The Inter-Religious Academy (also named the Academy of Inter-Religious Dialogue), another goodwill-seeking attempt to alleviate the inter-ethnic antagonism in Lebanon which deserves all our encouragement and support, closed its doors yesterday. Unfortunately, no website has been created yet, only a Facebook group page (see Interreligious Academy) including the basic information and a number of TV interviews with the organizers, diffused on local channels, which have been added on YouTube. The main sponsoring institution is Notre Dame University-Louaize under the supervision of Prof. Ziad Fahed, who has been setting up the project since March 2010. The Academy’s gathering site is the Focolare Center in ‘Aïn ‘Aar (a locality of the Metn in Mount-Lebanon) where 17 male and female participants of different religious affiliations lived together for a two-week period (from Saturday 17 until Sunday 25 July, 2010). Here are some excerpts of the mission statement:
The Inter-religious Academy seeks to foster and facilitates the interaction and communication between the different faith groups in the country especially the younger generation.
The Inter-religious Academy is a project of the Dialogue for Life and Reconciliation Organization. It aims to create a space to foster dialogue, understanding and build bridges between the different faiths in the Middle East.
The project is oriented toward actual or future religious leaders and members of the civil society from different faiths who are interested in interfaith dialogue and humanizing the other through:
1. Learning skills that will enable one to understand the Other.
2. Understanding of differences and embracing diversity within one’s own faith group and the Other.
3. Breaking stereotypes by fostering dialogue and promoting understanding
The Academy’s program included daily presentations, mostly given by religious authorities (namely Sayyid Hani Fahs and Shaykh Nuhammad al-Nuqarri), about the principles of faith of Lebanon’s religious sects–obviously focusing on the common schemes–, social bonding activities (such as workshops and movie projections), as well as excursions to sacred sites (Qadisha Valley, Prophet Job’s sanctuary in Niha…) and visits to confessional foundations. Clerics and laypeople with longstanding experience and involvement in Muslim-Christian dialogue practices were also present, such as Father Fadi Daou and Mrs. Nayla Tabbara (both from Saint Joseph University), and Minister Ibrahim Shamseddin, son of former president of the Supreme Islamic Shi’ite Council Muhammad Mahdi Shamseddin (1936-2002).
It goes without saying–although I’ve already said it, heh–that such an original contribution to the promotion of inter-sectarian entente in this deeply divided country is unquestionably praiseworthy, as modest as it may be. On Sunday 25th, the participants regretfully departed from the Academy, bearing the fresh memory of a great human experience. Organizers say the event was a real success and have already envisaged a second edition next year.
This said, I persist in believing that any initiative of this sort is somewhat off the mark, and the path of inter-religious dialogue in Lebanon is doomed to remain a blind alley. I am not an inter-religious dialogue discontent but a skeptic, simply because–well–Lebanon’s problem is not religious, it is sectarian. I rephrase: the deadlock is not the result of religions or day-to-day interaction between individuals, it is the result of the political interaction between the different sects.
I understand how important it is, in such an ultra-complicated strip of land, to point up the bright side of each religion and to zero in on the “transcendent unity of all religions” (i.e., the idea that God is in the center and that all the paths designed by the different religions lead to Him).
However, I don’t like marmalades of good sentiments either. The bone of contention lies within the cultural and political implications of the major religious sects. It all has to do with identity politics, that’s the heart of the matter. Religious stereotypes (i.e., preconceived ideas about the behavior of other groups allegedly provoked by religion) are normal secretions of religious pluralism; they’ve always existed everywhere pluralism was found.
No inter-whatever academy can solve our inexorably antagonistic collective memories, our contrasting feelings towards East and West, our diverging conceptions of the Lebanese nation, our conflicting representations of identity, and our essentially different expectations as to Lebanon’s role in the region and its relation to its neighbors.
The state of Lebanon will be 90 years old soon, and all I can see is failure.
Related post: “Politically Correct But Harmonically Incorrect”, 12 July 2010.