The gathering of individuals and groups of different faiths is an important feature of American religious life, stretching back to the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago. However, the meaning of such gatherings has changed a great deal since then. While in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such gatherings showcased non-Christian religions as strange and exotic curiosities, by the end of the 20th century non-Christian and non-Protestant religions had become a vital component of American religious and political life. Religious differences are embraced in the United States’ constitutional narrative and in the rhetoric of state officials. Politicians, and in particular presidents, hailing from all positions in the political spectrum, have recently called for dialogue between different faiths, urging the building of bridges between them, even – and perhaps precisely because of – wars led by the United States in Muslim countries. Lately, President Obama’s rhetoric has shifted the presidential discourse on Islam. Speaking as a Christian, he has taken greater care than his predecessors have to acknowledge the presence of Islam in America and the contributions of American Muslims to American culture and politics, such as in his June 2009 speech in Cairo.
These speeches and calls for dialogue by American presidents are important and often contrast with the secular discourses of prominent politicians in Europe. They illustrate the legitimate presence of religion in the American public sphere as well as the political and rhetorical use of religion for the purpose of international politics. Beyond these official statements however, ordinary believers, practitioners, theologians, academics, religious organizations and institutions, also engage in local interfaith dialogue involving Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other faiths in the United States today. Since September 11 I have been able to observe many interreligious events involving Muslims in the metropolitan Chicago area. These events take many different forms: specific members of Christian churches or Jewish temples meeting with Muslims from the neighborhood’s mosque; meetings of larger coalitions linked to voluntary associations doing social work; and youth organizations uniting young children from different cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds. What sorts of activities develop during these events? The gamut of possibilities is large and creativity is not lacking: representatives of Christianity and Islam defining their faiths for each other in front of a large public; theological conversations focusing on hermeneutics in more intimate gatherings; and social work involving different religious organizations. Finally, there are public performances of rituals as well: in the case of mosques for instance, prayers, sermons, and sometimes even weddings are often performed for the non-Muslim public, fusing the religious and the cultural aspects of Muslims’ every day life in America.
Since the attacks of September 11, it has become extremely important, even imperative, for Muslim communities to define and explain their faith to the larger non-Muslim public in America. Indeed, Muslim communities came under suspicion and understood that it had become urgent to engage in the public sphere to provide a definition of Islam to the American people. The attacks of September 11, as well as the responses of the US administration – the surveillance of Muslim organizations at home and wars abroad launched by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan – have heavily constrained these definitions of the tradition, in particular because Muslims had to explicate their tradition in contradistinction to the ideologies of those who had carried out the 9/11 attacks. Throughout these processes of interpretation and public definition of their tradition, representatives of Islam have been searching for and finding commensurability with a religious language palatable to the American public. At the same time, they have had to come to grips with a vexing question: to what extent are different religious traditions commensurable? Is it possible to describe one’s tradition to someone who is not of this tradition without transforming it – and therefore dissolving it – through this very search for commensurability?
These questions are not only relevant for Islam, but also for any religious tradition searching for recognition and acceptance from a larger community in which it is in a minority position, such as Christian churches and communities in the Muslim world. In many ways, the American experience of religious dialogue can provide an interesting paradigm for thinking about other cases of religious minorities. The American example shows that dialogue is inherently linked to political conflicts and that for a suspected minority, the task of interpreting one’s religious tradition to the larger public is much more complex than the spelling out of the content of a doctrine defined by revealed scriptures. It is indeed shaped in large part by political and institutional constraints. Anthropologist of Islam and Christianity Talal Asad has focused on the study of Islam as a discursive tradition, that is as a discourse ‘that seeks to instruct practitioners regarding the correct form and purpose of a given practice that, precisely because it is established, has a history. These discourses relate conceptually to a past (when the practice was instituted, and from which the knowledge of its point and proper performance has been transmitted) and a future (how the point of that practice can best be secured in the short or long term, or why it should be modified or abandoned), through a present (how it is linked to other practices, institutions and social conditions)’. I will use this historicized definition given by Asad, hence taking into account the tradition's continuity, its internal differences, as well as the institutional and disciplinary aspects of a faith. Starting from this definition, and in order to reflect on the idea of ‘dialogue’, I would like to relate the concept of tradition to that of a ‘language’. Let me stress here that I am using ‘language’ in a broad sense. This language – a metaphor for the religious tradition – can express itself on different levels. To provide a few examples, it can be expressed in the Quran (its written text), the Sunna – the first meaning of ‘tradition’ in Islam, i.e. the tradition as produced by the exemplary acts and sayings of the prophet Muhammad – in the language of the pious body (collective or individual prayers, Quranic recitations, Islamic dress), or in the language of Islam as formulated by state representatives who speak in the framework of the nation-state. All these levels are related and transform one another. By language, hence, I do not mean only a transparent, instrumental and inert medium of expression and communication, but also a mode of reasoning and justification that is deployed within specific contexts. In that sense, a religious tradition can only be formulated within the broad political context in which it presently lives. If a ‘living language’ can be a useful metaphor to invoke the concept of tradition, then the notion of dialogue may be approached through the examination of the process of ‘translation’. If to practice dialogue is to enter in a moment of communication between two traditions, the question of the possibility of a meaningful dialogue hinges on the understanding of translatability of languages into one another, or more largely formulated, on the commensurability between two traditions.
