What is Interfaith Cooperation for?

Eboo Patel, Religion Dispatches, May 05

Some years back I met the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Nechervan Barzani. One of the first things he did was thank me for the American military intervention that he described as freeing his people from oppression. I informed him that many of my friends viewed the Iraq War as profoundly unjust and protested vociferously against it.

Barzani was rendered speechless for a moment. When he finally spoke it was to say, through clenched teeth, that the only thing unjust about the war that removed Saddam Hussein was that it didn’t happen sooner.

The central problem interfaith work seeks to solve is this: how are all of us, with our deep differences, to share a nation and a world together? I believe that is primarily a question of civic space, not political ideology. Shouldn’t Muslim and Jewish doctors who have different views on the Middle East continue operating on patients together in American hospitals? Shouldn’t conservative Catholic and progressive Protestant preschool teachers who disagree on abortion continue educating their students together? Shouldn’t anti-Iraq War Sunnis and pro-Iraq War Kurds send their kids to the same Little League baseball camps? Participating in civic activities with people you disagree with on political or theological issues is not, as Hulsether states, “excus(ing) an exceptionalist ideology that deepens ruts in a two-tiered legal system and sanctions US military presence abroad.” It’s being a good citizen of a diverse democracy.

I do not think the primary task of interfaith work is to circle religiously diverse wagons more tightly around particular political positions, however strongly I might hold some of those positions. There are already well-established groups who mobilize diverse religious communities for various causes. There is a religiously diverse movement for gay marriage, and one against it; a religiously diverse movement for abortion, and one against it; a religiously diverse movement that supports the Palestinian cause, and a religiously diverse movement that supports Israel.

I do not believe that interfaith cooperation should contribute to widening these divisions. Instead, I think interfaith work is about building positive relationships between people whose diverse religious convictions shape their dramatically different politics. I believe that is both an end in itself, and a means to another useful end—expanding civic space, strengthening social cohesion and increasing social capital. How else do you have a thriving diverse democracy unless people who have deep disagreements on some issues are able to work together on other issues?

Read the complete article here.