This was the topic yesterday night at the New Directions Speaker Series held at the Holy Trinity Anglican Church. It was the first time I attended a New Directions talk since it started last year. The organizers invite people to speak about different topics which are relevant to the times and to our religion, Roman Catholicism. New Directions is based in the John XXIII Parish Centre in Geneva.
I was surprised to see so many people cramped into the social hall of Holy Trinity. So many people were interested in the topic especially in the light of 9/11 and how we perceive Muslims and condemn Islam for breeding terrorist and fundamentalists. I am not one of them but this is an increasing world view.
We were fortunate to have Father Elias himself give the talk. He first cited the important dates in Roman Catholic history and Islamic dates of importance. He spoke about the Crusades and the Ottoman Empire. He spoke about how both religions conveniently forget their past of being aggressors and play the victim role and justify their perceptions now. He said that playing the victim creates a self-righteous perception of one’s self.
He said that what is important in inter-faith dialogue is DATA, PERCEPTION and EXPERIENCE. Before we accuse someone of being something, we should have data on the ground to support our claim. We should make sure that our perceptions match each other so that we are not confused by misconceptions. And that in the event we can get past our perceptions, we should strive to experience one another in dialogue or as Fr. Elias said, to engage our neighbour, Muslim, Jew, etc.
It was a very important talk not just in perceiving Muslims in particular but salient in perceiving people who are different from us in general. We tend to say “I don’t like him/her … just because … there is something about him/her.” This might be the beginning of a long misplaced hatred.
In dialogue, we should also not try to point out each other’s fault. Fr. Elias said we should talk from our best positions. What is best in both of us and move from there. The goal is not to convert anyone to his or her way of thinking but to understand where each is coming from and to discover what makes one a Christian and the other Muslim.
It is in this recognition that we begin to experience each other not based on just perceptions but based on what is intrinsically true.
The various inter-faith conflicts were discussed in the talk and how conveniently the aggressor forgets his previous faults and how the victims have long memories. He pointed out Pope John Paul II’s visit to Greece and if he would apologize for what the Crusaders did 800 years ago. Who can even remember? But the Pope did apologize.
In Islamic countries now, the word “crusader” is still very much alive. They have not forgotten the faith-driven war waged on the world. And having the principle of “God wills it”, when they win a war it means God is with them. The loser becomes humiliated.
But this is not the case now. We know this is not true. We have to correct our perceptions based on data so that when we experience someone, we are not talking from a misplaced and often erroneous perspective.
“Islam: What Catholics Need to Know” by Father Elias D. Mallon is one of several new publications that will be officially premiered at the NCEA convention in Atlanta on April 18-21. www.ncea.org