Does a tradition stand as a language that, having acquired its own coherence, has become an autonomous idiom irreducible to any other? And can it be understood from a position external to it? What is the effort required from one who desires to understand an idiom that is not his or hers? And from one who wants to make it palatable to others? In other words, can one learn as well as teach a tradition in the way one learns or teaches a language?
In order to provide some elements of response to these complex questions, I would like to refer to Walter Benjamin’s text, ‘The Task of the Translator. In this 1923 text, Benjamin looks for a resolution of the difficult problem of translation. Attempting to go beyond the traditional question of ‘fidelity’ to the original text, he sets to show that a translation from a foreign language into the translator’s native tongue is an operation that transforms one’s own language. The fundamental assumption that allows for this transformation of the translator’s language, is, in Benjamin’s terms, the nature of language as ‘something living.’ He writes: ‘…no translation would be possible if in its ultimate essence it strove for likeness to the original. For in its afterlife – which could not be called that if it were not a transformation and a renewal of something living – the original undergoes a change.’ He clarifies further by adding a quote from Rudolph Pannwitz: ‘Our translations, even the best ones, proceed from a wrong premise. They want to turn Hindi, Greek, English into German instead of turning German into Hindi, Greek, English. Our translators have a greater reverence for the usage of their own language than for the spirit of the foreign works… The basic error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue.
Participants in current interfaith dialogues usually operate within a different context from that of Benjamin’s translator because in the latter case, the translator translates a foreign language into his own. In contrast, today’s practice of interfaith dialogue in the United States requires that members of a tradition represent it by translating it to the attention of other traditions. One of the assumptions of the practice of interreligious dialogue today is that the explanation and description of the faith must be done internally if it is to be legitimate. To give one example: the purpose is usually for Muslims to ‘explain’ Islam to Christians and for Christians to represent Christianity to the attention of Muslims. Interreligious dialogue requires a translation from within for the external world, in a process where one’s faith is read for another tradition. However, in spite of this difference, as in Benjamin’s reflection on the mechanisms of translation, the explanation of one’s tradition has inescapable transformative effects on its public formulation. Publicizing the explanation and the definition of one’s faith for the public who does not know it has important consequences on the definitions of the tradition itself, which requires some control over the extent of these transformations. For instance, the comparison of faiths during interfaith events tends to produce caricatures of resemblances as well as stereotypes of differences. Sometimes important differences may be avoided for the sake of rapprochement between faiths. Interfaith dialogues often erase internal tensions, contradictions and disagreements, because the operation of ‘translation’ is performed in public and in a short amount of time. These performances search for an efficient way to present a set of values that audiences can easily grasp. The translation process hence may truncate the complexities and the historicity of a tradition.
