by Reyhan Durmaz
In August 2023 the ninth Parliament of the World’s Religions will convene in Chicago, 130 years after the first. More than 200 religious leaders will attend this year’s convention. The Parliament’s mission is to help mobilize interfaith dialogue towards building “a more peaceful, just, and sustainable world.” But how effective is interfaith dialogue as a tool to achieve this goal? And what does such a collaboration mean for a society like that of the United States with numerous religious minorities, some integrated to broader legal frameworks and some actively marginalized?
Interfaith dialogue is a problematic concept, since its success depends on the perceived equality among its participants and the extent to which their interests overlap. In order to assess the impact of the upcoming Parliament on public perceptions of religious pluralism and dialogue, we can in fact look back at its history. Kawkab Amrika (“the Star of America”), a newspaper published by Arabic-speaking immigrants in NYC, provides a vital window into what interfaith dialogue meant for Middle Eastern Christians during the first Parliament in 1893.
The Parliament of the World’s Religions, 1893
A lot changed in the intervening 130 years in terms of media, policy, the texture of American demography, and the very definition of religion. Still, the first Parliament of the World’s Religions, being the first curated interfaith dialogue in America, is instructive on the evolution of interfaith dialogue. And it provides an opportunity to reflect on the challenges of religious dialogue in the days leading to the upcoming conversation in Chicago.
The first Parliament of the World’s Religions was convened in Chicago as part of the 1893 Chicago Columbine Exposition (a world’s fair that celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival at the New World). At the commencement of the Parliament, the Liberty Bell at the Chicago Exposition was sounded ten times to honor what organizers considered the ten great religions of the world: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Taoism, Confucianism, Shintoism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. According to the account of Rev. John Henry Barrows (d. 1902), who organized and led the first Parliament, about ten more religions, in addition to the great ten, such as the “religion of science,” were discussed at the meeting.
While the Parliament claimed to give equal voice to all religions of the world to create dialogue and enable mutual understanding, it had Christianity at its center, as Tomoko Masuzawa points out. Of the more than 250 papers, 165 were either directly about Christianity or about Christian theological concepts. Other religions of the world were given second stage. Barrows describes the Parliament’s aim as the following: “Religion, like the white light of Heaven has been broken into many-colored fragments by the prisms of men. One of the objects of the Parliament of Religions has been to change this many-colored radiance back into the white light of heavenly truth.” This allegory of white light of Heaven being broken into many colors resonates with the Christian teachings about the heavenly state of creation before the Fall of Adam and Eve, and it recreates the biblical rhetoric of “light” like in the Gospel of John. Barrows’ statement epitomizes the Christian-centric conversation at the Parliament.
On top of this numeric difference, there was a qualitative difference between the representations of religions at the Parliament. Christianity, with its various denominations, was presented as an essentially western religion. In comparison, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and others were represented in the congress as religions of the East. So, a particular definition of religion, set by the conveners, determined the contours of “legitimate religion” in the two culturally and cardinally separate spheres of the world.
Representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Native American religions, and others were not included in the Parliament. And some religious leaders critiqued and protested the event. Pope Leo XIII (d. 1903), for example, described the attendees of the Parliament as “promiscuous,” implying that accepting the equal legitimacy of various religions is a form of betrayal of one’s own religion. So, contrary to its mission, it was not a uniting event. Christian immigrants from the Middle East similarly had a complex relationship with the Parliament, as Kawkab Amrika shows.How Kawkab Amrika presented religious dialogue
Kawkab Amrika is the first Arabic-language newspaper published in America. It was founded in New York City in 1892 by Christian immigrants from Ottoman Syria. Najib and Ibrahim Arbili, the founders of the paper, were members of the Syrian Colony (Little Syria) on the lower west side of Manhattan. The paper promised its readers to serve as a bridge between the East and the West. It commented on international politics, interpreted historic events, and published about various religions of eastern and western civilizations, or “races” as the paper called them, for almost two decades.
Kawkab published many articles about the Chicago Exposition, praising the fair’s role in facilitating intercultural dialogue. But it only sporadically mentioned the Parliament of Religions that happened during the fair. To illustrate, in the first ten issues of the paper there were five news articles about the Exposition, and these articles did mention different religious communities joining the fair, but only one of them briefly mentioned the Parliament. This selective presentation of the Parliament in Kawkab is a great gateway to understanding religious pluralism through the perspective of an immigrant community.
