By Mushtaq ul Haq Ahmad Sikandar
16 September 2021
Interfaith Dialogue Industry Has Retrograded To an Economic Venture
1. The clashes are not confined between interfaith groups only but Intrafaith groups and sects belonging to the same religion do clash with each other.
2. Dialogue demands execution, practice and application with real life examples otherwise it just remains an endeavour where so lofty presentations are made that are too ideal to be realized.
3. The interaction and co-existence theory even though promoted by a political theorist Ashtosh Varshney still has its flaws as enumerated by the example of Kashmir.
With the violence in the name of religion escalating to horrific levels, Interfaith Dialogue as a remedy and now as an industry is burgeoning. Many Dialogue preneurs and practitioners are trumping it as a remedy for all ills and helping bridge the divide between various faiths. The misunderstandings, misconceptions and stereotypes about different religions are something that can be minimized.
The adherents of every faith have a perception and prejudice about the other. It certainly is quite normal because centuries of conditioning have established these prejudices. They are prevalent even among the sects of the same religion. It needs huge efforts to overcome these prejudices and still their total elimination can never be achieved. These prejudices are not problematic as they rarely hamper the daily affairs, normal routine and interaction between people of different faiths. But if they are reinforced, propagated and strengthened then they will result in polarization of the society leading to the rise of fascism and unprecedented violence.
Photo courtesy/IFYC Interfaith Youth Core
Interfaith Dialogue aims to overcome these prejudices by interacting with each other, the stereotypes and biases are overcome. This has been the guiding principle of Interfaith Dialogues. They are supposed to build bridges between the communities, while helping narrow down the prejudices and polarization. However the efficacy of these Dialogues is limited because they are undertaken by an elite section of the society, be it scholars, theologians, academics, journalists, activists and civil society members. They all do help frame the public opinion on different aspects and issues confronting the society. Religious violence and discrimination is one such aspect. The upholders of this type of Dialogue believe that Dialogue is an elite venture and cannot be conducted at a public level. This claim holds water because in these Dialogue sessions mostly theological issues are discussed and some works of same scholars like Al Biruni and Dara Shikoh are discussed who did earlier try to bridge the divide among Hindus and Muslims. In other conferences where Abrahamic Semitic religions are discussed, the emphasis is more about the similarity between these religions, their common origins and how their concept of God, traditions and practices are quite similar.
So if one participates in these dialogues one gets an idea that religions are not problematic, so are not these academics, theologians and Ulema who are making lofty claims in the conference rooms. But once the Dialogue conferences are over, the stark realities of the adherents of these religions clashing against each other becomes manifest. At this juncture most of these elite participants of these dialogic conferences maintain silence because calling for an end to violence will earn them enemies among their fellow believers. Only few brave souls can have the cudgels to go against the tide.
Dialogue demands execution, practice and application with real life examples otherwise it just remains an endeavour where so lofty presentations are made that are too ideal to be realized. Organizing, conducting and executing these Dialogue conferences are a manifestation of the economics of Dialogue. Dialogue as an industry is an economic venture for many institutions and people. Travel, food expenses are paid along with a good remuneration for presentations, so these exercises become an important adventure for dialogue preneurs to make more contacts and be invited to more conferences all around the world.
Many among these Dialogue practitioners in the heat of the moment describe all religions as one, but deep down they do not believe in this claim. Also it is a reality that all religions are not one. If homogeneity of religions was a reality then the claim and monopoly over the truth would be absent, that certainly is not the case. Each believer, their clergy, scholars, theologians and even these elite Dialogue practitioners believe that their faith is the only path leading towards salvation, while others are deviated groups from the straight path. But they cannot subdue, conquer, annihilate the ‘other’, hence they are to be tolerated and co-existed with.
It is because of this inevitable co-existence that many are given to believe that everything is fine. Only politicians and exclusivist religious triumphant are responsible for every type of violence taking place between adherents of different religions. They believe that constant interactions and co-existence breaks the barriers among the communities and different faiths. But experience proves something else.
The Hindus of Kashmir valley known as Pandits and the Muslims co-existed for centuries but few events were enough to trigger a mass migration and breakdown of the syncretic culture known as Rishism. Similarly in India small incidents are enough to spark a communal riot, despite the fact that Hindus and Muslims have co-existed with each other since centuries. The clashes are not confined between interfaith groups only but Intrafaith groups and sects belonging to the same religion do clash with each other.
Among Muslims Shia-Sunni violence is a lived reality of Muslim societies. So this interaction and co-existence theory even though promoted by a political theorist Ashtosh Varshney still has its flaws as enumerated by the example of Kashmir.
What could be the possible explanation of these violent clashes despite co-existing as citizens since centuries? Among the variegated explanations can be the fact that these communities co-existed but not together. There were/are fault lines that are far deeper to be apparent on the surface. So from the surface on any given day things appear fine, whereas in reality there is a brewing hatred against the other that is reinforced among the communities and is compounded over the years. It just needs a little spark and trigger to render it violent. Co-existence can be a fact so are the communal riots too.
Any meaningful Dialogue should overcome the flaws of this co-existence. Classrooms as institutions of Dialogue can be a starting point that can groom children to co-exist with each other while respecting the antagonistic religious beliefs. Classrooms can teach children how to overcome the prejudices we have about the other and how not to get carried away during communal riots and become part of violent mob frenzy.
Also Dialogue should not be constructed as a process of scoring brownies points against the different participant retrograding it into a debate. Many times participants degrade each other’s viewpoint by rendering a Dialogue into a debate, thus killing the very purpose of it. So these flaws need to be overcome and since efforts with pure intentions of understanding the viewpoint of the others need to be kept in mind before, during and after the Dialogue. Dialogue is action based instead of being mired in abstract conceptual framework.
M. H. A. Sikander is Writer-Activist based in Srinagar, Kashmir