Interfaith gestures: Moral placebos or progress?

Published: November 19, 2014

Muslims hold the first celebration of Friday prayers at the Washington National Cathedral on Friday. PHOTO: REUTERS

Muslims hold the first celebration of Friday prayers at the Washington National Cathedral on Friday. PHOTO: REUTERS Muslims hold the first celebration of Friday prayers at the Washington National Cathedral on Friday. PHOTO: REUTERS

On November 14, 2014, Muslims prayed at the National Cathedral in Washington DC. South Africa’s US Ambassador, Ebrahim Rasool, gave a sermon and declared that, “never again must there be intolerance towards Christians or any other faith,” and media observers heralded this breakthrough in interfaith relations, though not all cheered. The prayers were interrupted by a heckler screaming that America was “founded on Christian principles”.

Reverend Franklin Graham described the event as “sad”.

Dr Sebastian Gorka at accused the Muslim Brotherhood of taking over the cathedral, inexplicably bringing in the Armenian genocide during the Ottoman Empire; all this in the aftermath of the recent events in Pakistan, where a mob murdered Shahzad and Shama Masih, a Christian couple accused of burning the Quran. Meanwhile, Daesh, also known as ISIS, not at all moved by these prayers, on Sunday, November 16, declared they had beheaded humanitarian worker Peter Kassig, whose conversion to Islam proved useless.

Between the paranoia of Reverend Graham and psychopathic religious chauvinism, how meaningful are interfaith gestures?

All humanist ideology riffs on “treat others as one wishes to be treated,” but do we follow this? Even Ebrahim Rasool, when asked about his association with the Muslim Brotherhood, responded by saying that, “people like Menachem Begin” were “terrorists” that “massacred people”. The golden rule too often becomes,

“They killed, so we kill. They are wrong, so we, also, will be wrong.”

We live in a multi-cultural and multi-faith society. Most faiths come by the chance of birth, whether in Saudi Arabia, Ireland, or China. The three largest demographics, Islam, Christianity and non-religious, claim over a billion adherents, and these split into Sunni, Shia, Protestant, Catholic, capitalist, socialist, secular humanists; then we can include Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and all the rest.

How can the individual process these divisions?

When Islam dominates the discussion, as it seems these days, we non-Muslims often ask ourselves: how should we approach Islam? What Muslims do we know?

I live in the West. This gives me a privilege denied to journalists such as Raza Rumi, who survived an assassination attempt in Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia, where blogger Raif Badawi sits in prison for criticising the hypocrisy of the Saudi government.

My grandfather, born in Iran, moved to Lebanon where he and my grandmother gave birth to my father, and subsequently moved to the United States. My grandfather died young and my grandmother remarried a Catholic. This explains my loaded Christian name, and is a starting point for my fascination with religion. My travels and jobs led me to Pakistan, Oman and the UAE, where I spent a year in the UAE teaching at a government high school. But even if I had never met a Muslim, not to mention a radical, I still hold that they deserve equal rights and freedoms.

Yet I am sceptical of interfaith gestures, and doubt the large numbers of Muslims in Egypt, Sudan, or Pakistan who support blasphemy and apostasy laws will be consoled by Muslims praying at the National Cathedral. Harmony needs unfettered discussions of religions, the opposite of apostasy and blasphemy laws. And here we need to discuss culture. The culture that condones slavery is inferior to the one that abolishes slavery. Cultures follow laws. Saudi Arabia became the last country to abolish slavery, in 1962, a start for humanity but not an end to discrimination, as the US shows a century and a half after the Emancipation Proclamation. The horror of slavery does not end after the abolition of slavery, yet needs to happen before culture can improve.

An oft cited PEW Research poll indicates Muslims in the West are, by far, more tolerant and less in support of blasphemy laws. While to say that apostasy and blasphemy laws are the cause of the tension between Islam and the West might be over simplification, we should ask what might happen when these laws disappear. And questions like these are at the foundation of changing culture.

So what can non-Muslims do?

We must recognise that we need interfaith gestures, despite resistance. This does not mean we equivocate about the problems with extremist ideology. Bill Maher, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Sam Harris may not be the most persuasive speakers, and so we need to support and highlight the committed Muslim leaders, instead, who speak against human rights violations. And we need to call out those, like Reverend Graham, who reject overtures for peace. We cannot play ‘Tag, You’re Evil’, and judge all of Islam based on what happens to Peter Kassig and Shahzad and Shama Masih, rather we should quantify accurately so we do not suffer from exception/rule dyslexia. Our interfaith gestures should not be platitudes made by those safe and comfy in a democratic society, but rather movements that lead to tangible change in culture.

