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Religious leaders urge open dialogue

by Archives January 14, 2004

Calling all moderates! Speak up and help create a world of open dialogue for sharing and understanding between different religions.

That was the message that frontline community peacemakers Avrum Rosensweig, Professor Gregory Baum and Professor Moin Kermani tried to convey during the ninth peace and conflict resolution series and the second part of the “Peacemakers Account: Love Lost and Lessons Learned” at Concordia last week.

Speaking from their personal experiences, the guest community leaders emphasized the importance of inter-religious dialogue and the importance of understanding the divides within members of a specific religion in order to avoid the pitfalls of extremism.

“I really believe that Gandhi was right. I think we have to stop yelling and shouting and I think we have to put our arms around each other, either physically or metaphorically, and embarrass those people [called] ‘moderates’,” expressed Avrum Rosensweig.

Rosensweig is the director of the Toronto-based Jewish relief committee Ve’ahavta and is a contributor to the Canadian Jewish News.

Rosensweig talked about the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, which translates into repairing the world.

Rosensweig started Ve’ahavta in 1997. He explained that the idea behind the organization was “to encourage Jewish people and others to roll up their sleeves and to get out there into the world… to open up our doors to those people in need.” And, Rosensweig believes, there are beautiful connections with non-Jews that emerge from these humanitarian causes.

Rosensweig also cautioned that in most metropolitan communities, “most Jews feel very much under attack, very much as though there are anti-Semites hiding behind every single rock.”

But, the problem, he said, lies within the Jewish community. Jews need to “create a mechanism of explanation of who we are and how we are seen by ourselves and subsequently how we are seen by others. Through that we can break down the incredible fear that exists,” he explained.

Professor Gregory Baum teaches Religious studies at McGill University. Professor Baum has a BA and MA in mathematics, doctorate in catholic theology.

Contrary to Rosensweig, Baum’s impression “is that anti-Muslim feeling is much stronger than anti-Semite feeling. Muslims feel very insecure because of the anti-terrorist legislation, which gives new powers to the police.”

Professor Moin Kermani is a John Molson school of business part-time instructor, a leader within the Montreal Muslim community and a member of the Cultural Community Commission.

Kermani also believes that “we tend to think that the Jewish community was struggling in Canada at some point in time but certainly compared to Muslims they are well established here and we see them as highly successful and highly self confident and as professor Baum pointed out, we [Muslims] see ourselves as rather insecure because we are new in this country and because of international events.”

Perceptions among different religions may differ, but perception within the same religion also differ.

Baum said that in the 1950s he was involved in Catholic/Protestant dialogue, at a time when Catholics and Protestant did not speak to each other, did not read one another’s books and avoided one another.

“For me, Protestant/Catholic dialogue was one of my great experiences of the transformation that is possible with dialogue. When you discover what the other thinks about you…it is very painful because you discover your prejudices…you discover the stereotypes that you had in regards to the other,” Baum explained.

But, as Rosensweig suggested, Baum also believes that “every religion is internally divided. You can’t generalize about religion and we know this best about our own religion.”

“I think today when the press, in regards to Islam, puts such an emphasis on the fundamentalists, I think this can easily nourish a prejudice in society in regard to Islam because people are not aware of this extraordinary internal [divide] within Islam,” said Rosensweig.

Kermani agreed with both Rosensweig and Baum, that dialogue has to start with both outward but also inward interrogations.

“We should wish for others what we wish for ourselves or we should try to treat others as we want them to treat us.”

Kermani believes we should not be persuaded by extremist voices. “[..]there is a lot of tolerance and moderation along with extremism and I think we need to talk not only between different communities about tolerance but we need to talk within our communities.”

But, how can we find a cure for these divides and barriers to dialogue?

Baum believes education is the key. “[I]f we look at most Universities until fairly recently, [they] did not teach religion, that is you had educated people who went through university becoming doctors in all kinds of fields, who had no idea of the world religions. So I think high schools don’t contribute anything, this is beginning to change.”

Also, Baum believes the media plays an important role in documenting religious movements and religious debates or developments within religion.

Rosensweig thinks the answer lies in opening the lines of communication. “It is incumbent upon us to stop complaining about the fact that people don’t know about Judaism and Jews if we’re not going to teach it,” he said.

“I think part of the solution lies in good neighbourliness because we are given this great opportunity to work together in this great country in Canada and the global village has shrunk distances,” Kermani said.

Kermani says Islam has themes of moderation, justice and tolerance within it.

“Moderation is a very major theme in Islam but unfortunately not very well know and understood,” perhaps in part because of the press he said.

Finally, Rosensweig suggested that when “the craziness is happening in the halls of Concordia… the best thing to do is sit down with each other and start learning and to start expressing the beautiful views that exist on both sides.”

Rosensweig suggested that people from all religions, all faiths and all backgrounds should sit down and “break bread” with each other.

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