Michael Swan in Istanbul, Turkey.

Getting to meet, understand the other: the path to peace

  • November 2, 2013

Interfaith dialogue doesn’t start with an exchange of creeds or comparison of theologies. It begins with friendship.

Out of the world’s seven billion people well over one billion are Catholic and slightly more are Muslim. The Church is embedded in Western civilization, history and culture. The world’s Muslims are concentrated in lands the West colonized and exploited. There is no declared war between Islam and the West, but thousands upon thousands have died. Interfaith dialogue is not an esoteric pastime for nerdy scholars. It is the only way forward, the only path to peace.

But it begins with friendship.

In September my wife Yone and I were invited on a study tour to Turkey by the Intercultural Dialogue Institute, one of a network of Muslim foundations established around the globe by the Hizmet movement of modern Sufi Muslims. But it didn’t start there. It started with invitations to iftar dinners — dinners that break the day-long fast of Ramadan. Over the years we met and spoke and shared meals with Muslims who wanted to reach out to their Christian neighbours.

Friendship, however, is not the easy, uncomplicated thing it was when we were children. We each have our houses, our jobs, our families, friends and commitments. We live in our own exhausting worlds. What would it take to move beyond our own little world?

The last place I expected to find a connection with Islamic faith was in the person of Mary. I knew Mary figured in the Quran, but was unaware of her importance and ubiquity in Muslim Scripture and consciousness. Mary’s home overlooking Ephesus, directly across the Aegean Sea from Athens, is a uniquely peaceful place revered by Muslims and Christians.

Pope John Paul II spoke of the “feminine genius” and held up devotion to Mary as the best route to Jesus. But Pope Francis has pointed out how we lack a truly profound theology of women in the Church. If we began with Mary and paid attention to women, especially poor women, would we have the means to atone for our own sins and heal the divisions between Muslims and the West?

The opportunity to travel to Turkey is extraordinary under any circumstance. This land bears the imprint of empires that have shaped Western civilization and its encounter with the East. The Persians, Alexander the Great, the Romans, the Ottomans have each taken a stab at what it means to be civilized in Turkey. For a Catholic it is also where St. Paul learned to follow Christ, where the Councils of Ephesus and Nicea established a universal Church with a universal creed. And where St. Basil and St. Gregory taught the Church how to think about faith.

But this opportunity went beyond that. The Intercultural Dialogue Institute took us into Turkish homes for dinner. We were introduced to Turkish politicians, teachers, police, union leaders, bus drivers, mothers, journalists and engineers.

We didn’t discuss theology. We discussed the intense and long-running debate in Turkish society about secularism and compared it to Canada’s debate over the Quebec Charter of Values. We talked about Canadian multiculturalism and the rapid change in Turkish society. We talked about democracy and freedom of expression. We talked about women’s roles and ambitions. We talked about stereotypes, misperceptions and the role of religion in people’s lives.

But much more of our time was spent talking about how to cook kunife, kofte and Imam Biyaldi, how easily children learn a second language, what it’s like to live in a city of 15 million, Turkish popular music, health care systems, soccer and weather.

We didn’t settle any issues. We brought together a law professor, a politician, a union leader, a journalist, a translator, a doctor, an engineer — some of us deeply religious and others not. We accomplished an experience of life together, a brief communion of hearts and minds, a time outside of our own little worlds.

We don’t have to go to Turkey for this. We could smile at the woman in the hijab or wish the man who fixes your photocopier “Eid mubarik.” He might wish you a merry Christmas.

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