|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
31 Jan. - 6 Feb. 2002
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Faith is not enough
Religious dialogue: a panacea for international ills? Nabil Abdel-Fattah* has his doubts
Ecumenical dialogue is in fashion, not just among doctrines within the same religion, but also among major creeds. The shock of 11 September has sent us scurrying back across centuries, digging into the intricacies of rival faiths, and seeking shards of compatibility in the haystack of divine truth. The suicide bombers of 11 September did not just collide their planes into symbols of American might; they brought the past crashing into modernity, and resuscitated quite a few unpleasant ghosts. The battle lines are being drawn and denied simultaneously.
Even more outrageous than the 11 September atrocities were the demons they awakened. The ensuing exercise in damage control involved sweeping accusations as well as a few gestures of reconciliation. Prejudice was coated with condescension, theatricals were mixed with PR as a bevy of clerics and academics, specialists and pseudo-experts elbowed their way onto television screens, pontificating about who had done what to whom and why, across the murky cultural divide. Words of wisdom were spoken, and no one was the wiser.
Ecumenical dialogue -- we may as well be frank -- is not something we should leave the clerics and spin doctors to deal with alone. The reason is simple. The main aim of any church, of any organised creed, is not to merge into others but to perpetuate itself, mostly by clinging to its own truths, and always by negating the validity of rival interpretations. This is the nature of the game, and all the colourful robes and turbans in the world should not make us forget that. At the risk of stating the obvious, let's look at what such dialogue has accomplished so far.
The interlocutors and the media habitually give the impression that there is a genuine will to infuse inter-faith relations with cordiality. This usually coincides with civil wars or disturbances in which religion serves to justify violence and strengthen certain interests and policies. Dialogue can be used as a means of political pressure to favour a certain political or ethnic minority. Usually this minority is of the same creed as the state, or states, sponsoring the dialogue. Dialogue among religions and doctrines, indeed, is primarily a foreign policy exercise by religious institutions. It is a way of getting back into the limelight and retrieving some lost political ground. It is also a business. Governments and NGOs, international organisations and affluent religious foundations are all possible donors when it comes to funding dialogue. By emphasising the question of faith, dialogue can help mask the real forces at play in national, regional, and international conflicts. This is why international organisations often underscore the preventive role of religion in conflict. Dialogue, even when it is a mere exchange of monologues, spawns a cottage industry in research and analysis.
Clerics, experts, and the media often focus on the superficial aspects of religion, reinforcing existing stereotypes and occasionally inventing new distortions. Still, dialogue can remove some of the cognitive barriers separating clerics of various denominations. It can also shed light on the complexity of the religious phenomenon and bring clerics to appreciate each other's sophistication.
In Egypt's case, inter-creed talks have not accomplished much. They have, however, underscored the need to reconsider certain clichés about national unity. In the process, religious elites, and many others, have suddenly become aware of the problems and pressures facing average people.
Religious dialogue in Egypt has also succeeded in steering the tone of discourse away from vitriolic rhetoric and rambunctious symbolism and eliminating some misconceptions. But on the whole, it has been theatrical and uninspired. The interlocutors generally launch into hackneyed monologues about tolerance, that tired concept. The same coterie of professional speakers, official and unofficial, follow well- trodden paths and offer little new insight. It is disturbing to see how little effort they put into examining the denominational map or exploring the historical complexity of religion. For the most part, inter-creed dialogue in Egypt has sacrificed substance for the sake of form.
The rituals of dialogue have been complicated by the interference of foreign institutions, acting on ulterior motives and as part of a global power game. One example is the Community of Sant'Egidio, which arranges annual worship gatherings. This society acts in the service of Italy and the Vatican. There is a global agenda in the works of such institutions. Egyptians have to be especially aware of this as they engage in inter-faith dialogues involving other states. The Community of Sant'Egidio is interested in attracting elites, preferably at the unofficial level, to probe their thinking, convince them of certain matters, and follow changes in their views. What we have here is politics, pure and unadulterated.
Dialogue involves rival versions of absolute, divine, truth. As the question of faith is inherently irresolvable, what these dialogues entail is a reproduction of concepts, a drawing of doctrinal borders, and a reformulation of action strategies. Creeds cannot engage dialogue. People who represent them can, however; and they work to advance certain interests.
The stage-managed dialogue triggered by the 11 September attacks is, frankly, not worth the effort. We are still reacting compulsively to 11 September. Most of the ongoing dialogue is designed to appease mighty international powers rather than bring about religious and political internal reform. And can we really engage in dialogue with others when we lack institutions, mechanisms, and a legacy of our own? So far, we have not examined inter-faith discussions in any depth, or sufficiently examined our points of agreement and disagreement. The current initiatives, therefore, are largely misguided. Much work should be done here, in this country, before we can move on to regional and international arenas. Otherwise, dialogue will be just another field open to political manipulation.
Many people are eager for dialogue, and most of us are willing to improve our international image. But we have to ask ourselves some questions first: what do we aim to accomplish? Are our goals political, cultural, or purely religious? How do these goals reflect on Egyptian national interests? What are the motives of our interlocutors?
We need to be aware of the global map of inter- faith dialogue, and decide whether dialogue will be effective in mending our global image and reversing the negative publicity we have received in the Western media. We should also look into our own writings about Islam. Are they profound? Are they accurate? Al-Azhar and Egyptian churches of all denominations have put considerable effort into religious exchanges. With all due respect, what we really need is honesty, and a little scepticism.
* The writer is assistant director of the Al-Ahram Political and Strategic Studies Centre.
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