Caleb Powell

Caleb Powell

The writer is a Polish/Persian American and worked overseas for eight years, in East Asia, the Middle East, and South America. He now lives in the Pacific Northwest with his family. He Tweets @sonofmizrahi (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Critical

    How Interfaith gestures work with Muslims

    In Non-muslim countries,
    “All religions are equal.Please give us the freedom to practice ours”

    In Muslim countries
    “This country is founded on Islamic principles,so you could practice your faith but you should obey the law of the land and the sentiments of the majority community”Recommend

  • Rahul

    Interfaith gestures do not work because they are seen as a sign of weakness in the religion that is making the gesture.
    Only when there is respect for the others belief and other religions are treated as equal in their rights and beliefs can an interfaith gesture work. If you are making gestures but otherwise preaching, listening or condoning hatred towards others for their beliefs, it is an empty gesture.Recommend

  • Parvez

    If Islam was practiced in true ‘ letter and spirit ‘ ….. interfaith gestures would be unnecessary.
    The comment by Critical was pretty apt.Recommend

  • John

    I am amazed about the author’s explanation about interfaith harmony in a newspaper of the country whose founder asked for a separate nation in the name of a religion, himself never believing in Interfaith Harmony…….Hope you know about the so called ” Two-Nation Theory”……if not please ask your friend Raza Rumi. He will explain you better…..Also, it would also be nice if author mentions the need for Muslims reciprocating the same, but it seems that he himself knows this will never happen…….:)Recommend

  • BlackJack

    Why should any non-Muslim be bothered about understanding Islam. The irony is telling.The strongest and most vocal votaries of the religion are those who spend their entire lives stereotyping Indians, Hindus/ Hinduism, Jews, atheists, Americans, Ahmedis, women with male friends, women who don’t cover their heads, homosexuals etc in blissful ignorance – all the while washing their hands off their home-grown extremists who claim inspiration from the same source.Recommend

  • John

    Dear Tribune

    When you can publish blogs like this, show some guts to publish the comments from us…Recommend

  • Maximus Decimus Meridius

    A muslim peace symposium was held recently in europe. it awarded its annual peace prize to a christian who runs “Mary’s Meals”. Previous recipients of this award are Abdus Sattar Edhi Sahib and SOS children’s village
    Details about symposium and keynote address here
    Details about Marys Meals and Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow, the recipient of this years award can be found here's_MealsRecommend

  • Critical

    Can you please highlight how come none of the 67 countries practice Islam in “true letter and spirit”..
    FYI,Turkey,Malaysia,Indonesia follow secular constitution …
    How every country thinks that they are following it but everyone else thinks they arent….

    You remind me of my friend in college who had communist ideals.. He would always tell that the problems would be solved if we became socialists..but when I show the example of USSR,China,NK then he quickly replies that they dont they dont follow the “true communism”..

    Now I get similar replies except that the word communism got replaced by Islam and Karl Marx got replaced by Prophet Mohammed….Recommend

  • Staunchly secular

    Why compare Islamic countries to non-Islamic ones ?? The former are neither secular, nor democratic .
    Neither should the way, the non-democratic countries behave,be an excuse for our bad behaviour.
    This kind of comparison only causes a backward slide in secular democracies (like India) with the development of mentalities like ‘They kill,so we kill…’ …just like the author mentioned.
    [In my experience the general population is India is unapologetically, islamophobic & unashamed of stereotyping terrorists (isis,LeT etc) with innocent,muslim Indian nationals. ]Recommend

  • Staunchly secular

    ‘A gesture of peace seen as a sign of weakeness..’
    That seems to be a typical Indian outlook: characteristic of the illiterate hindi belt of the country.
    No hope of peace in such places-where a peaceful gesture maybe mistaken for weakness !
    ( No wonder Gandhiji’s highly evolved stand of non-violence was refered to a ‘impotence’ by the hindutva RSS leaders..’bandar kya jaane adrak ka swaad’ trying to teach ,chimps, calculus.)Recommend

  • Staunchly secular

    So ,it’ll be tit-for-tat then, huh ?Recommend

  • Oh dear

    I’m surprised at how many fellow Indians are obsessed with the Pakistani ‘two-nation-theory’ from the ’40s.
    Now I understand that the obsession is specific to the lovers of ‘akkand bharat’ concepts & the rise of the anti-secular, democracy-destroying, hindutva groups in north India.Recommend

  • Parvez

    So what you’re saying is that Islam as a religion is in essence flawed……..are you qualified to make such a statement ?Recommend

  • L.

