Islam, Buddhism, and the problem with 'dialogue'

opinion July 19, 2014 00:00

By William Page
Special to The N

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The juxtaposition of Dr Imtiyaz Yusuf's article "Can Islam and Buddhism co-exist peacefully in SE Asia?" and JC Wilcox's letter to the editor "Islamists' aggression is confusing for some of us" in The Nation's July 13 edition makes for interesting reading

Dr Imtiyaz is worried about Islamophobia, and prescribes building “Muslim-Buddhist understanding through pedagogical and socio-cultural projects that are more than tourist symbols” as a remedy. Mr Wilcox is puzzled by the coexistence of two opposing tendencies within Islam, one peaceful and one bellicose. 
Imtiyaz’s remedy is the usual bland treacle dispensed by the advocates of inter-religious “dialogue”. Precisely what “pedagogical and socio-cultural projects” does he have in mind? How can they possibly bridge the enormous gulf in worldviews that separates Buddhism from Islam? Islam requires belief in an eternal, omnipotent, omniscient creator-god. Buddhism denies the existence of any such being. How do you bridge that gulf?
“Dialogue” is not enough
Hundreds, maybe thousands, of interfaith forums have been held throughout the world in which well-meaning liberals from different religions “dialogue” in a quest for mutual understanding. By now they ought to understand each other’s positions very well. The problem is not one of understanding. The problem is that they disagree on fundamental metaphysical issues. 
In West Asia, Judaism first set the ball rolling by claiming that there is only one God. Christianity came along and agreed, but added that God has a son, and that in fact he has a tripartite nature that includes his son. Along came Islam, saying the Jews got it right and the Christians got it wrong, but adding that God also has a prophet, Muhammad, who must be factored into the equation. Farther east, Hinduism had been there all along with its idea that there are 330 million gods, but that they, and everything that exists, are manifestations of a universal, all-encompassing Godhead. Buddhism wisely kept out of the fray by distancing itself from metaphysical speculation entirely.
None of these viewpoints can be verified in any empirical or scientifically viable way. They are all theories, and they can’t all be right. In fact they may all be wrong. So even if the adherents of the different religions understand each other’s positions very well, so long as each clings to his own metaphysical viewpoint, they’re never going to agree. The best they can do is agree to disagree – and live at peace with one another.
Islamophobia and its roots
With regard to Islamophobia, may I suggest that if Muslims wish to rid the world of it, they can begin by addressing one of its most obvious causes. They have to rein in their own crazies – people like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who brutally murdered Daniel Pearl. Shaikh Mohammed, sawing off his head with a knife just because he was Jewish, then holding up his severed head to be videotaped and bragging about it. There are people like the savages of Al-Qaeda, ISIL, Al-Shabab, Boko Haram, and the Taleban, who shoot schoolgirls in the head. The global Muslim community lacks either the will or the ability to restrain these co-religionists, and that is the chief reason Islamophobia flourishes. 
Islam: Peaceful or bellicose?
Wilcox’s confusion about whether Islam is peaceful or a bellicose is understandable. The Pew Research Centre estimated that, as of 2012, there were 1.6 billion Muslims, constituting 23 per cent of the world population. Naturally there will be a wide variety of opinion among such a large number of people, even when they profess the same religion. 
Further, the Koran is a long book, with 114 chapters, and there are passages that contradict each other. You can cherry-pick the text to come up with verses that suggest tolerance (NJ Dawood Penguin translation): “There shall be no compulsion in religion.” And there are verses that suggest the opposite: “When the sacred months are over, slay the idolaters wherever you find them.” Muslims who want to lead peaceful, settled lives in mixed communities will naturally gravitate toward the tolerant verses. Muslims who want to pick a fight will go for the intolerant ones.
On the whole, though, the intolerance expressed in the Koran far outweighs the tolerance. This is because of the hundreds of verses that inveigh against infidels (non-believers in Islam). These verses occur with unexpected frequency and ferocity, and to a non-believer they are unpleasant in the extreme. 
My favourite is Verse 4:56: “Those that deny Our revelations We will burn in fire. No sooner will their skins be consumed than We shall give them other skins, so that they may truly taste the scourge. Surely God is mighty and wise.” Just because I don’t believe in Islam, I’m going to have my skin burned off again and again for all eternity. Is that fair? The punishment seems terribly disproportionate to the crime.
A solution from the Koran
Is it possible to determine which religion (if any) has the correct metaphysical viewpoint? In the absence of any empirically verifiable evidence, the answer has to be no. 
But the attitude that logically follows from this conclusion is prescribed, remarkably enough, in the Koran itself. In one of the shortest chapters, “The Unbelievers”, the Koran has this: “Say: ‘Unbelievers, I do not worship what you worship, nor do you worship what I worship. I shall never worship what you worship, nor will you ever worship what I worship. You have your own religion, and I have mine.’” 
Note that this verse has no invocation of God’s curse upon unbelievers, no threat to slay them once the sacred months are over, no mention of burning off their skins again and again. It is just the ancient equivalent of “Be cool, folks. You go your way, and I’ll go mine.”
I think most of us can say Amen to that.
William Page is a student of religions and author of “The Nirvana Experiments and Other Tales of Asia”.