Interfaith Dialogue / Stereotypes of Islam and Muslims

Daniel Avatar

Since 9/11, interfaith dialogue in America has experienced a series of major shifts, mainly away from shared study, prayer and clergy-to-clergy dialogue towards community service, social justice and direct service work, and most notably, non clergy lay people have increased their role as active participants in dialogue (Smock, 2002; Patel, 2007; Abu-Nimer, 2005 & 2007; Hornung, 2007). This movement of grassroots interfaith dialogue presents new challenges to practitioners and scholars of interfaith relations both methodologically and in terms of measuring the effectiveness of interfaith work to promote individual and group change. Grassroots interfaith dialogue is by far the favored mode of dialogue amongst the majority of faith-based communities in America, and its recent introduction onto the scene is changing the ways in which we are able to reach greater understanding amongst religious communities.

At the heart of interfaith dialogoue in America is a desire to break down stereotypes. To examine the stereotypes one harbors and the stereotypes that have been built up by society. Stereotypes are in many ways a modern iteration of a system of cultural discourse and power that has wedged divisions between cultures throughout history. Edward Said’s work in Orientalism is an instructive reference to the origination of stereotypes. In Said’s version, stereotypes are promulgated by different cultural modes of power. In Orientalism, Said examines the European colonial period’s portrayal of Arabs and Muslims from Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt to the modern twentieth century up to the Iraq War of the 1990’s. Although focused on textual exegesis of canonic western literature about the Orient, Orientalism and Orientalist thinking have taken on forms and tropes including the mass media. In Covering Islam, Said examines the ways in which Islam and Muslims are covered by the journalistic community. In many ways he extends the idea of Orientalism to the mass media as a contemporary form of cross cultural classification. Stereotypes are the most modern version of the perceptions we have of the Muslim and Arab. Throughout the long history of cross cultural exchanges between the Orient and the “Occident,” Orientalism has consistently split the world view of the western mind into a dualism that pits the backward and static “Oriental” culture as antagonistic and anathema to the advanced and evolving “Occident” culture of Europe and America (Said, 1978). Out of these historical divisions, Said discusses the role of “communities of interpretation,” the idea that perceptions of Islam are not the result of authentic cross cultural exchange, but of subjective interpretation.

Perception of Islam and Muslims in the age of the mass media, according to Said, “is an objective and also a subjective fact, because people create that fact in their faith, in their societies, histories, and traditions, or in the case of non Muslim outsiders, because they must in a sense, fix, personify, stamp, the identity of that which they feel confronts them collectively or individually” (Said, 1981, 40). Islam in this context is a cultural phenomenon that presents a subjective threat to the non Muslim in the west. The notion of Islam under threat is an appropriate launching point to understanding the role of stereotypes at the individual and systemic levels.
In his work on stereotyping, Gordon W. Allport in the Nature of Prejudice points out that stereotypes are beyond mere reinforcements of ethnocentrist thinking of a vilified other, or outsider. Like Said, Allport recognizes the subjective (internalized norms, values and images of the Muslim) as well as the objective (the media’s frames and prevailing images of the Muslim), but his critique of stereotypes place onus on the subjective individual level. Stereotypes serve a functional purpose amidst a two way system of perception. In this sense, Allport argues the media indoctrinates a sort of ideology structure in the individual. Ideology, then, is the relation the individual makes between reality and illusion. The media presents an illusion of reality whereby the individual transfers his or her own allusion onto their reality. Traditionally, studies of stereotype formation dealt with analyses that limited interpretation to the phenomenological affects, or processes of conscious apprehension of sensory material, limited solely to the effects of the media. Stereotypes of the Muslim (a stimulus object) and how the Muslim is perceived (phenomenology) is the traditional framework for interpreting the affects of stereotypes on the individual (Semmerling, 2006).

Allport inverts the system-centric framework by looking at the system of stereotypes as a projected reality of the character structures of the person who employs the stereotype. His methodology turns the analysis away from the hated object back to the hater (Semmerling, 2006; Allport 1979). When we dissect the stereotype in a functional framework from the perspective of the individual within a system of ideology, we see the stereotype as a response to an inner anxiety. In its expressed form, then, the stereotype is an emotional response to a perceived threat to the buildup of stress. Once it is articulated, the stereotype ameliorates the fear and anxiety within the person. The individual internalizes a set of stereotypes that serve to soothe the fears and anxieties built up about the other inside the individual. Stereotypes are also thought of as narrative-based structures that exclude certain communities that don’t fit into their narrative symmetry. In the media and especially in Hollywood films, “people are presented as alien when their presence disrupts the narrative structure of the community” (Robert G Lee, 7).

