Of Dialogues and Debates

By Venkata Bhatta Dasa (Vineet Chander) for ISKCON News on 11 Jun 2010
In the last six years or so, I’ve become something of an interfaith dialogue “junkie.” I’ll admit that I’ve had some of my most profound, meaningful, and “Krishna conscious” exchanges with practitioners of other faiths.

In the last six years or so, I’ve become something of an interfaith dialogue “junkie.” I’ll admit that I’ve had some of my most profound, meaningful, and “Krishna conscious” exchanges with practitioners of other faiths.

A few months ago, I had the honor of serving as a delegate, on behalf of the U.S. State Department and the White House, to Indonesia (the world’s largest Muslim nation) for an interfaith dialogue that was sponsored by no less than the Indonesian and American governments. And most recently, I took part in a Vaishnava Muslim dialogue held in Washington, D.C.—the first of its kind, really—which explored the two traditions’ theologies of the Name of God. I was graced with the opportunity to present a paper on a Vaishnava’s perspectives on the Holy Name (and my friend and colleague Sohaib Sultan presented an Islamic perspective). After we read the papers, the dialogue participants dove into a rich and exciting discussion that can only be described as hari katha, a joyful speaking about the Divine. We noted our differences and respectfully inquired of one another to learn more about them, sure; mostly, though, we simply enjoyed the shared experience of glorifying God, each from our own unique perspectives.

Of course, a Vaishnava Muslim dialogue in Washington DC is one thing. To pull one off in India, historically the hottest of hotbeds when it comes to Hindu-Muslim tensions, is quite another. So, when I read the headline about a Vaishnava Muslim dialogue held in Bangalore last month, I raced into the article with high hopes.
Those hopes, unfortunately, were quickly dashed. What was described as a dialogue turned out to be a debate between foes—each trying to prove their superiority over the other. In fact, the Bangalore debacle actually departed drastically from ISKCON’s official statement on interfaith, and its principles and guidelines for interfaith dialogue.

For instance, one of the basic principles of interfaith dialogue is allowing representatives of each faith to speak for and define themselves, and not attempting to interpret or define others, especially through comparison. Unfortunately, the bulk of this meeting seemed to consist of the Muslim participants attempting to flex their own interpretations of the Vaishnavas’ faith, and the Vaishnavas defending themselves by challenging the “completeness” of Muslim theology.

Even while ostensibly sharing the fundamentals of Islam, Mr. Umar Sherrif and other members of the Salaam Center for Islamic Studies (under the direction of, and in the mood of, Dr. Zair Naik) repeatedly offered their own explanation of Hindu beliefs in a barely veiled attempt to show them to be subservient to (or second-rate perversions of) Islam.

Sadly, the ISKCON devotees who took part in the so-called dialogue seem to have also willingly gotten sucked into this tit-for-tat mentality. The Vaishnava write-up of the event is full of refutations and point-counterpoint arguments about Islam and Hinduism.

Another foundational principle of interfaith dialogue – some might even say, the most crucial principle upon which interfaith dialogue rests – is that participants come with the aim to form genuine, friendly relationships that promote understanding and cooperation, not to convert. That was clearly not the case in Bangalore. Instead, it is painfully obvious that the participants tried to use the occasion to put forth their own agenda: I can prove that my faith is the superior one, and in the face of such overwhelming evidence any sane person from your faith ought to join mine.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with the work of Dr. Zakir Naik, the Muslim preacher notorious for fiery discourses in which he “proves” Islam’s philosophical superiority by quoting isolated passages and references from the sacred texts of other faiths. Naik and his followers dress-up their dubious proselytizing in the more politically correct language of “interfaith dialogue” or in the pseudo-academic garb of “comparative religious studies.” But make no mistake: when they approach the table, it is for the express purpose of promoting their sectarian goals by tearing down the faith of the other. I am disappointed that the ISKCON devotees who took part (who, I imagine, were familiar enough with Dr. Naik to know his modus operandi) would get involved in such an abysmal event to begin with. By sitting down at the table with folks like Naik and his disciples, we legitimize their self-appointed roles as spokespersons for Islam. And by responding with refutations and defensiveness, we just feed into the type of sectarianism that Naik and his ilk thrive on.

This is not to say that there is no place for debate. Vaishnavism and the broader Vedic (or “Hindu”) tradition it is a part of, has enjoyed a long-standing tradition of civil, meaningful, and provocative debate—both inter- and intrafaith varieties. As contemporary Vaishnavas, we are certainly bearers of that esteemed legacy, and should not feel shy about engaging in debate. But we should do so honestly, with colleagues and adversaries who are also honest about their intentions and motivations, not back-door it in by muddying the waters of dialogue.

I think that we owe at least that much to our religious traditions, whatever they may be.

Posted in Editorials.