses? There are three important principles which ensure that interfaith dialogue can be a teaching experience; firstly, to appreciate that interaction and sharing between people of different faiths is an important constituent of the learning experience. Secondly, to feel comfortable in knowing that interfaith dialogue and education about the “other” does not lead to confusion or conversion. Thirdly, to have the vision that dialogue can lead to cooperation.
In a globalized world where cultural and religious diversity is manifest, more awareness of the existence of other faiths and other worldviews outside our own immediate circle and society means increased interaction between people of different faiths and backgrounds. The need for knowing the “other” at some level becomes critical; lack of knowledge and interaction can dangerously reinforce the notion that the “other” is somehow alien. The moment the “other” is perceived as alien or foreign we enter unsafe grounds. As a result, education and dialogue have become strong instruments that are imperative for people seeking peace, ensuring that the “other” is not so alien.
A great deal has been written on the importance of learning through interfaith dialogue. In an article entitled “The Necessity of Interfaith Dialogue,” Dr. Yucel highlights the importance of interfaith dialogue in educating ourselves about the “other”: “The root of conflict is ignorance and ignorance is the source of prejudice. To get to know each other through dialogue is essential for the establishment of a world peace.” Swidler explains how the consequences of not having dialogue can be quite serious, even deadly: “We can no longer ignore ‘the other,’ but we can close our minds and spirits to them, look at them with fear and misunderstanding, come to resent them, and perhaps even to hate them. This way of encounter can all too easily lead to hostility and, eventually, war and death.”
Due to the importance of knowing the “other,” interfaith dialogue has been taken very seriously in multi-faith Australia. There is great diversity in Australia, not only within the Christian population, but also within the non-Christian population. 64% of the Australian population is Christian. The largest Christian denominations are: Catholic (25.8% of the population) followed by Anglican (18.7%) and the Uniting Church (5.7%). The number of people affiliated with non-Christian faiths has almost doubled in Australia in the past 10 years. The largest non-Christian religions are Buddhism (2.1%), Islam (1.7%), Hinduism (0.7%) and Judaism (0.4%).
There are many organizations in Australia that are involved in interfaith dialogue. These organizations have been established by individuals of different faith backgrounds. Affinity Intercultural Foundation is an example of such an organization that was established by a group of young Australian Muslims in early 2001 in order to facilitate the interaction of the Muslim community with the members of other faiths and to increase the awareness and understanding of the Muslim community by the wider Australian society. Affinity has organized numerous events and projects to foster dialogue between different faiths and cultures.
Initiatives undertaken by Affinity Intercultural Foundation will be used to explain the three important aspects of interfaith dialogue that enable progressive learning.
Education through interaction and sharing can achieve many outcomes which cannot be achieved through the reading of text books, even if one was to read volumes and volumes of text books.
Whenever we interact with each other, our ignorance is highlighted and we realize that there is clearly a gap in our knowledge of one another. We make assumptions, we stereotype and we pretend we know when we don’t. We come to the realization that we have no idea about certain things or that what we knew was incorrect.
Through interactions, we ask, we witness, we experience, and we learn. This type of learning becomes internalized because it has been experienced.
Sharing of sacred times is a good example of such learning; non-Muslims going to Muslim homes for iftar (breaking of the fast) during the month of Ramadan, Muslims visiting the church at Easter or Christmas or the synagogue for Sukkot or Hanukkah.
I have been told that entering a home where the last minute iftar preparations are taking place is quite a unique experience for a non-Muslim. The realization that nothing, absolutely nothing has been eaten all day and the witnessing of that first meal, is quite profound. So profound that it leads to many questions: Did you get really hungry today? How does fasting help you to connect with God? Does fasting make you feel more humble? As the meal is shared, the conversation leads from one topic to another.
The experience becomes even more interesting when the non-Muslim guests choose to fast for the day, purely to share the experience with their Muslim hosts. It becomes a trigger for further discussion as individuals reflect on their experience of fasting.
Such interactions and sharing can be defined as multi-dimensional education, as there is so much learning taking place through our words, actions, experiences, emotions and thoughts. Similarly, there is so much we learn from observing the experience of the other individuals. It is a learning which is alive and positively life-changing, an experience that cannot be replaced through the reading of volumes and volumes of textbooks.
A common misconception about interfaith dialogue is that listening to others talk about their faith will lead to confusion about our own faith. Some also believe that there is a danger that we will settle for the “lowest common denominator” or a “watered-down” version of our faiths. In reality, the opposite scenario has become the norm in interfaith dialogue circles; people actually feel that they learn more about their own faith and become better Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists or Hindus through interfaith dialogue.
A project that has demonstrated this point is the Home Encounters project. Home Encounters is a community-based educational approach involving Muslims and Christians meeting on a monthly basis over six months.