    1. Learn Islam
    2. Learn how “Muslim countries” practice Islam
    3. *BAM!* and the dirt is gone!

    The reason why it’s almost always Muslims defending their religion with this response is because they have already passes no. 1. Recommend

  • L.

    Why is it a sign of weakness? It’s a sign of maturity to sit in one room and discuss that all religions have respect for each other.

    And then you say that they will only work if there is respect for the other faiths, which is correct, but why did you just blurt the weakness statement out? I suggest you proofread before you post, to make your statements clear. Recommend

  • People who live in glasshouses

    He may be saying that Islam is flawed..but then so is the religion & civilization that have produced the caste-system,the worship of ling & yoni temples,the kamasutra,temple prostitution,caves & temples glorifying ancient lifestyles ( & admired today as art )
    People are yet to grasp that somethings are better left unexamined ( & don’t throw stones at others )Recommend

  • BlackJack

    Not necessarily. I am fine with understanding Muslims, I don’t need to understand Islam separately. Strawman arguments that seek to draw a distinction between the two are pointless.Recommend

  • Balle balle

    No need to proofread. That’s exactly what he meant. He’s not the only one who thinks like that. The sub-continent has nasty khap-panchayt’ish’, patriarchal definitions of what ‘masculinity’/macho’ness’/courage …this also sets equally nasty & pindoo definitions for ‘weakness’/unmanliness/impotence. Recommend

  • Critical

    You defend just like my communist friend…

    I dont have Problems with Islam as a religion but as a political policy is pretty much flawed mainly because what was correct in 7th century isnt the same in 21st century…

    Good treatment of slaves was revolutionary in 7th century but the concept of slavery itself wrong now…

    The main problem with Islam in politics is that when we put a divine aura to a law,you are basically shielding it from criticism and any updating while if we know the laws are man-made it can be unmade by man….

    FYI,if anyone criticizes a particular system,first check if the criticism is valid and if u dont think so,then enter a discussion rather than the usual “are you qualified to do that” “Read Quran first” etc..Recommend

  • Critical

    When i said its flawed,I said about Islam as a political system not as a religion.. FYI,I think all religions are flawed

    and your comment doesnt make sense because the constitution of India is not based on any Hindu scriptures…Recommend

  • Parvez

    The blog is in reference to Islam as a religion……in your comment you only allude to the political aspect in order to make a point.
    In your argument you depict USSR, China and NK as failed because of communism and the defence your friend gives is that ‘ true communism ‘ is not being followed. As you have chosen the example let me ask …….don’t you feel China is a success story and its a bit early in historical terms to write off Russia ?
    Go back and read my original comment carefully…….and take it for what it is and not for what you want it to be.
    I do get what you are on about……but your criticism was on my comment and in my view not valid.Recommend

  • Legion

    For now..
    Soon our Constitution will be based,not on Hindu scriptures,but ‘hindutva scriptures’ (penned by the Maharishis of the Sangh Parivar,Rss,Vhp & Bajrang Dal)
    1. Rss activists have already made the Central Govt. suggest that premier institutions like IITs/IIMs/AIIMS colleges,must have separate vegetarian canteens,as students eat non-veg food & ‘sadden’ their parents & that non-vegetarian food is a ‘western’ influence. [ so patrons of awadhi,bengali,punjabi,mangalorean,malayali,telugu etc cuisine,are under the influence of ‘western culture’; while the Rss vegetarians who eat potatoes/tomatoes/coriander/chillies (all brought by European colonials to India,from the West)- are culturally ‘pure’ Indians ! Morons…in 50 years,the Rss will declare Gobi Manchurian & Veg.Burgers as Vedic food ]
    2. A sitting governor has declared that anyone who slaughters cattle ,’can’t call himself,Indian’.
    3. The VHP chief this week declared that schools not only must stop teaching modern French & German as third languages,but must teach obsolete,ancient Sanskrit/other Indian languages.[ (as a person who wasted 5 yrs learning sanskrit in school-I can tell you-it certainly did not help me get a better job in Germany ) I thought such regressive moves were made only by the Taliban.]
    The bjp may be the govt.since this May,but the Rss & Vhp seem to be running the country.
    Any of the above,sound ‘Constitutional’ to you ?
    The saffronization is starting insiduously…the death of our secular democracy,isn’t far offRecommend

