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I. Panjwani: Need for New Models of Interfaith Dialogue in a Multicultural Climate

Essay published in Dialogue & Alliance, Vol. 27, No 1, 2013
"The Challenges of Multiculturalism in Europe and Russia"

I recently attended an interfaith event and its purpose was to celebrate the lives of Prophet Muhammad and Jesus. It had the theme of discussing spirituality and was meant to initiate dialogue between members of the Muslim and Christian community. It was held in a fairly rich venue with sumptuous food, included Muslim and Christian dignitaries, and featured gift bags to boot. Despite my internal appreciation of both communities’ efforts to organize such an event, an inescapable thought never left my mind throughout the whole event; in fact, it was a feeling of sadness. I wondered: is this what we have congregated for – the exchange of pleasantries, eating food and some small conversations ended by the usual ‘thanks for coming and let’s meet again’?

This was not the first event I had attended which was organized in this manner and I am not the first to raise the subject matter of this article.[i] However, the issue that concerns me is what kind of thinking motivates such events? Are the current models for interfaith dialogue effective in an evolving multicultural, pluralized, and globalized world? I believe the answers depend on how innovative a faith community is when it initiates dialogue with other religions. At times a passive outlook is taken when it comes to interacting with other faiths, despite the fact that often commonalities significantly outweigh differences – especially in the monotheistic religions of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. [ii] This outlook stems from the idea that we must be very cautious in talking to those outside our faith community and people may get offended if we talk about sensitive issues. Is this all really true? For what purpose are we gathering? It seems a contradiction in terms – an interfaith event with as little dialogue as possible.

It takes a courageous individual to come up with a vision to truly move humanity from one level to another. This is what all the great Prophets, saints, and moral revolutionaries did; they challenged the perceptions of the individuals around them and gave them a more meaningful outlook on life that was connected to something greater than them – the Divine. However one terms what the Divine is, one message is certain – that human differences and tensions melt away in the face of something more beautiful and transcendental. The Qur’an substantiates this when it emphasizes that the purpose behind human interaction is to be “honored in the sight of Allah.”

“O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).”[iii]

Despite the boldness of a saint in removing prejudices and the reality of religious and cultural diversity, an easy route can be taken to avoid real interaction and instead, focus on internal communal matters. Patel neatly sums up this attitude arguing,

“In the United States, the most religiously diverse country in the world, we have dangerously thin relationships between religious communities. At an American Academy of Religion Annual meeting some years ago in Atlanta, sociologist of religion Robert Wuthnow was asked how he thought faith communities were adapting to the reality of religious diversity in close quarters. He used the metaphor of an elevator: “Christians, Muslims, Jews and the rest of America’s religious diversity are all riding in it together, we are increasingly aware of the other people around us, but we are doing just about everything we can to avoid real interaction.”[iv]

I wonder, is it necessary to re-evaluate the role of a faith community in society? Notwithstanding the age of “secularity,”[v] which diminishes the role and contribution of faith in the public realm (a point extensively argued by Charles Taylor[vi]), one area where it can really excel is in interfaith dialogue. Why? Because using a model that truly unites faiths on key issues can penetrate the secular and religious divide, allow common values to be expressed and accomplish a key objective of multiculturalism, namely, to actively combat misconceptions. My humble aim in this article is evaluate four models of interfaith dialogue which I consider to be frequently used in faith communities in the United Kingdom and then introduce a potential model which I feel is untapped. My methodological approach is experiential, practical, and grassroots-orientated; whilst the United Kingdom is used as a case study, it is possible that the models can be applied to other faith communities in other parts of the world.

