Quaker Universalist Conversations

The Importance of Interfaith Dialogue: A Quaker Perspective

By Anthony Manousos

Tomorrow I will be taking part in an event at the Long Beach Congregational Church, which has this heartening motto: “A Liberal Church, Welcoming All, and Passionately Committed to Social Justice.” The theme for this event is the “Importance of the Interfaith Movement.” The keynote speaker will be Dr. Jerry Campbell, president of the Claremont School of Theology. I will be one of the panelists, along with the following religious leaders:

  • Rabbi Haim Beliak, Executive Director of HaMifgash: An On-Going Conversation Among Jewish Intellectuals, Co-Founder of JewsOnFirst.Org, former Chaplain and Hillel Rabbi for The Claremont Colleges
  • Judy Gilliland, Director of Interfaith Relations for the Public Affairs Council of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, President of the Interreligious Council of Southern California
  • Aziza Hasan, Southern California Government Relations Director and Interfaith Coordinator for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, Co-Director of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change.

I have been asked to give a five-minute presentation, which will go something like this:

I am honored to be asked to be a presenter on this panel. As many of you know, I have been part of the interfaith community here in LA for nearly ten years, ever since 9/11, and now I serve on the board of many interfaith organizations, including the South Coast Interfaith Council, the Parliament of the World’s Religions, and Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace. My dear Sufi friend John sometimes describes himself as an interfaith junkie. I must confess that I am also hooked.

As has been noted, I am a Quaker. Quakers are a small but influential group of Christians who for the past 350 years have tried to take seriously and literally Christ’s injunction to “love your enemy.” During the 16th century, Quakers did not take part in the religious wars that rocked Christendom. Instead, they urged their fellow Christians to follow the teachings of Jesus and become peacemakers. The Peace Testimony has been an essential Quaker practice for over 350 years and has spawned organizations like the American Friends Service Committee, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, and the Quaker UN office..

Unlike most other Christians in the 17th century, early Quakers practiced religious toleration. Quakers were savagely persecuted for their religious beliefs in England—over 15,000 of them were thrown into dungeons, and many others lost their property or were killed or had to flee to the colonies. The Quaker William Penn founded a colony called Pennsylvania where people of all faiths were welcome, and where there was no religious persecution, and no witch hunts. Even Voltaire, no friend of religion, was impressed with Pennsylvania’s record of religious freedom.

I became involved in interfaith work as an extension of my work as a Quaker peace activist. During the 1980s, I was involved in Soviet-American reconciliation work and helped to edit a book of Soviet and American stories and poems. Our goal was to dispel stereotypes and to show that Russians and Americans had much in common. This book was edited and published in both countries, and I traveled often to the Soviet Union at a time Russians were regarded as being even scarier than Muslims. I was thrilled when the Berlin Wall fell, and I was pleased when Americans finally came to the realization that Russians were not monsters, but people just like us. I was pleased to learn that Reza Aslan, a Muslim writer, has recently edited a book of writings by Arab writers with a similar purpose.

I believe we are living in a period similar in some respects to the Cold War, only now endless war has been re-framed as a clash of civilizations. Religion is being used to justify this new cycle of violence and war. This is a Big Lie. The real causes of conflict in today’s world are greed, politics, economics, and nationalism. These are the demons that authentic religion tries to exorcise.

We need to engage in interreligious dialogue, not political diatribes. You all know how last summer’s campaign of Islamophobia was orchestrated by Conservatives and Fox News just prior to the midterm elections. With another presidential election looming on the horizon, a new witch hunt is being planned by Congressman Peter King of New York. He is organizing a series of hearings to investigate the alleged threat of Islamic radicalism. Singling out a religion like this is not only un-Constitutional, it is dangerous and divisive.

To dispel stereotypes, we need to engage in religious dialogue at all levels. Religious leaders need to model civil dialogue, as we are trying to do now. We also need to empower lay people to engage in interreligious dialogue, as the South Coast Interfaith Council does with its interfaith cafes.

Dialogue helps to build friendship and trust so we can stand up for each other when our religious liberties come under attack. That’s what happened last summer when the interfaith movement stood in solidarity with Faisal Rauf’s efforts to build an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan. The interfaith community also stood in solidarity with Muslims in Temecula who were finally given permission to build their mosque. And we are standing in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters in Lomita who are trying to build a social hall next to their mosque.

In addition to working together to promote religious freedom, we also need interreligious dialogue that enables us to explore the spiritual depths of our faith experience. The Quaker theologian Douglas Steere called this “mutual irradiation.” “Mutual irradiation” is defined as an interfaith encounter in which “each is willing to expose [him or herself] with great openness to the inward message of the other, as well as to share [his or her] own experience, and to trust that whatever is the truth in each experience will irradiate and deepen the experience of the other.”

“Mutual irradiation” can be fostered through a shared interfaith education. I am very pleased that the Claremont School of Theology has taken the bold step of becoming an interfaith institution. This has not been easy, but it is crucially important that the religious leaders of the future are equipped to work together in a pluralistic and interfaith world.

As Dr. Campbell put it so eloquently, religion is not a competitive sport. It is more like a symphony orchestra in which each religion plays a crucial part. Some religions are like the string section. Others are like the brass. Some are percussionists. I think of my own little sect, the Quakers, as like piccolos or maybe the guitars. The important thing is for us to play as well as we can, and to play in harmony. I believe we play at our best when we follow the score and listen to each other and to our Divine Conductor.


Best of luck with this, Anthony. Of course, not all Friends would agree with categorizing Quakers as Christians, but I think that is something we have to continue to struggle with. As a side note: I am becoming increasingly passionate that, as we go out in the "inter-" world (i.e. interfaith, intergenerational, intercultural), if we don't pay heed to economic injustices, we are playing into the hands of the powers that be - left, right and middle, and will do little to get to the core of the violence we seek to end. No matter where you go in the world, the people sent to do the killing tend to be from the poorer communities. (Relatedly, but for another discussion, here in the US, the #1 predictor of new AIDS cases is not race or sexual orientation, but poverty, and yet none of our approaches to stem HIV has a check-box for economics). The problem is that, to be poor, is not a culture. A good read on this: "The Trouble with Diversity: How we learned to love identity and ignore inequality".
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