Daily Column

Efforts towards a genuine interfaith dialogue

Published Date: February 19, 2007

International media reported, Feb 14, hardline Hindus protested against the celebration of St. Valentine's Day in several Indian cities. They called it immoral and a corrupt Western practice that is inconsistent with the country's traditions and ancient civilization. About 150 members of the pro-Hindu political party Shiv Sena gathered in New Delhi and shouted, "Down with the Western culture" and "Death to Valentine's Day!"

First I could not believe my eyes. I thought that my daily newspapers confused Hindus with Islamists. No. I was wrong and what I read was true. Hindus protested against Valentine's Day. I thought only fanatic Muslims would do so.     
Dr Richard Benkin told me, fundamentalists are everywhere, you find them in every religion, among Hindus, Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Benkin also argues, it is natural. But we have to discriminate between those zealous followers of a certain faith and those who are ready to blow up themselves and drag innocent people into death. As long as fundamentalists only take to the street to demonstrate and shout, "Down" with this and that, it is ok. This is freedom of speech. Let them vent.

Benkin is one of those few advocates of interfaith dialogue between Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Hindus. He is working hard on "strengthening the bonds of understanding among people of different faiths," especially of those between Muslims and Jews.  

Based on deep conviction of real, practical interfaith dialogue, Benkin, who is American and Jew, has undertaken a unique endeavour. He is establishing venues of communication with fundamentalist Muslims in Bangladesh. He even visited some of them and talked to them. Benkin proudly says, "We have been able to accept each other and our disagreements ..... It is only a start but an encouraging one.  It is not likely that we will stomp out religious zeal (nor is that even a good thing perhaps)," but would at least end up in "knocking down suspicion."
Benkin managed even to persuade some fundamentalists to write to their political leaders and demand the release of Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, a Muslim journalist from Bangladesh.  Choudhury was jailed and tortured for 17 months in a Dhaka prison for advocating interfaith understanding and warning Bangladeshis about radical Islamists. Yet, Benkin, the Jew who calls Choudhury a brother, managed to mobilise local and international pressure to free Choudhury. He got it. Choudhury is out of jail, but he still receives death threats (Sueddeutsche Zeitung) and the Bangladeshi government wants to put him on trial. They accuse him of blasphemy.

In fact, Choudhury's only "crime" was that he tried in his articles and speeches to correct loads of misinformation about other religions, about Christians and Jews. He also wanted to correct lots of misconceptions about the West and about Israel. Choudhury's central argument is that only when people are truly informed about each other and accept each other, there is a chance for understanding, coexistence, and peace.

After Shoaib Choudhury was released, Benkin visited him in Dhaka. He says, "On Jan 8, 2007, I arrived in Bangladesh and Shoaib and I embraced as brothers for the first time. Having gone through so much together; having been denied the opportunity to see each other so many times (the Bangladesh government either prevented me from entering the country or Shoaib from leaving it); our meeting was extremely emotional for both of us. Shoaib and an entourage (including his attorney, S N Goswami) met me at the airport, presented me with flowers and then escorted me into Dhaka for ten days I never will forget."

Benkin continues, "The most important thing for everyone to know is that Shoaib is doing well. He is winning more and more adherents to our mission to stop radical Islamists, and supporting interfaith dialogue and religious equality (including an end to minority oppression in Bangladesh). Shoaib has a beautiful family-a wife with an amazing inner strength who has supported him unflinchingly throughout the ordeal; two children who are very proud of their father; and a supportive brother and two sisters. In fact, having been there, I would say that were it not for the hideous charge hanging over him, one would conclude that Shoaib leads a good life in Bangladesh."

In Dhaka, Benkin told a former Bangladeshi high official that the government had three problems that will plague Bangladesh until they are eradicated. "One is corruption. Two is radicals-your policy of appeasement and radical infiltration of the society and judiciary. And three is the oppression of minorities, journalists, women, and dissidents."

In fact, the Bangladeshi government, Benkin says, "has admitted that the charges raised against Shoaib have no basis but are only maintained to appease the radicals...... The radical judge was embarrassed on Jan 22, when government witnesses refused to appear against Shoaib."

Indeed, not only Bangladesh is appeasing Muslim radicals, most Arab and Muslim states are doing so, Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, and most recently Bahrain. Muslim monsters are maybe still babies. But they are growing up, and along that they are demanding more and more. They will not spare anybody, not even their "foster parents."

Sadly enough, there are very few people like Benkin, who do not only preach interfaith dialogue, but creatively practice it. He does not only talk about fundamentalism, like me. He is a practical man. He is a man of action. He is trying to dialogue with those verbal radicals in hopes to tame at least some of them. Experience has shown that some radicals are as such because they are unilaterally informed, if they are ever informed. A patient dialogue with them might help.

Eli Epstein, also American and Jew, has and is still implementing practical steps towards fighting extremism and bringing people of different faiths together, in this case Jews and Muslims. In cooperation with his business partner in Dubai, Mohammed Bin Ali Al Abbar, Epstein has created "Children of Abraham" on line whereby Muslims and Jews can communicate and chat about their faiths, peacefully. The project is working fine and has attracted lots of young Muslims and Jews. "If adults are difficult to sway, we have to invest in the youth. They are the leaders of this world." Al Abbar says.  

Epstein is trying to buy a big hotel in Delmenhorst, Germany and convert it into "an International Youth Dialogue centre where youth from all over can be exposed to different cultures, religions etc." Epstein proclaims.  

Two things can be learnt from Benkin, Epstein, and Al Abbar: fight the roots of extremism and no appeasement. The efforts of these pioneers towards a genuine interfaith dialogue might sound like a drop in an ocean. But these efforts will sometime bear fruits and will multiply if all of us supported these projects and created new ones. It is a proven fact that the majority of Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and Jews want to live in peace. They believe in dialogue and coexistence. They have adherents everywhere. Radicals are isolated minorities and will remain as such. Appeasing them is treason against the majority. Benkin, Epstein, and Al Abbar are the real leaders of the fight against extremism and terror. History shows that the world is able to win the fight against terror. It won it against the Nazis, the Red Army in Germany, and the IRA.   

Having said all that, it is also important to admit that there are more violent fundamentalists among us Muslims than in other faiths. Check out the maiming and killing in Iraq, in Palestine, and most recently in Lebanon and Algeria. Other religions have had reformation debates for decades and centuries. We Muslims have not. Muslim and part