  • Parvez

    I did reply at length but it never made it…….so in short….you are talking about political Islam, while I am talking of it solely from a religion point of view.
    Suggest you re-read my original comment and take it for what it is.
    On China…….do you really think it’s failed ?Recommend

  • Critical

    Good GDP alone doesnt make a successfull country…
    China has rampant poverty because the workers are paid very low wages and are literal slaves to their jobs…
    No chance to choose your own govt and no freedom of press…
    Even a search on ‘Tianemen Square’ could put u in jail..

    Being in China is like being in a golden cage …Its a glorified North Korea….Recommend

  • Freeman

    Here is my two-cents: The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. So why do we take unnatural detours and try to rationalize them? If there was no religion, there would be no need for interfaith dialogue (a feel-good activity but a waste of time) or Islamophobia (or other religion-based phobias). Secular and democratic societies have developed (through intellectual and commonsense debate) and enshrined in law more rights and freedoms than all religions combined. Why do we still need reliance on religious texts to act as good moral human beings when they (religious texts) seem to goad at least some of us to act beastly towards each other? We are free adults now and can think for ourselves. Thank you very much!Recommend

  • Freeman

    Actually, methinks it is through Pakistani newspapers DAWN And the Express Tribune that most Indians commenting on blogs here learned about this so-called non-generalizable theory. Pakistan seems to have evolved under its guidance, including its Kashmir obsessions and foreign policy, and we are seeing the results. Regrettably some of it seems to have rubbed off on the H-dutva crowd including Modi.Recommend

  • TheAnathema

    Wonderful news for the faithful. But tell me, what about the faithless and the apostates in Muslim countries?Recommend

  • Faraz Talat

    You don’t need qualification to hold an opinion on an ideology being ‘good’ or ‘bad’. You don’t have to be an expert in economics to favor capitalism or oppose socialism (or vice versa).Recommend

  • Parvez

    Agree…….but you do need to have a certain amount of knowledge on the subject in order to ‘ mouth off ‘ on it…..and that is what I meant as qualification.Recommend

  • Parvez

    If that is your view of China….I suppose it will be difficult for me to convince you otherwise.
    Let me ask……have you been to China….anywhere in China…..lately ?
    I was in China on the day Mao Zedong died….and I see it today ……and in historical terms its a very, very short time and the difference is phenomenal, in all respects.Recommend

  • Critical

    U r just trying to move away from my initial argument.. I find that certain aspects in political islam is against the basic human rights ,…I dont need to be qualified in Islamic philosophy to do the same….

    Killing someone for apostacy is wrong.. I dont need even basic school education to be qualified …

    Noone read Mein Kempf to understand if Nazism was flawed,they could see them in action….Recommend

  • vinsin

    So how to define muslims in a non-muslims state? which are anti-secular and democracy-destroying are you talking about?Recommend

  • vinsin

    But India is not a secular democracy, it’s separate laws for muslims and non-muslims.Recommend

  • Yo2Da2

    No. “An eye for an eye” – a principle of political and historic Islam.Recommend

  • Yo2Da2

    I think inter-faith gestures are really preaching to the choir. There is no problem with those people who participate in these. It is the other kind, that sees the world of faith in “my way or the highway” or “Mine is the last and best word of Allah” terms (e.g. Islamic State) that needs to get its head straightened but which will never participate. So feel good doesn’t do any good in the end and changes no minds that need changing.Recommend

  • Yo2Da2

    Let’s see . . . If you used Venn diagrams to show where any two religions overlap and where they don’t. If the common area is large compared to the non-overlapping areas. Good! But what if the non-overlapping areas are larger or what if no overlap occurs? And how does one handle the stark contradictions (for example, “no compulsion in religion” versus “kill the unbeliever and/or the apostate”) that exist in both Christianity and Islam? Most Christians and some Muslims (at least the ones who read ET or DAWN) ignore them to retain their sanity and continue living among non-believing fellow human beings. But what about those who do not? How do the unresolvable contradictions get resolved in that case?Recommend

  • L.

