Blog: Interfaith dialogue – a quest for authenticity

9 July, 2018

From 11 to 13 October 2017, the international research conference Religious Minorities’ Self-Representations: Claims of Difference and Sameness in the Politics of Belonging was hosted by the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Utrecht University. The aim of this conference was to explore how dominant perceptions of specific religious minorities feed into the ways in which these minorities represent themselves and/or their religion. In a series of blog posts, different conference participants write about their research. In this blog, Lise Paulsen Galal explores how the contemporary Western ‘quest for authenticity’ creates a script for narratives of religious transformation at an interfaith dialogue event in Copenhagen.

Interfaith Dialogue: A Quest for Authenticity

Author: Lise Paulsen Galal, Associate Professor, Department of Communication and Arts, Roskilde University, Denmark

Taking of my shoes, I entered the room that was normally used for meditation sessions and took a seat on one of the chairs lined up for the event. The Faith in Harmony Forum in Copenhagen had invited for an evening with four women telling about their spiritual journeys. The event took place on the premises of Brahma Kumaris, a spiritual organisation originating from India. About 25 people, mostly women, were present. After a short welcome by a member of Brahma Kumaris, four women told the story of their spiritual journey: a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist and an adherent of Brahma Kumaris. The stories were followed by Q&A, and then we were invited for tea and cookies.

The event was one of several coordinated by the Faith in Harmony Forum during the UN World Interfaith Harmony Week in February 2017. The Faith in Harmony Forum is a small Danish NGO that actively wants to promote interreligious co-existence, tolerance and dialogue. As argued by the organisation’s president, its activities are motivated by the demonisation of Muslims in Danish public discourse. The Forum is one of many interfaith initiatives in Denmark that share the idea that organised interfaith encounters can be fruitful in countering mistrust, prejudices and conflict between people of different religions. 

During my studies of interfaith dialogue in Denmark, I participated in several events, including the one mentioned above. I was interested in exploring the applied tools, the ideas behind them, as well as the outcome – not so much in terms of the degree of success for future co-existence, but in the sense of what subject positions are offered and created because of (but also despite of) the set-up of the encounter. As written by myself and my two colleagues, Lene Bull Christiansen and Kirsten Hvenegård-Lassen, in the introduction to a special issue of Journal of Intercultural Studies: 

Organised cultural encounters are – to use a theatre metaphor – scripted events: time, place, roles and interactions are more or less strictly prescribed and regulated in advance of the encounter. … organised cultural encounters take place within already established professional or institutional contexts, and are thus shaped in important ways by the existing norms, discourses, roles and hierarchies that govern these arenas. 

The stories of the four women were personal and built upon a narrative of transformation. The Buddhist and the Brahma Kumaris adherent told about their background as non-religious Danes with limited knowledge of religion, and how they had gone through several existential crises leading to a slowly growing spiritual interest that ultimately resulted in their conversion. For the Buddhist, this also resulted in a change of lifestyle when she chose to become a nun. While the Christian and Muslim women did not tell a story of conversion, the clue of their stories was equally about change in their religious outlook and identity. Both their stories were full of humour. The Christian pastor told about a dream she had had, where she had found a set of false teeth blabbing at the altar. She realised that she had put her faith on autopilot and had come to a crossroad. She quit her job and became a pastor of pilgrimage. The Muslim woman told about her spiritual development as a journey from being an uneducated goatherd in Somalia, a wild teenager in a provincial town in Denmark, a radical Salafi Muslim in London, to becoming a married woman and mother with a Sufi-aspiration living in Copenhagen. Going through a series of transformations, her narrative culminated in the change she went through when leaving the conservative Salafi version of Islam.

When during the Q&A session one person from among the audience asked if the four women had discussed aspects of their different faiths among themselves, the women answered that they preferred to listen to each other. Thus, there was no contestation of any of the stories, the women’s positions or values during the event. One could argue that the script of the event followed what James A. Keaten and Charles Soukup in an article from 2009 name the pluralist version of interfaith dialogue, which is characterised by the reciprocal exchange of subjective, multiperspectival narratives with an emphasis on empathetic listening, mutuality and reciprocity. Alternatively, one could see the event as an ‘interhuman dialogue’ instead of an interfaith dialogue, as suggested by Michael Martin. The event let the four women speak on behalf of themselves and their unique story rather than on behalf of a religious or faith group, which according to Martin risks leading to an essentialisation of religion. The question is, however, if the encounter risks reproducing other kinds of power relations and discursive hegemony?  I will point at three aspects that suggest what the event produces. 

