From religious tolerance to acceptance

A new project launched by the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg is working out key concepts from Judaism, Christianity and Islam with the aim of promoting interreligious dialogue. Presenting solid academic findings on similarities and differences, scholars will attempt to disarm agitators on all sides. Claudia Mende spoke to its director Professor Georges Tamer

By Claudia Mende

Professor Tamer, what approach are you taking in the Key Concepts project?

Georges Tamer: We have compiled a list of key concepts in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. These concepts will be discussed by renowned scholars of all three religions at conferences and elaborated further, and the results published in plain language. The first volumes will be issued in 2019.

Each chapter follows a uniform scheme. The topics covered include the terminology used and the historical development of the concepts as well as their many facets, that is, how varied the perception of these concepts is even within a single religion. The main focus is then on the commonalities and differences in the interpretation of these concepts in the three monotheistic religions.

What concept are you currently working on?

Tamer: At the moment we are preparing conferences on the concepts of "time" and "history" (12-14 December of this year) to be followed by the concepts of "human being", "sexuality", "body", "soul", "violence" and "just war" in 2019. We are also busy at work on publications treating the concepts already dealt with, especially the volume on freedom from a Jewish, Christian and Islamic point of view. There is a separate volume dedicated to each concept. The structure is uniform: an introduction, three chapters and an epilogue highlighting similarities and differences and outlining the significance of the term in contemporary discourse.

How are the results being disseminated?

Tamer: There is a website that presents summaries in German, English and Arabic in the form of a report on each of the nine conferences held so far. On our YouTube channel there are short descriptions of the concepts – in particular in Arabic – to make our results accessible to those who have little knowledge of German, explicitly for the benefit of refugees as well. We're also on Facebook and Twitter.

Please give an example of a concept.

Tamer: Take the concept of "human being" in the three monotheistic religions. What they all have in common is that they regard God as the creator of all beings and thus also of humankind. But while Judaism puts the focus on observing religious laws in order to lead a life pleasing to God, in Christianity man is freed from the guilt of Adam and Eve through Jesus Christ's incarnation and death on the cross.

Islam, which sees man as God's representative on earth (khalifa), does not recognise "original sin" in this form and accordingly does not see man as in need of redemption. The Koran thus denies the death of Jesus on the cross and emphasises the observance of the Sharia as the way to Paradise. These are not mere nuances, but serious differences with regard to the understanding of man in the three religions.

How did the idea for this research project arise?

Tamer: It was based on my experience that participants in interreligious dialogue often use the same term without realising that the concept behind it is understood in a different way by the others. I have been active in this field for many years and have noticed how things frequently go unclarified: what does my Muslim, Jewish or Christian interlocutor mean when he speaks of family, sexuality, revelation, state, society or freedom? These key concepts form the very foundation for these religions.What is new about your approach?

Tamer: It is a new approach to scholarship, because we do not treat the concepts in the respective religions separately but rather simultaneously. Our colleagues discuss the contents with one another in-depth at the conferences. The entire project has a discursive structure. It goes beyond academic analysis of the individual themes to address how we can learn from one another and establish links between how the concept is seen in our own and the two other religions.

What does that mean in concrete terms?

Tamer: Take for example the concept of revelation. When a Christian theologian addresses the term revelation within the framework of the project, he admittedly does so at first from the internal perspective of Christianity, but not without then considering how the term is understood in Judaism and Islam. The same applies conversely to Jewish and Muslim scholars. An example of how important these links are: in the Middle Ages, Jewish thinking made crucial advances within the context of an Arab culture dominated by Islam.

Does this mean that the religions are closer to each other than many people think?

Tamer: Yes and no. They are indeed more closely related than is commonly believed. And yet there are also far-reaching differences that many people are not aware of. In a superficially conducted interreligious dialogue, the impression may arise that we are all much more similar in our beliefs than we once thought, but impressions can be deceptive. It is true in some cases, but not true in many others. We don't merely want to uncover similarities here. We also want to point out differences so that they are recognised and then also accepted. We are after objective insights. That is the best way to respect each other.