    I wouldn’t know about this aspect of Christianity, but in Islam, there is NO death for apostates or non believers. Whatever you have “heard” is exactly what it is, here-say.

    And I live in a majority Christian/ atheist country, why would I need to “ignore” anything? You are saying Muslims follow Islam just cos it’s safer in a particular country? Ha. Why then is my religion the fastest growing in the whole world?

    Interfaith dialogue is of extreme importance. It is not to convert or to prove another religion incorrect; It is done so the different groups accept that despite the fact that they have distinct beliefs, they do need to live on this earth as human beings. Recommend

  • Parvez

    By keeping on talking of ‘ political ‘ Islam, it is you who shifted the argument. My original comment was on Islam as a religion.
    As for your point on apostasy, my understanding is that what the Quran says and what is practiced are two different things. Bringing me back to my original comment … it again.
    …and yes in my view killing some for apostasy OR any other reason…..IS WRONG.Recommend

  • Heh ?

    There is no such aspect in Christianity as this person (Yo2do2) claims. Christians are a persecuted minority by hindutva groups in India ( a turn-the-cheek group that doesnt fight back ),so there is a lot of anti-christianity propoganda by saffron terrorists,in some states of India (like Karnataka,Orissa etc). The general population lives in peace with christians,until saffron bigots come around to spread rumours & incite violence against them.Recommend

  • Hah !

    ‘All religions are flawed’ ?
    What’s the flaw in Sikhism or Buddhism Or Shintoism or Zoaroasterian religion or the Bahai faith etc.etc ?
    Just because you’re bitter about the evil practices of caste system etc.etc. being pointed out to you,you’ll make sweeping statements about all other religions ?Recommend

  • L.

    And that’s another thing. Muslims are told to retaliate and fight for their right, not turn the other cheek. Recommend

  • Heh ?

    My college roommate had an old bible. I borrowed & read most of it,in my free time. Jesus did indeed tell them to do that-I suppose thats why there are no christian militants in India,inspite of all the murders & violence against them. Poor people. I’ve randomly attended mass and found them praying for the world & country ( & the well-being of even Indian political leaders-I think its a practice on special days) Sometimes,I’m ashamed of my country & the nasty groups that instigate violence against both muslim & christian citizens. Saffron cowards.

  • L.

    From an Islamic point of view, when it was only Judaism, it was correct. But when Christianity came, it was a progression and was better for humans than Judaism. And then Islam came and it was the last and complete religion. Islam is the only religion to acknowledge each Prophet.

    We believe that what the Christians were told by Jesus (AS) was correct at that time and what the Muslims were told by Muhammad PBUH is correct now. Had Muslims been told not to retaliate, Islam would not have continued with the amount of wars fought against us.

    I have been to both mosques and churches and they do pray for everyone. Thats because both Jesus (AS) and Muhammad PBUH taught love of mankind and love of peace.

    If you are ashamed of what happens in India, imagine how an average Pakistani feels, looking at what happens in their country.Recommend

  • Critical

    I’m not sure what Quran says about apostacy and blasphemy because different verses give different meanings..
    Its easy for individuals to say that killing over apostacy is wrong but when it comes in a political environment everyone is ok with it…
    Well because thats politics and putting religion into it,you are only tarnishing the religion…

    I previously posted a comment having verses justifying etc but it didnt go through ..Recommend

  • xyz

    You seem to have missed the point of the article. That’s exactly what the author means by ‘They kill,so we kill’ ( a justification often used for anti-minority violence in India too )Recommend

  • Parvez

    Simply Google what the Quran has to say on apostasy……keep it simple.
    It was nice discussing this with you…I learnt a lot. Lets close this down …cheers.Recommend

  • Heh ?

    I understand.Religious intolerance is increasing in this world.
    I would’ve thought that it would reverse with modernity..but that doesn’t seem to be the case..I’m mostly ashamed,after reading the comments from my countrymen here..I’m shocked at how intolerant many of the indian comments seem to be and the level of ugly stereotyping.Having muslim.christian,buddhist,jain,sikh & atheist friends only makes me love them even more,irrespective of my private religious beliefs..wonder why the other ‘secular’ indians are like this..disgusting.Recommend

  • Critical

    I’m ok to debate as long as it doesnt degrade to name calling and you seem like a rational person who analyse the debate rather than the debator

    Cheers to you and sorry for the late reply as I was on a vacationRecommend