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Dialogue between individuals the way to inter-faith understanding

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Greg Soetomo |  27 February 2007

A Catholic friend of mine stoutly defended Pope Benedict in the controversy that followed his recent comments on Islam. Lia is a medical doctor, a mother of three, and works in Jakarta for a German-owned medical company.

Her attitude didn’t come from the top of her head. She read the complete text of Pope Benedict’s 12 September lecture at the University of Regensburg. She studied the arguments of both his defenders and his critics, and searched the internet for various international reactions. Based on the variety of sources, Lia stood up for what she believed to be right. "There is nothing wrong with the Pope’s citation of a Byzantine emperor."

There is nothing original about her own views. She was neither a theologian, nor even trained in a theological school; she based her argument simply on the articles that she had read.

But some of her expressions came from deep personal experience. Lia's firsthand contact with Muslim colleagues and friends taught her something very important about the relationship between Christians and Muslims.

She was noticeably critical of negative reactions, especially reactions to the Vatican by people in Muslim countries. I asked her whether she felt bitterly about Islam. She said, “No, not in general, I just don’t understand what Muslim radicals stand for." During the recent month of Ramadan, she said, “You know, I just accepted the invitation of my Muslim colleagues to break the fast together." She said that she was sure to enjoy it.

“Should we continue the dialogue with Islam?" I asked her. “Definitely," she replied. But, the kind of dialogue she proposes is very challenging. She has communicated deeply with Islam, on the basis of culture and life, not on the understanding of faith. Her conversation has to do with daily values, human rights, and with what seems reasonable. Such encounters come before discussion of ideology or religion. By engaging in a dialogue between cultures and civilisations, she believes that a clash of religions can be avoided.

I can understand Lia's ambivalence: she is not interested in engaging in dialogue based on theology. She has experienced personally that Muslims are diverse. They range from very liberal (anything goes that is ethically justifiable and reasonable), to ultra-conservative (everything must be restricted to Islamic law). She becomes ambivalent about dialogue because of the ambiguity in the debate about contemporary Islam. She keeps wondering about the struggle of Islam to find a place in modern society.

Her tangible and daily involvement with Muslim people leads me to conclude that there is no common doctrinal authority in Islam. In theological terms, there isn't even orthodoxy in Islam. She has learned that it is not always easy to share values with an Islam that has no single authority.

She keeps telling me, "I am able to talk fruitfully with this Muslim man. But I find great obstacles in exchanging ideas and opinions with that Muslim woman." So it is not with Islam, but with certain individuals and with particular groups that she succeeds in engaging in dialogue. For individuals who accept the Koran as a total religious law, one which regulates the whole of political and social life, dialogue must be a nonsense. These people can even set aside freedom and human rights to uphold Shari’a.

We have recently faced the turbulence of bridging the two communities. Lia makes us wonder what the Muslim-Christian relationship will look like in future.



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Submitted comments

I too believe personal contacts are important, however we need to encourage textual criticism of the Koran to discover the possibility of different authors, which if this is true then some parts added by others would not have the same importance and could be only recommendations or cultural additions.

terence flanagan 23 November 2006

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