Interfaith dialogue has been a very controversial issue and there have been a lot of discussions about it: its necessity, rationale, and success (Kurucan 2006). These questions have made it obvious that people are not aware of the real meaning of interfaith dialogue.
Perelman and Olbrechts- Tyteca (1969) explain dialogue as follows: "... (it) is not supposed to be a debate ... but rather a discussion in which the interlocutors search honestly and without bias for the best solution to a controversial problem" (196, 37). Related to this description, Gulen (2000) describes interfaith dialogue as "... seek(ing) to realize religion's basic oneness and unity, and the universality of belief. Religion embraces all beliefs and races in brotherhood, and exalts love, respect, tolerance, forgiveness, mercy, human rights, peace, brotherhood, and freedom via its Prophets" (The Fountain, September 2000). These descriptions bring out another question: how useful and beneficial can interfaith dialogue be in solving problems?
Interfaith dialogue does not aim to change the ideas of people about their religions or faiths, but seeks to find common ground between religions, to focus on communities, and through an emphasis on harmony and peace, find solutions to many of our common problems. In fact, one of the reasons for interfaith dialogue is to "provide an atmosphere of freedom" (Kurucan 2006, 17).
Another major proponent of dialogue was Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University. When he visited the Vatican in 1977 in a delegation, Nasr highlighted five areas that Christianity and Islam can work together to make the world better. These five areas are "dangers of modern technocracy and ecological ruin, energy crises, youth problems and decadence of morality and faith" (Kot 2009). In addition, Rev. Allman states, "The ability to discuss our religious and cultural differences is more than an 'extra-curricular activity'; it is a skill which is vital for participants in democracy, especially a democratic society such as ours, which is filled with people whose differences are deep and complex" (The Network, 1999).
These statements show the importance of interfaith dialogue for the improvement of humanity and the goodwill of societies. Pinto (2003) highlights the role of interfaith dialogue in today's society as "...an inevitable fact of our being-with-other-faiths."
In connection to this, Swidler et al. (2007) state that, "In the past, during the age of divergence, we could live in isolation from each other; we could ignore each other. Now, in the age of convergence, we are forced to live in one world. We increasingly live in a global village" (Stress added, p.1).
Today most of the common reasons for dispute between religions, or between people of different religions, are that they do not understand one another's beliefs or ideas (Baum 2011). Interfaith dialogue meetings, panels, conferences help these misconceptions and unfamiliarity disappear. And the result of such dialogues can be tremendous. As Smock states, "... when two or more faiths come together to explore or promote the possibility of peace, the effects can be especially potent" (viii).
The benefits of interfaith dialogue are obvious but still it is not an easy work. Once again, Smock (2002) highlights that "interfaith dialogue is a difficult, often painful endeavor" (viii). There are some prerequisites for interfaith dialogue to be successful. Swidler (2003) categorizes them as:
"1) an openness to learn from the other. 2) knowledge of one's own tradition. 3) a similarly disposed and knowledgeable dialogue partner from the other tradition" (p. 12).
The importance of each prerequisite will be explained in detailed below.
Ingredients for a successful interfaith dialogue meeting
1) The most important component of interfaith dialogue is to remember the real meaning of dialogue. It is a two-way discussion that requires respect and understanding. This component may seem very simple to understand but it is very easy to forget. Swidler (2007) states that, "If this basic goal is kept fixed in view and acted on with imagination, creative and fruitful dialogue - and a growing transformation of each participant's life and that of their communities - will follow" (p. 19). So for better results out of interfaith dialogue, the real meaning of dialogue should not be forgotten. Be sure to explain dialogue as "... a discussion in which the interlocutors search honestly and without bias for the best solution to a controversial problem" (Perelman and Olbrechts- Tyteca, 1969, 37).
2) In these meetings, participants must be aware of the fact that all of the participants are from different religious and cultural backgrounds, so interfaith dialogue is based on understanding and respecting all participants. In interfaith dialogue, none of the participants should try to discredit or question the belief system of the other participants.
3) Smock (2002) writes that stating the purpose of the meeting very clearly and choosing the right participants goes a long way towards determining the success of a dialogue. The purpose of the meeting should be decided by the participants before the meetings, very clearly and in detail.
