The Problem with Preemptive Reduction

If you don’t know me I ought to introduce myself. If you do, sit down, this isn’t going to hurt much. My name is Sikander, and I’m a Lighthouse Unplugged coordinator. See? We got through that together.

Lighthouse Unplugged is a monthly interfaith event hosted by Lighthouse, where we try to gather as diverse a group as possible and discuss issues of life and faith outside of a specifically Christian context. Now, one of the most common pieces of feedback I hear from people is “It was a good discussion, but my table was nothing but Christians.” True, diversity can be difficult to muster as a Christian Fellowship. Our base isn’t going anywhere, and it stands to reason that random tables are sometimes going to pan out that way.

What that says to me though is that we are becoming more and more acutely aware of how limited our individual perspectives are. This is good. I’m gonna go ahead and say this is a good thing. Alternate viewpoints and perspectives on the kinds of issues we’ve forgotten how to think about are vastly important. The danger lies in reducing people to their traits.

Now, I’m Muslim. Around here, that means I’m the only Muslim in the room a good 90% of the time. In the context of interfaith discussion that means I essentially become a representative for Islam. Anything I say is the ‘Muslim perspective’ regardless of how perfectly aligned with the tenets of Islam it might be. The same becomes true for any non-Christian walking into an interfaith conversation of mostly Christians – being in the minority isn’t intimidating because you’re outnumbered, but because the pressure’s on to effectively and accurately communicate your beliefs in a way that lends an alternate perspective.

But this reduction isn’t something that only happens to those in the minority. As I said before, the feedback I most commonly receive is that a given table had too many Christians at it. The assumption follows that each of those Christians is a representative of Christianity, and that having more than a few becomes redundant.

In my mind, interfaith discussion really ought to be the opposite. A truly inclusive conversation welcomes all and pays no mind to ratios of diversity. As we plan events we’re obviously going to do our best to get as many differing perspectives as possible but once we’re all sitting down a true interfaith discussion ought to be about people, not the perspectives they represent. What I’ve personally been struggling with is avoiding the preemptive act of reducing myself to a Muslim perspective in these conversations. I’ve been asking myself why I believe the things I do, where my beliefs come from and what they do to shape my view of the world. If we can all start that process, in making sure we come to the table as ourselves and welcoming others as themselves rather than representatives of various systems of belief, I believe we’ll start getting a lot more out of these discussions.