Too often, we engage in “dialogue” because we want to change minds. We comment on Facebook, or argue at dinner, or email “fact checks” to one another because we desperately want to prove the other side wrong. But this only divides us further. Interfaith expert Tahil Sharma helps us understand that as people in the interfaith movement, our job is to take the sides of justice and equity—but our priority is to be moderators. This takes a radical shift in priority and practice for many of us, particularly in times like these.
Ways to listen to this episode:
In this episode, we discuss:
- Why operating as though the other sides needs to be convinced is a form of dehumanizing that always leads to more division
- What to do with privilege, and how to act in solidarity
- Why “unfriending” is destroying our civic spaces
- How to move past the assumption that interfaith work is a liberal endeavor
- Concrete examples of ways to engage those you disagree with for positive social outcomes
Stephanie: You’re listening to, “In Times Like These,” a production of CLU Live at Claremont Lincoln University. “In Times Like” These explores the difficult spaces we humans navigate in culture and religion, in dialogue and doubt.
What’s the difference between dialogue and debate? Look, I love being the right one. I want to win the arguments in a Facebook comment thread. I want to change the other side’s mind, but increasingly we’re learning that being more siloed in like-minded communities and demonizing the other isn’t working.
In this episode of “In Times Like These” we talk to inner faith expert Tahil Sharma. Tahil teaches us why othering never works and what we can do differently. Civic engagement means engagement and we have to start in this moment.
Tahil, we have known each other for years. I have been following your work, as everyone should be following your work on social media.
Tahil: Thank you.
Stephanie: You are an interfaith leader. So tell me about your background and how you got into this work, and what does that mean, interfaith leader?
Tahil: Well, for anyone that’s already listening, I was born into this work. I come from a Hindu and a Sikh family, so interfaith for me is literally a life-long experience. Getting exposed to those faith traditions and having the choice to explore beyond those reaches was a big part of my upbringing. And in the process of wanting to grow in those traditions, it gave me the opportunity to extend my hand to other communities and to learn about them more.
Over time, I didn’t realize how much of an impact that would have, ’cause I actually wanted to go into the medical field. But I had an epiphany in high school that I need a career change when I get to college. And during college, I experienced an epiphany about what solidarity means. After the Oak Creek shooting that took place in 2012, I had a crisis of faith and of identity as an American. Because I didn’t know that my community would be at risk from something like hate and white supremacy, and all of the bigotry that we were sort of learning about, but having to experience in such a deep way. So the epiphany to me was well, I feel selfish in that my own community was attacked. But in how we’ve learned about modern history, every community has experienced this.
So my imperative rather to fall on the back of that bigotry, that hatred, and that absence of mind from these emotional things that we feel, I wanted to step forward and say I need to stand with every community at risk. Every marginalized community needs a voice and a support system. And I want to be a part of that.
Stephanie: Okay. So solidarity to me, so my understanding is, that even though my life is safe and I’m okay, and I’m not at risk, solidarity means that I turn to people in my community who don’t have the privilege or social capital and stand with them. Literally stand with, or walk alongside with.
Tahil: Exactly. And it’s taking that privilege and those opportunities where we might be better off, and using them as platforms to be able to uplift the voice, the opportunity, and the resources for other communities.
Stephanie: Okay. So today, as we’re recording this, we’ve just gotten news about the Supreme Court decision.
Stephanie: And this is a quote unquote, “Muslim ban.” I’m a white American Christian. What does this have to do with me? What is my right and what are my roles and responsibilities? Or do I just say, “You know what? I can’t- The Supreme Court, the law of the land, what can I even do?”
Tahil: Well, I think the first thing you can do is probably learn about the history of the Muslim American experience in the United States. It’s not something that just started ever since “September 11th,” quote unquote. Islam has been in the United States since the 1600s when the first set of slaves came from Africa. And over time with our building relationship with the Middle East and North Africa, more communities came to the United States from across the world that happened to be Muslim. And in doing so, we’ve created a thriving community that is just as American as anyone else.
