Understanding Interfaith Dialogue: A Few Critical Questions

The issue of constructing a temple of Lord Ram on the disputed site where the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya once stood and was demolished in 1992 is once again hitting the headlines. The construction of the temple is being touted as an article of faith and the litmus test to prove respect for sentiments of ‘Hindus’. This demand becomes all the more threatening when there is aggressive mobilisation to intimidate the democratic institutions like the judiciary and also the communities perceived as ‘others’. This is but just one of the many examples of manipulations and contestations that are being played out in the name of religion in India which is proving to be a strain on the peaceful and harmonious inter-community relations in India.


In this context, one of the solutions being promoted is to establish inter-faith dialogue and through this dialogue build understanding between the different religions. However, it would be misplaced optimism and perhaps even a folly to believe that by speaking about the positives of our own religions in a closed conference room, one can establish any meaningful dialogue or even  understand the essence of the different religions. Any sincere attempt at interfaith dialogue will require an earnest reflection about our own religion, the power structures it nurtures, the inequalities it institutionalises and also the injustices it may perpetuate.


Such a dialogue will help each community understand their own traditions, faith, beliefs and value system in the light of other religions. A critical understanding of other religions enables us to reflect internally within our own religions. Thus, my participation in an interfaith consultation recently was a very enriching experience for me since it opened avenues of learning and assiduous critical reflection into our own faiths. The Consultation called Seeking Life Together: Interfaith Resistance to Religious Bigotry and Discrimination based on Caste and Gender was organised by Collective of Dalit Ecumenical Christian Scholars (CODECS) in collaboration with the Mennonite Brethren Centenary Bible College (MBCBC) and the World Council of Churches (WCC).


Some of the important reflections and challenges that the meet deliberated upon were crucial. For a nuanced understanding of interfaith dialogue and relations, it becomes imperative to peel layers of discrimination that institutionalised religions perpetrate with the help of scriptures and normative narratives. I have listed a few down below.


The Question of Gender


The question of gender equality is central to all religions and has unfortunately been a grim one. Women have been discriminated in the socio-cultural realm by citing justifications from religious narratives. In the seminar too, the question of subordination of women was raised very strongly. Different speakers tried to deconstruct patriarchy and patriarchal structures / understanding of scriptures. Making a case for Dalit women in the Church, it was argued that Dalit women are “Dalit within the Dalit” thus pointing out how the axis of gender and caste lead to double discrimination of Dalit women in the Church. While support is sought from a patriarchal understanding or interpretation of biblical scriptures to entrench the lower status of women within the family and society at large, the plight of Dalit women becomes all the more aggravated due to caste identity. What perhaps was most moving and inspiring was the narrative of a Dalit woman reverend herself, who explained this oppression citing her personal journey. She explained that women face strong resistance when they try to penetrate the Church administrative structures which largely till date remain male dominated.  Women’s emancipation is viewed as a threat to the social order understood to be formed by God. This resistance becomes stronger if the woman is a Dalit. There was a demand to deconstruct the understanding of biblical scriptures which legitimises hierarchy and subordination of women.


The status of Muslim women evinced intense debates and interest. Two perspectives emerged. One, that the scriptures are a source of liberation and provide space for negotiating rights of Muslim women; and the other more critical one, which questioned the scriptures which are used to subordinate women. These perspectives came from the lived experiences of women who have been working with Muslim communities in South Asia. Women’s organisations working on issues of Muslim women are grappling with the discrimination faced by Muslim women in the areas of marriage, property, education and their overall socio-economic status in society. The orthodoxy often cites from the Quran to justify this discrimination. However it is equally true that there are also liberal interpretations of the Quran which have provided spaces to women to negotiate for their rights in day to day lives. But more often than not, the vested clergy and elite in the community interpret the scriptures in a way to subjugate the women.


There was a strong argument about how the discrimination faced by Muslim women is manipulated by communal forces to stigmatise and demonise Islam as a religion and also the Muslim community as being ‘backward’ and ‘fundamentalist’. This adds to the pressure on Muslim women to sweep their questions and demands for reforms under the carpet and in effect does more harm to their cause of justice and equality. The struggles of Muslim women are at the crossroads of communal politics and patriarchy faced within the community.


