Dialogue is key to understanding differences

Pope Francis and Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb kiss each other during an inter-religious meeting in Abu Dhabi. (Reuters picture)

Thirteen years ago I attended a week-long series of courses in Singapore on inter-faith relations organised by MUIS (Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura).

The teachers were faculty from Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, USA.

One of the teachers, a Muslim, on finding out that I was to be in the US for a sabbatical that very year, invited me for one semester at Hartford. I agreed because it was an opportunity to ask him the many questions I had about Islam. I was also intrigued: why was a Muslim teaching at a Christian seminary?

In September 2006, in Hartford, I soon found out. The seminary’s core course, which I audited, was titled “Dialogue in A World of Difference”. There were 30 students from Christianity (many denominations) and Islam (fewer); about half were Christians and half Muslims.

We studied the main components of religious dialogue like rituals, history and philosophical assumptions. In the second half of each class session, we were divided into small groups of four, two Muslims and two Christians.

We were given a topic to reflect on (not discuss) where we couldn’t argue, like: “Tell us how you pray and what it means to you”. We couldn’t quarrel but we could ask questions to understand or clarify what someone was saying.

One of the course assignments was to go to a place of worship not of your own, listen to the whole service and take notes on everything that was said and done. After the service, we had to ask the imam, priest, rabbi or pastor what each ritual in the service meant. Then we wrote up the report and submitted it as homework.

I chose a Jewish synagogue because I had never seen one before in Malaysia. So I was like a tourist to a new place.

After the service, lunch was served. I filled my plate with food, went up to the old rabbi and asked him why Judaism didn’t accept Jesus as the Messiah. He laughed so loudly that everyone in the synagogue stared at us.

“You came all the way from Malaysia to ask me this million dollar question!” “Yes sir,” I said. “I didn’t want to waste my time.”

So he gave me a 15-minute thesis on why Judaism didn’t accept Jesus as the Messiah.

As an aside, Christianity is more aligned to Islam in this respect because Islam accepts Jesus as the Messiah (Isa al-Masih), whereas Judaism does not. The differences between the two have since become more political than doctrinal.

What did I learn in my 10 weeks at Hartford that could help Malaysia in our fractured racial and religious discourse? Three things:

Firstly, dialogue is the opposite of debate. In a debate, you try to persuade the other fellow to your point of view. It seldom happens because we all have egos, whether personal, cultural, religious or political. Like in a court of law, where there is one winner and one loser, debate in a country is finally decided at the polls where there is also one winner and one loser.

Dialogue, on the other hand, is not about persuading someone. It is about understanding the other person, why he thinks what he thinks or says what he says. Dialogue, of course, can degenerate into a debate in a politically and religiously charged atmosphere like our beloved Malaysia, especially in the peninsula.

Secondly, we all create straw men. In discourse, this means that we invent a caricature of our real opponent, then we proceed to attack and defeat him piecemeal in his absence. This is easy to do because a straw man cannot talk back. He has no life and is not real. He is a figment of our imagination, created by our prejudices.

In contrast, when we talk to a real person, he usually doesn’t fit our presuppositions. You say something about what he said, then he says “that’s not what I said”. It’s always better to talk to someone than to talk about someone, especially when it’s negative.

Thirdly, it’s extremely difficult to understand people. I have been married to one wife for over 40 years, and we still misunderstand each other. We still say to each other, sometimes with great emphasis, “that’s not what I meant!”

Some wag said, “I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realise that what you heard was not what I meant.”

Think of the barriers we have to cross. With my wife, it’s gender, race and culture. Then there’s religion, and politics, which can even split families.

Finally a word about the press, the fourth estate.

I just read Mediating Islam (2018) by Janet Steele. Its subtitle is “Cosmopolitan journalisms in Muslim Southeast Asia”. It is about how different Muslims in Malaysia and Indonesia practise dakwah through journalism. There has never been a greater need in Malaysia for the democratic power of the press. But I am talking about good and responsible journalism.

But, of course, politics, the lack of money and now social media can get in the way. These need to be regulated by law so that the press can fulfil its responsible, democratic function. But because this is difficult to do, and we are what we read, the press has never yet become a worthy platform for good responsible dialogue.

David Bok is an FMT reader.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.