With that in mind, I think we need to remember that putting these people at risk, dehumanizing these communities, and making them seem as though they should feel less American or less Muslim just to be American is not acceptable. And for any person of privilege that feels like they don’t know what to do, the first thing they should do is learn about the community that they have around them. We are diverse here in the United States, and even in the most rural places you can find such diversity. And getting to know your fellow Muslim brothers and sisters is never gonna be a problem.
But you have to take it a step further and not just have dinner with them. You have to go visit them at their places of worship. You have to understand how their faith motivates them to do kind things. And most importantly, how your faith continues to humanize them in the process of fighting for justice.
Stephanie: All right, I’m so glad you brought up the notion of dehumanizing. And so many people working in education, justice, immigration, human rights, workers’ rights, healthcare, lack of healthcare. What I’m hearing is that there are many many many Americans who don’t feel like their life and livelihood is valuable. And I think one of the reasons that the rhetoric feels so dangerous is when we use terms like, “animals,” we use terms like, “infest.” We’re actually taking care with our language to say, “Some of us are fully human. And some of us are not fully human.” And we know from history that once you make that divide, in your mind and in your language and in your laws, it becomes easier to continue systems of oppression.
Tahil: Exactly. That’s exactly right. And we’ve seen that history starting off with the African slaves, to the Native American tribes, to every community that has visited the United States since the inception of the nation-state here. And we don’t begin to understand how impactful that is when you realize that our communities get banned.
This is not the first time a community has been banned from entering the United States. In the 1920s, Bhagat Singh Thind vs. The United States was the case that banned Indians from coming to the United States. You have immigrant exclusion acts that included Asian Americans. You have United States vs. Korematsu which is the inception of the internment camp situation that took place during World War II. You have a lot of these larger legislative actions that begin to put a precedent towards dehumanization. But also can begin at the microaggressions when you dissociate someone’s humanity with someone’s profanity. Someone else coming from a place of hatred, of injustice, of discrimination, of bigotry, can put everyone else at risk. It’s the same idea that Dr. King would always say. An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And that injustice doesn’t have to just be systemic. It could be community-based, it could be neighbor-based, it could be individually-based.
Stephanie: This is very difficult work. And it starts to feel overwhelming. I wonder, what is it about this idea that we don’t have enough? So I grew up in the Heartland, right? So a lot of my beloved community members, high school classmates, family members, voted for Trump. They are in places that used to be called mining towns. Places that used to be manufacturing towns. And I think there is an idea in some places in America that there isn’t enough. There aren’t enough jobs, there’s not enough day care, there’s not enough healthcare. Why can’t I buy a home, when my parents could buy a home? And I wonder why we get this myth of scarcity that then makes us turn on people and say, “No, you can’t have this.”
Tahil: Right. I think the main reason why that’s being created is because we’re confusing this idea of equality and equity. Equality is an innate given thing to every single human being. If you are alive at this very moment hearing this podcast, you are an equal individual to any of us speaking right now. And that’s different from being in a circumstance of equity, which means equal access, equal opportunity, equal resources, and equal process of stability in your life. And when you confuse those two terms, it becomes very challenging. Because if we say we’re equal, but we didn’t have equal upbringings, we didn’t have equal opportunities, and we didn’t have equal access. At a human level, we’re equal. At a humane level, we’re not equal. And that’s a very big difference.
Stephanie: Right, that’s huge. We almost- that’s a course, right? That’s a Master’s degree.
Stephanie: Is in dismantling. And that’s in every conversation I see right now. In the civic space, we talk about college admissions. We talk about housing rights. We talk about unionizing. Everything we talk about, that conversation is connected to that. Because we’re conflating the two.
Tahil: Right. And the point of equity is not to give special rights to any people, it’s to make sure that if you had a staircase to climb up to reach to the top, that everyone else has a staircase to climb up to reach to the top.
Stephanie: Right. To make visible what we tend to just ignore.
Stephanie: Okay. So why is this interfaith work? Why isn’t this racial justice work? Why isn’t this Poor People’s Campaign work? Why do we continue to call it interfaith work?