It will be misleading to think that identity politics is affecting the lives of Muslim women alone and pushing them deeper into the folds of patriarchy. Women in Hindu communities are also used as pawns to play out communal politics by firmly placing them in the realm of their homes to strengthen the discourses of women being reproducers of children. Hindu women are mobilised by communal forces to construct exclusionist narratives of nationalism where Muslims are portrayed as the common enemy, and are misled into believing that they are working to “save” their religion by indulging in propaganda of hatred. But this political agenda, despite being based on hatred, gives women the bargaining power to participate in the public sphere. For example, they are out on the streets to stop other women who wish to enter the Sabarimala temple, or to shield their male relatives when they participate in communal violence against the “others”. Their concerns of equality within families, equal opportunity in terms of education and livelihoods and their agency in terms of marriages and relationships are sidelined or even opposed. Therefore reforms and a critical reflection on the orthodoxy within communities are absolutely essential if there has to be interfaith dialogue.


The Question of Caste


Caste system in India has seeped into other religions though it’s not integral to their theology. The caste system which is a system of graded hierarchy or inequality has shaped the Hindu communities. The Dalits who were at the receiving end of the practice of untouchability, discrimination and dehumanisation for centuries tried to find alternatives to Hindu religion, which had been critiqued by Ambedkar in no uncertain terms. Some of the Dalits turned to Islam and Christianity in their quest for equality and acceptance. However, the persons who converted couldn’t escape their caste identity. There were conversions into Islam and Christianity from upper caste Hindu religions too. This privileged group drew caste boundaries within the other religions too and reproduced brahminical culture and discourses. And so, caste system came to haunt the Dalits in Islam and Christianity too. For instance, there are separate churches for Dalit Christians or separate mosques for Dalit Muslims.


Though there is no notion of purity and pollution in Islam and Christianity, the condition of Pasmanda Muslims and Dalit Christians is appalling. The philosophy of caste is quite contradictory to the basic beliefs of Islam which explicitly emphasise equality and universal brotherhood. Islam may be normatively egalitarian, but actually existing Islam in Indian conditions is deeply hierarchical. There is a need to democratise Islam in India. The resistance of Muslim Dalits and Christian Dalits leads to a larger question of democratisation and forging a counter-hegemonic solidarity that has the potentiality and can prove to be a powerful resource for more humane interfaith dialogue.


The question of inclusion


This brings us to the question about what is the nature of religion. Religion was made for human beings and not vice-versa. Thus, one has to raise the question, is the imagery of God congruent to that of a poor man? A black man? A Dalit? A woman? Does God in the present understanding and form really dialogue with a poor or unprivileged person not conforming to the normal in society? Is institutionalised religion really inclusive? Does it emphasise humility, simplicity, concern for the poor? There are examples like Basavanna and other bhakti traditions along with Sufi saints who through their living exemplified poverty and labour. Basavanna exalted physical labour into a religious ideology and weaved a counter narrative to caste driven brahminical society and morality. In one of famous vachanas, he says:


The rich will make temples for Shiva.

What shall I, a poor man, do?

My legs are pillars,

the body the shrine, the head a cupola of gold.


These thinkers and philosophers envisaged a different social order—one which was based on rationality, equality and justice. This was a sincere attempt at democratisation of religion. Such values are most needed today where institutionalised religion is manipulated to privilege certain sections.


What should interfaith actually mean?


Interfaith dialogue is largely understood to be a process to promote tolerance of other religions. It is understood to grapple with the question as to how one is to instruct youth in the religious beliefs and values of their community, while encouraging them to be tolerant of beliefs and values deemed to be incompatible with their own. In this process, it is already presupposed that one’s own religion is liberal, inclusive and perfect. Interfaith dialogues eulogise institutional religions and focus on so called progressive discourses within each religion. But no attempt is made to look at within our own religion in a rational and critical manner.


One has to acknowledge that there exists fundamentalism in every religion. Therefore, there is scope for reform in every religion. If one acknowledges this and critically reflects on one’s own religion and values it promotes, this understanding perhaps will manifest in everyday conduct and social order. The critical gaze instead of being on other religions should be projected within. As Kabir very rightly pointed out:


Bura jo dekhan main chala, bura na milaya koi

Jo man khoja apna, toh mujhsa bura na koi.

(I started searching for the devil but could not find anyone. When I searched inside me, I realised there is no one more devilish than me.)


This may lead to different sections of the society having a meaningful dialogue with each other, and will include the marginalized, in turn making such interactions human.

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