The interreligious dialogue between East and West after Postcolonialism

The following reflections attempt to demonstrate the complexity of the encounter of the religious traditions of the West and the East in relation to the postcolonial thought and the critique of Orientalism. It proposes to explore if post-colonial interreligious dialogue is possible. If so, what are the conditions for such a meeting?

The relationship between West and East was established on Western colonial power that subjugated the East. Therefore, it is necessary to understand the inequalities involved in this encounter and therefore, we resort to the thoughts and contributions of  Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, Edward Said, Stuart Hall, Richard King on this subject. This relation is marked by colonial exploitation and expropriation together with an intellectual and cultural enrichment that has influenced and subverted Western knowledge. However, the East side of the World is “perceived as the inferior complement to the West, its opposite ‘other’, the bearer of negative qualities whereby the West’s own superiority is by contrast underscored and its rule legitimized” (CLARKE, 2003, p.6).

Stuart Hall, an important thinker in cultural studies, asked in his book ‘Formations of Modernity’ (1992): “Where and what is ‘the West’?” Is it about geographic locations? Is it about the place? To understand what means ‘West’ Hall said that:

The West’ is a historical, l not a geographical, construct. By ‘western’ we mean the type of society discussed in this series: a society that is developed, industrialized, urbanized, capitalist, secular, and modern. Such societies arose at a particular historical period – roughly, during the sixteenth century, after the Middle Ages and the break-up of feudalism. They were the result of a specific set of historical processes- economic, political, social and cultural. Nowadays, any society, wherever it exists on a geographical map, which shares these characteristics, can be said to belong to ‘the West’. The meaning of this term is therefore virtually identical to that of the word ‘modern’. (HALL, 1992, p. 277)

Hall says that ‘the West’ is a concept that functions in the following points: i) it is a tool to allow us to classify and characterize societies. It’s a structure of thought and knowledge that works in binary oppositions, with negation of the ‘other’: ‘western’, ‘non-western’; ii) it’s a system that established an image – verbal and visual – of how is the ‘other’ (as a culture, society, people, and place) looks like. Hall gave an example as: ‘western’ is urban, developed, technology while ‘non-western’ is non-industrial, rural, agricultural, under-developed. It’s a system of representation; iii) It serves as a model compared to what extent different societies are similar or different; iv) It provides a criterion of evaluation, ranked the good and bad. For example: ‘the West’ is developed, so it is good and desirable; ‘non-West’ is under-developed so it is bad and undesirable. Hall said that it functions as an ideology (HALL, 1992, p. 277)

This is why it is important for the approach of postcolonialism to identify the differentials present in society in general and in its interreligious relations. Postcolonialism is a conceptual perspective that seeks to analyze how certain places and people are constructed as subaltern ones in relation to those that are considered superior and developed. Robert Young says that “postcolonialism offers a language of and for those who have no place, who seem not to belong, of those whose knowledges and histories are not allowed to count” (2009, p. 12). This dominant relationship between West and East affects how these non-Western people and their worlds are viewed and understood YOUNG, 2003, p.2).

Muthuraj Swamy highlighted two important aspects that concern the postcolonial approach: knowledge and power. These two tools were used as “foundation for the imperial authority over people in colonies” (SWAMY, 2017, p.80).  This relationship between power and knowledge was explored by Michel Foucault and he concluded that exercises of the power build knowledge and reality: “In fact power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth” (FOUCAULT, 1991, p. 194). The production of knowledge through language is made by a discourse. And any discourse produces a practice: “’discursive practice’¬ the practice of producing meaning. Since all social practices entail meaning, all practices have a discursive aspect. So, discourse enters into and influences all social practices.” (HALL, 1992, p. 291).

Knowledge, discourse and power are very connected with colonialism. Knowing the ‘other’ was a way of domination, the way that made the colonized knowing themselves as subordinate to Europe. “This knowledge which was produced by Westerners about the colonized territories is the primary factor that is being evaluated and critiqued in postcolonialism, because of its association with power and imperialism” (SWAMY, 2017, p. 80). For Hall, Foucault would say that the discourse or knowledge of “the West about the Rest” is deeply implicated in practice in how the West deals and behave towards the Rest (HALL, 1992, p. 291).


