May Teng is an undergraduate student in the College, class of 2020, double majoring in government and English. She is from Jakarta, Indonesia, where she coordinated a student group providing medical care to children in underserved communities. She is interested in exploring pluralism among the crossroads of religion, ethnicity, and culture. In her spare time, Teng is an active member of the D.C. Schools Project, where she teaches English to children from immigrant communities. She also serves as a storyteller for the Georgetown Stories project, a multimedia, first-person documentary series chronicling student life at Georgetown. At the Berkley Center, Teng is a student fellow in the 2017-2018 Doyle Undergraduate Fellows program.
In a world where achieving mere tolerance among religious groups can appear daunting, interreligious dialogue may seem impossible. From informal conversations to academic class discussions, I often hear the opinion that tolerance is all we can hope for in the volatile realm of religious difference. I also hear that interreligious dialogue may be a “nice idea” but is too idealistic and its results are too intangible. There is always a slew of questions that follow: how is it feasible to achieve dialogue between the fundamentalist conservative Christian and the controversial imam without devolving into hostility and conflict? Even if we can get them to dialogue, so what? What difference will it make? Why try to make peace through interreligious dialogue when there are so many more practical means out there?
Even as I am writing this, cautionary voices ring in my head: “Don’t discuss politics, and, whatever you do, don’t bring religion to the dinner table.”
“Religion is taboo; avoid talking about it at all costs.”
“Why would you discuss religion with someone if not to convert them?”
These concerns do not come unanticipated, and they certainly raise valid concerns regarding the challenges associated with fostering dialogue among religious groups of difference. Yet, religion remains a central tenet in the lives of billions of people around the world; it dictates history, policy, and fundamental ideological outlooks. Religion is a source of immense power and a motivating force. If we are to foster true peace and understanding between people, we cannot quietly swerve around issues of religious difference. We can no longer grit our teeth and deal with each other in spite of theological differences. We need to create the possibility of world peace through mutual understanding of religious diversity. Interreligious dialogue is a key means of doing so.
What, then, is this so-called panacea to religious conflict? While perhaps not exactly a miraculous antidote to religious tensions, interreligious dialogue is a powerful tool for facilitating communication and finding common ground. It is more than a conversation; it is a process of give and take, self-examination, and vulnerability. Interreligious dialogue is an opportunity to expose oneself to doubt and anxiety. It is a space in which to find common ground and similarities, build relationships, and cultivate mutual respect. Lack of communication and dialogue can only serve to exacerbate misunderstanding and difference. As Francesco Zannini notes in “The Critical Need for Inter-Religious Dialogue,” interpretations of Islamic law often dictate that Islam denies basic human rights and restricts religious freedom. Yet, Muslim thinkers of the Middle Ages and later periods were among the first to incorporate ideas of tolerance and safeguards for minorities in their legal systems. Perhaps harmful perceptions of Islam could be ameliorated if members of Islamic communities could share a space with those of other faiths and have meaningful conversations on what Islam means—not through the eyes of the media, or of surrounding religious groups, but from the eyes of Muslims themselves.
Perhaps this, then, is the purpose of dialogue: not to convert or to raise tensions, but to gain a fresh pair of eyes through which to see those from other faith traditions. Perhaps interreligious dialogue is just the tool we need to increase mutual understanding, bridge gaps of difference, and work towards a more accepting and peaceful tomorrow.