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Good neighbors

Interfaith dialogue is not happy hand-holding premised on agreement. It is the kind of encounter we need to build a society that bridges our deepest differences.

IN "THE MIGHTY AND THE ALMIGHTY," Madeleine Albright writes how she often scribbled on her briefing papers, "Learn more about Islam."

I agree, and that's not just Islam in the abstract, but Islam as practiced by countless and diverse Muslims all over the world, including here in Boston. In a world and a city of many faiths, learning and working together with people of all religions is no longer the odd specialty of those who practice "interfaith dialogue." Ready or not, as Albright sensed, it is one of the critical skills we need for today's world.

For most of us, the first step in learning about Islam should be meeting our Muslim neighbors. There are nearly 30 Islamic centers in the Boston area and a dozen university Islamic societies. The opportunities to encounter our neighbors are many and local. In Cambridge, it might be the Daughters of Abraham book group; in Wayland, the regular interfaith visits to Friday prayers at the Islamic Center of Boston.

In Sharon, high school students of the Interfaith Youth Leadership Program are at the forefront of dialogue. This largely Jewish suburb is also home to one of the Boston area's large Islamic centers and is a living laboratory of small-town interfaith relations. In the Sharon program, students steer straight into the big issues: stereotyping, religious conflict, faith, and prayer. The point is not to agree, not even to find common ground, but rather to learn to listen through their differences. Most important, they build lasting friendships.

In Revere this past October, the Muslim founders of the Boston Dialogue Foundation hosted the first-ever Iftar banquet for dozens of city officials. It was a historic opportunity for Revere citizens to learn more about Islam from their Muslim neighbors as they broke the Ramadan fast with them. As Mayor Thomas Ambrosino put it, "They might be different than we're used to, but they're doing good things, right here in Revere."

Still, much work remains. At the heart of Boston in Roxbury Crossing stands the magnificent shell of what will eventually be the Islamic Society of Boston's landmark mosque, as yet incomplete. Progress is swamped by the well-publicized accusations of the David Project, a Jewish advocacy group, about the mosque's funding and leadership and the ensuing litigation against the David Project by the Islamic Society of Boston. Meanwhile, Jewish-Muslim relations in Boston have become tense, undermining honest and difficult dialogue at the very time we need it most.

Last month, as I stood under the great dome of the mosque at Roxbury Crossing, I prayed, as a Christian, for its speedy completion. In 2006, it should not surprise us to learn that the so-called "Islamic world" is not somewhere else. Boston is part of the Islamic world. Looking to the future, the vision of an Islamic Center dedicated to interfaith outreach and education at the crossroads of Boston is worth the commitment of Christians, Jews, and Muslims.

Interfaith dialogue is not happy hand-holding premised on agreement. It is the kind of encounter we need to understand our deepest differences and build a society that bridges them. Our local efforts to overcome ignorance and fear may not be able to solve the searing conflicts of the wider world, but we can make a big difference in the climate of Boston.

Diana L. Eck is professor of comparative religion at Harvard University, director of the Pluralism Project (pluralism.org), and author of "A New Religious America: How a 'Christian Country' Has Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation" (2001).

Ideas Forum contributors:
 Good neighbors (By Diana L. Eck)
 Faith and reason (By Richard John Neuhaus)
 Truth and power (By Reza Aslan)
 Face to face (By Alan Wolfe)
 A Christian imperative (By Mark A. Noll)
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