Before to start our discussion about interreligious dialogue and West and East encounter is important to understand the story about the studies of the East, that is called Orientalism. However, what is Orientalism? The first point to highlight is that Orientalism doesn’t have only one meaning. “To be sure orientalism does not constitute a fixed, simple, or unified subject, and it does not manifest the self-conscious […] is not an isolated phenomenon, a closed monolith, but will be shown to be bound up with and to intertwine with a number of other, wider intellectual and historical processes. (CLARKE, 2003, p. 9-11).

Different scholars have different views about the origin of Orientalism. Some scholars think that maybe started in Ancient Greece, others in decrees of Council of Vienne (1311-12), others in Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt (1798), and more recently, others think that the rise of Orientalism started with the European Imperialism (IRWIN, 2007, p. 9).  This paper will focus on the modern concept of Orientalism and its relations with religion. “The role of colonialism (and generally of economic and political interests) in the birth of Orientalism dwindles to insignificance compared to the role of religion” (APP, 2010, p. xii).

The premodern academic Orientalism had its origin in Biblical studies. Edward Said wrote in his book ‘Orientalism’ (1979) that in the eighteenth century what impulses the studies of the Orient were the revolution in Biblical studies (1979, p. 17). The study of biblical languages as Hebrew and ever other Bible-related languages (Aramaic, Syriac, Arabic, Persian). “Until the mid-eighteenth-century Orientalists were Biblical scholars, students of the Semitic languages, Islamic specialists” (SAID, 1979, p. 51). So, the modern form of Orientalism is the successor for this premodern orientalism that was involved with the study of languages and texts.

Such premodern academic Orientalism was generally a handmaiden of Bible studies and theology—which explains its almost exclusive focus on regions, languages, and religions that play a role in the Old and New Testaments. Studies of Oriental texts and languages beyond the ‘‘biblical’’ region usually—though not exclusively—occurred in the context of Christian missions (APP, 2010, p. xii)

The most famous book about Orientalism was written by Edward Said. The central point of his book is that the Orient was constructed by the West, the Orient that appears in Orientalism “is a system of representations framed by a whole set of forces that brought the Orient into Western learning, Western consciousness, and later, Western empire” (1979, p. 203). Said believed that the only purpose was to “reinforce and justify Western power over the Orient” (CLARKE, 2003, p.9).  In Said’s theory about Orientalism, three points must be highlighted: i) For Said, Orientalist is “‘anyone who teaches, writes about, or researches the Orient – and this applies whether the person is an anthropologist, sociologist, historian or philologist” (SAID, 1979, p. 2); ii) “Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between “the Orient” and (most of the time) “the Occident” (SAID, 1979, p. 2); iii) “Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient” (SAID, 1979, p. 3)

For Said, all three elements in the Orientalist equation are interrelated, though he never really clarifies the nature of their relationship. Thus his work points to the complicity between Western academic accounts of the nature of ‘the Orient’ and the hegemonic political agenda of Western imperialism. Indeed such has been the influence of Said’s work in this area that the term ‘Orientalism’ is often now used as a pejorative term denoting the colonial manipulation of the Orient in general. (KING, 2001, p. 83)

The Said’s work opened the discussion about this relationship between West and East (focus in Middle-East), it was translated into more than thirty languages, although many critics of his work argue that Said reduced the complexity of Orientalism to one monolithic agenda. For J.J. Clarke, Orientalism has both sides, dark and light, so, for Clarke:

Orientalism, I shall argue, cannot simply be identified with the ruling imperialist ideology, for in the Western context it represents a counter-movement, a subversive entelechy, albeit not a unified or consciously organized one, which in various ways has often tended to subvert rather than to confirm the discursive structures of imperial power (CLARKE, 2003, p. 9)

For example, Urs App in his book “The Birth of Orientalism” (2010) said that the “This new or ‘‘modern’’ Orientalism was prepared by a growing interest in India as the cradle of civilization, an interest that was promoted by Voltaire in his quest to denigrate the Bible and destabilize Christianity” (APP, 2010, p. xii). With the discoverer of new places and new sacred texts, after the discovery of America and the opening of the sea route to India, the authority of the Bible faced new challenges.

