How not to dialogue

An unfortunate encounter in Stockton last week offers a clear illustration of how relationships between religious groups can be distorted and barriers to understanding reinforced. Tarek Mourad, a Muslim engineer from Santa Clara, was invited to speak about Islam at the Cesar Chavez Central Library. His presentation to a group of about 70 people was interrupted again and again by two women who called him a liar and quoted extensively from a book written by a former Muslim, Why I Left Jihad by Walid Shoebat.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are speaking about your own religious tradition, only to be told you are lying because what you say does not agree with what someone who has turned his back on that tradition says is the “truth.” Where do you begin to respond? To Mr. Mourad”s credit, it seems that he was willing to enter into a conversation with his opponents, but they were not willing to talk with him.

The word “arrogance” derives from a root that can mean something like “without questions.” What arrogance to assume that you know more about another”s religion than they do themselves because you have read a book! Clearly, the women were not interested in interfaith dialogue. They did not come to learn, they did not assume that Mr. Mourad was speaking with honesty and sincerity, they did not permit him to define his own religious experience. They assumed before the event began what the points of disagreement were (demonstrated by the fact that one woman had already copied pages out of Shoebat”s book to pass out), and they were not ready to trust him as an equal partner in dialogue.

Unfortunately, there are many people who believe that their faith demands such unwillingness to engage others as human beings or to give other points of view a hearing. Unless we are willing to meet one another with a genuine respect for each other”s humanity and the depth of each other”s commitment and faith, we will not proceed beyond shouting matches, hostility and, sadly, even warfare.

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