Since stereotypes are largely subjective manifestations of the individual, confronting them should combine diverse practices including alternative media, education and person-to-person dialogue. The vast majority of Americans that know a Muslim personally 60% of the time do not show signs of stereotypical thinking about Muslims and Islam (Pew Forum, 2007). Because the prevailing frames of Muslims in the media are distorted faces of a castigated “human other”, person-to-person interaction with Muslims is cited as the most influential factor in reaching better understanding of Islam and Muslims (Pew Forum, 2007). Shaheen has cited several methods and approaches to breaking down stereotypes promulgated by popular media, among the most effective methods is interfaith dialogue. Interfaith dialogue, as opposed to inter ethnic dialogue produces more meaningful relationships and a greater capacity for taking action after the dialogue (Abu-Nimer, 2002). Interfaith dialogue has been experiencing an unprecedented move towards greater grassroots engagement since 9/11.
In his focus group on Abrahamic dialogue in America since 2002, David Smock identified concern about widespread stereotyping of Islam and misunderstanding about the nature of the Islamic faith as one of the most frequently cited priorities of interfaith groups. Beyond stereotyping of just Islam and Muslims, people of faith are concerned with the growing level of religious stereotypes, a trend that affects other religions, but predominately Islam (Smock, 2005).

Methodologically, interfaith dialogue must develop distinct ground rules, identify reality imbalances, pair commensurate experience levels amongst participants, develop a diversity of participants, create safe space, and place emphasis on shared values and action across faiths (Swidler, 1991; Abu-Nimer, 2005; Smock, 2002). All interfaith dialogue examines internal stereotypes of the individual and developing safe space is cited continuously as a top priority of the facilitator. “When participants are threatened, uncomfortable, or unready to explore their similarities and their differences, they fall back on notions and stereotypes of the other” (Abu-Nimer, 2002, 22). In an unsafe space, participants can also fall back into secondary language of false humanism and universalism in each faith which could lead to artificial harmony. The Dialogue of Touchstones brings conflicting perspectives and views into a safe space where, “all I can ask of you is to listen to me and to be actively what you are in response to me. If this is so then we cannot have the notion of one truth of which our individual truths are so many symbolic expressions” (Friedman, 1989, 82).
Before we define interfaith dialogue as a way to enhance understanding of Islam and Muslims, we must first define dialogue as a communication technique and approach to peace making. Dialogue is a form of two-way communication that arose within the last one hundred years in the west, caused from a larger paradigm shift epistemologically and theologically with how subjective truth is understood (Swidler, 1991). Maurice Friedman, in The Dialogue of Touchstones as An Approach to Interfaith Dialogue describes the goal of dialogue as not agreement or debate, but an open hearted exchange between people that breaks all common western conceptions of dialogue itself. The common Aristotelian view has it that a statement and its opposite cannot both be true. The fact that the other has a truth which is counter to mine is no longer an impossible reality to realize in dialogue, but is a “touchstone of reality” (Friedman, 1989). Once participants have experienced a “touchstone of reality,” former confines of relativism and absolutism are abolished and participants enter a new form of pluralism. By embracing pluralism through dialogue, participants give up the idea that the truth of their religious reality is solely of their possession. Dialogue participants step out of the dilemma of cultural relativism into a “faithful pluralism” by mutually confronting their own touchstones of reality. The dialogue of touchstones is not an exchange between religions or religious communities, as ends in themselves, as much as it is a dialogue between persons, where a “community of otherness” has been developed, devoid of singular myths that normally guide dialogue. Interethnic dialogue and intrafaith dialogue are often unable or not as effective in developing more meaningful change and heightened levels of understanding through the use of shared mythical narratives (Abu-Nimer, 2002).

Interfaith dialogue is a form of learning and knowledge acquisition where a spectrum of experiential development has been identified by several practitioners (Hornung, 2007; Abu-Nimer, 2002; Swidler, 1991). Milton Bennet identifies six stages of intercultural sensitivity, three of which are broken off into ethnocentric stages, where one’s own culture is the nexus by which all understanding of the other’s culture is based, and ethnorelative, whereby other culture’s and behaviors are understood relative to one another and in a diverse cultural context (Hornung, 2007). Most often, interfaith dialogue in practice falls into the relativist and absolutist bracket, which prevents effective common ground, and grassroots interfaith action. Relativist and absolutist dialogue places no emphasis on listening, sustained collaboration or empowering the grassroots laity. In order for the participant to move to the ethnorelative stage of understanding, according to Bennet, the participant must be willing to accept that other culture has something to contribute to their own.

