Notwithstanding the recognition that faiths have contributed to progress of civilization, religious differences have continued, through history, to be a leading cause for inter-religious conflict and consequential breakdown of societal peace and harmony in almost all societies.
Such targeted violence received grave attention when at the end of the Second World War, the enormity of Jewish persecution by the Nazis came to light and the Christian Churches were cited for their complicity of silence. While a political fix for the problem was hurriedly put in place, the realization of moral lapse led to a flurry of activity by the World Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church to condemn all forms of anti-Semitism and promote dialogue with the Jewish community.
The problems however were not limited to the Jews. The United Nations Organization and its affiliate bodies who have been engaged in trying to help defuse conflicts and promote measures for peace and harmony too seem to have realized the need for inter-religious harmony as a pre-requisite for societal peace and have over the years initiated a number of programs under their direct aegis or in collaboration with other international bodies engaged in promoting interfaith relations.
The 911 terror attacks and the ensuing Global War on Terror led by the US have demonstrated the kind of conflicts that can so easily erupt in the emerging global society with its multiple issues as potential flash points. This development has spawned intense interest in study of faiths, and promotion of peace studies and interfaith activity in the US, several Western countries and by the UN affiliates.
Another possible trigger for this activism is that the growing diversity in the Western countries has created a need to fathom the nature of values and influences this diversity was bringing to the society and also to help to ease out any misconceptions and prejudices that may have arisen out of ignorance of the ‘other’.
WHAT IS INTERFAITH ENGAGEMENT?
Put simply interfaith engagement involves connecting people from diverse faith communities to develop mutual understanding and respect to reinforce societal harmony without compromising or diluting their own religious beliefs, identity and commitments. Interfaith dialogue is a tool of interfaith engagement and its immediate objectives can be to open communication between faith groups and develop understanding on specific problems of contemporaneous mutual concern. A desideratum for such actions is religious pluralism which envisages absence of any special rights or privileges for any one religion or denomination.
Interfaith engagement is essentially founded in mutuality of respect for all religions. The intent is not to provide an opportunity for religious groups to proselytize or impose their beliefs on others but to try and unite people across faith and ideological lines and create a stronger sense of mutual trust, respect and shared values. This is expected to help nurture a culture to contain religiously or culturally motivated violence, stereotyping, bigotry and hatred.
Another helpful development in the West has been that houses of worship and congregations are increasingly taking moral positions on war, injustice, violence, environment, discrimination and other socially relevant issues. This is helpful because churches and church communities invested with infrastructure and communication network to mobilize people, have tremendous potential to play a role in peace making. So have the religious leaders with their claim to moral rectitude, the ability to make effective peace overtures if not linked with the perpetrators of violence.
The dynamics of inter-religious encounters can differ due to historic relationships between faiths as well as their theological, social, and political concerns. The dialogue can be difficult if faith’s protagonists are exclusivists or treat particularistic concerns as over-riding.
Interfaith activity is not limited to people with religious backgrounds only. In fact those with no religious background are not only welcomed but actively encouraged to join in interfaith actions.
Interfaith dialogue isn’t new to India. In its more recent history, Emperor Akbar encouraged tolerance among people of various faith backgrounds. There is ample evidence in Sikh scriptural literature that the Gurus engaged in interfaith conversations and extended support to other faith adherents. These encounters however seem to have been episodic and even though some of the events did serve to defuse tensions at the time, a tradition of interfaith conversations to promote peace and harmony did not take root.
In the overall the Indian experience is intriguing and encouraging. Even though the historical memory is not free of tensions, the existence of legacy of survival of not only faiths but also of languages, culture, rituals et al would suggest both the resilience of inhabitants as well as their firmness of beliefs. In our context it would imply a highly contentious but not an unlivable circumstance. While this is the encouraging part the intriguing part is that given the likeliness of clashes that firm convictions could have caused, the society must have had a tremendous ability to assimilate than get culturally subsumed.
India seems now to have has gone full circle in historical changes and the Hindu majority again is in a position to exercise political control. The experience is mixed. There have been instances of grave oppression of minorities yet the country’s mood is vibrantly alive and there is a sense of determination in all segments for their tradition to survive and grow. Interfaith engagement is not much in evidence but the talk can be heard. It cannot be long in coming as the Indian society is in the throes of trying to grasp the emerging doctrine of Hindutva with some visible trepidation.
To fructify interfaith activity has to be located in the community and those representing faith groups should have the ability to participate effectively and contribute to the deliberations of the committees and also have links with their own faith community to secure their help and co-operation in interfaith actions.
It would be helpful if some encouragement to interfaith dialogue comes from the apex religious leadership. Yet it is possible that it may not, because the state of interfaith relations in India may not yet be ready for reconciliatory initiatives at the diffused apex largely because of the highly religiously divisive nature of national politics.
My view therefore has been veering round to aim for better interfaith understanding at the level of the communities we live in. This could afford us a better chance to defuse the strife and limit disruption. It may also catalyze similar initiatives in other neighborhoods. This however will need our dedicated interfaith organizations to reinvent themselves but it is a doable transition.
In the event of a conflagration if a substantial pool of those empathetic to societal harmony is present in the community, it is possible that the disruption may not become that virulent. Such persons of goodwill made critical difference in some localities during the 1984 pogrom against Sikhs in Delhi. My premise is that community linked interfaith organizations could help generate such resources of empathy.
As a pluralistic society with diverse faiths, languages, ethnicity and a history of lack of tolerance leading to frequent eruptions of hate and conflict, we need to take focused as well as broad-based initiatives to promote interfaith understanding. The religious leaderships as well as the media and academia can and should be persuaded to play a constructive role in this.
I can vouch from personal experience that participation in these activities offers a great learning experience and those who get involved come out the richer, learning not only about other faith traditions, but also a lot more about their own!
*Nirmal Singh has been involved in Interfaith Activism for around two decades. His book: Interfaith Engagement – Understanding, Experience, Issues – was published by Hemkunt, New Delhi, earlier in 2015.