The Lesson of the “Interfaith Amigos”

On Monday, The New York Times carried a story about three clergymen who have formed a kind of traveling road-show to promote interfaith understanding.  The approach worked out by Rabbi Ted Falcon, the Presbyterian minister Don Mackenzie and Sheik Jamal Rahman is counter-intuitive – but highly instructive. (See, “Three Clergymen, Three Faiths, One Friendship.”

Most of us, fearful of hurt feelings and conflict, tend to approach our religious and cultural differences by emphasizing similarities. Diplomats typically begin their negotiations by defining areas of agreement.  The underlying assumption is that if we can get find the ways we are in alignment, then we have a basis for tackling the difficult differences.  But the three “Interfaith Amigos,” as they have come to call themselves, work the other way.

“The three say they became close not by avoiding or glossing over their conflicts, but by running straight at them. They put everything on the table: the verses they found offensive in one another’s holy books, anti-Semitism, violence in the name of religion, claims by each faith to have the exclusive hold on truth, and, of course, Israel.”

The problem with stressing only similarities and agreements is that everyone suspects that the difficulties are being evaded – and how can you trust that?  There may be a feel-good moment, but then the doubts and suspicions linger on.

As Rabbi Falcon put it: “We try to honor the truth. This is the truth for you, and this is the truth for me. It may not be reconcilable, but it is important to refuse to make the other the enemy.” The aim of such discussions is not agreement, just understanding.

This is a lesson that could be more widely applied in the aftermath of 9/11, and especially now as our mid-east wars are increasing the rift between Muslim Americans and the rest of us.  An article in Foreign Affairs high-lights the problem:  “According to a 2006 Gallup poll, a third of Americans admire ‘nothing’ about the Muslim world. Nearly half of all Americans believe the U.S. government should restrict the civil liberties of Muslims. A July 2007 Newsweek survey indicated that 46 percent of Americans think that the United States is accepting too many Muslim immigrants, 32 percent consider American Muslims less loyal to the United States than they are to Islam….”  And so on. (See, “The Real Shock of Fort Hood.”)

And American Muslims, for their part, have tended to react by becoming less visible, believing that “suppressing their Muslim identity was better for their health, that they couldn’t take their civil rights for granted, and that their interests depended on the absence of serious future attacks within the United States.”

Moreover, “many Muslims perceived the implementation of the U.S. Patriot Act as biased. Thus, to most U.S. Muslims, maintaining a low profile simply by demonstrating unalloyed approval of their adopted country’s policies would have been unprincipled and unpalatable. Yet the absence of a fervently patriotic response only confirmed the suspicions of many non-Muslim Americans.” (See, “The Real Shock of Fort Hood.”)

We need to talk, and certainly we could learn better ways of talking from the three “Interfaith Amigos.”