Multiculturalism and interfaith dialogue

The term multiculturalism “is a body of thought in political philosophy about the proper way to respond to cultural and religious diversity.”[vii] As a philosophy, it aims to move beyond acknowledging the mere fact of religious and cultural diversity; rather it seeks to find ways in which human beings can peacefully coexist with each other, understand different beliefs and customs and assimilate according to a harmonious set of values that promote social stability whilst retaining people’s identities. One presumption behind this philosophy is that religions and cultures may come into conflict with each other and whenever such conflicts manifest, society suffers from violence or instability. This is a huge presumption because it assumes that religions and cultures in themselves are inherently contradictory whilst many would argue this is not the case, as most world religions have a universal set of moral values (such as the golden rule) and encourage kindness toward other human beings.[viii]

As such, multiculturalism has come under fire in recent decades as a failed project, because it is a façade that masks social and political engineering of conflicts initiated by powerful governments. It is regarded as too optimistic in solving tensions between different cultural groups by focusing more on customs and labels rather than root issues that foster inequality such as unemployment and discrimination, and it fails to strike a balance between assimilation and retaining identity.[ix] These criticisms render multiculturalism as an ineffectual philosophy. Nevertheless, one must still admire the worth of any project that seeks to resolve misconceptions between human beings. Today, the terms pluralism and globalization are becoming popular, and these are further manifestations of the term multiculturalism, for each term acknowledges how the world is becoming more interconnected through technology and migration, and how people’s perceptions of each other need to be nurtured or managed.

It is precisely the issue of how we nurture each one’s understanding of the other through modes of dialogue which concerns me in this article. Multiculturalism can only succeed when we understand how we should discuss issues with each other, and what we want out of those discussions. Here, the concept of interfaith dialogue is crucial amongst religions because there needs to be an evaluation of the models faith communities used to interact with each other in order to see if the purported aims of multiculturalism are being fulfilled. If multiculturalism and its objectives are of continual concern to humanity, then the way we construct dialogue becomes significant. When we define interfaith dialogue“the word dialogue is derived from dia (across, through) and logos (conversation, word),”[x] and through interaction we should aim to cross to the other side and understand the other person whilst simultaneously reflecting on who we are. Interfaith dialogue, therefore, is meant to help us cross the religious and cultural divide, put ourselves in another person’s shoes through the power of words and interaction. However, do current interfaith models employed by faith communities accomplish this? In order to answer this question, I will evaluate four models of interfaith dialogue which I consider to be frequently used by faith communities in the United Kingdom.

The first model of interfaith dialogue: ‘The Show’

The first model often used by religious communities to conduct interfaith dialogue is what I have entitled as ‘The Show.’ This is where two faith communities get together to hold an event based on a common theme such as ‘Martyrdom in Islam and Christianity’ or ‘A Comparison of Jesus’ Life in the Bible and the Qur’an.’ At times, the event may not be based on a common theme but organized by one religious community that invites another. So, in the Shi'a Muslim community, holding a ‘Husayn Day’ after the month of Muharram is common. This is a commemoration of Husayn b. Ali’s life, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad who was brutally martyred by Yazid b. Mu’awiyah in Karbala, Iraq on 10th Muharram 61/10th October 680. Here, the Shi’aMuslim community would usually invite dignitaries from Christianity and Judaism to give short speeches about martyrs from their religions. In addition, councilors or members of parliament may be invited. The concept of the event is based around holding speeches, reciting poetry, and eating food, which would usually last about three hours. The interfaith element is in listening to the speeches by the respective dignitaries and talking to the invitees over dinner.[xi]

In evaluating this model, the positives are that interfaith dialogue is conducted in a controlled and polite manner. There is a sense of respect given to all the dignitaries and attendees. When the shaykh, priest, rabbi or any other religious spokesperson gives a speech, it is done with the attitude of appreciation rather than confrontation. There is an appreciation of being invited into a different religious community, and those in attendance would often quietly listen to the speeches thus cementing the tone of civility. At best, the event can offer a reasonable foundation for building further relationships with other religious communities. This is illustrated well by the authors of Getting to the Heart of Interfaith: The Eye-Opening, Hope-Filled Friendship of a Pastor, Rabbi and Sheikh who state, “It is our intention in Getting to the Heart of Interfaith to celebrate the shared healing wisdom, compassion and vitality at the heart of the three Abrahamic faiths.” [xii]

The negatives, however, are several. ‘The Show’ is a ceremony rather than a dialogue session. Seldom would there be a valuable question and answer session, and despite the appearance of the event being an interfaith one, it is more like a wedding reception. Indeed, thousands of pounds are involved in organizing the event, which lasts a few hours. This includes hiring the hall, paying for the food, expenses for the speakers, advertising, and the proverbial ‘gift’ to the speakers. The gift is usually a book from one’s own religious tradition to give the other an insight into the faith. I am not sure whether it is really read, for when I have met the same people again who received their interfaith gift, there is no discussion as to whether they actually gained new insights into the different religion in question. I wonder if the money involved could be used for something worthier such as a joint investment by the faiths in question to a charity.