Tahil: Well, I think the main reason why, and I would actually argue with Poor People’s Campaign not being interfaith work. Because it is interfaith work.
Stephanie: Right, right! Say more about that!
Tahil: Is because the strife for equity is a moral urgency. It is something that reaches to the deepest part of our ethical understanding of this reality. And that means no matter what your world view as a religious, spiritual, philosophical, or secular world view, you still have an understanding that you want to live a stable life. You want to live a safe life. You want to share in the experience and the bounty of what this world has to offer. And to be able to achieve that, you need the support of everyone else. We live interdependently, no matter how we want to think about it. And I think to be able to use that in the most productive way possible, means extending that hand out of your reach and putting yourself in a place of discomfort. The reason why interfaith work applies to all of these different forms of justice and social justice work and human’s right work, is because interfaith work is not supposed to be kumbaya.
The point is, interfaith work is supposed to be one of the most uncomfortable situations you should be in. Because you are going to be talking to people all the time that happen to see things differently, do things differently, think things differently. And yet you have to figure out what the common ground looks like. And for The World House, that means every person is welcome, and that means every person should have the opportunity and the perspective to build a better future.
Stephanie: Being human is a messy endeavor. We are made to be in relationship, and yet our fear of diversity keeps us apart. My new book explores this paralyzing paradox. “Interfaith Grit: How Uncertainty Will Save Us,” is available now on Amazon and on our blog. It’s for all of us. Ordinary readers seeking ways to learn how to engage with difference. Interfaith grit is possible. And it can save us.
Stephanie: Okay. But this is education, right? This is the human transformation is always preceded by discomfort. And I’m so appreciative that you named that. So this is what I see on Facebook every single day. This colleague of mine just posted this. He’s writing about the Supreme Court decision. And he writes, “If you don’t believe this is a turmoil of everything this country stands for, feel free to unfriend me.” And I saw this after Trump as well. People who supported Trump, and people who didn’t support Trump, after the election they would say publicly on Facebook, “If you don’t agree with me, unfriend me now.” What does that do to the space of dialogue?
Tahil: It creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. What we understand about different governments and different institutions that have had a lot of chaos is that there was a lot of polarization that reached the point of dismantling basically everything that was created for a good reason. And in the establishment of the Trump Administration in 2017 meant that we have set a new precedent where divisiveness, vitriol, bigotry, xenophobia, a lot of these negative things have become associated with one group of people. But what we don’t understand is that those same elements can be implemented in different ways, but we can’t see it. So we can express forms of bigotry and xenophobia. We can express certain forms of racism or of discrimination towards communities that have been hating on us.
Stephanie: So I say to myself, because I’m a progressive liberal, I pat myself on the back and say, “I am so open-minded. I am so much more educated than my cousins who are being racist on Facebook. Good for me.” So [inaudible 00:14:45], but I’m forgetting that I also participate in systematic oppression.
Tahil: Right. Yes. And that’s how it becomes that self-fulfilling prophecy. If you go so much into the polarity, which obviously leads to greater division, you’re also putting more fire into the fire that already exists. Which means you’re not allowing an opportunity for dialogue. And I’ll make it very clear, dialogue doesn’t mean you’re sacrificing your values. Dialogue doesn’t mean you’re sacrificing anything you believe. The point of dialogue is to contextualize where the other person is coming from in the decisions and worldviews that they have. And if you can develop that understanding better, you’ll be able to get into that situation, to talk to that person in a more productive way. You’re not there to change their minds so much as you are to understand them.
Stephanie: But that’s hard! I want to change their minds.
Tahil: I agree.
Stephanie: But you’re saying to me Stephanie, when you enter the conversation, when you enter the comment thread with the goal of changing this person’s mind and making him or her see that the Muslim ban is wrong, I’m not entering for dialogue.
Tahil: Of course. Of course. You’re absolutely right.
Stephanie: I’m not entering for dialogue. I’m a dialogue specialist. You’re telling me that if my goal is to make them think like I think, it’s not dialogue.
