Six reasons why we need to move beyond interfaith dialogue if we are serious about redress for victims of violence based on religion or belief

Published on 22 August 2019

Mariz Tadros

Director (CREID)

On International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief, Mariz Tadros, Director of the Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development reflects on why we need to move on from high-level interfaith dialogue initiatives to address the urgent and daily instances of violence and discrimination faced by religious minorities all over the world.

Stencils of religious symbols from different faiths
Stencils of religious symbols from different faiths. This is an edited image by M. Fearnley (CC BY 2.0), available on Flickr. The original was by murdelta.

In a recent conversation with a global religious leader who has participated in countless interfaith dialogues, I asked, given his many decades’ experience, if he had any examples of a dialogue across religions which has directly contributed to the easing of communal tensions or at least towards the creation of an infrastructure for responsiveness or resolution to such tensions. He could not think of any but added reflectively “they create amicable relations, even friendships on an individual level, but they have no impact on the ground”. This thought piece is purposely abstract because the intention is not to point the finger at a particular interfaith dialogue.

In calling for a moratorium on interfaith dialogue, the aim is not to diminish or sideline the central role of religious leaders in forging an environment conducive to religious liberty. Nor is it to be disrespectful towards the genuine intentions of those who want to forge bridges across religions, cultures and beliefs.

Rather, it is a plea to stop wasting time, effort and financial resources in convening  fancy, expensive interfaith dialogues, round-tables and conferences where religious leaders explain how their respective religions are all peace-loving, how they are all bound by a common ‘fraternity’, and where they sign yet another declaration committing to loving each other- in front of the cameras of course.

Don’t get me wrong, if we are serious about championing the rights of victim of violence on religion or belief religious leaders need to be involved, but on different terms altogether.

Here are six reasons why we need to move beyond inter-faith dialogues:

  1. Interfaith dialogues are elitist
    By bringing together very senior, very influential religious leaders, the assumption is that they can wield their power to shape the thinking and practices of those lower down their institutional hierarchies. But as enormously influential as these senior leaders are, local leaders are not simply foot soldiers following commands from top. If the power-based of local religious leaders is one that is not favourable to religious equality and liberty, they are not going to de-legitimise themselves by going against the flow. Besides, in many cases local leaders from different religious communities have explained to me that while they respect their senior leaders, they see their rhetoric as part of their high-level diplomacy, the exigencies of the role if you like.
  2. Interfaith dialogues are exclusionary
    If you search for google images for interfaith dialogue, the great majority of pictures you find will be of men – men over the age of 40 to be more precise. Interfaith dialogues are a microcosm of many religious institutions: gerontocratic and lacking in women’s equal representation. Certainly interfaith dialogues are not the only spaces for high-level discussions which are exclusionary – such is the state of the world that this is the case in many political, economic and social spheres. But the fact that in interfaith dialogues religious leaders often assume the right to speak on behalf the victims of violence on the basis of freedom of religion or belief who are more frequently than not women, poor, young, on the fringes of society, is deeply problematic and disconcerting.
  3. Interfaith dialogues are evasive of the role of religious leaders of one’s own faith
    There have been some historical incidents in which the leader of a religious denomination has come out and apologised for past crimes committed against a religion because of their beliefs, but they have been far and few. Faced with incidents of religious persecution, religious leaders today have occasionally come out and said “not in my name”. But the ambiguity lies with regards to their stance on those who claim to be part of the religious community. To insist that individuals rather than religions should be blamed absolves responsibility for how religion has been taught and propagated.
  4. Faith leaders engaging in interfaith dialogue do not have a monopoly on religious authority, power or legitimacy.
    Herein lies the dilemma: in order to champion peaceful co-existence, religious leaders beautifully quote parts of their religious texts that endorse peace and tolerance, but what about those religious passages that are inimical to full religious equality? Extremist groups equally deploy religious texts selectively to justify and promote their political ambitions to access power. Religious leaders engaging in inter-faith dialogue do not have a monopoly on the interpretation of texts, and ideology and political power play out in a far more slippery fashion than how religious text is understood or interpreted.
  5. Interfaith dialogues are often reductionist in their scope of engagement.
    Victims of violence on the basis of religion or belief suffer because of a complex interaction of local and global forces. For example, too much or too little security is an underlying source of vulnerability. Too much security in the form of totalitarian regimes treating religious minorities like “security files” and too little security in the sense of the failure of the police and judiciary to maintain rule of law and order- thereby making minorities fair game to a gamut of predatory actors. How often have we found interfaith dialogues exposing governments and companies that sell or circulate arms to state or non-state actors whose victims suffer from religious persecution?
  6. Last, and perhaps more seriously there is an accountability deficit in interfaith dialogues
    Declarations are signed, beautiful speeches are made. But what happens when they are violated? Declarations are without teeth and mechanisms of regress or accountability are simply lacking.

There is no single approach, be it interfaith dialogue or otherwise for the prevention of the kind of violations that members of marginalised religious minorities suffer,  there is no magical wand to wave. Dialogue is an essential ingredient to fostering common understanding, but only in tandem with the advancement of accountability measures to redress the circulation of extremist ideology, people and arms while simultaneously strengthening the ability of victims of violence on freedom of religion or belief to speak and act collectively.

The opinion expressed here is solely that of the author and does not represent that of the CREID programme.


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