Universalising the particular

In the setting of the four women’s narrations the respect for differences is nurtured by emphasising the individual journey as a universal story of becoming. Hence, all human beings have a story of individual becoming, a story of life traveling, and as such they should also respect each other’s personal story including religious belief. At the same time the individual journey is – according to all the four women – a journey towards a truer self, towards authenticity. The Buddhist told how she had looked for answers in different world religions, and how she in the end found them in Tibetan Buddhism after coming across a newspaper article on the topic. The proof of truth or authenticity in her new belief was a non-controllable emotional and bodily response to words and practices of the faith. The Muslim woman presented her transformation as the result of challenging religious and patriarchal authorities on her way, ending up concluding: I decided to be true to myself. All four stories emphasised the traveling aspect, drawing on metaphors of travelling but also actual travels, like train travels and travels to other countries. 

In other words, by working on your true self, you will be able to better navigate in diversity and in a complex world. In this context it makes sense to talk about a quest for authenticity. As James Wilce and Janina Fenigsen have argued in their article on ‘De-essentialising authenticity’: “Authenticities are not about being, they are about becoming. Thus, performance, broadly defined, is crucial to their understanding.” The quest for performing authenticity is narrated in the four women’s stories as a universal need. However, as Charles Taylor has argued in his book The Ethics of Authenticity from 1992, the idea of authenticity is not a history-free idea. It has its origin in the Christian tradition and one of the main characteristics are that authenticity is individualised. In a current Danish context, it is possible to argue that the strong emphasis on individualisation is originating in a secular, liberal and Protestant model of belief. Whereas all four women told about specific religious scholars or individuals who somehow had an effect on their journey, their journey was theirs and the moving forward was the result of their choices. Consequently, the claim for individual authenticity ignores the believers’ potential commitment to a group and/or family that may be of greater importance to some participants than others, for instance to members of minority groups. In other words, the individual quest may not leave room for what Sherry Ortner in her book Anthropology and Social Theory (2006) identify as the minorities’ ‘own politics’.

Listening as silencing

Encountering and listening to the Other is as argued by the four women as well as by Keaten and Soukup a way of recognising the Other. By listening you give voice to the speaker and by listening with respect you recognise the right of the Other to be different. However, when linked to the quest for individual authenticity, there are stories that are left out. Stories of the minorities’ own politics. In other words, the script of the interfaith dialogue, in this case the stories of the four women, left out how the women due to their religion and bodily signs are inscribed in history. ”Encounters are not free from history and thus whilst the taking place of encounters might be momentary, they fold in multiple temporalities” as Fiona Wilson writes in an article On geography and encounter: Bodies, borders, and difference from 2016. Hence, the quest of authenticity within the encounter may silence the structural inequalities outside the encounter ignoring how these may affect what takes place inside the encounter. Not all participants and bodies are easily attuned to the narratives or performances of individual authenticity. It is in this light one may explain why the Muslim woman during and after her storytelling is highly applauded and praised by the audience. She has succeeded despite her Somalian and Muslim appearance to attune to the secular and individual faith narrative. The applause, however, reflects that the bodily signs or inequalities are left unaddressed. There might be an implicit recognition of the fact that the Muslim woman has faced other and more severe obstacles on her personal journey than the other three, but these are in no accounts related to structural or historical inequalities globally or locally. 

This silencing raises the question of who are participating in interfaith dialogue. As an ideal all kind of people should be welcome, but is there room for those who do not adhere to the quest for authenticity? Those who claim recognition as a group that faces daily discrimination or those who argue that the group belonging and group values, maybe authorised by a religious leader, are what defines them? I wonder if the Muslim woman had been invited if she had still been a radical Salafi wearing a niqab? When looking at the interfaith field in Denmark, dialogue initiatives between Muslims and Christians do invite different kinds of Muslims, but with the invitation follows a script that holds this quest for authenticity. Seen in a Foucauldian perspective, interfaith work becomes a way of disciplining not only the minority but all participants, when asking them to mirror themselves in the stories told. 

Room for rebellion?

On the one hand, I have argued that the chosen approach by the Faith in Harmony Forum is inclusive and pluralistic giving equal voice to people of different faiths. On the other hand, I argue that participants are disciplined to adopt the narrative of authenticity putting pressure on minorities that have to work harder to attune themselves to those bodies who are already in the room, as argued by Sara Ahmed. In this critical perspective I finally want to suggest the possibility of rebellion against this disciplining. Listening carefully to the story by the Muslim woman, I wonder if she is mildly mocking us, the audience. She drew on the stereotypical stories about the illiterate Somalia girl, the refugee family that is incapable of adapting to the Danish society and the radical Salafi without her own opinion. Indeed it is her story, but she told it in a humorous way, and by referring to the stereotypes as stereotypes. As such, it may be seen as an ironic compromise that characterises the colonial mimicry that according to Homi K. Bhabha represents the desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite.

The project on interfaith dialogue in Denmark is a subproject of the collaborative research project ’The Organized Cultural Encounter’ that was funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research with funding-ID: DFF-1319-00093.

Illustration: altarpiece of the Brorsons Church in Copenhagen. Photographer: Lise Paulsen Galal