Forget ″them and us″!

Interfaith dialogue can only succeed if its actors stop fomenting value judgements from history. Essay by Alexander Goerlach

By Alexander Görlach

Dialogue between the religions is a tough call at a moment in history that our descendants will perhaps one day call the "age of identity". In this epoch of distinction, in which "the others" stand against "us", some regard an exchange on the subject of commonalities strange or outlandish. For others, it may just seem futile.

An unmistakable minority even perceives this dialogue as a threat, because fear of "the others" is its currency and a successful understanding would not fit the mould.

In the global game of "them and us", the major antagonists are viewed as the Christian world and the Islamic hemisphere. This has, among other things, to do with the bestseller by Samuel Huntington, which predicted the decisive battle of the future to be a "battle of the civilisations" between the crescent and the cross.

But the issue is far more complex: look for example beyond the monotheistic horizon to India, where a nationalist governing party specifies the identity of the world's largest democracy as Hindu, in a bid to target and stigmatise the Muslim minority.

What defines religion anyway?

This age of identity is occurring at a time when many are talking about the "return of religion". The modern European dictum espoused the theory that improved education and prosperity would promote the secularisation of society and the world, resulting in the eventual disappearance of religion.

Muslims in India (photo: Reuters)
India′s second-class citizens: ″Looking beyond the monotheistic horizon points for example to India, where a nationalist governing party specifies the identity of the world's largest democracy as Hindu, in a bid to target and stigmatise the Muslim minority," writes Goerlach

The issue with this theory was, and is, that it did not clearly emphasise what is actually meant by religion. This is the only way to explain the discrepancy between so-called Christian values currently enjoying great resonance in opinion polls in the Occident, while rates of church attendance have sunk to their lowest since the French Revolution.

Both are subsumed under the term religion. And precisely because no explanation was given as to what kind of religion would disappear with the triumphal march of the modern age, it remains unclear to this day what is actually meant by secularisation.

When people talk about religion as identity, for example in the concept of the Christian Occident, what religion are they referring to? In Catholic Poland, sentiments against Syrian refugees are openly stoked, despite the fact that the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, has instructed all the vicarages and monasteries in the Old World to take in one Syrian (Muslim) family.From a charitable viewpoint, this rejection of Muslim refugees in Poland must be considered brutal, just as Islamic clerics in Egypt must be considered cynical when they call on refugees to spread Islam within the societies of Europe following their arrival. Which Christianity is speaking here? Which Islam?

Therefore, both cases are not concerned with charitable religion, but political religion. Political religion means that the co-operation of people in groups is structured by regulations that transcend the here and now. Societies create and need narratives such as these, which hold them together.

Gossip and mythology

In his book "Sapiens", the historian Yuval Harari describes two narrative forms that are decisive for the development and perpetuation of our species: gossip and mythology, or in other words: "Brangelina" and the Garden of Eden.

Historian Yuval Noah Harari (photo: Daniel Thomas Smith)
In his book ′Sapiens′, the historian and bestselling author Yuval Noah Harari describes two narrative forms for the development and perpetuation of our species: gossip and mythology, or in other words, "Brangelina" and the Garden of Eden

The goal is the legitimisation of political order, an order that creates a sense of belonging for rulers and the ruled in equal measure. Political-religious narratives are mutually exclusive, the decisive stories of Christianity and Islam are different. They depend on each group's belief that they are the chosen ones.

England serves as an example of this. For a long time, people here viewed themselves as the legitimate descendants of the Biblical tribes of Israel. To this day, the words of the unofficial English national anthem request that if Jerusalem were to be founded for a second time, it should be located on England's green and pleasant pastures.

This political rhetoric concerning the chosen ones reached the banks of the New World in the belly of the "Mayflower". Whenever Ronald Reagan described the US as the "shining city on the hill", he was using a political-religious language understood within his target group, thereby preserving identity.

In his studies on social identity in the 1970s, the social psychologist Henri Tajfel discovered that even children preferred the imagined teammates of their own group to those of an opposing team.In another related example highlighted by the French philosopher Rene Girard, societies will single out a scapegoat and make an example out of him. This with the aim of safeguarding or restoring peace within the majority group.

The stumbling block to any dialogue

Aiming to strengthen one's own identity by denigrating others or through the punitive ostracism of a scapegoat – this is something both archaic and highly-developed societies still have in common. It is the stumbling block to any dialogue and an irony of history that established religions today are working against the divisive narratives they were significantly involved in constructing in the past.

When the Pope holds interfaith dialogue with the most senior representatives of other religions, hardliners on both sides sense it as a betrayal of their own world view, of their own political religion.

Theologian and linguist Alexander Goerlach (photo: Lars Mensel)
Alexander Goerlach is an ′in defence of democracy′ affiliate professor of the F.D. Roosevelt Foundation at Harvard. The theologian and linguist is also a fellow of Cambridge University′s Centre for Humanities (CRASSH) in the UK and a senior fellow of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. Founder and publisher of the online magazine, Goerlach also writes for the New York Times

In this case too, this is not about spirituality or private piety. After all, the mystics that most likely reflect this form of religion are comfortable with their belief that none of the faithful ultimately knows "God". It is clear that the mystical traditions of the religions, such as the Sufis in Islam for example, were regarded with suspicion – and even persecuted - precisely because of this disarming unorthodoxy.

Outdated value judgements

For its part, secularism offers no solution for our age of identity, because the institutional division of state and religious institutions cannot abolish this archaic view of "them and us " and the practice of scapegoating.

The religious narratives of a society do not stop at the doors of parliaments and courts, because they are themselves political and thus decide on participation, the legitimate exercise of power and affiliation.

The question of whether Islam and Western democracy go together is proof of this. In this discussion, Muslim loyalty is disputed, whereas it is assumed to be present among one's own people as a matter of course. The reason for this, people say, is that Muslims did not share the same history as the people in the West.

Because these archaic ideas still wield power today, referring to the secular nature of liberal democracy also does not automatically dissolve misgivings concerning the loyalty of Muslims in the western world. We all have reason to believe that similar mechanisms are also at work in other contexts such as in India.

Interfaith dialogue can only succeed if its actors do not continue to foment value judgements from history, as populists and demagogues would wish, but rather put forward meaningful narratives that can overcome the "them and us" formula once and for all.

Alexander Goerlach

© 2017

Translated from the German by Nina Coon