4) While describing how to start dialogue, Bohme et al. (1991) state that suspension is an important part of dialogue. Listening to the other participants is a compulsory part of the process. During these meetings, all of the participants should be free of their biases and be open to understanding and recognizing new perspectives. Interfaith dialogue meetings are great ways to learn about different religions and different thoughts.
5) It should not be forgotten that in these meetings, we come together as people, not as belief systems, but these meetings provide an incredible opportunity to learn about, discuss, and understand other religions. "... the dialogue among the world's religions and traditions should lead to a better mutual knowledge and understanding, and an exchange of the mutual values as an enrichment of one's own faith and of the faith of the others" (Cosijns & Braybrooke, 2008, 55-56). However, a problem or mistake made in the meetings should not be used to generalize about a whole belief system. Kurucan (2006) states that by interfaith dialogue, "We refer to dialogue between the people of different religions" (17). So people in these meetings should not be seen as categories, sole representatives of their religions, but they should be seen as individual people, with their strengths and flaws - just like all of us.
6) Interfaith dialogue aims to find solutions to the problems of the world and other people by focusing on the similarities between belief systems. It does not focus on the differences and controversial issues.
7) Smock (2002) states that one-time interfaith dialogue meetings cannot be very useful, so there should be some follow-up sessions to enforce the benefits of the meetings.
8) In addition, it would be a good idea to learn about the religious practices of the other participants, see the differences between your own understandings, and be very careful about these differences during the dialogue process. Crowley (2006) states that setting the stasis - the parts that the participants may have different ideas about - is an important part of civil discussion. In interfaith dialogue, being aware of the stasis is important, so as not to offend the other participants.
9) No exclusives and no syncretism. Abu-Nimer et al. (2007) state that in interfaith dialogues, no religion should be excluded. This would be a huge handicap for the success of interfaith dialogue. Abu-Nimer et al. (2007) also highlights that trying to synchronize all religions into one can be just as dangerous as exclusiveness. As stated above, it is very crucial to accept all religions and religious people in their own belief system.
10) Dialogue can only happen between equals. If a religious group sees one group as inferior or even superior to another, no dialogue can happen. There cannot be sharing and understanding between the groups, which is the main aim of any interfaith dialogue.
Interfaith dialogue is an important concept in the globalized world. People from different religions live side by side in the globalized village and there are tons of problems that human beings face today. These interfaith groups are very crucial for a world in which "every day, almost 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes. That's one child every five seconds" (www.bread.org). The role of the interfaith dialogue in solving these problems cannot be underestimated. Smock (2002) states that "while religion can and does contribute to violent conflicts, it can be a powerful factor struggling for peace and reconciliation (viii).
Abu-Nimer, M. & Khoury, A. & Welty, E. 2007. Unity in diversity: Interfaith dialogue in the Middle East. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace.
Bohm, D. & Factor, D. & Garrett, P. 1991. Dialogue: A Proposal. Retrieved from http://www.david-bohm.net/dialogue/dialogue_proposal.html
Cosijns L.F. & Braybrooke , M. 2008. Dialogue among the faith communities. Lanham, MA: Hamilton Books.
Crowley, S. 2006. Toward a civil discourse: Rhetoric and Fundamentalism. Pittsburg, PA: University of Pittsburg Press
Gulen, M.F. 2000. "Necessity of interfaith dialog." The Fountain Magazine. Issue 31.
Kot, Z. 2009. "Muslim-Christian relations: The traditionalist interfaith dialogue" (Unpublished master thesis) George Washington University, Washington, DC.
Kurucan, A. 2006. Nicin Diyalog: Diyalogun temelleri. Uskudar, Istanbul: Isik Yayinlari
Perelman C.H. & Olbrechts- Tyteca, L. 1969. The new rhetoric: A treatise on argumentation. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
Pinto, H. 2003. Faucault, Christianity and interfaith dialogue. New York, NY: Routledge Publications
Smock, D. R. 2002. Interfaith Dialogue and Peacebuilding. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace.
Swidler, L. & Duran, K. & Firestone, R. 2007. Trialogue: Jews, Christians and Muslims in Dialogue. New London, CT: Twenty-Third Publications.