Furthermore, the event’s tone of civility is actually one of great passivity. There is an air of trepidation as to what would occur if freer speeches would be given or if members could ask the hard questions about the doctrines and perceptions of the other’s faith. Instead of encouraging engagement, the event implicitly encourages disengagement. This is substantiated by the supposed dialogue over dinner, which really is only an exchange of pleasantries. In such an environment, few would dare to ask about each other’s beliefs because there is a fear of offending the other. Moreover, I have been to several of these events where some of the speakers would turn up, give a speech, and simply leave, giving little importance to the event. I would therefore argue that ‘The Show’ is perhaps the most limited interfaith model which religious communities employ today.[xiii]

The second model of interfaith dialogue: ‘The Debate’

‘The Debate’ is a fairly provocative interfaith model and the complete opposite of ‘The Show.’ It aims to pit two well-known speakers from different religious traditions against each other by tackling pertinent faith issues such as ‘Does God exist?’, ‘Is Science against Religion? or ‘Islam vs. Christianity vs. Judaism: The Question of Religious Terrorism.’ The interfaith element is rooted in a thematic debate which explores different arguments from the speakers justifying their own doctrines or criticizing the others’. The aim is to influence an audience so as to clarify one’s own religious doctrines or improve the perception of the religion in question.

The positives of this model are the exploration of a religious tradition’s arguments in the face of a pertinent doctrinal or contemporary issue. This is useful to understand the worldview of a religion and those that follow it. It also aims to cut through some of the misconceptions surrounding a faith through the speakers’ arguments and the question and answer session that usually follows. Audience participation is an important feature here, which enhances the learning process, in comparison to ‘The Show’ where audience participation was minimal. The popularity of the speakers may also attract many people, thus maximizing coverage for the event.

The negatives, however, are that whilst the event is meant to encourage dialogue, it is questionable as to whether it really does this in the most honest, cooperative, and critical way. Because the event is a debate, the tone is confrontational and may not foster knowledge of the other. Arguably, the challenge, as Pinto states, is,

…the askesis of interfaith dialogue i.e., the practice of an awareness which constantly bears in mind, as we meet the other, that our religious identities are always historical and contingent, hence “questionable and contestable." And that we can only be relatively sure of being seriously and respectfully open to the other when we realize that we are becoming what we are not.[xiv]

There is also an air of facade about the event as the aim is to score points in front of an audience, and so the religious arguments by the respective speakers may be focused on rhetoric rather than stringent concepts. The other issue concerns the speakers themselves. Often, speakers are chosen on popularity and oratory rather than scholarly credential. The speakers may also be paid hefty sums in order to secure their time. Whilst some remuneration is normal, one can question whether the same or better arguments could be delivered by another less well-known speaker and whether the speaker in question deserves that much money. As such, whilst ‘The Debate’ has some distinct positives encouraging dialogue and audience participation, it may not really get down to the core problems which the religions in question want to tackle.

The third model of interfaith dialogue: ‘The Seminar’

‘The Seminar’ is also a model used to organize interfaith sessions. Its format is simple: a relevant speaker is invited to give a lecture of about 30 to 40 minutes to a wide-ranging audience. After the lecture, there is usually a question and answer session with some refreshments afterwards. The interfaith element is in deeply understanding the lecture and then the freedom to ask any question on the lecture. Often, the theme would be very specific such as ‘The Failures of the Umayyad Caliphate,’ ‘Reformist Religious Scholarship in the West: Human Rights’ or ‘Religious Pluralism in the Scripture.’ The aim is the exchange of knowledge between the speaker and audience and the ability to engage with the speaker and attendees after the event.