Photo montage on the subject of "revelation" in the three monotheistic religions (source:
'Man is the enemy of what he does not know': "We don't merely want to uncover similarities here. We are after objective insights. As a Christian, Muslim, Jew, or non-believer, I need to know how the other person defines herself or himself religiously and acknowledge this otherness. It is not merely a matter of indifferent tolerance. We need a higher level than tolerance, namely recognition and acceptance, without trying to gloss over differences," says Tamer

So the aim is to establish what the differences are – and then?

Tamer: The goal is not only to determine the differences, but also, on the basis of the similarities and differences, to respect the other person in the way he or she wants to be understood. As a Christian, Muslim, Jew, or non-believer, I need to know how the other person defines herself or himself religiously and acknowledge this otherness. It is not merely a matter of indifferent tolerance. We need a higher level than tolerance, namely recognition and acceptance, without trying to gloss over differences. The motto of the project is an ancient Arabic proverb, according to which 'man is the enemy of what he does not know'.

What do you think of the status of interreligious dialogue today?

Tamer: It certainly has a higher profile today than it did a few decades ago. There are numerous dialogue initiatives and forums, which are mainly organised by the religious institutions or by individuals with strong religious convictions, for example Cafe Abraham in Erlangen, initiated by Jewish, Christian and Muslim students. The initiative has now also branched out to other cities. Foundations and policymakers are promoting dialogue. But it is also very important that people of different confessions talk informally with each other about matters of faith, for example during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, or at Christmas time.

But is that enough?

Tamer: We undoubtedly have some catching up to do. I would, however, like to stress at this point that we are not an initiative for interreligious dialogue. We are scholars doing basic research, a kind of archaeology of religious knowledge. As scholars, we want to do everything in our power to attain and disseminate insights on these issues and to contribute in this way to combatting radicalisation and religious fanaticism while fostering social cohesion. In our project, scholarship puts itself at the service of society.Time and again we have seen at events how the topic of Islam triggers so many insinuations, causing emotions to quickly boil over. In this kind of atmosphere, how can there ever be a dialogue between equals?

Tamer: I have experienced this myself several times. This contentious mood is what makes our work all the more important. Because spreading knowledge about Islam helps significantly to break down prejudices and alleviate fears. But there are of course reasons for this prevailing atmosphere.

Islam is relatively new to Germany. When the Muslim community became more visibly established here, tensions and questions arose on both sides, and the majority society felt that it was being challenged. In the wake of several terrorist attacks carried out in the name of Islam, fear and even aversion against Muslims in general has spread. The streams of refugees have admittedly also contributed to aggravating the situation. With our project, we aim to defuse the agitators on all sides.

Do you think there is a danger that the dialogue could be misused for the wrong ends?

Tamer: Were we to take an ideological approach or make use of such encounters to build new walls, the danger of manipulation would certainly be a problem. In that case we would not be seeking a rapprochement and mutual understanding, but trying to show how far apart the religions really are from each other. Scholarship can make a constructive contribution here. We are conducting basic research in order to call things by their name, beyond any ideology or political interests.

Isn't interreligious dialogue losing its importance in our secular society?

Tamer: The secular societies of Europe are still fed by Christian values, translated into a secular language. Even humanism has its origins in monotheistic ideas. So interreligious dialogue is not dwindling in importance. By contributing to establishing peaceful coexistence among religious communities, we are carrying forward the project of enlightenment.

In what way?

Tamer: The truth of a religion is a matter of faith, but we need to have knowledge about the historical development of key religious concepts throughout history. These key concepts help us to arrive not at tolerance, but at a mutual recognition of religious values. Knowledge creates trust and self-confidence, even in a secular society. Interreligious understanding is central to resolving conflicts.

Then it is also important to know your own tradition.

Tamer: Precisely. Another reason why our project is so necessary. The integration of a large number of immigrants, most of them of the Muslim faith, is a major challenge for society as a whole. Many of them come to Germany with prejudices against Jews and Christians. These prejudices have historical reasons. Therefore, conveying important insights about the other religions is a major responsibility of society, which we are taking up in our project as a way of promoting the integration of immigrants.

Interview conducted by Claudia Mende

© 2018

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Key Concepts in Interreligious Discourses: Judaism, Christianity and Islam is a project of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in co-operation with the Catholic University of Eichstätt and the Sheikh Nahyan Center for Arabic Studies & Intercultural Dialogue at Balamand University in Lebanon.