The editors, first the Arbili brothers then others who came after them, like the Parliament’s conveners, were certainly interested in creating dialogue between different religions. But, unlike the Parliament, they did not define interfaith dialogue as a conversation about theology; they rather highlighted the practical benefits of religious pluralism and dialogue in enabling communities flourish. Moreover, Kawkab did not present Christianity as the (western) norm against which all other religions should be assessed.
To be clear, Kawkab did not explicitly criticize the Parliament of Religions; it in fact reported on the Parliament but for reasons beyond religious dialogue. An article, for example, denounced the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a legislation that limited travel and immigration from China to America, for causing difficulties around “the disciples of Confucius in China” attending the congress of the world religions. Excitement about religious dialogue is viewed by Kawkab from a posture of anxiety around changing US immigration law. Despite such occasional mentions of the Parliament, Kawkab displayed an understanding of the world’s religions different than the Parliament.
Unlike the panels at the Parliament, Kawkab did not present Christianity as an essentially western tradition. It rather shifted the focus to the East as the place from where Christianity and other important traditions like Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism, originated. In one of the issues, for example, an article referred to the Middle East as “the Land of the Book,” meaning, “the place where the Bible originated,” and highlighted the importance of manuscripts at libraries in Constantinople in the study of the Bible worldwide.
While various papers delivered at the Parliament praised Christian missionary work in Africa and Asia for “bringing light” to various communities, Kawkab published reader letters that criticized Christian missionaries in the Middle East for being corrupt and hypocritical. One of the letters, for example, emphasized how some people in the Middle East thought that missionaries did not consider the local circumstances or the well-being of the locals, and often competed with other religious leaders in the region for resources. Kawkab thus in some ways subverted the conventional wisdom of the western Christian triumphalists.
In addition to diverging from the Parliament’s presentation of Christianity, Kawkab also portrayed other religions in ways different than the Parliament did. To illustrate, in the Parliament, Brahmanism was portrayed as a precursor of Christianity and as a reformed and progressive religion. But Kawkab starkly criticized Brahmins (the priestly class in Hinduism) for being fanatical. It described how excessively they punished and harshly excommunicated people for making innocent mistakes.
One of the sessions in the Parliament discussed the “contacts and contrasts” between Christianity and Mohammedanism (Islam). The paper read at this panel, after a brief statement about the theological diversity within Islam, highlights three points related to Islam and Christianity: that Islam was not a form of Christianity even though Muhammad might have been informed about Christian teachings, that the major Islamic doctrines (such as belief in God, His prophets, the Day of Judgment, etc.) are in agreement with Christianity, and that Christian and Islamic morality were in line in broad strokes but different in specifics (such as approaches to desires and passions). Kawkab, on the other hand, provided more nuanced information about the diversity, rituals, and reforms in Islam, instead of direct comparisons with Christianity.
One article, for example, wished the Muslim readers of the paper a blessed Ramadan and explained the importance of the Islamic ritual of fasting. The author notes: “it is one of two important duties devolving upon every good Moslem to perform, a pilgrimage to the sacred city of Mecca during one’s life-time being the other.” Another article explained what the caliph, who held an important position as the head of the state as well as the religious leader of the Islamic world, symbolized for sunni and shi’i Muslims.
Kawkab also gave space to religions not represented at the Parliament. For example, it published lengthy articles on the historical roots and religious practices in the Church of the Latter-day Saints. Similarly, it published extensively on customs of Native Americans, another community denied representation at the Parliament.
The above examples show that although Kawkab enthusiastically highlighted the Chicago Exposition’s facilitation of religious dialogue, economic opportunities, and intercultural understanding, it did not take the Parliament of the World’s Religions as the sole authority on what makes a globally important and relevant religion. Kawkab created its own taxonomy of globally-relevant religions and their relationship to each other.
A glance at this little-known yet important publication in the history of American journalism underlines that, for immigrant communities, the notion of interfaith dialogue is interlaced with colonialism, transnational identities at home and diaspora, and indigenous conceptualizations of religion. As the digital clock on the website of the Parliament counts down seconds to the upcoming gathering in August, the 130-year long history of the congress tells diverse stories of religious dialogue and its contested participants.
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Reyhan Durmaz is an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on the history, culture, and literature of Christian communities in the Middle East past and present. She is the author of Stories between Christianity and Islam: Saints, Memory, and Cultural Exchange in Late Antiquity and Beyond (University of California Press, 2022). Her research has also been published in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Harvard Theological Review, Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, among other venues. Her article on the representations of religion in Kawkab Amrika is forthcoming at the Journal of the American Academy of Religion.