It was difficult to establish a connection between hitherto unknown people and animals and Noah’s ark. But an equally tough nut to crack was the Chinese annals which in the seventeenth century caused much consternation as claims were published that they might be as old as, or even older than, Noah’s flood (APP, 2010, p. 3)

There are ambivalences in Said’s works that must be a review. King appointed that Said avoided “problems related to his own position by refusing to outline an alternative conception of the Orient, yet it is clear from his own humanistic and cosmopolitan value system that he does have a position” (KING, 2001, p. 85). Inspired by Aijaz Ahmed, King said that “Said’s half-hearted Foucauldian analysis is destructive of old regimes rather than constructive of new ones” (KING, 2001, p. 85; AHMAD, 2000, P. 146).

Some scholars have suggested that Said’s works emphasized too much on the passivity of the colonized and didn’t discuss the strategies of East people used to create their own positive responses and image using Orientalist conceptions.  King gave some examples of this resistance: i) Homi Bhabha’s concept of ‘hybridity’, that shows that colonial discourses are ambivalent and not susceptible to monolithic agenda. “For Bhabha the master discourse is appropriated by the native whose agency reflects cultural resistance in the form of the mimicry and parody of colonial authority” (KING, 2001, p. 86); ii) “Sikh reformers in the 1920s accepted Orientalist stereotypes of the Sikh, and yet used them to create a mass  movement in opposition to British colonialism” (KING, 2001, p. 86); iii) Hindu reformers used the Orientalist presuppositions about Hindu ‘spirituality, names such as “Rammohun Roy, Dayananda Saraswati, Swami Vivekananda and Mohandas K. Gandhi in the development of an anti-colonial Hindu nationalism” (KING, 2001, p. 86).

Likewise, Said didn’t work upon the subject what Clifford calls a ‘sympathetic, nonreductive Orientalist tradition’. “Richard Fox refers to this strand as ‘affirmative Orientalism’ and has in mind such Western apologists for Indian culture as the Theosophist Annie Besant, Hindu convert Sister Nivedita, an apostle of non-violence Leo Tolstoy” (KING, 2001, p. 86).

Orientalism is a complex and ambivalent field of study. Orientalism can dominate as much as subvert.”

It is this ambivalence that makes the boundaries of colonial “positionality” – the division of self/other-and the question of colonial power the differentiation of colonizer/colonized-different from both the Hegelian master/slave dialectic or the phenomenological projection of Otherness (BHABHA, 1985, p. 149)

Religion as a construction of the West: the mystical East

Post-colonialism challenged the Western forms of knowledge and power by proposing new alternatives that can disestablish the center. The West reduced and interpreted the East with their own colonized lenses. One of these lenses was the notion of religion developed by the Christian West society, that was shaped by the European Enlightenment (SWAMY, 2017, p. 81).

 Muthuraj Swamy researched the Indian context and process of religion and colonialism, trying to understand the nuances involved in the notion of religion(s) and fixed religious identity and deconstructs these notions. There are two dimensions in this field that are important: i) the idea of ‘religion’ is rooted in the Christian West which was developed in the Hellenist context. Then, when someone says Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, is basically a Western Christian idea of ‘religion’; ii) “construction of religion as a separate system or unity in society” (SWAMY, 2017, p. 81). This notion came with the European Enlightenment when religion became separate of political issues. For Swamy, this notion of religion is “a modern myth created during the European Enlightenment” (2017, P. 81).

Richard King, S.N. Balagangadhara, Muthuraj Swamy and others show that the concept of religion changed after Christianity. For Cicero, the Roman philosopher of two millennia ago, the understanding of religion was to follow the rituals of one’s ancestors and was considered as superstitious.

“If religio is primarily about continuing the tradition of one’s ancestors, the term clearly denotes an inherently pluralistic context. There can never be one religio since there are a variety of different social and ethnic groups with traditions and histories of their own” (KING, 2001, p. 36). Balagangadhara believed that: “Tolerance of different traditions, ‘respect’ for tradition demonstrated actually by practicing the tradition of the other where and when necessary, appear to characterize the Roman religio” (1994, p. 36).