The positives of this model are several. There is considerably less money used in comparison to the ‘The Show’ and ‘The Debate’ because the organization of the ‘The Seminar’ simply involves holding it in a university or community center (which usually the organizer would be a member of), inviting a speaker who knows his/her subject matter (this would usually be a researcher or expert of an educational or religious institution), paying for the speaker’s expenses (even here this may not occur if the speaker is part of the institution in question), paying for some light refreshments, and doing some advertising by e-mail. It is very cost-effective since for less money one is able to focus interfaith dialogue on building knowledge. An attendee can make useful notes as the subject matter is specific and well researched and there is a real engagement between the attendee and speaker. There is also the chance to mingle with people from other faiths during refreshments and discuss key issues relating to the lecture.

The downsides to this model are more to do with what it could accomplish. It fosters a narrow type of dialogue between the speaker and attendees. Whilst attendees can ask questions to the speaker, they do not get a chance to know him/her as a person and his/her religious worldview. In interfaith dialogue, this is crucial in order to get to the core of how a religious person views key social issues; there is little room for heartfelt human interaction. Furthermore, the attendees only mingle during the refreshment session or some may leave the seminar early. Attendees, therefore, may not able to break their own intellectual and social barriers with each other since the focus of the seminar is on the speaker. A wider concept of engagement is crucial for meaningful dialogue. Indeed, Keen comments in response to a survey carried out on diverse religious groups that:

... they were seeking to frame a meaningful philosophy of life; 2) they desired to collaborate with others ‘to make the world a better place’; 3) they wanted to learn more about social justices at EPU; 4) they believed ‘that people of good will could create community and collaborate on the common good, even if their beliefs differ’; and they were experienced at, and eager to engage in, community service.[xv]

If this model was tweaked, it could accomplish the above. For example, I recently was invited to speak at an event called ‘Mythbusters’, organized by Campusalam, at King’s College London. The event took the approach of the popular BBC TV show, ‘Question Time’ fused with the hard-hitting style of ‘Panorama.’ The format of the event was that specific misconceptions were dealt with from Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Atheism. These misconceptions lay at the heart of each group, such as the nature of slaughtering animals in Islam, homosexuality in the Christian clergy, the superiority of Jews over other races in Judaism, the concept of worshipping statues in Hinduism, and the apparent hatred of Atheism towards religion. There was no beating around the bush here; the event was for all of us to truly learn about each other. Each speaker was given five minutes at the start of the event to give their basic feelings on their subject – their worldview if you will. Then specific members of the audience who had prepared and researched questions beforehand were selected to quiz each speaker. Finally, there was a lengthy question and answer session at the end. The beauty about ‘Mythbusters’ was that it set out what it wanted to do – to remove religious myths whilst at the same time avoiding the confrontation and facade of the ‘The Debate’ model. As such, ‘The Seminar’ could be tweaked in this manner.[xvi]

The fourth model of interfaith dialogue: ‘The Workshop’

The fourth model is arguably the most practical. Its aim is for the audience to actually come up with solutions to case studies which the speakers have prepared and to discuss them with members of the other faith. In this event, two speakers of scholarly repute are invited to give 15-minute presentations on a particular subject such as ‘Laws and Rituals Governing Burial in Islam and Judaism,’ ‘The Bank and Business Crisis: Solutions from Scripture’ or ‘Environmental Challenges: Answers from Religion.’ The subject matter is pertinent and speakers share their thoughts on it. After the speeches, people are divided into groups of six and are given fictional scenarios along with excerpts from religious scripture. In each group, there must be members of different religions, and so each person is forced to look at the problems and scripture facing another religion. Finally, they must nominate one speaker to summarize their answers after which the program ends with some light refreshments.[xvii]

