Respect is a key topic in interfaith dialogue. It is the most frequently cited objective in the many different dialogue projects in which our Centre works.
As the Director of the Centre for Interfaith and Cultural Dialogue at Griffith University, I have long pondered on the idea of respect in the work that I do. I speak about respect quite often and respect is the most commonly expressed desire in the many dialogues and disputes with which I work. I frequently say that the ultimate object of my work in interfaith dialogue is respect between different parties, individuals, communities. I say that the purpose of the principles for cross-cultural collaboration that I teach are to establish an environment of respect so that the ‘other’ will be willing to share their differences, with the objective of using those differences as resources for unique solutions.
But is it really possible to have respect for another who is different from you? In particular, is it possible to respect someone who believes differently from you? Take, for example, the experience I had a couple days ago. I was working in northern Burkina Faso, training a group of religious leaders from the Sahel on conflict resolution skills. I was the only Christian present in the training, either as participant or trainer. After a few days, one of the participants approached me with a desire that I convert to Islam. We had a frank, friendly discussion on some fundamental differences between our faiths and why, because of these, I would not accept his invitation to convert.
This is a relatively uncommon example of an encounter between incompatible differences, but it illustrates the challenge in the question posed above. Is it really possible to have respect for another who believes differently from you? In my opinion, it is possible to respect in this situation, but that it is rarer and more precious than I originally thought. I say this is possible because I genuinely feel I have respect for others. One source of my respect for some is that I recognise in them the same sincerity and faith and conviction that I have to certain things in my life, like my religion and my family. Thus, while I don’t understand how they can believe what they believe when it is clearly opposing that which I sincerely and with conviction hold to be true, I can at least understand their conviction, sincerity, faith and, therefore, respect them.
But then I must ask myself, is the respect I have for them as individuals, or does it also include their group/culture/religion? In other words, do I have respect for their culture or religion, which is so different from mine and which contains elements with which I do not agree or even strongly disagree? It is perhaps easier to respect an individual, because we can always find those we like and to whom we can relate in any culture or religion. We can identify certain traits that we find respectable, like sincerity, honesty, faith. And thus, despite the fact that they believe in things that we don’t, we can understand and humanise/personalise this difference.
I think the answer to this last question is, “Yes.” And for me the respect doesn’t come from a theoretical, abstract investigation of another culture or religion, however interesting and invigorating this is to me. The respect comes through getting to know and understand individual representatives of that group and then can spread to the broader group overall.
Perhaps that is the crux of the discussion, which becomes the focus of my work. Respect and understanding are developed through individuals speaking of and living their beliefs, not by hiding them from others.