Second, one must go beyond denigration and position of superiority, and thirdly, they must do active work at embracing difference (Hornung, 2007, 53).
From the individual to the group level, interfaith dialogue is also a sustained process of group interaction that evolves in distinct stages of awareness. Fowler has identified five stages of interfaith understanding based on the the individual’s relation to their own tradition and to their community. Beginning with the “intuitive-projective” stage whereby all perspective is received directly from one’s home environment and parents. The second stage is the “mythic-literal,” where one absorbs their faith and doctrine as absolute truth, typically denying all else. Thirdly, the individual adopts a faith stance that models the larger normative practices of the community in the “synthetic-conventional” stage. Fourthly, the individual is grounded in a worldview that is distinct and differentiated from others in the “individuative-reflective” stage.

Finally, the individual adopts a syncretic assembly of other faith views and values in a combinatory way in the “conjunctive” stage, which is often in opposition to the mythic literal stage. Fowler’s stages of development assist the practitioner and facilitator of interfaith dialogue in understanding levels of awareness and the potential for conflict across stages, for instance the mythic-literal and conjunctive (Fowler, 2000). Issues of linear development, contradictions and variance amongst stages, and the cause of changes in an individual’s stage of awareness are also problems with Fowler’s stages. Finally, they posit an ideal outcome that suggests that through interfaith dialogue the participant will reach conjunctive stage and that it is a desired outcome.

Stages of development within interfaith dialogue groups have been observed in workshops between Christians, Muslims and Jews in Israel (Abu-Nimer, 2002). Initially, participants gravitated towards positive aspects of one’s own religion and a general excitement about engaging the other’s faith was apparent. From this excitement phase came the use of secondary language, outside of one’s own personal experience: quotes from the Bible, Qur’an, Torah, etc. At this stage, tension was still prevalent, and a third stage followed that which took a more restrictive approach. In this stage, doctrines and practices were discussed, tensions tended to mount. The fourth and final stage witnessed a synthesis of feelings and reactions. Limitations were felt; similarities were dealt with in a deeper way and understanding of differences was accepted. At the final stage, depending on the effectiveness of the facilitation, the participants were able to identify resources available to them for sustained work (Abu-Nimer, 2002).

Depending on the desired outcome, choice of participants should reflect the wills, aspirations and perspectives of the given communities in dialogue. While many scholars and practitioners have held that the “elite leadership model” is superior for dialogue and that textually well-versed individuals should be paired with equally well-versed individuals, there has been a shift away from this priority to enable greater inclusivity of participation. This move towards grassroots interfaith dialogue is most prevalent in post-conflict zones and also amongst American faith communities after 9/11. Ecumenical and interfaith dialogue scholar Leonard Swidler believes that all interreligious dialogue must be representative, a model that denies the everyday participant from the dialogue table. His influential model excludes atheists, humanists and people of no faith. According to Swidler, the larger the difference in knowledge, the larger the dialogue will result in a monologue and deny “faithful pluralism” (Swidler, 1991). In a 2002 survey of interfaith dialoguers, people of faith found the “elite leadership model” had failed to produce outcomes of action, shared values and effective engagement with the laity across faiths (Smock, 2005).

In America, this interest in and need for grassroots interfaith dialogue is evidenced by the increasing frequency of Christian congregational involvement with interfaith service, shared prayer and dialogue activities. Three years before 9/11 only 7% of Christian congregations reported participation in interfaith activities while by 2005, they reported a 22% increase, or 2 out of 10 congregations became involved in interfaith activities (Roozen, 2007). Interfaith service showed a 4 in 10 increase of reported involvement compared to dialogue and prayer work with other faiths. This same report cited the educational level of the congregation as the number one variable that determined the rate of interfaith involvement, not devotion or vitality of faith. In conclusion, the report cited that Islam was the biggest factor in the upswing of interaction in interfaith work (Roozen, 2007).

How would one start a program that engages grassroots interfaith dialogue in ways that challenge the stereotypes of Islam and Muslims? What tools would the practitioner or facilitator use to promote knowledge, or build personal relations that go beyond talk? How would an increase in understanding be measured? Challenging stereotypes is the starting point in building understanding, as challenging stereotypes involves increasing knowledge and shifting attitudes of the individual. As we have seen, interfaith dialogue tends to be a more sustainable method of dialogue work, often producing more meaningful understanding compared to intergroup or interethnic dialogue. Interfaith dialogue has this capacity to generate more meaningful levels of understanding through the use of shared mythical narratives and a shared set of resources for religious peace building and sustained dialogue (Abu-Nimer, 2002). In interfaith dialogues with the other, participants have shown remarkable development of sensitivity radars for language of exclusion, hatred and prejudice (Abu-Nimer 1999).

