• Being Interfaith Literate: A Guide To Online Interfaith Etiquette

    Original Post from The Christian Muslim Forum found here

    One criticism occasionally directed at Interfaith Dialogue is that it has the potential to involve a lot of theoretical chit-chat with little substance or practical application in the real world. Open and constructive communication is, however, the foundation of good relationships between people of different faiths. It is the basis of everything that follows. If we’re not able to speak to people who uphold different beliefs without getting red-faced and in a huff then any sort of joint Interfaith event or venture will be rendered impossible. For that reason we have to become Interfaith Literate. This means understanding the potential effects of the words we use, learning to use inclusive language, and developing ways of diffusing negatively-charged conversations.

    This article focuses on the etiquette of interfaith conversation, particularly within an online setting, as many of us are introduced to interfaith dialogue through social media or organisations such as the Christian Muslim forum.

    1. Be prepared for disagreement.

    Before we start, we should acknowledge the fact that Interfaith interactions are going to be uncomfortable and awkward at times. The stereotype of cosy meetings with tea and biscuits is often a far cry from the reality. When disagreements happen (and they certainly will), we shouldn’t panic, declare the situation a hopeless cause, and simply give up. Disagreement is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, a debate where everyone has the same view is essentially a mutual appreciation society. When we all agree, we have a tendency to become rigid and self-congratulatory; smug even. Being among people with different beliefs can actually help us in our personal attempts towards humility. It also gives us an opportunity to reflect on our own beliefs and hopefully become more flexible and understanding as a result.

    2. Be positive.

    Whether we are speaking face to face with someone or communicating via social media, we should aim to create a space where people can be open and honest. We should acknowledge the fact that the other person is allowing themselves to be vulnerable as they share their experiences and we shouldn’t abuse that position. As such, blunt statements like ‘you’re wrong’ should be avoided. Accusations like these make us defensive and reluctant to share.  As a way of avoiding such direct comments, Interfaith worker Peter Adams recommends that we, ‘look for the good rather than something to disagree with.’ In this way we promote positive dialogue rather than confrontation.

    3. Be inclusive.

    Interfaith is as much about self-exploration and the individual as it is about larger groups of people getting along. As interfaith participants we should recognise that no two individuals interpret religious doctrine or experience the world and/or God in the same way. Therefore, we should avoid using sweeping statements like ‘we believe this’ or ‘you believe that.’ Both create and promote a counterproductive dichotomy of ‘Us and Them’. Rather, it is often more useful to speak about our own personal beliefs using ‘I believe’ or ‘I think.’ In this way, as Imam Jamal Rahman (one third of the Interfaith Amigos) says, we can ‘get to know each other on a personal, human level. That’s the best way to overcome the divide of different theologies.’ (view full video) Interfaith starts from within – opening up our hearts and then reaching out to others as fellow individuals.

    4. Be mindful.

    Adopting inclusive language goes hand in hand with an increased awareness of how our words can be interpreted or misinterpreted. We might think that using a nifty war metaphor such as ‘go into battle’ or ‘confront the enemy’ will pack a powerful rhetorical punch but it will probably just be interpreted as unnecessarily aggressive and undermine anything positive that we wanted to say. In particular we should avoid “loaded” words such as ‘infidel’ or ‘kaffir.’ Strong verbs like ‘deny’ or ‘reject’ are also common culprits of discord and are counterproductive to interfaith discourse.

    4. Be responsible.

    Becoming interfaith literate means that we develop an acute sense of responsibility when we interact with others. Whether we are in a closed group, private conversation or public space, we should conduct ourselves as if anyone can hear or read what we say. That could include friends, people from the same denomination, and crucially, those who don’t share our views. Therefore, we have to think, do our words target or ridicule people with different beliefs? Are they a ruse to unite certain groups against another group? Any divisive tactic goes against the very essence of interfaith which is an all-encompassing and inclusive way of interacting that allows us to transcend human-made boundaries and make personal connections with people from all faith and non-faith backgrounds.

    5. Be clear.

    We’ve all had arguments where one person is upset about what was said while the other was angry about how it was said. No matter how long the argument continues, the two people are never going to be able to resolve the problem unless they recognise that they’re talking about entirely different things. For that reason, it’s important to make it clear which aspect we’re commenting on during interfaith interactions. Are you challenging certain ideas or the way those ideas were expressed? This pre-emptive clarification is particularly useful in online conversations which are particularly prone to misunderstandings.

    We should also bear in mind that English is not everyone’s first language and so we should allow for translation issues. If someone isn’t a native English speaker, they’re not necessarily going to able to express nuance. Words like ‘faith’ and ‘religion’ might be used interchangeably or strong words like ‘must’ might be used in the place of a softer ‘should’ for instance. If we keep that in mind, we can avert unnecessary upsets.

    6. Be kind.

    When someone makes a faux pas, we should be kind rather than pouncing on that person
    They might not have realized how their words would be interpreted or they may still be getting to grips with the concept of Interfaith.  We’ve all said things in badly phrased ways or completely misjudged a situation. This is how we learn. If we all knew how to communicate perfectly with each other from the get go, they’d be no need for interfaith dialogue in the first place! Mistakes are an opportunity for everyone to learn: for the person who made it and for those who respond to it.

    7. Be thankful.

    There’s always a part of us that wants to have the final word when we leave a discussion. Our ego creates a desire to ‘win’ at all costs and it tries to achieve this by putting others down.

    Instead, we should show gratitude and thank the other person for the opportunity of speaking together. Perhaps you had polar opposite views and things got a little messy. But there’s no reason to end a conversation on a low. Showing gratitude is one way, in Peter Adams words, of ‘treating each other seriously, even when we don’t agree.’ Even ‘disastrous’ conversations give us something to reflect on and alert us to areas where we can improve.

    We can also take the opportunity to apologize for any misunderstandings or wrong assumptions. Showing gratitude and offering apologies are great ways of showing mutual respect and mean that everyone leaves the discussion feeling appreciated.