 The concept of religion started to change in early Christianity with Lactantius, theologian who lived in the third century, who disagreed with Cicero and said that “religio is a worship of the true; superstition of the false […] religion is taken from the bond of piety […] they are superstitious who worship many and false gods; but we, who supplicated the one true God, are religious” (LACTANTIUS in BALAGANGADHARA, 1994, p. 242). For King, this Christian transformation of religio

functioned not only to capture authority for Christians in Roman society but also to exclude certain groups from equal consideration. Those who did not bow down to the Almighty and Supreme Deity, worshipping other gods, were now ‘alterized’ as pagan (paganus: ‘village idiot’) and superstitious. The redefining of religio also served to establish the monotheistic exclusivism of Christianity as the normative paradigm for understanding what a religion is. (KING, 2001, p. 36)

This changing of paradigm became strong when Christianity received recognition and support of the state in the time of Constantin Empire. And “served to establish the monotheistic exclusivism of Christianity as the normative paradigm for understanding what religion is” (KING, 2001, p. 37). This understanding of religion in the lines of false-true “has largely been a result of the influence of Western Christianity through colonialism” (SWAMY, 2017, p. 83)

Another important point in this construction of the Western notion of religion was during the European Enlightenment when the modern myth of separation of religious-secular was created. Some aspects of Western culture orientated the modern notion of religion in academic field: i) literary bias – the importance of the text and the individual approach that the Reformation brought to that time; ii) development of science and of the rational thought; iii) the rise of humanism and the secularism – broken with tradition – “of religious studies as a separate, secular discipline, distinguishable from theology” (KING, 2001, p. 43); iv) eurocentrism.

The Western concept of religion became a powerful category between non-European world through colonialism and the forms of Western knowledge. The Orientalists applied their western frameworks (which they thought were superior) to understand and categorize the colonized. The Western religion framework helped the colonizer to apply their notion of religion to the cultures and traditions in colonies (SWAMY, 2017, p. 86).

Swamy observed that the major aspects in the Orientalist discourse is that Western knowledge is superior, more rational, scientific and objective, while Eastern knowledge is considered irrational, superstitious, unscientific, subjective, mystical. “The denial of rationality to the Other has been a common strategy in subordinating the Other throughout human history and is by no stretch of the imagination simply a Western phenomenon” (KING, 2001, p. 26) East is seen “as the negative complement of the West, a passive inferior consort to the controlling masculine West, a culture characterized by emotional, feminine weakness, contrasted with the rational, male strength of its Western other” (CLARKE, 2003, p. 4). If the East is seen as mystical, so it is seen as irrational (or non-rational). “‘The mystical’ becomes constructed as that which is directly opposed to rational thought. In fact, as we have seen, for Kant ‘the mystical’ is the death of philosophy” (KING, 2001, p. 32) For Homi Bhabha this kind of stereotype is a tool in the colonizing process:

The stereotype, then, as the primary point of subjectification in colonial discourse, for both colonizer and colonized, is the scene of similar fantasy and defence – the desire for an originality which is again threatened by the differences of race, colour or culture […] The stereotype is not a simplification because it is a false representation of a given reality.  It is a simplification because it is arrested, fixated form of representation that, in denying the play of difference (which the negation through the Other permits), constitutes a problem for the representation of the subject in significations of psychic and social relations (BHABHA, 1994, P. 75)

This essentialism about the East as female, intuitive, and the West male, rational, created the Romantic message of the ‘marriage of East and West’, this archetypal of mutually and complementary opposites way of life must be in balance, like a mystical marriage. (CLARKE, 2003, p. 4).  Grace Jantzen makes an observation about the history of Mysticism,

when philosophers and theologians make reference to mysticism as monism they also frequently refer to the sexual imagery used by mystics to describe the union of God and the soul; and take this sexual imagery to imply the complete loss of self, the submergence of the soul in God … When this interpretation … is coupled with the fact that the soul is always spoken of as feminine and God as masculine, it is hard to resist the idea that theologians and philosophers, predominantly male, have seen sexuality precisely in terms of the submergence of the female, her loss of name and self and any power of her own as a consequence of her union with the male. Is it possible that the consistent identification of mysticism with monism, and the persistent failure to read the mystics properly, is because taking them seriously would radically undermine patriarchal ideas of sexuality and power? (1990, p. 166)

This stereotype that Western colonizer, theologians, missionaries, scholars gave to East makes the power relation clear.  The patriarchal thoughts are embodied in this stereotype of the East because there is also a stereotype of the women-female: irrational, intuitive, weak, passive. “Such is, I believe, the moment of colonial discourse. It is a form of discourse crucial to the binding of a range of differences and discriminations that inform the discursive and political practices of racial and cultural hierarchization” (BHABHA, 1994, p. 66). The West – in all spheres of society – was patriarchal at that time, and it still is. That’s why it is also important to re-thinking gender stereotype with a postcolonial approach.