There are several positives with this model. It is, like the seminar, very cost-effective as usually it is organized by a member of the particular mosque, church, synagogue, or temple and so the venue doesn’t cost much, if anything. The speakers would usually be scholars from their own communities and the attendees would be regular community faces. As such, they would be interested in learning during the event, solving the case studies, and perhaps impacting society beyond the event. The case studies are the most vital interfaith element. They allow participants to truly understand another religion from its sources. Rather than just asking questions about the religion, they can read excerpts of scripture and reflect on their meaning. Moreover, the case studies break barriers between the participants as they have to formulate solutions together, openly discuss their concerns, and look at religion in unified rather than divisive way. This is crucial today when political and social events have awakened religious communities to solve problems together. Takim addresses this by commenting on the events of September 11, 2001:

“Even though the Muslim community has been present in America since the late nineteenth century, there was limited integration with non-Muslims before the events of September 11, 2001. However, in the past three years Muslims have recognized that they cannot afford to live in impregnable fortresses and that living in a pluralistic milieu requires active engagement with the other.”[xviii]

As such, the case studies are a practical way of connecting religion to wider social concerns, which the previous models do not do. There is also greater equality between the speakers and the audience as both groups have a vital role in the event, thus enabling collaborative interfaith dialogue. There are arguably less negatives with this model in comparison to the previous models because the ‘The Workshop’ aims for balance, pragmatism, knowledge, and engagement. Where perhaps the problem lies is that for all the effort put into the event, particularly in the construction of case studies, very little is actually done in order to communicate the solutions to relevant religious and governmental institutions. The solutions remain with the participants, and whilst of course this is valuable in producing constructive interfaith dialogue, one wonders whether there could be more impact when the issues discussed can practically influence society.

The untapped model for interfaith dialogue: ‘The Project Meeting’

In light of the four models present above, I humbly argue that they are all faced with significant limitations, particularly the first two. The ‘Seminar’ and ‘Workshop’ are arguably better models for interfaith dialogue, and presently I would vouch for the ‘Workshop’ as the most effective model. However, is there another model which religious communities have not thought of, do not use, or perhaps fear? I believe this model is the ‘Project Meeting.’ I propose that key members of different religious communities should get together in a room and thrash out key issues relating to misconceptions about their faith but most importantly, work together on pertinent social issues. The key part of the ‘Project Meeting’ model is practically creating a project which involves scholars, social and charity workers, political and media representatives, businessmen, and volunteers to positively combat local problems. This means acknowledging that virtually all religions wish to see humankind progress morally, spiritually, and socially towards the Divine.

The format to implement this ethos would be inviting influential and contributing members of religious communities with a focused agenda in mind. A problem would be identified such as knife crime, poverty, lack of spirituality, or addiction, and the invited members would be expected to contribute their skills over a period of time. During this time, the religious communities involved would be able unite on key principles and even assess whether their previous attitudes to each other were correct. It may also force them to reassess their theology and worldview in the face of what is morally required for them as human beings. It would help create a network of different professionals across a range of religious communities thus allowing solutions to be implemented and heard by politicians, which was a limitation of the ‘The Workshop’ model. ‘The Project Meeting’ would also foster interfaith dialogue rooted in core issues rather than superficial problems. This was a limitation of the ‘The Show’ and ‘The Debate’ models.

Finally, ‘The Project Meeting’ can encourage genuine and substantial engagement with key dignitaries and contributors, which ‘The Seminar’ could not because of the linear relationship between the audience and speaker. It would also put all the contributors in the meeting on a relatively equal footing, which reduces ego. The effectiveness of this kind of model can be illustrated by the London-based organization, Beatbullying, which has an interfaith program that “encourages young people from different faiths to identify a common humanity, working to reduce and prevent incidents of faithbased bullying, bigotry, sectarianism, and intolerance.”[xix] Their outputs to date include reducing faith-based bullying by 45%, and 91.8% of young participants reported a big increase in their understanding of other religions.[xx]


