WINNIPEG, Man.— Getting to know people from other faith communities goes a long way to breaking down barriers, said Yousef Daneshvar, a Shia Muslim completing his doctoral studies in Canada under a MCC student exchange program with Iran. 

“Let’s stop looking at each other through the eyes of the media,” said Daneshvar during a recent visit to Winnipeg. “Stop letting others decide how we should think about each other. Let’s talk to each other—have a couple cups of tea and after that the sense of being threatened should disappear.”

Strengthening interfaith dialogue between Mennonites in North America and Shia Muslims in Iran is a primary objective of an unusual student exchange program initiated in 1998 by MCC. The exchange includes the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute in Qom, Iran and the Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre, a part of the Toronto School of Theology.

Daneshvar, the first Iranian selected to study in Canada under this program, is completing his doctoral studies in Christian theology and philosophy of religion at the Toronto School of Theology and will be returning to Iran this summer.

This exchange program, along with other joint initiatives, is promoting spirited discussion and debates of commonalities and differences, said Daneshvar. There have also been three interfaith dialogue conferences between Muslim and Mennonite scholars and theologians, three MCC learning tours to Iran, and meetings between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and U.S. and Canadian religious leaders, including Mennonites.

The objective of dialogue with people from other faith communities, he said, is not to eliminate differences, convert people or be converted. The objective is a better understanding of beliefs, values and personal experiences.

One subject that is often discussed when Mennonites and Muslims meet is commonalities and differences between peace theologies.

Both faith groups seek peace and justice but the primary difference, he explained, is that the emphasis of Mennonites’ peace theology is peace and the emphasis of Islam’s peace theology is justice. Another difference is that the Mennonite peace theology is rooted in nonresistance and pacifism.

“We are not pacifists,” said Daneshvar, explaining that if all peaceful attempts fail, the Quran permits Muslims to defend themselves, or seek justice, with the use of force.

The word Islam, he explained, is derived from an Arabic root word Salam—one of the names given to God in the Quran. Salam, he said, is often translated in English as meaning peace or peace be with you.

These English translations, he explained, don’t adequately describe Islam or Salam because Salam portrays a peaceful relationship with God and “a deep friendly relationship” between individuals.

To maintain this peaceful relationship with God, faithful Muslim believers pray five times a day. “He is your creator and your sustainer—you owe everything to him,” said Daneshvar. Faithful Muslim believers are also expected to maintain peaceful relationships with fellow human beings.

“My faith is all Salam,” he said. “I want to live in a community, a country, a world that is governed by the principles of Salam. Our ideal world is the world of Salam—where Salam is the first and last principle.” 

But the level of peace represented by the word Salam only exists if justice is maintained in society. “Peace without justice is not real peace,” he said. “If you are oppressed and silent you are not living in peace. You are just keeping silent. That is not real peace.” 

During his 10 years in Canada Daneshvar has presented a series of lectures on Islam in churches and universities. He is now completing a thesis that explores the relationship between humanity and faith.

“As time passed my academic work became part of this dialogue,” said Daneshvar, who met with church leaders in Winnipeg in February to promote interfaith understanding.

His visit to Winnipeg builds on MCC’s interfaith peace building initiatives to encourage dialogue between people from different faith communities.