Within the effaced itinerary of the subaltern subject, the track of sexual difference is doubly affected. The question is not of female participation in insurgency, or the ground rules of the sexual division of labor, for both of which there is ‘evidence.’ It is, rather, that, both as object of colonialist historiography and as subject of insurgency, the ideological construction of gender keeps the male dominant. If, in the context of colonial production, the subaltern has no history and cannot speak, the subaltern as female is even more deeply in shadow… (SPIVAK, 1988, p. 28)

Names such as Gayatri Spivak and Kwok Pui-Lan help us to deconstruct the Western feminist theory and a Western Christian and patriarchal theology. Gender and imperialism are interconnectedness, imperialism produces the subordination and domination of women.

The challenged of interreligious dialogue

Dr. Gladson Jathanna opened his lecture in March 2018 at the Henry Martyn Institute about “Margins, marginality and inter-religious dialogue” with the following sentence: “Inter-religious dialogue is a discourse of the center”. It’s impossible to ignore the Christian privilege in the issues of interreligious dialogue. Inspired by McIntosh theory, Jason E. Nelson defines privilege as:

The privilege may be an active mindset of intentional devaluation of other worldviews, but it exists most perniciously as a sort of inertia of perceptions, most often analogized as the water within which a fish swims, the fish being unaware that the water is even there because of its very omnipresence. It consists of unquestioned assumptions and unasked questions, of things that ‘everyone knows’ and upon which ‘everyone’ is presumed to agree (2010, p. 38)

The History of Interreligious dialogue, as an institutional dialogue, is part of the History of Christian Theology. Some scholars said that the “birth of formal interreligious dialogue worldwide” was the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893. After this experience, the development of interreligious dialogue pass by the Christian Ecumenical Movement, World Council of Churches, Vatican Council II (SWIDLER, 2013, p. 4). [1]As Swamy wrote: “discussing the history of dialogue is a herculean task, given a large amount of literature on in involving many trends, perspectives and people” (2017, p. 35). Is not the aim of this article to get deep in the History of Interreligious Dialogue, but it’s important to point out the influence of Christian Theology in the categories of Interreligious dialogue, as the three models of the theology of religion: Exclusivism, Inclusivism, or Pluralism (Knitter, 2002).

The concept of religion was established by Western knowledge, as was worked in the previous chapter, this modern meaning of religion(s) influenced the interreligious relations. In this chapter we intend to work in two points in interreligious dialogue in the context of Empire: i) interreligious dialogue as an elite table; ii) fixed identities and postcolonialism. These two points are interconnected and we intend to open the discussion and ask new questions.

The first point is: Who deserves the sit at the interreligious table? The “commitment condition” in interreligious dialogue seems blur: who is the best representative of the religion? The leadership? The theologians? The people of the cloth? Catherine Cornille wrote in her book “The Im-Possibility of Interreligious Dialogue” about five conditions: humility as openness, commitment as identity, interconnection, empathy, and hospitality.

The second condition for inter-religious dialogue is commitment to a particular religious tradition. It is such commitment which distinguishes dialogue between religions from a purely personal exploration of the teachings of different religious traditions for spiritual enrichment. Whereas the latter form of engagement is guided purely by personal taste and judgment, the former involves a sense of representing a particular tradition, being accountable to that tradition and submitting one’s judgment to that of a larger whole. Speaking from and for a particular religion plays an important role, both for the partner in dialogue and for the religion itself. For the partner, it offers a sense of confidence that one is not only engaging personal opinion, but rather a whole tradition of reflection on important religious question (CORNILLE, 2013, p.23)

My questions are: which tradition? In Christianity alone, it is possible to find many traditions that are under its umbrella. In a formal event, what kind of Christian believer should I invite for the table? How can we define the meaning of “the whole tradition” because in one religion, it is possible to find many traditions? “There are usually internal differences in beliefs, doctrines, and attitudes within each world religion, for each has its cultures, sects, and denominations, with unique traditions and beliefs which do not always conform to generic or elite orthodoxy” (SWAMY, 2017, p. 104).

