As this is a time of emergency, and lives are at stake, this essay departs from the systematic explanation of effective interfaith activism
in this series.
The world is failing effectively to respond to the Islamic State (IS) controlling much of Western Syria and North and Central Iraq, and the escalation of violent aggression arising out of Gaza. As villains in both spheres define their aggression and inhumane acts expressly as “religious” behavior, the question of interreligious relations are brought to the fore (regardless of all other legitimate arenas of response afoot including diplomatic, military, economic and so forth).
On July 19, the Erasmus blog
of The Economist
(on Religion and Public Policy), carried the piece The Vatican and Islam, Messages of light and dark
, asking aloud if dialogue between the Catholic church and Islam really is possible, despite the publication of a Vatican statement calling for the two faiths to work together to ease human suffering, especially in war zones, from the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue co-signed by Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran. Tauran said, "Inspired by our shared values...we are called on to work together for justice, peace, and respect for the rights and dignity of every person."
The article juxtaposes this Vatican statement with that of Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako who spoke with the information service Asianews.it
as the last remaining Christians prepared to flee Mosul, in response to threats from the city's new masters. He said "no dialogue was possible" with these ultra-Islamist forces, particularly as they have declared "between us there is only the sword." The essay goes on to note the significance of the Sako statement because “the patriarch has a big personal stake in upholding the principle that Christians and Muslims can co-exist, and he has always argued that case.”
Every time the statement is made that dialogue not possible with someone who understands their actions stem from religious convictions, it poses a deep and fundamental challenge to all interfaith activists, all interfaith activity, and all peace seekers. The frightening truth is that dialogue is either effective, or it is not. It is possible or it is not. If there is even one form of religious belief that is impervious and invulnerable to interfaith investment, then the entire edifice of genuine peace seeking dissolves. This is all the more the case when such a statement comes from a great and important religious figure who himself was a champion of harmonious interfaith relations.
But a facile rejection of this despairing doubt in peace efforts is not sufficient. The doubt must be embraced as legitimate, and as a real (if haunting) question. Is dialogue possible with religious believers or not? Is dialogue possible with someone who understands God and faith to call for raping people in front of their families
? Crucifying people
? Forcing innocent teens and older women to undergo genital mutilation
? Genocide? Is dialogue possible with people who believe God and the dictates of their faith require the physical annihilation of a neighboring people? Even if doing so might necessitate deaths of innocent children and families
supposed to be under their care? If the answer is no, in such cases, dialogue is not possible, then tragically the answer must extend through to the entire vision and enterprise of peace seeking sans violence and force.
The way to insist that interfaith dialogue, and non-force, non-violence conflict resolution is possible, even with such demons as are in the news these days, comes from the fact of two elements of a rarefied and dangerous sector of radical peace seeking. 1. The little known or little reflected upon part of the interfaith world called “intrafaith” relations, and 2. A doctrine akin to the notion of “6 degrees of separation.”
Prior to the work of the Council for the World Religions in 1985, the concept of intrafaith was largely unknown, and surely never practiced in any systematic way except in Christianity. Intrafaith is dialogue among people of different sects or denominations, but inside the same major, world religion. In Christianity, the effort is known as Christian Ecumenism. It has its origins in Jesus' prayer from John 17:22 - 23. But other world faiths never had this ideal as overtly pursued, and essential at the core of their spirituality. That denominations inside a given world tradition harmonize is extremely important in pursuits related to religion and peace. It is a key requisite that is sorely overlooked in this time of great fondness for interfaith meetings. In many ways intrafaith harmony is the far harder horizon of peace-making and harmony seeking, even more than inTERfaith activity.
Related to this important world of intrafaith is the popular notion of 6 degrees of separation.
Six degrees of separation is the theory that everyone and everything is six or fewer steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person in the world, so that a chain of "a friend of a friend" statements can be made to connect any two people in a maximum of six steps. It was originally set out by Frigyes Karinthy and popularized by a play written by John Guare.
When stretched to apply to the pressing and serious need for peace, reconciliation, the end of conflict, and the dissolution of barbarism in the name of religion, it could be made to say, that a heinous, villainous figure like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi should be just 6 degrees of separation from his exact counterpart, a person AS intensely committed to positive human welfare, equality, and love.
Another way to look at this is to take note of the reality that each of us has someone to just to the left of us, and someone just to the right of us. For example, I have a friend “who thinks just like me,” but every so often says something so conservative that it makes me cringe. I am surprised. I do a double take. Likewise I have another friend “who thinks just like me,” just to the left of me. Every so often she’ll say something SO liberal, I’m dumbfounded, “WHAT? Are you serious?”
To carry this notion to “believers” like Baghdadi, lots of Taliban types, and other "religious" perpetrators of violence and oppression, let's set up the example that I sell drugs to little kids in school yards. Even if I were so vile a person, still I will have a friend just to the left of me and one just to the right. On the right, is my more extreme friend, “Hey, just kill her.” “But she’s a grandma,” I shudder. “So? What good is she anyway.” To my left is my softer slightly less demonic drug dealing friend. She says with the pistol shaking in her hand, “I can’t do that, he’ll be maimed for life.” I say, “C’mon, it’s only his knee for cryin’ out loud. Just shoot him.” And so it goes, life is like that. There is always one to the left, and one to the right.
This corollary to the 6 degrees reality, is what plays into the lives of deeply invested peace-seekers. This is where genuine life and death devotion to the hardest edges of peace and dialogue transpire.
In cases of religious extremism, it almost is never the case that interfaith is an option. These violent criminals who believe themselves to be following a religion, almost always are too deeply entrenched in the most extreme and closed perversions of their “faith.” No Christian or Jew would ever have access to a so-called Muslim at so far reaching an extreme. The only person who could access and modify the demonic “believer” would have to come from inside the same world tradition as the extremist. In this case (like the IS) the “religious” views happen to be a perversion of Islam. Thus the debate, the discussion, the dialogue, and the conversation about properly interpreting Muslim teachings has to come from other Muslim believers. Other religions can try to engage Mr. Al Baghdadi if they like, but honestly are very unlikely to get much of a hearing. The fact of the matter is that Mr. Baghdadi believes he understands Muslim teaching, and the fact of the matter is that there is someone just to the left of him, and someone just to his right.
When someone tries to excuse non-action in the face of such horror by saying, “you just can’t talk to someone like that,” I reject this. I call the statement false, and an excuse for inaction in the face of need. I myself have
spoken to people like this. To get there, one walks on a razor’s edge at dizzying heights along 6 degrees of separation. It is a life and death commitment. Dialogue is possible.