Hoya Paxa

Accessing Interfaith Dialogue

"Radicalization," "extremism," and "reconciliation" are all buzz words today floating through political and media discourse. On March 31, St. Anselm’s Abbey here in Washington, D.C. hosted an event called “Radicalization and Reconciliation in God’s Name: An Interfaith Inquiry.” I attended the event hoping to hear more nuanced answers than those in the media regarding the questions of how to understand why some sincere believers turn to extremism in the way they interpret their tradition and how we can best respond to the challenges that violence in the name of religion presents?

Six faith traditions were represented on the panel: Sunni and Shi’a Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism. While the diversity of represented faiths was admirable, not a single woman was included. The event seemed to forget that diversity applies to more than just religion. The discussion started with each man discussing why he believes violence is perpetrated in the name of their own tradition. The answers shared the common thread that these religions condemn violence, but individuals become radicalized through literal interpretation of texts which splits the world into black and white, good versus evil. Such a strict worldview leaves one feeling vulnerable and like they must defend their truth, God’s truth, sometimes through violence. The event then switched tracks to discuss what might be done to address radicalization. Addressing the structural violence of poverty, lack of education, and corrupt governments from which many places that are “breeding grounds” for extremism suffer was a theme. Furthermore, all the different faith leaders agreed that radicalization and violence occurs when individuals forget what their religions really stand for, which in the case of all six of these traditions is peace, loving your enemy, and doing good acts.

Toward the end of the conference the archbishop of Washington, D.C. stood up and asked the panelists’ opinions on the recent Marrakech Declaration, which was signed by hundreds of religious leaders and scholars from a variety of faith backgrounds and stated unequivocally that religious minorities must be free to practice their own traditions and must be protected and respected within Muslim nations. The participants, some of whom had attended this "historic event," lauded it as a real step forward and proof that large international interfaith dialogues could be successful.

I see a great parallel between these two events: both were meetings of high-level religious thinkers, academics, and diplomats to discuss interfaith issues of the utmost importance. A problem exists, though, because all those attending and leading these meetings are well-educated and already agree that their religions do not offer justification for terrorism or violence, but their philosophical and theological reasoning is relatively inconsequential to those populations most vulnerable to radicalization. So how do you take the high-level interfaith discourse and shift it to an action-oriented policy that can actually counter radicalization on the ground in conflict and poverty ridden places?

While I believe that interfaith dialogue is essential to building respect and trust, which is the basis of resolving conflicts and countering violent extremism, the real challenge is to find ways for the public to engage in these discourses in addition to scholars. There are, I fear, many structures and institutions standing in the way of greater public engagement, for instance a lack of laws protecting religious freedom or freedom of expression especially in Muslim-majority countries, media outlets worldwide that choose focus on violence because it drives viewership and profits, and the lack of opportunity for education, employment, and advancement which people of all religious traditions confront daily. Addressing these inequalities seems to me equally as important a place to start as interfaith dialogue when attempting to counter radicalization.

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