Homi Bhabha, identities no longer exist in negations and singularities, but in negotiations. According to the author, identities are no longer constructed in difference/negation, but in the negotiation/articulation of these cultural-social-religious-gender-differences. It is within these borders that identity is formed, in these cultural interstices become the places of exchange, of negotiation. It is from the relation between cultural difference that there is the possibility of this cultural interaction. “Here, negotiation is sought instead of establishing paths of denial and cultural exclusion among oppositional elements. In this sense, translation/negotiation can be creative, in an interpellator and creative relationship at cultural borders” (SOUZA, 2013, p. 12)

All humans’ beings are in constant negotiation, so, we have the negotiation in the same traditions, as Swamy pointed of the different beliefs and doctrines in the same traditions. In the Christian tradition we can highlight: liberation theologies (Latin-American liberation theology, Dalit theology, minjung theology, etc.), black theology, feminist and gender theologies (black feminist theology, Asian feminist theology, queer theology, Mujerista theology etc.); and so, goes on. That’s why we should re-think the formal interreligious dialogue, because as a religious person we have multiples identities that are in the endless negotiation, and sometimes can be even contradictory.

The subject assumes different identities at different times, identities which are not unified around a coherent “self.” Within us are contradictory identities. pulling in different directions, so that our identifications are continuously being shifted about. If we feel we have a unified identity from birth to death, it is only because we construct a comforting story or “narrative of the self” about ourselves (HALL; DU GAY, 1996, p. 596)

Kwok Pui-Lan, Chinese theologian, in her book “Globalization, Gender, and Peacebuilding: The Future of Interfaith Dialogue” said that the interfaith dialogue is a better concept than interreligious dialogue. Interreligious dialogue is a dialogue between Christianity and other religions, but Interfaith dialogue is a meeting between people living in a living faith. “The interfaith dialogue would benefit from the insights of postcolonial studies, which question how the self and the other, the center and the periphery, the cultural dominator and the marginalized have been constructed” (PUI-LAN, 2012). Not only religious leaders can dialogue about their faith, but all kinds of people who have faith can dialogue and build a new perspective of the world. That is why postcolonial studies are very important in the interfaith dialogue. Pui-Lan works in the postcolonial perspective and questions where the multiplicity of voices in the discourse of liberation theology and interreligious dialogue are. Postcolonial theology provides a more nuanced articulation of the meaning of liberation for marginalized groups.

Muthuraj Swamy can help us to understand this problem in interreligious dialogue in India. For example, in Hindu-Christian dialogue the “’popular religions’ or traditions among marginalized people such as Dalit or Tribal which criss-cross the artificial categories of dialogue are usually ignored” (2017, p. 104). The Hindu-Christian dialogue is conducted by with the high-caste or Brahmanical traditions, because most of the promoters of this dialogue (even realize this problem) still believe these traditions are “‘classical’ and authoritative, indeed synonymous with ‘Hinduism’: the masses are ignored” (SWAMY, 2017, p. 105). And over again we face the problem of Orientalism and the Western constructed of identity of the Other (colonized), “not only inventing and creating Hinduism, but constructing in both in terms of their own European biases and with a focus on the available ‘high texts’ (SWAMY, 2017, p. 105).

There are ambiguities in the point of “commitment” with the tradition in interreligious dialogue and, of course, in East-West dialogue. My purpose in this section is not to criticize the commitment point but open the discussion of identity and representation in the formal dialogue. Unfortunately, even in interreligious dialogue the colonial thought appears, because everything is made around the West vision of religion, focus in texts, ideals of representation-stereotype. It’s time to re-think the interreligious dialogue with the apparatus of postcolonial theories.