I acknowledge that although ‘The Project Meeting’ is not a perfect model and requires a good facilitator, it may be the most effective model to encourage interfaith dialogue in our multicultural and globalised world. Although getting contributors together can be arduous and may even be met with suspicion, solutions would stem from faiths themselves, thus widening the scope of religion as an instrument of social change – not just for the communities involved but for the rest of society. I would also advocate a joint approach using the ‘Workshop’ model, which enables greater audience participation, and praying and meditating together to instill common spiritual values. This will help increase knowledge of the wider religious public about another faith community and instill confidence about the solutions discussed in ‘The Project Meeting.’ Overall, there needs to be a significant change in the way religious communities tackle interfaith dialogue. In my humble experience, the majority of models currently implemented by faiths are limited, passive, and sometimes, expensive. Let us go back to the spiritual messages of Prophets and saints and use their ethos to really provide solutions to humanity rather than only treating these messages ceremoniously. Perhaps then some of the important objectives of multiculturalism can be realized.

Imranali Panjwani is the Editor of ‘The Shi’a of Samarra: The Heritage & Politics of a Community in Iraq (I.B. Tauris, 2012) and a Graduate Teaching Assistant in Theology and Religious Studies at King’s College London.

[i] See David R. Smock (ed.), Interfaith Dialogue and Peace-building. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 2007.

[ii] See Reza-Shah Kazemi, "The Metaphysics of Interfaith Dialogue: Sufi Perspectives on the Universality of the Qur’anic Message," in James Cutsinger (ed.), Paths to the Heart: Sufism and the Christian East. Indiana: World Wisdom, 2003, pp. 140-190.

[iii] Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Qur’an. New York: Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an Inc., 2009, 49:13.

[iv] Eboo Patel, "Affirming Identity, Achieving Pluralism: Sociological Insights from a Practitioner of Interfaith Youth Work," in Eboo Patel & Patrice Brodeur (eds.), Building the Interfaith Youth Movement - Beyond Dialogue to Action. Maryland: Rowman & LittleField Publishers, 2006, p. 1.9

[v] See Charles Taylor., A Secular Age. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2007.

[vi] Ibid., pp. 1-22.

[vii] "Multiculturalism," Stanford Encyclopaedia. 2010,

[viii] For further information on the golden rule, particularly its manifestations in different religions, see: Wattles, Jeffrey, The Golden Rule. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

[ix] Will Kymlicka has listed these criticisms of multiculturalism in his report: "Multiculturalism – Success, Failure and the Future." Washington: Migration Policy Institute, 2012, pp. 4-5.

[x] Muhammad Shafiq and Mohammed Abu-Nimer, Interfaith Dialogue: A Guide for Muslims. Virginia: The International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2007, p. 1.

[xi] For an example of the ‘Husayn day,' see ‘Imam Hussein (a.s) Memorial Day’ (17 March 2002),

[xii] Don MacKenzie, Ted Falcon, and Jamal Rahman, Getting to the Heart of Interfaith: The Eye-Opening, Hope-Filled Friendship of a Pastor, Rabbi and Sheikh. Woodstock: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2009, p. 2.

[xiii] For an effective illustration of the problems associated with this model, see the case study on the local ecumenical council in Jane I. Smith, Muslims, Christians, and the Challenge of Interfaith Dialogue. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 3-9.

[xiv] Henrique Pinto, Foucault, Christianity and Interfaith Dialogue. London: Routledge, 2003, p. 7

[xv] James P. Keen, "Young Adult Development, Religious Identity, and Inter-religious Solidarity in an Interfaith Learning Community," in Eboo Patel & Patrice Brodeur (eds.), Building the Interfaith Youth Movement - Beyond Dialogue to Action. Maryland: Rowman & LittleField Publishers, 2006, pp. 26

[xvi] For the synopsis and format of the event, see "KCL Mythbusters" (February 23, 2012),

[xvii] For the synopsis and format of this model, see "The Banking and Business Crisis: Does Islam and Judaism have the answer?" (January 18, 2010),

[xviii] Liyakatali Takim, "From Conversion to Conversation: Interfaith Dialogue in Post 9-11 America," The Muslim World, July 2004, Volume 94, 343-355, p. 343.

[xix]Beatbullying. Interfaith Report (November 2008), p. 2.

[xx] Ibid.