February 11, 2013 Faith Matters

Why is Interfaith Both Difficult & Necessary

This short article doesn’t offer space for full exploration of why some people find inter faith, especially Christian-Muslim engagement, difficult. Over the last seven years the Christian Muslim Forum has seen that some, especially people from more conservative traditions, don’t see the importance of inter faith, seeing it as detracting from serving God in one’s own tradition. This is the problem with any new initiative, it is seen as an optional extra, an unwelcome drain on limited resources. So inter faith is obviously of limited importance and significance, or is it?

Let’s unpack briefly – one big risk for people of faith is that faith becomes a barrier, shutting off those who are not of faith (though who are we to judge?). However, our traditions, scriptures and founders are aware of this and put how we engage with others at the heart of things, hence the ‘golden rule’ – ‘do unto others as you would have them do to you’, or the Islamic version ‘no one is a believer until they desire for their sister/brother what they desire for themselves’. People can immediately say, well this only refers to family relationships and treating people within your own tradition well. However, there are many challenges in the scriptures to this kind of thinking. How we treat our closest contacts is a model for how we treat those who are more distant, hence the story of the Good Samaritan and especially the parable of the sheep and the goats. This latter story is mirrored by a Muslim tradition which tells of people not noticing God, who was represented by the poor and dispossessed, but ignored by those who should have treated them kindly.

The challenge for inter faith is the prophetic challenge, to disrupt the norm and urge all of us to practice our faith in a way which changes society, creates harmony and is hospitable. Community cohesion policies and language can be off-putting for some people of faith as they lack the faith component. But the flesh on the bones (and flesh needs bone) of the desire for cohesion comes from the values of faith which not only inspire but are for everyone. Have we forgotten that faith is for everyone, not against people? Faith reaches out to embrace and include regardless of whether anyone embraces our particular version of faith.

This is our vision in the Christian Muslim Forum. We aim to create safe spaces where the best of our faith can be seen in action and encourage good relationships. At this time, over a thousand years since either religion began, in different kinds of societies, and for a range of reasons some of us find ourselves not jumping at the prospect of engaging with each other. One way of exploring why things should be different is to look at examples of societies gone wrong – Nazi persecution of and genocide against the Jewish population, civil war between Christians and Muslims in Bosnia – this kind of scenario makes a lot of impact, though usually our thinking is on the positive side. However, we should reflect on the problem. The use by the BNP and EDL of appeals to Britain’s Christian heritage is disturbing, telling us not only that Christians are buying into this, but that some ‘Christian’ attitudes to Islam are enabling and supporting Islamophobia at the same time as other religious values are encouraging inter faith engagement.

So what can we offer? At a gathering of leaders and activists at Lambeth Palace a few years ago we developed a statement which included these pledges:

  • We pledge, as members of both faiths, to live up to the best of our traditions by respecting, welcoming and being hospitable to our neighbours of other faiths.
  • We will speak generously of other faiths, scriptures and worshippers with our own congregations, while recognising we have some critical theological differences.
  • We will engage openly and honestly with each other about our own faith and scriptures, other faiths and all issues of concern, including sensitive or painful issues. We are open to being challenged by each other.
  • We will make a point of developing and sustaining friendships with leaders and members of other faiths in our neighbourhoods and regionally and make such friendships public.
  • We will encourage members of our communities to meet each other, learn about each others’ faiths, enjoy hospitality and share each others’ joys and struggles.

I would argue that we are not in the business of creating anything new. Consider for a moment that one of the first Christian-Muslim dialogues took place in the Prophet Muhammad’s masjid (mosque) in Madinah. From the earliest origins of the Christian Muslim Forum we were very keen to point out that the impetus for our work could be found in the riches of each tradition. So, in some ways, we seek to create nothing new, we do not want to be the optional extra, but to show – this is what Christians and Muslims look like when they respond to their traditions, when they live up to the values of their founders. There are some hurdles to overcome to get to this stage but our work in bringing people together and the results of that show that these are human hurdles – unfamiliarity and lack of contact – not faith hurdles.

Julian Bond
Director, Christian Muslim Forum