Tahil: No. And that’s really hard, I understand that. But one story in particular made me change the way that I approach this. I had gone to a counter-protest for a rally that was being put together by Act For America. They were putting together what were called anti-Sharia protests. Basically saying that Sharia Law is taking over the United States Judicial System, etc, etc. The same thing that we hear all the time that’s not true. And we went as counter-protesters. There were several altercations that took places that were violent. We formed human chains anytime there was a chance for people to attack us. A guy almost sicced a German Shepard at us during these human chains. It was something I was never exposed to before.
And a lady walked across the street from the protest to our counter-protest side to troll us. She was dancing to the chants we were doing, sort of the civil rights chants and stuff. And I saw her dog. It was a lovely dog. I wanted to go pet the dog. So I walked to the lady and I just asked, “Can I pet your dog?” She would sort of like, this confusion as like, “Who the hell is asking me to pet my dog?” Says, “Yeah, sure.” So I go and pet the dog, I play with it. The organizer of the counter-protest sort of tells people to step back because it’s a tiny dog that’s becoming anxious. And I tell the lady, “You know, this dog is much better than probably most human beings, because it loves everyone.” To sort of go to your point, the lady then responds by saying, “Well, this dog has a small brain, so it can’t think for itself.” Yeah.
Tahil: And I’m like, “Oh, this is gonna be a great conversation.” So I start talking to her about what’s going on. She asks if I’m Muslim, she asks if I’m documented, she asks-
Tahil: Yeah. She asked me a bunch of different questions that are very presumptuous. And I answered them with clarity and honesty. I have nothing to hide there, so I’m like, “What am I going to hide from you?” She asked me if I ever studied about Islam or if I’ve ever studied about religions, which I kind of laughed at in my head, because I’m like, “You have no idea what I do for a living.” But she was being very adamant about, “Oh, you know after September 11th, I got to learn about Islam and how they do Sharia and this and that.” And then I’m like, “Well ma’am, I’m glad you at least started researching, but I think you also have to understand that Sharia is not a single concept. There’s the Sharia of the individual and the Sharia of the majority country, and how they can interpret rules in their own ways. And she looked at me in confusion and said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” So I explained it to her a little more that that’s how Sharia works. It’s a jurisprudence, it’s not a legal established set of rules. And she’s like, “Oh, I never came across that in my research.” And I’m like, “Well, when you search up islamisevil.org, I mean I don’t expect-” This is sarcasm in my head, everyone. Don’t ever make jokes like that. Let’s make that very clear.
Stephanie: Not dialogical. Sarcasm’s not a good tool.
Tahil: Not dialogical. Exactly. You then see that she begins to sort of put her guard down. Because her perspectives are changing, she’s understanding that I’m not there to change her mind. That I’m just there to listen to her, not give her a platform. Over time, she’s starting to ask me more questions about why I’m so hateful to the president. Which I’m like, “Ma’am, I don’t know how to tell you this, but we’re all against terrorism here. We’re all against bigotry here. But the fact that you’re still singling out these communities trying to dehumanize them is a problem.” And she’s like, “Well, I like Muslim people. I’m only against Sharia Law.” And I said, “Okay. Let’s stop this right here. I’m not going to say anything else to you. Let’s look at the side you just came from.” There were a lot of graphic things that were said on those signs. “Rape-fugees are not welcome.” “Islam is un-American.” There was a picture of the Kaaba, or the Holy Mosque in Mecca, that said, “All of this for cutting off my kabob.” “GOP Lives Matter.” All of these very negative things.
And I said, “Ma’am, I understand there’s a lot of chaos going on at these protests. But if there’s a responsibility that we each have, it’s to better our communities and make them understand how we can humanize each other. And if I can try to prevent folks like the Antifa that was there from trying to start anything, the least you can do is go back to your communities and try to change their hearts that way.”
