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Notes From the Interfaith Underground

interfaithBy Anton Kuratnik

(February 26, 2010) – It seems that in addition to being the MSA’s token white guy, I’ve also become its token interfaith guy. I guess the two go hand in hand, given that my token whiteness allows me to more freely navigate the seas of the religious diversity. It’s not like I mind. Interfaith work in my opinion is an important part of what Muslims must engage in. Yet at the same time, I no longer feel as passionate about it as I did a few years back, probably for the same reason that my friends (of all faiths) have felt a lack of interest for it all of their lives.

Indeed, the word “interfaith” can carry a plethora of negative connotations for many of the orthodox adherents of the worlds’ religions. For some, it can imply disenfranchisement. As a Muslim, I’ve certainly felt an outsider to many an interfaith dialogue and organization where the person representing and speaking for my faith was a person whom most Muslims would consider to be outside of the fold of Islam. Given that this is a common situation for those of other religions as well, these dialogues and organizations in the end serve little purpose, as they do not represent the faithful mainstream and thus have little influence anywhere.

For others, “interfaith” can mean “empty talk.” In many cases, this association may be actually true. In cases of interfaith dialogue, for example, the largest problem is self-selection, i.e. the fact that those who choose to participate are those who need to engage in dialogue the least, because they are already tolerant and respectful. Neither does the effect of the dialogue trickle out much to those who did not participate in the dialogue, so the usefulness of it generally sticks with the participants and fails to spread to the wider population.

I imagine a different kind of an interfaith movement. An interfaith movement that serves those with a strong identity in their faith, those who want to act and to create actual change. An interfaith movement that works on the common ground between all faiths towards a common goal without trying to synthetically create new religious intersections.

Finally, “interfaith” can mean “being uncomfortable.” Certain practices common in the interfaith field create this feeling. For example, in the past Ramadan quite a few Christians around the world joined Muslims in fasting. While I certainly do not object to the gesture, I am not prepared to return it, which I feel a certain amount of peer pressure to do. Interfaith activists often espouse events such as meditating with the Buddhists, singing with the Christians, and fasting with the Muslims, making the overall mainstream feel rather uncomfortable and disenfranchised from the movement.

The problems abound. So why am I still the token interfaith guy?

Well, probably because I imagine a different kind of an interfaith movement. An interfaith movement that serves those with a strong identity in their faith, those who want to act and to create actual change. An interfaith movement that works on the common ground between all faiths towards a common goal without trying to synthetically create new religious intersections.

These ideas are hardly new, but I grew up with them. I am the child of Eboo Patel’s InterFaith Youth Core and Karen Armstrong’s Charter for Compassion. That is, I see community service and the general teachings of mercy and compassion as the only existing common ground between all faiths and traditions. I see helping those in need as the mission of every religion on the planet and I ask: “Why can’t we work together if we have a common goal?”

Engaging in community service together has a variety of benefits and solutions to the aforementioned problems. First and foremost, it is effective. Interfaith service work affects the participants and those who they benefit and is slowly making its way into the media, thus changing the stereotypical image of religion as a source of division. Secondly, it is a platform for natural dialogue to occur. Working with people of other faiths will certainly lead the participants to discuss their beliefs, but now with the knowledge that they share something in common. Thirdly, engaging in community service is a means of bringing together adherents of various faiths without putting them in potentially uncomfortable situations.

Finally (and I’m stealing Eboo Patel’s words here), we live in a diverse world. Our coworkers will be from all walks of life: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, etc. We need to break out of our bubble and learn how to interact in such diversity without compromising our faith. I believe joining together in common projects is precisely the method. We all talk about how our religions are religions of peace, but actions speak louder than words. What are we doing to prove our commitment to peace?

Engaging in community service together has a variety of benefits and solutions to the aforementioned problems. First and foremost, it is effective. Interfaith service work affects the participants and those who they benefit and is slowly making its way into the media, thus changing the stereotypical image of religion as a source of division.

The biggest problem that I see facing the interfaith field today is the fact that it is lacking the orthodoxy. We might complain about misrepresentation, about non-Muslim speakers going up to the podiums and speaking for Islam, but we never actually step up to the plate ourselves. We don’t like where things are going, but we are too lazy to get involved and change things. I don’t need to tell you the hadith (traditions of the Prophet Mohammad) of changing things with your hands, you already know it. What we have to do is act. It is up to us to build the world where religion is seen as a cause that unites humanity in good while preserving its diversity. Otherwise someone might do it for us, and we probably won’t like the result.

*Anton Kuratnik is the Community Affairs Coordinator for the Muslim Students’ Association, University of Toronto (St. George campus)

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