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Adventures in Christian-Muslim Dialogue

Bishop Fred Henry shakes hands with HH Mirza Masroor Ahmad

Tavis Ford--CC

Max Lindenman - published on 01/20/15

Dialogue means knowing when to take a dive and when to drive home a point.

Teaching English as a Foreign Language in Turkey means feeling every new development in Muslim-Western relations with a buzzing immediacy.   I’m not on the Arab Street, but I’m right around the corner.  When news of the Charlie Hebdo massacre hit I was certain I had access to a real insider.  This promising student of mine had grown up in a French banlieue, the son of Turkish immigrants.  He spoke French better than Turkish and was working in the land of his fathers as an engineer in one of the local auto-manufacturing plants.

When I mentioned Charlie Hebdo, this young man, whom I’ll call Mehmet, looked very solemn.  In his Ooh-la-la accent, he said: "The media say two men with Kalashnikovs kill 12 people. I think it’s not true, maybe."

Stunned, I said, "Do you mean the 12 people are still alive, or do you mean that someone else killed them?"

"I think someone else. It’s very hard to get a Kalashnikov in France."

Reassuring myself that he couldn’t be speaking from experience, I took a rain check on the details of his false-flag theory.  To back off the subject gracefully, I humored him, "You’re right. Over there in Europe, bombings are much more common."

Whether the statement was statistically valid or not I have no idea but it got us onto safer ground.  There you have one of the common snags in Muslim-Western dialogue: Sooner or later someone will say something so off the wall as to strike the other dumb.

Pope Benedict once defined “dialogue” as a delicate balance of speaking and listening that “transforms the being of both interlocutors.”  A priest I know prefers to call it “sissypants, relativistic fraternizing with the enemy.”  Let’s split the difference and agree that dialogue occurs when two parties with wildly divergent points of view try to talk about the same thing at the same time.  Sometimes dialogue opens with fanfare and follows strict protocols, but for an Westerner expatriated to the Middle East, it occurs naturally, in the course of any interaction lasting longer than the exchange of six lira for a pack of Monte Carlo Blue Label 100s.  

In polarized Turkey, even knowing who’s up for religious dialogue takes an informed eye.  (Here, you meet women named Hatice, Meryem, and Ayşe, like Muhammad’s wives, who curse Islam like Pamela Geller.)  I landed my first teaching job because another foreigner blundered into dialogue without first taking the lay of the land.   A philosophical type, he assigned his students to write an essay on which vegetable they thought God most resembled.  One of those students accused him of blasphemy before her father, a Justice and Development Party bigwig, who threatened to close down the school unless the offending teacher was turned out on his ear.  

So dialogue is sometimes best conducted as a stealth operation, and opened with a dog whistle.  One evening, when my class and I were taking a cigarette break on the balcony, the adhan, or call to prayer, began echoing from the neighborhood’s mosques.  The mosques numbered three or four; each had loudspeakers planted throughout the area.  The effect was that of a round or a call-and-response. 

“Wow,” I said.  “That’s really beautiful.”

One student asked, “Do you know what it means?”  As I rattled off the translation I’d learned on Wikipedia, he grinned.  Two other students looked uneasy; one grimaced, staring at her shoes.  I scored that one for Islam and one for secularism with two abstentions. 

One of my favorite dialoguing buddies is a Syrian refugee who teaches at my school.  Not only do we share the easy comradeship of fellow expats, Omar is a worldly and perceptive man who understands that dialogue should begin with an exchange of olive branches.  His to me was that he didn’t consider Islamic State terrorists to be real Muslims.  Mine to him was that I thought Hafez al-Assad had been a butcher.  From these humble beginnings, Omar and I have gone on to swap accounts of the crucifixion, compare tawhid and the Trinity.     

Then one day Omar and I got onto the subject of 9/11.  He asked me why none of the Jews who worked in the Twin Towers had reported for work that morning.  I assured him earnestly that the dead had included a proportional number of Jews, and, to soften the blow of correction, added, “I can see why you’d think otherwise.  There’s a lot of misinformation.  Some people claim to have tapes showing bombs going off by the foundation.”

“That’s ridiculous,” said Omar.  “Who would believe such a thing?” 

There are times when dialogue demands a poker face.

Dialogue also requires making certain strategic omissions.  My colleagues and students know I’m a practicing Roman Catholic, but I’ve neglected to mention that my father’s family is Jewish.  Some of my students were taken from Bulgaria as small children, by parents desperate to escape the government’s forced assimilation program.  It would be very nice to tell them, “Oh, so European nationalists think you have dreck in your veins, too?  Put ‘er there, pal!”  Dialogue means knowing how current political realities can eat into the shelf life of shared historical experience.    

Which brings us to the Armenians.  Despite the role of religious rivalry in preparing the ground for the atrocities of 1915-1922, it’s not only observant Muslims who will deny them indignantly.  I learned this the hard way when I mentioned Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist and Nobel laureate whose public affirmation that genocide had taken place nearly resulted in his criminal trial.  Making a moue, one of my students said, “I don’t like Orhan Pamuk.  He’s a…a…”  She groped after the words.

Fearing she might work herself into a righteous lather by the time she found them, I bailed her out by offering:  “An opportunist who slandered his country to please the Western liberals on the Nobel committee?”  She beamed and nodded.  Sometimes dialogue requires you to know all the players’ lines. The student was a bottle blonde who liked to rail against patriarchy.  Dialogue means taking nothing for granted.

A few weeks later, another student, with no prompting from me, volunteered the Turkish version of events.  “The Armenians here” – he pointed on a map to Istanbul – “and here” – he pointed to a spot near Kars – “were spies for the Russians, the French, and the British.  Our government said, ‘You must go here.’”  He pointed to a spot near Gaziantep.  As I watched and listened, chewing my tongue, I was struck by the student’s earnestness.  To his way of thinking, he was setting a foreigner straight.  Dialogue requires that good intentions be recognized. 

Then, somehow, the conversation turned to Trabzon, where the student had grown up.  I mentioned I’d written an article about Father Andrea Santoro, the Catholic priest who’d been murdered there.  Suddenly the student became excited.  “Father Santoro – I knew him!  Terrible!”  He exclaimed.  “The problem with Trabzon people is they are fascists.  They are bigoted!  Christian, Muslim — it’s all about respect, man!”

The look on my face would have illustrated the final rule for dialogue: When you’ve happened onto common ground, pause to dance for joy upon it.

On the subject of dialogue, I think Benedict and my priest friend both grasp a part of the truth.  Dialogue is unambitious in that it doesn’t aim at a consensus.  Instead, it aims at building enough mutual trust and goodwill that the parties will want to meet again, inshallah, for more dialogue.  It can’t preclude open conflict.  Just as W.H. Auden decided, ultimately, that we had to love one another as well as die, it seems we will go right on fighting one another, even in the midst of dialogue.

But dialogue does involve skill and patience.  It means knowing when to take a dive and when to drive home a point.  Seeing just how strange the stranger is, and how intransigent, can strip you of your illusions.  That’s a kind of transformation right there.  Sissypants, nothing.  Even when dialogue turns out to be useless on the bottom line, it’s useless with an awful grandeur, like the torments of Sisyphus.

Max Lindenman writes from Turkey.

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