Research Project: Negotiating Differences: Pluralism, interreligious dialogue and European organisations in Lebanon

Danish-Arab Interfaith Dialogue meeting in Saida, November 2017.
© Stefan Maneval 2017

By Stefan Maneval

 

When the Lebanese Adyan Foundation set out to produce a textbook aiming to foster acceptance of religious and cultural diversity, it was planning to create one volume for all religious communities in Lebanon. This goal turned out to be too ambitious – the religious leaders of the various Muslim and Christian communities involved in the project did not find enough common ground to create a single volume to include them all. Instead, two volumes – one for Christians and one for Muslims – were issued in a slipcase in 2017. “Although they could not agree in terms of the content of the book, something happened within the group of religious leaders,” Nayla Tabbara, vicepresident and co-founder of the Adyan Foundation, recounts. “They became very close and started cooperating on different projects also after the launch of the textbook.” The episode illustrates one of the practices of negotiating religious differences in Lebanon that are at the centre of my postdoctoral project. This project provides an anthropological case study and critical analysis of a variety of practices commonly subsumed under the term “interreligious dialogue” that are implemented by the Adyan Foundation and other select NGOs with the purpose of promoting reconciliation and peaceful coexistence in Lebanon. Besides the Adyan Foundation, the case study considers the role of several European NGOs and funding organisations, many of which have a declaredly Christian identity. The textbook mentioned above, for example, was supported by the Danish missionary organisation Danmission. Without the support of such sponsors and partners, the outreach and range of activities of Adyan and other local NGOs would be far more limited. At the same time, it can be assumed that they have their own agendas as well as their own conceptions of dialogue and diversity. This research project looks at the ambiguity that characterises the approach of these European organisations: while they enable the work of Adyan as well as other Lebanese NGOs, they simultaneously pursue objectives which may, or may not, be based on different premises. The project investigates what constitutes the driving force behind different dialogue initiatives and participants to engage in particular activities. What concepts of dialogue inform the agendas of the organisations under scrutiny? How do they position themselves within the Lebanese discourse on sectarianism (tā’ifiyya) and coexistence (al-‘aysh al-mushtarik, al-‘aysh ma’an)?

What can be learned from their experience with regard to interreligious dialogue in general? In the above example, the Adyan Foundation’s initial approach that focused on shared values while bracketing off religious differences proved not to be fertile. The alternative solution, however, which allowed Muslims and Christians to expand on the same core values separately and from within their respective religious traditions, led to greater acceptance of religious differences, at least among those who participated in the book project.

The anthropological field research (interviews, observations) conducted at the OIB is part of a larger research project that links contemporary practices of interreligious dialogue and negotiating differences in Lebanon to theological discourse. The project therefore entails a text-based comparative study of contemporary Muslim and Christian theology in Lebanon. The envisioned outcome of this research project is a study in comparative theology that sheds light on Middle Eastern (Shiite, Sunni and Christian) theological approaches to religious diversity as well as on practical attempts to foster acceptance of diversity. These insights from Lebanon gained both through the analysis of contemporary theological sources and an anthropological case study ultimately promise an elaboration of concepts of pluralism and interreligious dialogue discussed in the West.

 

Stefan Maneval has been a Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow at the OIB from October 2017 to March 2018. He holds a PhD in Islamic Studies and an MA in Islamic Studies, Art History and Middle Eastern Archaeology from Freie Universität Berlin. His publications include articles on contemporary politics, cultural heritage and the art scene in Saudi Arabia as well as a co-edited a book on the diversity of Muslim everyday life and material culture (Muslim Matter, Berlin 2016).


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