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GlobalPlus: Promises and challenges of the interfaith movement

Anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe and parts of Latin America as old prejudices are inflamed to serve nationalist politics. An anti-Islamic video produced and promoted by Christians in the U.S. results in global protests from Egypt to Indonesia. A rumor spreads on social media that a Buddhist woman was raped by Muslim men, and two people are left dead in the clashes that follow in Myanmar.

A new era of instant global communications has at times been more of a curse than a blessing for the interfaith movement.

The reality is that “there has never at any point in human history” been such positive developments in interreligious relations, says Rabbi David Rosen, international director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee.

From the shadows of the Crusades and the Inquisition have come the images of a pope visiting a Rome synagogue and calling the Jewish people “our dearly beloved (elder) brothers.”

The Catholic Church has formally declared that Muslims are included in God’s plan of salvation, and today many of the world’s most prominent Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians gather together at places such as Assisi to call for global peace.

In thousands of settings across the globe, ordinary Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Jews and others meet to work together for the common good in areas from public health to combating prejudice against minority beliefs.

Yet, what so many of the world’s populations hear about religion are unbalanced accounts that focus on the sensational and negative actions of extremists, says Rosen.

And these misrepresentations and monolithic negative characterizations of faith groups have serious consequences. They inflame prejudices that lead to a downward cycle of greater persecution and conflict and encouraging governments to create more restrictions on religious freedom and look the other way on violations of minority rights.

Today, some nine in 10 nations offer legal assurances of religious freedom, yet more than six in seven nations have laws restricting religious practice. A similar percentage have documented cases of people being physically abused or displaced from their homes because of religious persecution, studies have found.

The responsibility extends beyond government and the media to the attitudes of average citizens.

In a global study of religiously motivated violence, Pennsylvania State University researchers Roger Finke and Jaime Harris found that social restrictions on religion, even more than government restrictions, held the most direct and powerful relationship with conflict and violence.

Lessons to be learned

So what are some of the lessons learned from decades of experience in an interfaith movement seeking to promote civility and understanding?

Here are some ways interfaith leaders say religious understanding and cooperation can be built up or broken down:

Friendship first: Several studies have shown how prejudice thrives in the lack of personal contact. Efforts that build relationships of mutual trust and respect are a foundational aspect of successful interfaith work.

One example is in the town of Ihievbe in Nigeria, where Muslims, Christians and members of African traditional religions have coexisted peacefully amid the sectarian violence roiling the nation.

In a study involving surveys and interviews with more than 100 people from the three groups, researcher SimonMary Asese Aihiokhai found an appreciation of one another’s beliefs rooted in friendship. “In friendship, people learn to accept the other as one who is worthy of respect and affirmation,” Aihiokhai stated.

Muslim and Christian Girls

Start early: Many interfaith efforts arise hastily in response to major conflicts or acts of terrorism. But efforts that begin earlier lay the groundwork for addressing civil tensions.

“Why do we always need to wait for conflict and violence to overwhelm us before we feel the need to develop healthy interreligious and cross-cultural relationships?” asks Imam A. Rashied Omar of Cape Town, South Africa, Islamic studies scholar and a longtime interfaith leader. “If intrinsic reasons were to precede external ones, we would not only be contributing to the resolution of existing conflict situations, but also be going a long way toward preventing their occurring in the first place.”

Build up from the grass roots: The early days of the interfaith movement were largely focused on the development of national, regional and global groups with highly visible religious leaders at the helm. But more effort needs to be devoted to organizing groups at the local level, some interfaith leaders say.

Language matters: U.S. President Barack Obama has come under criticism from political opponents for being careful to make distinctions between the overwhelming majority of Muslims and terrorists.

“The notion that the West is at war with Islam is an ugly lie,” Obama said. “And all of us, regardless of our faith, have a responsibility to reject it.”

Those types of distinctions – and the ability to be sensitive to the differences in beliefs and religious language of say a preacher in Florida who burns a Quran or a Buddhist monk in Myanmar who incites interreligious violence and the majority of Christians and Buddhists – is critical to interfaith understanding.

One term that is coming under increasing scrutiny is the word “Islamist,” a Western creation that has come to be associated in the popular mind with terrorists. The reality, many scholars say, is that individuals from all religions – think Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa or the Dalai Lama – seek to integrate their faith into public life in myriad different ways.

Change comes from within: The human tendency to want to change others in their own image often leads the majority in power to demand through social and legal pressures that minorities assimilate or risk further persecution. But such approaches only serve to alienate others, hindering efforts at dialogue and reconciliation.