Within the span of 45 minutes, I went from a lady who insulted a dog, to a lady who apologized to me for what she told me. And how she appreciated someone who she could have a conversation with. And she said, “I will go back, and I’m going to go talk some sense into people. God bless you. Have a nice day.”
Stephanie: So you are teaching and encouraging us, that even if we disagree with ideas and policies and laws, we can hold ourselves to not being hateful and othering in our language. And we can request from those who disagree with us to not be hateful and othering in their language.
Tahil: Right. That’s exactly right.
Stephanie: And hearing you say that, one of the things I’ve been writing about in the last, probably six months, is I think I have been smug and self-righteous during the Obama years.
Tahil: I have too. And so have many others who have found that comfort in having a president that is very socially validating. That’s very socially equitable. And when we have that shift from the Obama presidency to the Trump one, we again, check our privilege and remind ourselves that you know there’s a reason why equity and justice and human rights are fought for in every sense of the word, and not just something that inherently exist.
Stephanie: Right. Right. I think in years past, my impulse, if I had seen that woman with her signs, would be to say to myself, “What a dumb racist. She’s not worth my time.” And that’s being completely honest. And I need to come to terms with that in my heart. Because the fact that I did that again and again and again for years, separated me from members of my community who now feel like I don’t care about them.
Tahil: Right. And that was a big reason why the election had the results that it did. There was so much othering of a community for the sake of trying to include other communities, that we put ourselves in a booby trap. Because, “Oh, the people of the Midwest who do these jobs, they don’t care about us. They just want to do A, B, C, D, E.” And in reality, we have the same existence as Americans striving for the same happiness, the same liberty, and the same dignity that we all want. Who doesn’t want a well-paying job to be able to sustain a family? Who doesn’t want safety in their nation? Who doesn’t want all of these priorities to be focused on our own people? That’s completely understandable. But to other a community in the process is not the way we do as Americans.
Stephanie: Yeah. I never really thought of it until this conversation, I have still been thinking that some people other, and then we progressives try to get everyone to get along. But you’re reminding us, all of us have this tendency to do it. And we need to be aware of it all the time. So we can unclench our fists and say, “How do I engages with this person? I can’t dismiss her.”
Tahil: Yes. And to come full circle, I think it’s very important for us to remember that as being people involved in the interfaith movement, our job is to take sides with justice and equity. But our priority is to be moderators.
Stephanie: Okay. Say more about that.
Tahil: What I mean by that is a lot of the times in doing this social justice work, there’s an assumption that’s created that interfaith work is an inherently liberal thing. Because we’re at the same places where all the liberals usually are for protests. But the problem with that idea is we’re doing it for moral urgency. We’re not doing it for political strife. And when you dissociate yourself with the political side of that, that means everyone is welcome to the door of interfaith work. And I’ve experienced it where I know avidly deep Trump supporters who are involved in interfaith work in very heavy ways and very influential ways. And the fact that I associated a political bias with my interfaith work means I’m doing something terribly wrong. Because my fight is for people for ideas of equity and justice. Not to put my ideas and to impose them on other people.
Stephanie: Right. Right, right, right.
Tahil: And so the idea of moderating, or having interfaith folks be moderators, is that you should be a neutral voice for the sake of perspective, not for the sake of values.
Stephanie: Oh. Right, so my role as an interfaith leader is to help communities practice perspective taking practice. Not for me to tell them the right thing to do.
Stephanie: Or to help win people over.
Tahil: Exactly. And in that process, then bridges actually get built that are more sustainable.
Stephanie: Because in the U.S, we have always been a nation of pluralism, a nation of radically different ideas regionally, and-
Tahil: And the cognitive dissonance of that is, with all of that in mind, we have also been a nation of deep oppression. We have been a nation of deep misunderstanding, of isolationism. And of all of these things that keep us in the dilemma of our American identity, which are we? Well, we’re both. And we have to come to terms with that, but transform ourselves in a better way accordingly when we look back. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
Stephanie: Thank you so much for this conversation.
Tahil: Thank you, Stephanie.
