It is no coincidence that moments of national crisis are often coupled with sharp increases in interfaith engagement. Laurie Goodstein wrote in The New York Times, “In the months and years after 9/11, in communities large and small, mosques opened their doors for Friday prayers and iftar dinners to break the Ramadan fast. Churches and synagogues deluged imams with speaking requests. Muslim, Jewish and Christian performers hit the clubs on comedy tours,”
It seems slightly absurd at first thought – the idea that a comedy show somehow responds to a major national threat. But a recent delegation visiting from Egypt reminded me just how essential such forums are to the health and security of our society.
Nobody needs to convince me of the importance of interfaith work; she would be preaching to the choir. I serve as the executive director of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. We equip American Muslims and Jews with skills and resources to improve the relationship between the two communities and work toward a common good.
Sometimes, though, I am guilty of relying too heavily on the philosophical justifications for such pluralistic work. Of course it is good to reach out to others. My religious tradition compels me to do so. In turning to the abstract, I overlook the mundane and practical arguments for interfaith relations. Sometimes, the mundane and the practical are the most compelling.
The group of imams and academics from Al Azhar University in Cairo helped me tap into the more earthly aspects of my work. Visiting through the Civilizations Exchange and Cooperation Foundation, the delegation met with NewGround as part of a larger agenda. They were here to learn effective models of interfaith engagement to take back home to Egypt.
I expected an engaging exchange of ideas. I did not expect the intensity of hunger and yearning this group had for getting NewGround to Egypt. Now that Egyptians have overthrown an oppressive dictatorship, their society desperately needs to build its civic infrastructure from the ground up. The leadership void left by the Arab Spring has created the need for subgroups within Egyptian society to figure out how to communicate effectively and negotiate productively.
In emerging out of a dictatorship, the Egyptian imams and academics feel in their gut something that as an American, I have only understood intellectually.
As in Egypt, the health of our society depends on the successful coexistence of our nation’s subgroups. Our religious, cultural and ethnic identities need to find expression in the public sphere. When different factions have forums to communicate, argue, disagree and collaborate, government can govern more effectively.
The American commitment to pluralism needs vigilant guarding for practical and mundane reasons. Our robust civic infrastructure decays when we allow our agendas to overshadow our civility. Words can easily be replaced with violence. Our history is not void of such lapses nor is our future immune.
I was inspired by the Egyptians’ zeal for pluralism. As an American committed to interfaith and intergroup engagement, I would do well to see my work through Egyptian eyes.