In declaring interreligious understanding is imperative, religion scholar Jonathan Tan noted, the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences committed itself to exploring “ways of utilizing the gifts of our diverse religions, cultures, and languages to achieve a richer and deeper Asian unity. We build bridges of solidarity and reconciliation with peoples of other faiths and will join hands with everyone in Asia in forming a true community of creation.”

Forget triumphalism, either religious or secular. As the Hindu saying goes: “The vile are ever prone to detect the faults of others, though they be as small as mustard seeds, and persistently shut their eyes against their own, though they be as large as Vilva fruit.”

Denying freedom affects all

Respecting the rights of others is not only a philosophical or theological issue. Decades of research on religious restrictions reveal the denial of religious freedom to any one group has damaging effects on all groups.

“When freedoms are uniformly secured, the freedoms for even the smallest minority become the freedoms for all,” notes Finke, a leading international researcher on religious freedom and co-author with Brian Grim of “The Price of Freedom Denied.”

In a similar view, interfaith activists say all sincere efforts for interfaith cooperation and understanding are of value.

“The world is a better place the more we know one another,” notes Rosen, a past chairman of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations.

But what appears to work best is when participants see interreligious cooperation and understanding as a necessary part of living out their own faith.

“For me, the litmus test of “good” and “bad” religion is the extent to which we are willing to embrace the “other,” whoever that other may be. We need to recognize our common humanity and see others as a reflection of ourselves,” Omar said in an article in Dharma World. “If we do not try to ‘know’ the other, how can we ever ‘know’ the divine?”

In other words, how well individuals are able to love their neighbors as themselves – a major tenet of many faiths – may hold the key to interfaith work that is most effective in building a more just and peaceful world.


ARDA National Profiles: View religious, demographic, and socio-economic information for all nations with populations of more than 2 million. Special tabs for each country also allow users to measure religious freedom and social attitudes in the selected nations.

ARDA Compare Nations: Compare detailed measures on religion, including public opinion surveys, for up to eight nations.

Interfaith Organizations: Some major interfaith organizations include the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Religions for Peace, United Religions Initiative and The King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID).

Regional organizations: These include the African Council of Religious Leaders, the National Interfaith Council of South Africa, the Asia-Pacific Interfaith Network, The European Council of Religious Leaders, and the North American Interfaith Network.


Blumberg, Antonia, Rabbi David Rosen Reveals the Most Dangerous Thing For Religion. “The most dangerous thing for religion is when it’s married to political power,” Rosen argues. “When it’s an instrument of political power then it betrays its own message.”

Finke, Roger, and Harris, Jaime, Wars and Rumors of Wars: Explaining Religiously Motivated Violence.  The article examines how government and social restrictions on religion have both direct and indirect effects on religiously motivated violence. Not only do these restrictions heighten tensions and increase grievances that potentially feed violence, they increase the social and physical isolation of religious groups.

Inam, Hüseyin, Power and Authority in Religious Traditions in Islam: Reflections about issues of power and authority in the traditions and the present situation of Muslims in Europe. The article states that Islam contains a lot of positive potential for interpretation, but “most non-Muslims very often get an impression of Islam as presented to them by the media and by public opinion. This image is necessarily political and, more often than not, negative.”  The article also examines what role the interfaith experience might play.

Omar, A. Rashied, Critical challenges in interreligious dialogue, The article explores four key challenges for deepening interreligious dialogue and solidarity.

Pederson, Kusumita, The interfaith movement: An incomplete assessment. The article analyzes important issues arising in interfaith programs, including the goal of one global organization, the question of what it means to “represent” a religion, the inclusion-exclusion problem (including participation of new religious movements),  and the search for “spirituality,” both as distinct from “religion” and across religious boundaries.


Eds: Alatas, Syed Farid; Ghee, Lim Teck; Kuroda, Kazuhide; Asian interfaith dialogue: Perspectives on religion, education and social cohesion. The book discusses the relationship between religion, the role of education in generating social capital and its impact on the development of society.

Grim, Brian, and Finke, Roger, “The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century.” The book provides a compelling argument that religious freedom serves to reduce conflict, while restricting religious freedom is a path to religious persecution and violence.

Ed:, Volf, Miroslav, “Do We Worship the Same God? Jews, Christians and Muslims in Dialogue,” This volume brings Jewish, Christian, and Muslim philosophers and theologians together to answer this question, offering rare insight into how representatives of each religion view the other monotheistic faiths.

Image by Adam Jones CC BY-SA 2.0



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