Efforts towards a genuine interfaith dialogue
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.
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."
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
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
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.
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
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