My second point of this challenge is the multiple religious belonging in the grassroots.  Multiple religious belonging is a Western concept for a phenomenon that has been present in all history and culture. The construction of religion in the West is interconnected with the notion of identity, then the “Western religion” as opposed to “Eastern religion”, always on the negation of the Other. The problem of fixed religious identity is that leads to several consequences in the interreligious relations: i) “talking about and using fixed religious identities of people in dialogue often downplays the intra-religious identities of people” ;ii) “the identities that cross religious boundaries among ordinary people are ignored”; iii) “the ability of individuals to construct multiple identities for themselves and to use them consistently in their dealings with other individuals is underestimated” (SWAMY, 2017, p. 107).   This phenomenon challenging the dominance of religious identities:

  • “The intrareligious identities constructed and maintained among people who do not always accept identities based on world religious category and rather formulate identities in terms of particular local or personal traditions within a religion system” (SWAMY, 2017, p. 109)
  • “The maintenance of multiple religious identities where religious identity is one of several identities and maintenance of multiple identities in terms of caste, language, region, occupation and so on.” (SWAMY, 2017, p. 109)

Using a Homi Bhabha’s concept, who has multiple religious belonging is “in-betweenness”, is living on the border of religion. The concept “in-between” is related to the vision and the way in which subaltern groups position themselves before the power and how they realize strategies of empowerment. Living on the border of different situations must produce a new meaning for reality.

The borderline work of culture demands an encounter with “newness” that is not part of the continuum of past and present. It creates a sense of the new as an insurgent act of cultural translation. Such art does not merely recall the past as social cause or aesthetic precedent, it renews the past, refiguring it as a contingent “in-between” space, that innovates and interrupts the performance of the present. “The past-present” becomes part of the necessity, not the nostalgia of living. (BHABHA, 1994, p. 7)

Moreover, living “beyond” the border is enjoying the future, even living in the present (RIBEIRO, 2012, p. 17). The in-betweenness would, therefore, be a space/time in peripheral essence, would be an ideal place to stage the multiple political-cultural contemporaneity. This border is a “space for subversion, transgression, blasphemy, heresy, and so on” (BUDEN; NOWOTNY, 2009, p. 201). The margins challenge the center narratives creating their own narratives: “The border position allows greater visibility of the structures of power and knowledge, which can help in apprehending the subjectivity of subaltern peoples” (RIBEIRO, 2012, p. 18).

Among the people, they “have interacted and continue to interrelate in private and public arenas—even those identified as “religious” by participants—sharing identities beyond their religious ones (GOTTSCHALK, 2005, p. 34). The center discusses inter-religious dialogue, but those in the margins live a dynamic of interreligious dialogue. When we leave the institutional ethos and move on to the complexity of life and human interactions the dynamic of interreligious dialogue takes place organically and intertwined. Interactions, negotiation, hybridism are things that happen in the margins.

Non-conclusion: the future of interreligious dialogue

In these pages, we focused on presenting part of the results of a research whose general objective is to investigate colonial thought on the themes of interreligious dialogue between East and West. We highlight the relationship of the East with the West, and the so-called Orientalism, seeking to expand the concept horizon beyond Edward Said. We investigated the construction of the concept of religion in Western knowledge, and its consequences for the East and its relation to religion. Such as the mystical Eastern stereotype established by the Orientalists in colonial times and how this identity is still reproduced in interreligious dialogue. And we also worked with the challenges of interreligious dialogue after postcolonialism, taking as starting point the issues about fixed identity (intra-religious and inter-religious): i) who deserves to sit in the interreligious table? ii) who – and how – can I define my religious identity in the plural world?

This article doesn’t have the aim to give answers, but to question the colonial practices and concepts in the interreligious field and how can we subvert and transgress this elite way of doing interreligious dialogue. Our suspicion, as scholars and activists in interreligious relations, is that we future of interreligious dialogue will be established among the ordinary people, who practice in daily life this negotiations and interaction as a strategy of surviving and challenging the center. An interreligious dialogue from the margins is about a religion in the borders of religion and society. A religion that is not embodied within doctrines, creeds or theological discussions but instead based on the experience of the daily life.


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[1] To understand better the History of Interreligious Dialogue read: SWIDLER, Leonard. The history of inter-religious dialogue. The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Inter-Religious Dialogue, p. 1-19, 2013.


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