PETALING JAYA, 12 Aug 2010: There is no one method for successful interfaith engagement, an expert in global interfaith initiatives said.
World Faiths Development Dialogue executive director Katherine Marshall said engagement takes place on many different levels in many different ways. This ranges from the very specific, such as people of different faiths building a house together, to the very general, like dealing with global poverty or female feticide.
Marshall was speaking at a 9 Aug 2010 public lecture organised by the International Institute for Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS).
Theological and practical
She said interfaith engagement has also happened through theological discussions focusing on common values between faiths, or through more practical initiatives that address common issues.
As for practical engagement over common issues, Marshall cited Ghana, where religious leaders came together to deal with the country’s poor sanitation. Muslim, Christian, Bahai’ and traditional religious leaders started an interfaith initiative against garbage, calling it their “crusade against filth”.
“Religious leaders worked together on clean-up campaigns. [As a result], when there was some tension during the elections, they already knew each other and could work together to head off potential conflict,” said Marshall, who worked with the World Bank for over 30 years on international development.
Marshall also spoke of interfaith collaboration to end malaria in Nigeria, one of the top countries for malaria deaths. Thousands of Nigerian imam, pastors and priests were trained to deliver sermons to their respective religious groups, in support of the campaign.
Marshall also gave the example of Habitat for Humanity, which brings people of all backgrounds, races and religions together to build houses for the homeless around the world.
Marshall, who is senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, acknowledged the difficulties in interfaith engagement, especially when one party is unwilling to dialogue.
“It is important to make engagement meaningful,” she said. “We need to bring evidence, to be clever about engagement, and to have skill in framing the questions.”
Marshall gave an example of a dialogue organised at the request of US evangelical Christians who were concerned about climate change. “The US evangelicals wanted to engage with Moroccan Muslims on climate change. It was a rich and interesting discussion on a problem faced by everyone.”
Marshall said the interfaith discussion took place despite ongoing tensions in Morocco over proselytisation to Muslims.
“But how can interfaith dialogue happen when bombs are flying and people have been killed?” asked an audience member.
Marshall said there were two schools of thought on this. “In any dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims, the issue of Palestine and the Middle East usually comes up within five minutes. There are those who want to concentrate all efforts to solve that problem first before we work on anything else. And then there are those who want to work at many levels.”
Marshall said she subscribed to the idea of working on many different levels, and quoted US President Franklin Roosevelt who said during the Great Depression: “When in a crisis, pull any lever.”
“But how does one initiate dialogue in a crisis, especially when there is violence taking place? Is it just a luxury for stable countries?” Marshall was asked.
While acknowledging that certain interfaith activities would be difficult to carry out amidst violence, Marshall said there were still ways interfaith engagement could take place.
“The basic questions involved are things we need to reflect on all the time – why we are here, how we are different, how we are the same, what kind of world we want to leave our children,” answered Marshall.
Knowledge the key
Marshall said knowledge was key in reshaping people’s views about people of other faiths.
“Ignorance and fear is the tinder for conflict,” she said. “A lack of knowledge shapes attitudes. Studies have shown that even a simple understanding can reshape views.”
But no matter how interfaith engagement is carried out, what is certain is that human security and development cannot happen without it, she noted.
Marshall shared a quote from Hans Küng, a theologian and Global Ethic Foundation president, who said: “There will be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions. There will be no peace among the religions without dialogue among the religions.”
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