Stephanie: You have given us- I think I need to go back and listen to this again. And re-situate myself before I go on Twitter, before I go on Facebook, I need to listen to it a third time. Because you’re really giving us a model for entering places of political dissonance and civic dissonance, and being able to stay there. ‘Cause my goal isn’t to change either side’s mind. My goal is to help hold it together.
Tahil: Right. Right. Exactly right. And yeah, especially when it comes to social media, as someone that has to be on it all the bloody time, take a breath before you start typing. Really read through everything that’s being written. Again, understand as much as you can where those people are coming from, and instead of engaging just to win an argument, actually have a conversation with the person. I’m not saying it’s a fool-proof way of making the situation better. But it’s better than all of the options that we’ve tried so far. And in a time when we have a lot of this chaos and moral urgency, we need to fight for what’s right.
Stephanie: And what’s right is to listen.
Stephanie: You’re listening to “In Times Like These,” a production of CLU Live at Claremont Lincoln University. “In Times Like These” explores the difficult spaces we humans navigate in culture and religion, in dialogue and doubt.
Thanks for listening to “In Times Like These,” where we explore issues of politics and faith, and learn from one another how to navigate difference for maximum flourishing. “In Times Like These” is a product of CLU Live at Claremont Lincoln University. For more, subscribe, share, and visit us at claremontlincoln.edu.
Top 3 takeaways from this week’s episode:
- “Interfaith work is not supposed to be kumbayah.”
Interfaith work is a matter of life and death. It’s urgent. Our civic space feels polarizing and dangerous, and religious and ethical leaders have work to do. We should be a neutral voice for the sake of perspective, not for the sake of values. The point is not to “get along,” but to learn to take another’s perspective, and see what is driving their decisions and actions.Interfaith work is not supposed to be kumbayah.” Listen now: Click To Tweet
2. “If my goal is to make them think like I think, that’s not dialogue”
Even on issues as urgent and divisive as immigration, abortion rights, separating families, and gay marriage—any time we seek to make others see our point of view, we are failing at dialogue. In the current media and social media cycles, we have grown accustomed to trying to convince others that they are wrong. As we continue like this, we lose our ability to practice dialogue, and grow further apart.If my goal is to make them think like I think, that’s not dialogue. Listen now: Click To Tweet
3. “My goal isn’t to change either side’s mind, my goal is to hold it together.”
The great American experiment is the opportunity to live in varied spaces and have equal rights, no matter our beliefs or practices. We have always lived in a tension between living in this “more perfect union” and sometimes allowing our differences to destroy us. If we understand interfaith leadership to be leadership that builds bridges and grows strong communities, then we have to spend more time working to maintain strong connections with others, and less on “convincing.”My goal isn’t to change either side’s mind, my goal is to hold it together. Listen now: Click To Tweet
Mentioned on the episode:
- The mass shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wisconsin_Sikh_temple_shooting
- The US Supreme Court ruling upholding Trump’s travel ban”: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/26/us/politics/supreme-court-trump-travel-ban.html
- Accurate information on understanding Sharia: http://www.mpvusa.org/sharia-law/
Stuff Tahil’s been up to
Secretary, Board Member | Southern California Committee for the Parliament of the World’s Religions
Interfaith Minister In Residence| Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles
Religious Director, Office of Religious Life | University of Southern California
Los Angeles Coordinator | Sadhana: Progressive Coalition of Hindus
Member, NextGen Task Force | Parliament of the World’s Religions
How to connect with us:
Facebook: Tahil Sharma; @interfaithman
You can connect with me on Twitter here: @SVarnonHughes.
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About the Podcast
In Times Like These explores the difficult spaces we humans navigate in culture and religion, in dialogue and doubt. We talk to voices from the field, in law, activism, civil rights, and from places of struggle and places of deep learning. In Times Like These, we unpack the most troubling issues of politics and faith we face, together.
In Times Like These is hosted by Dr. Stephanie Varnon-Hughes and is a CLU Live production by Claremont Lincoln University.
Claremont Lincoln University offers a social entrepreneurship master’s degree program called Social Impact.