Christian-Muslim dialogue needs a foundation in everyday friendship, French Dominican says

People in Strasbourg, France, hold placards reading “Catholics, muslims, jews all are Charlie” during a unity rally on Jan. 11, 2015 following a mass shooting by Muslim terrorists at the offices of the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris. / Shutterstock

Denver Newsroom, Nov 26, 2021 / 00:00 am (CNA).

Progress in Christian-Muslim dialogue ultimately must come from Catholics and others who deliberately make efforts to befriend and understand Muslims, said the French-born Father Jean Druel, O.P. 

Druel, the longtime head of a Cairo-based Dominican institute on Islam in the Arab world stresses the need to have friendships, study and self-understanding that crosses religious lines.

“Maybe I’m very naïve but I’m a scholar in the end. I believe that intelligence and studying and reason, rationality, is the best weapon against stupidity, against violence,” Druel told CNA.

“Once you know why the other person says this, once you know why you say this, where this and that rule comes from, you get more freedom,” he said. “Freedom is the opposite of fear. If you know it, you gain freedom, you lose your fear, and you begin to engage with your own tradition freely, with a free mind.”

Druel is originally from the countryside of the Anjou region in western France. As a Dominican brother, he was sent to Cairo in 1994 for his two years of military service. He returned to Egypt in 2002 and specialized in Islamic studies, especially the Arabic language. He received a doctorate in Arabic grammar in 2012 from the Netherlands’ University of Nijmegen.

From an Islamic perspective, Druel noted, Arabic is a theological topic that belongs to religious studies. From 2014 to 2020, the priest served as the director of the Cairo-based Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies. The institute, also called by its French acronym IDEO, studies Arab Islam and cultivates academic and interreligious dialogue.

“There are a lot of misunderstandings about what dialogue is, with lots of very, very high expectations from everybody. There is a lot of frustration because of those very high expectations and misunderstandings,” he said.

In Druel’s view, high-level meetings between popes, other churchmen, and leading Muslim clergy are significant in importance, but only in a symbolic or diplomatic sense. For him, the basis for progress must include more Christians who actively seek out Muslims as friends and collaborators.

“You can never talk together, work together, if you’re not friends. That’s very basic,” he said. “If you put a Christian and Muslim in a room who don’t know another and you ask them to talk, nothing would happen.”

“If you don’t have a Muslim friend, you can talk about Islam for hours and hours but it does nothing. It’s a theoretical question. It’s absolutely pointless,” said the priest.

When Druel teaches a classroom of Christians, he sometimes deflects questions about Islam back on his students.

“You should ask your Muslim friends,” he likes to answer. “This results in silence, because no one has Muslim friends.”

“The day every Christian has a real Muslim friend, and the day every single Muslim has a real Christian friend, will be a big step forward,” said Druel.

“Usually people would wait for the pope to meet with an imam, but don’t do anything on their own level,” he said. “You can complain over and over that Christians are being persecuted in Pakistan. OK, but what are you doing with your neighbors? Are you visiting a mosque?” he asked.

Father Jean Druel (second from left) says friendship is the best foundation for inter-religious dialogue. Courtesy of Father Jean Druel
Father Jean Druel (second from left) says friendship is the best foundation for inter-religious dialogue. Courtesy of Father Jean Druel

‘Do you think we are like that?’

For Druel, one of his most moving experiences with Muslims came in the wake of the horrific atrocities of the Islamic State group in Iraq, Syria, and other countries in the mid-2010s. Students from Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, one of the most prominent in the Muslim world, came to him and the other Dominicans of his community to ask their thoughts about ordinary Muslims and Muslim extremists.

“They came out and talked to us,” he recounted. They asked questions such as “Do you see us like that? Do you think we are like that?”

Another question they asked, he said, was this: “How do you do it? How can you at the same time be so religious, priests and monks, and so open-minded at the same time, and liberal?”

“For them it was a contradiction,” Drool said. “What they see in the media about Islam, just like everybody does, is you have to choose between jihad and atheism. And they said ‘we refuse to choose between the Islamic state and atheism. We want to be faithful Muslims and open-minded.’”

Druel’s advice for them? To study, to engage with religious traditions, texts, and interpretations, and to deepen one’s religion beyond the level of mere “identity.”

“Once you enter into this discussion, you become part of the discussion. You’re not at an identity level anymore. You gain some freedom and some empowerment in the discussion itself,” he said.

Christians, too, could follow this advice to get past the false dichotomies of their societies, Druel believes.

Pope Francis and Ahmed el-Tayeb, grand imam of al-Azhar, sign a joint declaration on human fraternity during an interreligious meeting in Abu Dhabi, UAE, Feb. 4, 2019. .  Vatican Media.
Pope Francis and Ahmed el-Tayeb, grand imam of al-Azhar, sign a joint declaration on human fraternity during an interreligious meeting in Abu Dhabi, UAE, Feb. 4, 2019. . Vatican Media.

Druel has his own analysis of prominent Christian-Muslim dialogue, such as when the pope meets a high-level Muslim leader, or a priest and an imam take pictures together, or a Christian woman and a Muslim woman appear on stage for a joint talk.

“This is very much symbolic. To be honest, there is no content. You can’t expect any content from these meetings,” he said. “For many people it’s the only thing they see of inter-religious dialogue, and they don’t understand why there is no progress, because that’s not the point.”

