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We Need to Talk

March 9th, 2016 by Stephanie Schoenhoff

The Intercultural Dialogue Institute GTA and Beth Shalom Synagogue are hosting An Interfaith Dialogue of Jews and Muslims: The Challenges and Opportunities of Society and Assimilation. We sat down with Azim Shamshiev, Executive Vice President of Intercultural Dialogue Institute GTA to talk about the long-term impact of interfaith conversation, and the Canadian opportunity for interfaith circles. 

Courtesy of IDI & Beth Shalom Stephanie: For people unfamiliar with the concept of an interfaith dialogue, can you explain why dialogue between the Muslim and the Jewish community is important for the city of Toronto in 2016? Or, more specifically, what kinds of questions are explored at these events?

Azim: We need dialogue between people of different faiths, not only Jews and Muslims, in order to strengthen the social harmony we have in Canada. I would say that interfaith dialogue is an ongoing effort rather than a one-off activity. As such you can’t just take it for granted, you have to do it constantly so that people keep deepening their understanding of each other, because the moment you stop doing it, you just cut the crucial conversation which can over time lead to undesired consequences.

So this is to set the general framework, but I think dialogue between Jews and Muslims is especially important in this broader context because unlike the dialogue between other faith groups, the one between Muslims and Jews, because of its international dimensions and the poisonous effect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular, is especially fragile. This general situation has a potential for hindering a meaningful and productive dialogue between these communities here at home. And, unfortunately, this is what’s happening in reality too, I think we still have a long way to go in terms of building bridges between Muslims and Jews.

And you know if you look at the topic of the event, yes it is a dialogue, but it’s about a common problem that both of these communities are facing, in terms of passing their respective faiths across the generations and how they should fight against the challenges that some of the contemporary events are posing to these communities. So, I mean, in this sense it is a good way of building bridges because we are trying to talk about a problem which is common to both of these communities. 

S: What do you hope will be some of the long-term impacts of interfaith dialogues? Have you experienced positive results through conversations like this in the past?

A: I think you can simply flip the question and ask what happens when the dialogue is absent. As we have ongoing interfaith dialogue efforts, we have at least some level of understanding between different groups, but imagine a situation when you don’t have dialogue and interaction among these people and communities, imagine when they don’t know anything about each other. I think this creates a climate where there is a higher risk of some taking an advantage of this situation to advance their political and other interests and agendas by engaging in politics of hate, fear mongering and trying to demonize particular faith groups. A great example of that is what is happening south of the border. So I think it is to prevent similar things from happening here at home we need to do more dialogue. We shouldn’t take our multiculturalism—our success story in this arena is widely recognized, however imperfect it may, we shouldn’t take this success for granted. I think it is, as I said, an ongoing project which requires continuous effort and engagement.

S: Do you see Canada as a country that adequately fosters intercultural dialogue? Do you see room for improvement? How might Canada improve?

A: That’s a great question. I think Canada is, so far, one of the most successful countries in the world in terms of fostering intercultural dialogue, peaceful coexistence and multiculturalism. You can compare it, for example, to other democracies. If you take the European example, you can clearly see that their situation, even their understanding of the whole concept of multiculturalism is completely different. It’s about briefly welcoming and then assimilating newcomers and minorities, whereas in Canada we have a different situation. It is what we symbolically call a “Salad Bowl,” where we welcome and value diversity; we see it a richness to have a diversity of cultures and faith traditions; we try to foster them and provide an opportunity for them to flourish and co-exist in a harmonious way.

As far as improvement is concerned, of course, there is always room for improvement. I think I’ll have to repeat myself in this regard. We should keep working to foster even a deeper understanding between various faith traditions and cultures. Maybe one of the problems I see in interfaith circles is that we still have small and sometimes marginal groups within each faith community who engage in interfaith dialogue. I think we need a broad-based engagement on the part of each faith or ethno-cultural community in these efforts.  

S: Your event is on the "challenges and opportunities of society and assimilation." Can you highlight one challenge or one opportunity of society and assimilation in relation to either the Jewish or Muslim faith? 

A: I think the key question, when we talk about assimilation, is a concern with the loss of religious identity and attachment to faith among younger generation. I think that’s going to be one of the key questions to be discussed. This is obviously one of the biggest challenges for both communities. I think one thing we should keep in mind is that when we say “we are multicultural,” or when we say “we are multifaith,” what we refer to is our diversity and at the core of this diversity is a multiplicity of our faith and ethno-cultural identities. Therefore, by losing our faith identities, whatever faith it may be, we’re losing our richness and diversity that we so much cherish as Canadians.

S: I think you highlighted a challenge that many faith groups are facing today, which is the question of the younger generation engaging in the faith of their parents.

A: Exactly. One thing I would like to emphasize here is that we have our “core Canadian values” and we cherish them as Canadians, which is a great thing—I think that really makes us different as a nation in the world. But if we lose our faith values, that would be a big disadvantage to us because many of our values which are rooted in the core of our faith teachings actually, they are in some way related, or they support those Canadian values that we have. So, I think by having our faith values and trying to preserve them, we are making sure that from the place of our own teachings rooted in our faith, we are contributing to our common Canadian values.

S: So in other words, Canadian values and faith values aren’t mutually exclusive. They actually build off each other in a way.

A: Right, they build off each other, they support each other, and they strengthen and contribute to each other.

S: What are you really hoping to get out of the event?

A: Well, first of all, a great turnout (laughs). You can look at this from two points of view. One is just to have the dialogue itself and keep it going. I think this is already a great benefit in itself. I’m not making a claim that this is the first dialogue between Jews and Muslims in Toronto. I have been part of many other similar efforts and activities. This is yet another step in the way of advancing this bridge building.

The second is that we need to have a discussion around the topic itself. We know that many faith communities are facing the same problem but the fact that Jews and Muslims are having a conversation on this topic is particularly important because both are Abrahamic and monotheistic religions and share many other similarities. They both have been dealing with the challenge of passing their faiths to next generations. Jews being an older community in Canada may have a longer experience and better understanding of the issue. Muslims have had their own struggles and ways of addressing the problem. I think the idea here is to create a platform for a productive exchange of the expertise and insights that each of these communities has accumulated over the course of time.

S: Well, thank you so much for your time Azim, and I wish you all the best.

A: Thank you very much, Stephanie. 

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