Author Reza Aslan, on the greying boundary between "interreligious dialogue" and "interreligious coercion"

December 27th, 2006

Truth and power
For many Muslims today, 'interreligious dialogue' often looks suspiciously like religious coercion.

By Reza Aslan

In 2000, when Pope Benedict XVI was still Cardinal Ratzinger, he penned a peculiar tract entitled “Dominus Iesus,” in which he laid out the ground rules for interreligious dialogue. The future pope wrote that it is perfectly fine for Catholics to engage other faiths in religious discourse. But, he cautioned, one must never “close one's eyes to the errors and illusions” of other religions. Nor should one lose sight of how “gravely deficient” those religions are when compared with Catholicism.

Such a position is perhaps to be expected from a pope who believes that quoting a 14th-century Crusader's absurdly archaic views on Islam is an invitation to dialogue. Having repeatedly criticized his predecessor's tireless efforts to reach out to Muslims as bordering on religious relativism, Benedict has focused his papacy on the issue of “reciprocity” in interreligious dialogue. By this, the pope means the perfectly reasonable expectation that Christians in Muslim lands should have the same freedoms as Muslims in Christian lands to propagate their faith.

Of course, there is no question that much of the Arab and Muslim world has a poor track record when it comes to tolerance of non-Muslims, let alone promotion of interreligious dialogue. But there was a time, a mere 400 years ago, when Rome considered interreligious dialogue to be most effectively facilitated by a Grand Inquisitor, while Muslim Spain, Baghdad, and Cairo opened their gates to Christian and Jewish scientists, philosophers, and theologians, many of whom enjoyed the patronage of the royal courts.

To be sure, this tolerance of Jews and Christians had less to do with the precepts of Islam than with the fact that the Muslim world was basking in a golden era of scientific achievement and religious experimentation. In other words, the Muslims of the era had an unshakable confidence in their cultural, economic, political, and even religious dominance over the region. If this historic commitment to interreligious dialogue has now given way to religious repression and brutal intolerance, it is not because Islam's view of “the other” has changed. It is because the power dynamics of the region have changed.

Today, in large parts of the Arab and Muslim world, many Muslims consider themselves to be under siege by what they perceive to be the unrelenting hegemony of the “Christian West.” For many, “interreligious dialogue” often looks suspiciously like religious coercion, and Christian proselytizing is sometimes difficult to distinguish from the still fresh, still bruising, memory of colonialism.

None of this is to excuse religious oppression in the Arab and Muslim world. The pope is right to demand greater freedoms of faith and expression in particularly conservative countries like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, where Islam's historic commitment to religious pluralism has long been forgotten.

But while an argument can be made that interreligious dialogue should have a purpose, it should not be to shed light on the “errors and illusions” of your neighbor's faith. One should never forget that what we call interreligious dialogue is rarely divorced from the dynamics of power between religions. For those, like the pope — and many other conservative Christian, as well as Muslim and Jewish, believers — who believe that such dialogue must begin with the prima facie recognition that one's own religion represents Truth, this is an important lesson indeed.

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