Pope Francis’ own recent collaboration with Muslims includes the February 2019 joint signing of a document on human fraternity, world peace, and coexistence with Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar. The grand imam heads the mosque linked to the university of the same name and is considered a major leader of Sunni Islam.

Such encounters are “diplomatic,” in Druel’s view.

“When the pope and Sheik el-Tayeb sign a document in common, the biggest thing they can say is ‘we are brothers,’” he said.

“We have not waited until 2019 to discover that we are brothers,” Druel said. While people can find this frustrating because they have such high expectations, these meetings are nonetheless very important.

“It is great progress in itself that most Christian and Muslim leaders are willing to meet,” Druel said. “This level of dialogue is extremely important, extremely needed. But it only brings symbolic results. If you don’t accept this you feel extremely frustrated.”

Scholarly interaction also key

For Druel, academic dialogue between Christian and Muslim scholars is “an extremely important part of interreligious dialogue.” This dialogue is not very visible, but these scholars deal with specific topics and benefit from not needing to serve as representatives of their religion. This work is “extremely rich in terms of content,” but “invisible,” he noted.

These efforts aim to reach agreement on definitions and history. They seek to answer questions like “Can we describe together the same events? Can we talk, on an academic level, about the history of the Quran and the history of Mohammed?”

Druel lamented that some academics, especially in France, show “a very anti-religious tendency” and have reservations about religious or theological studies. Only private French universities have theology departments. The German academic situation is somewhat better, where some academies have Christian or Muslim specialties.

Another way to think about Christian-Muslim dialogue is how to undertake common endeavors such as Druel’s institute, which employs people of both religions.

“We have to run a library. We have to publish a journal,” he said. “We don’t talk of religion, because nobody is a specialist. It would be dangerous to deal with religious topics. But we have actions in common. We learn about one another through doing things.”

He referred to the young adult association in France called Coexister, dedicated to bringing Jews, Muslims, Christians, and atheists to take community action together. One of its principles is not to talk about religion.

“It seems paradoxical: They do things like help the poor, distribute food in the streets, talk about citizenship, you’d expect them to talk about religion,” said Druel.

Similarly, the Dominican institute’s Christian and Muslim employees never talk religion because, in Druel’s words, “they do not have the tools, the epistemology, the experience, and knowledge to deal with this topic peacefully.”

“Any discussions would devolve into sentiments like ‘we are right, you are wrong’,” he said.

Nonetheless, their collaboration helps Christians and Muslims get to know one another.

“We go to their festivities, they come to ours,” said the priest.

From his work, Druel has learned of the need to hire both Christians and Muslims, through practicing what he called “positive discrimination,” roughly equivalent to what Americans know as affirmative action. This practice is against his first instincts.

“As a Frenchman I’m very much against it,” he said, but in the context of Egypt “one would end up in a ghetto very quick” without being intentional about seeking out religiously diverse employees. If the center only asked its Christian employees for recommended candidates for a cook or a gatekeeper position, they would only recommend other Christians.

He suggested Christians can think about this in seeking to rent an apartment to someone.

“Are you expressly going to look for a Muslim or are you going to spontaneously rent to a Christian guy?” he asked.

“How willing am I to rent my flat to a Muslim family? How willing am I to hire a Muslim employee?” he asked, adding, “Muslims should ask themselves the same about Christians.”

He suggested that those who read his remarks to CNA introduce themselves to Muslim neighbors or seek out Muslims to befriend. They should go to a mosque themselves.

“But if they are not willing to do this, then there is no point in talking about Christian-Muslim dialogue, and criticizing it. There is no point, at all,” he said. “This is a very realistic expectation, very easy to do, and it’s very rewarding. You can’t be disappointed. You will have an experience, I promise.”

Marriage between Christians and Muslims is also an area for inter-religious dialogue, and a large focus of Catholic-Muslim dialogue in France.

“Interreligious marriage is beautiful and very rich and amazing, until you have children,” the priest said. “Then when you have children it explodes. Because you have to transmit something, you have to transmit your values.

“This is where most marriages would just explode, when children come,” he said. “Are they going to be Christian? Are they going to be Muslim?” 

People should not reject a friend or family member’s fiancée for being Muslim, but they should be realistic with the engaged couple about the difficulties of religious differences about their children’s future, Druel advised. These engaged couples should know that “most of these marriages fail because of the children,” he said.

The priest warned against a “rather fake” concept of Christian-Muslim interaction, as when people claim to know about Islam because they live in an apartment or a neighborhood with Muslim neighbors.

“But you don’t talk to them. And then you draw conclusions,” he said. Whether Christians live in predominant Muslim countries or in predominantly Muslim suburbs of French cities, many claim to know Muslims and Islam and “believe they are specialists” but “they have no Muslim friends, they have never been to a mosque, they never talk to Muslims or work with them.”

Secularism and ignorance can be a barrier, too, according to Druel.

“In France we have a problem with religion, not with Islam. Because people are so ignorant of their own religion — Christians and Muslims alike, and atheists, too. There is an illiteracy about religion.”

He continued: “Everything becomes ‘identity.’ You have to dress as a Muslim, or as a Christian; it’s nothing related to faith, or understanding, or intention. People fight over crosses in school rooms or halal meat at school just for the sake of identity.”

Druel reiterated that simply visiting with Muslims is the best way to overcome obstacles and misunderstanding.

“I’ve been to mosques every week for years. I’ve been taking non-Muslim friends to mosques. They’ve been frightened, worrying that something will happen, but nothing happens,” he said. “We’ve always received very positive reactions.”

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