Interfaith dialogue, as we have known it, that peaceful, sanguine and polite discourse, is dead. Yes, dead. The day of treating everyone like equals with equal truths in the marketplace of ideas is… over. The day of fascination with the “exotica” of others’ faiths…is done.
This is a new era that calls for a new approach to interfaith engagement, before the whole field drowns in its genial earnestness. That means we will begin to address the 500-lb. gorillas and gore some sacred cows. Everyone will walk away with more information.
However, we will need to come to an understanding of how to have an honest dialogue that is frank, yet respectful. In other words: how do I disagree with you, without making it confrontational?
In the course of engagement and encounter, we may call people of faith to account for some of their more controversial beliefs and practices. For example, what does it mean when a translation of the Qur’an says: “beat your wife lightly so that it will NOT inflict any pain”? Do Christians really believe that Eucharist turns into flesh? And what about shatnez: the Torah prohibition against mixing linen and wool?
We need to be prepared to be asked difficult questions, and we need to respond without defensiveness.
Perhaps, this is why the entire notion of “reasonable accommodation” has gained traction. With increased immigration to the developed nations, there has arisen the question about what is “reasonable accommodation,” and what is not? Often this has become a discussion about what is an “obligation” or compulsory activity for a given religion. If Muslims are obligated to pray five times a day, and if Sikhs are compelled to wear a kirpan, how do our offices and schools accommodate that? Can we?
After all, the pre-existing Christian culture is not one that includes instruction about dietary requirements, frequency of prayer, etc. But other faiths have a range of specific obligatory and compulsory activities. As such, they appear to be receiving more accommodation, while Christianity, with its few obligations, doesn’t ask for much accommodation. For example, in Islam, there are specific obligations around prayer, fasting, alms giving (tithing), pilgrimage, and declaring one’s faith. In Judaism, there are 613 separate commandments governing every aspect of life. The predominant Christian culture does not have such a range of obligatory practices.
How do we differentiate that which is compulsory from that which is desired by the adherents of a given faith? We have had such discussions in the developed world around sharia law. Some Muslim women have taken to covering themselves entirely. Some believe that to be an extreme interpretation of the Prophet’s admonishment to dress modestly. Should a society at large be compelled to accommodate such a practice that runs counter to everything we hold as social?
Reasonable accommodation must, after all, be reasonable.
On occasion, some members of a faith group will claim that some activities are compulsory and accommodation must be made. Yet, that faith group’s scriptures will not support the claim. In fact, even in Muslim nations like Tunisia, Turkey and Iran, there have been periods in history when women were not permitted to cover their heads in public. Often enough, a cultural practice is interpreted as religious. Some older Mediterranean Christian women dress in black, but there is no scriptural basis for what is essentially a cultural practice.
In other words, we need to understand whether a claim for accommodation is based upon faith, a specific culture or simply an aberrant interpretation. We also need to ask ourselves whether accommodating a given practice will or will not have broader social implications. Arguably, if someone wants to dress in black, it’s not quite the same as someone who covers their face in a society that is given to making eye contact.
Guests & Hosts
Those of us who inhabit societies that are receiving immigrant populations must learn what it means to be good hosts. We must be welcoming, accepting and encouraging. We must furnish our guests with every opportunity to become contributing citizens who love our nations and uphold our laws and institutions.
And yet, while we are being good hosts, those who arrive need help and instruction in how to be good guests, and good citizens. What do I mean? Well, when I am a guest, say at the first meeting of a committee or group I have been invited to join, I’m demure. I observe. I respect the others who have done all the prior work. In subsequent meetings and as I gradually find my feet in that group, I may contribute more. But for now, I am something of a guest.
Put another way, if you are a guest in my home, there are certain rules of courtesy. You won’t simply open my refrigerator or wander into my bedroom. Until you know me well enough, you need to return my hospitality to you, with courteous respect for me.
We need to ask those who come to our land to be good guests to respect our land, the predominant cultures and our beliefs. That does not mean that the guest is forever a guest. There is a gradual process of acculturation. My family came to Canada 50 years ago and I consider myself as Canadian as the next person. However, when I meet Canadians who can trace their roots on this continent back to the early nineteenth century and whose families fought at Vimy or Normandy or Kapyong in the Korean Conflict, I honour them and I respect them.
We may be equals, but I venerate what the generations of their families have given to this nation.
Now, when it comes to the practicalities of religious accommodation, some of the challenges have ended up before the courts. One hopes that the courts will publicly consult legitimate faith communities and interfaith organizations when hearing cases that involve matters of faith. Those of us who work in faith can be very helpful to the courts in distinguishing what is truly a religious obligation that the society needs to accommodate under Section 2 of the Charter…and those that are not.
Just because an individual or group demands accommodation and equality, citing religious freedoms enshrined in the Charter, doesn’t immediately accord those rights to them. This nation has given birth to fringe cults in Quebec and in Bountiful, BC – some of which will be seeking accommodation. Without a solid and working definition of religion, the courts may not know how to rule, without diminishing the legitimacy of the vast majority of faith communities.
Richard M. Landau has been responsible for adjudicating disputes and enforcing a television network code of ethics in a religious broadcasting setting since 1992. He is a graduate of Carleton University and the University of Ottawa. A leader in interfaith dialogue, Mr. Landau has consulted with the UK Home Office, and the White House Office of Community- and Faith-Based Initiatives. He works closely with leadership in all of the major world religions. He is author of What the World Needs to Know about Interfaith Dialogue.
This commentary was adapted from his keynote speech at the Parliamentary Interfaith Breakfast in Ottawa on November 27.