At each meeting a new topic, such as monotheism, spirituality, or poverty, is covered from both a Christian and Muslim perspective. This is followed by an informal discussion and a question-and-answer session.
For previous groups who have participated in this project the experience has generated profound understandings of the other in their frame of reference. The key to success is the establishment of an atmosphere of trust in the informal setting of the participants’ homes, alternating between Christian and Muslim homes, and a willingness to understand. The right atmosphere and right attitude produce an environment of learning and sharing.
An insightful reflection by one of the participants of the first encounter reaffirms the presence of such an atmosphere:
Plates of Divine sweet talk gently moved across and around the table. So harmonious was the aroma of dialogue, so sweet was the taste of familiarity in beliefs that unity gently touched all hearts… And as the question and answers were shared like a summer dessert over coffee, learning, reflecting, understanding and peacefully digesting the different spices of faith, everyone only gained more appetite...
An outcome of the project, which surprised many of the participants, was that the discussions increased the participants’ level of knowledge and understanding of their own faith tradition. Reading up on the topic of discussion, studying the topic in preparation for a fifteen-minute presentation and finally hearing the topic being discussed and analyzed from various angles not only helped them to learn about the topic from the other faith perspective, but it also deepened their understanding of the topic from their own faith perspective.
The dialogue that takes place during the question-and-answer session are mentally stimulating as the questions that are asked by an individual from another faith are usually very different to the questions we would be asked by someone from our own faith. This enables us to consider the topic from unique angles, resulting in a more all-encompassing understanding. For example, a Muslim won’t often ask “Do you have a concept similar to the Holy Spirit in Islam?” or “How do you relate to God if you do not know what God looks like?” But these questions prompt a Muslim to search the answers to these questions, and by the end one has generated a deeper understanding of God, His Names, His Attributes and how they are manifested.
This deeper understanding is a mutual experience. This was confirmed by Rev. Grahame Ellis who also participated in Home Encounters; here he reflects on his first encounter:
... it was a Muslim question that compelled me as a Christian to this new affirmation...The fact is that I would not have had this insight if it had not been for a Muslim.
Such reflections highlight the importance of creating a positive environment so that true learning can take place through discussion, reflection, and investigation.
Once a relationship has been developed and there is trust between the different faith groups, it is only natural that this will lead to cooperation. One of the first areas where there can be cooperation is education. Youth Encounters offers exactly this.
Youth Encounters, a project which involves four Muslim schools, four Christian schools and four Jewish schools has been organized every year since 2004. As part of the project, senior high school students from the participating schools go through training to prepare them for an end of year gala. The gala involves workshops where the students from the different schools come together and discuss various topics such as “my identity.” For many Christian students, this is the first time they meet a Muslim or a Jew. And for many Muslim and Jewish students, this is the first time they have the chance to converse at a deep level with a Christian.
The results are amazing. At the beginning of the gala, the students are quiet, unsocial, and serious, staying together with the students from their own school. However, by the end of the day, the students from different schools are having deep conversations, asking each other all sorts of questions and even exchanging email addresses to continue communicating with their new friends.
One student said, “I had never had an intimacy or conversation with other people with different beliefs. But we found a common ground which I didn’t know was possible.”
Another student admitted, “It takes away the textbook Jew and the textbook Catholic. It’s really interesting; you just have to try it. It’s an experience that you just can’t read from a paper.”
On the adult level, some projects have included co-operation in the areas of environment and peace. Coming together for a common concern facilitates unity and helps us to see our commonalities as we all strive to achieve certain goals that affect all of us, no matter what faith or culture we belong to. These are concerns which focus on our humanness and the emotions that come with being human, such as compassion towards those who die in places of conflict or feeling a sense of responsibility towards the environment.
An example of an initiative focusing on the environment is PowerShift 09, the first national youth summit on climate change; held in Australia, this event attracted 1,200 young adults from around the country. As was evident at this summit, there is a powerful unity that forms when addressing issues such as the environment. Awareness befalls upon all, this is an issue that must be tackled by all; otherwise the consequences will be felt by all. Thus, when we realize that we all share the same hopes, the same fears, and the same aspirations, a realization that comes with interfaith dialogue, co-operation comes easily.
In conclusion, the learning that takes place through interfaith dialogue plays a critical role in the globalized world in which we live. Thus we can attain a dialogue that is based on interaction, learning that leads to clarification, and a better understanding that leads to co-operation. It is through this learning that the attitudes of not only our youth, but the whole community changes for the better. Positive attitudes mean positive relationships, a key element for a harmonious society.
Zuleyha Keskin is the Vice President of ISRA (Islamic Sciences and Research Academy of Australia), Auburn, Australia.