Interfaith dialogue at the grassroots level is a newer model of dialogue that comes with a new set of challenges including; unequal textual knowledge, forcing facilitators to incorporate innovative tools and models to assist with the dialogue. Evaluating the increases in understanding are difficult to measure as the audience may range from intermediate, to advanced, to sustained groups of dialoguers. In addition to these challenges, grassroots interfaith dialogue seeks to engage new constituents such as intergenerational dialoguers, youth-based, humanist, secular and atheist participants as well as religious exclusivists and antagonists. Engaging religious exclusivists and those antagonistic to interfaith dialogue is a top priority of American dialoguers (Smock, 2002).

Any interfaith dialogue that focuses on Islam and Muslims must address the inherent reality imbalance of understanding, which in this case is the pervasive lack of understanding of Muslims and Islam. The common goal of building greater understanding through examining, sharing and listening to one’s own and the group’s stereotypes depends on safe space and a clear articulation of the goals. This goal must be established in the ground rules and agreed upon by all participants in order to reach the objective of promoting an increase in understanding amongst the participants. Unlike the elite leadership model, participants must recognize that their increase in understanding may have an effect on others but is not to be seen as representative of their community. The facilitator must also address the unique approach of interfaith dialogue within this context and encourage other faith traditions and non faith traditions to mutually share feelings of stereotypes from their individual experience. The fact that Muslims and Islam are set apart as least understood and least favorable poses several methodological challenges to the dialogue and discovery process.

In his pioneering work on Muslims in dialogue, Khalid Duran has noted that Muslims have a wide array of Qur’anic support for pluralism and a great deal of support for exclusivist thinking of the other (Swidler, 1991). Recognizing the varied levels of experience with interfaith dialogue at the grassroots, participants should strive to engage their co-dialoguers in a spirit of sincere engagement with the other. Since all dialogue opens the individual up to the potential of change, one’s own views and perceptions of the other often experience a turning point having realized, acknowledged and understood the mutual fears and concerns of the other participants (Abu-Nimer, 2002).

Many have recognized the need for appropriate participants, whether dialoguing with conflicted parties, everyday people, or elite clergy and scholars (Abu Nimer, 2002; Swidler, 1992). Muslims in dialogue over theological issues in non grassroots dialogues cited challenges such as the divinity of Christ and the role of Jews as a chosen people, as theological stumbling blocks that prevented understanding. In grassroots dialogue, theological issues are discussed, but the facilitator seeks to reinforce what Freidman refers to the Touchstone of Reality principle, whereby theological myths are replaced by “communities of otherness.” Participants must feel that a level of empathy exists for their struggles and that the other is not seen as a sole representative of a given community, unlike elite leadership models, where the individual is meant to serve as representative or spokesperson of his or her community. Special attention should be given to the improper use of secondary language that often leads to artificial harmony and a sense of universalism in each faith. Secondary language is an over emphasis on textual support for ones views in dialogue, which usually occurs to hide inner fears and anxieties. While the dialogue forums require the settings of a safe space, and willingness to listen and react in a genuine manner, they must also remain flexible, allowing a wide range of models to enter. The diversity of models available to the facilitator depends on the level of skill of the facilitator, as well as the background and experience of each participant.

Interfaith dialogue at the grassroots is a fresh approach to building greater understanding, and developing greater empathy for others religions. To succeed in its development on the individual and community level, it must incorporate a set of tools and resources for adapting to the varying levels of tension and awareness that comes with interfaith dialogue. In the words of the twentieth century civil rights sage Rabbi Joshua Heschel in No Religion is an Island, “the purpose of interreligious dialogue is to cooperate in trying to bring about a resurrection of sensitivity, a revival of conscience; to keep alive the divine sparks in our souls, to nurture openness to the spirit of the Psalms, reverence for the words of the prophets, and faithfulness to the Living God” (Heschel, 1979, 359).

One response

  1. Dr. McClay

    “Interfaith dialogue is a must today, and the first step in establishing it is forgetting the past, ignoring polemical arguments, and giving precedence to common points, which far outnumber polemical ones.” (Fethullah Gulen)
    Fethullah Gulen
    Fethullah Gulen News

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