In the United States, Muslim and Christian representatives participating in interreligious dialogues have had to come to grips with these tensions while participating in these complex enterprises of ‘translation’. Today, thanks to these processes of translation, Islam is finding its place in American society, just as Catholics, after having been marginalized in urban America, found it in the middle of the 20th century. Islam is now engaging with other faiths and the larger public, transforming itself in this process, but certainly not loosing its identity. Islam has hence paradoxically become a public religion in the United States since 9/11 made it an object of suspicion. The Islamic tradition continues to show its internal differences such as ethnic and cultural ones, as well as, more importantly, theological diversity. Even if they are often ignored in interfaith events, within American Muslim communities tense internal theological debates about the ways in which Islam should be interpreted and represented have taken place in the last few years, opposing Muslim ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ in particular, two labels that are an integral part of the American religious and political vocabulary. After September 11, a new generation of American Muslims, often born and educated in the United States, has been questioning Islamic apologetics and literalism in order to grant more complexity, context, and historicity to their religious experiences and theologies. They contest the ‘West vs. Islam’ divide, and thus the clash of civilizations paradigm. They also argue that violence used by Muslims is the result of their mistaken interpretations of Islam. Muslims, they believe, must work from their own rich heritage to condemn and dissolve violence, while avoiding apologetics. They must also rewrite the gender logic, starting from the Quran: in their practices, women should be the equals of men, standing in the same room for prayer, or in some cases even leading men in prayer.
Groups of New Voices
Very different figures characterize this trend. Asma Gull Hassan – a politically conservative, media-savvy graduate of New York University's law school, and ‘self-proclaimed Muslim feminist cowgirl’ – writes, ‘I do not think the Quran and God are asking me to wear hijâb. I could be wrong, but I believe modesty comes from the inside-out, not the outside-in.’ Scholar of Islamic Studies Omid Safi writes ‘Let me be clear here: at a fundamental level, I believe that the Islamic tradition offers a path to peace, both in the heart of the individual and in the world at large, when the Islamic imperatives for social justice are followed. Yet there is something pathetically apologetic about turning the phrase 'Islam is a religion of peace' into a mantra. It is bad enough to hear Muslim spokespersons repeat it so often while lacking the courage to face the forces of extremism in our own midst.’ Political scientist Muktedar Khan, poet Mohja Kahf, novelist Asra Nomani, and legal Islamic studies expert Khaled Abou El Fadl, are also among a diverse, intellectual group of often caustic new voices that have reverberated on a global scale since September 11.
Through these new voices, the Muslim ‘repertoire’ is thus expanded along the lines and languages of Western liberalism, but not without internal contradictions, and external conflicts and controversies. Indeed, their interpretations of the Islamic faith have remained highly contentious within Muslim circles in the United States and abroad.
Therefore, if one reflects on the complexities of the American case – for many a success story, for others a more mitigated result –, it becomes apparent that the tradition of Islam, in the post 9/11 political context, is producing new debates within the Muslim communities as well as new opportunities for interfaith dialogue. In spite of all the difficulties of this context, Muslim participants in interfaith events have been able to talk about Islam within the language of American religion, which has acted as a mediating idiom between Islam and other traditions. This third term, that is the general understanding of the public place for religion in a given society and political system, is crucial to understand the mechanisms of religious dialogue, its difficulties as well as its successes. If anyone is to understand the possibility of meaningful dialogue anywhere in the world, it is essential to take into account the specific social and political structures in which religions can carve a place for themselves and engage with society. In each society, these structures define a specific set of constraints and opportunities for religious traditions to define themselves publicly. They constitute a crucial medium through which traditions can or cannot express themselves publicly and participate in dialogue. This is true not only for the United States, but for any other context.
To give only one example, the French culture of laïcité does not offer the same opportunities for public religious dialogue as the American tradition of religious pluralism. Indeed, religious dialogues exist in France but are not deployed with the same apparent ease as in the United States and hardly play the role that they play in the United States of a political channel of recognition. In some countries of the Middle East, Muslim states offer less space for religious minorities to play a public role as it is understood in the American sense, hence affecting the languages spoken by each religious tradition in these specific contexts. In others, such as Jordan, new efforts to produce religious dialogue at the national and transnational levels – the initiatives of The Amman Message and A Common Word –, are reconfiguring the context in which traditions may find new channels of expression, transforming the shape of scholarly networks, as well as some of the language used by Muslim scholars who participate in these enterprises of dialogue.
Hence, dialogues between different traditions assume different forms and do not happen exclusively in pluralistic and democratic societies. Even in the context of a pluralistic society such as the United States, the constraints under which religious dialogues take place are heavy, because not all religions have received in the public opinion the status of ‘acceptable’ religious traditions. These constraints allow for the presence of Islam in the American public sphere while exerting at the same time implicit and explicit political pressure on Muslim representatives to speak the language of liberal religion. Religious traditions come into dialogue as well as conflict as languages translatable through the medium of a third idiom, which is the set of terms upon which the public recognition of majority and minority religions is defined.
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