Let us begin with excerpts from the recent Eid al-Fitr sermon by the Imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Sheikh Salih Bin Hmaid: "Dialogue, constructive criticism, conscious existence and positive exchange of opinions are collectively features of a civilized society that rational people will seek to entrench. In fact, civilizations all over the world have stemmed from positive interaction between differing individuals and groups concerning certain issues. Speech and dialogue are inspiring, and are human values that enable us to tackle differences in a peaceful manner. Dialogue is in fact the enlightened cultural aspect that is opposed to bigotry, xenophobia, despotism and exclusion."
Dialogue, peace, and positive exchange of viewpoints between cultures are all concepts to which we are unaccustomed in the religious discourse of the Muslim world. They have simply been replaced by the conflict between good and evil, differences and disputes, the inevitable victory of the believers, the necessity of Jihad, and confrontation with the infidels. However, to argue that we are not used to such ideas does not mean that they do not exist. Such concepts do exist but are unheard of because the voice of rationality and balance is lost somewhere among the emotional noise of the Muslim world. Such noise continues to prevail over rationality as the angry preacher who screams and shouts in front of an audience that is not interested in any other language.
The prevalent state in the Muslim world is a state of deliberate complacency that is imposed on religious discourse and a state that compels the religious preacher to inject bigotry into the people, provoking nothing but rage amongst them. The effectiveness of such preachers depends on his ability to build a higher wall of seclusion than that which already exists and ahead of the preacher, who seeks to demolish this wall, is nothing but failure. Even worse is the failure of members of the public who seek to restrain the masses from enjoying the encouragement of hatred and bigotry.
There are those, nevertheless, who use a different discourse albeit in varying levels of courage and honesty. The problem is twofold: the silence in the reaction to the preachers of hatred and that those who dispute their thinking do not boldly criticize these preachers. It is time that the problem is addressed and that these issues are called by their name.
Why do we talk so alarmingly of bigotry in the Islamic world? The answer is simple: because it is a truly alarming scene. No rational observer can deny the dangers of these heated societies. Allow me to emphasize that I do not address the topic of bigotry and its endemic culture for the sake of Daniel Pipes or Richard Pearl or any other intellectual of the American right. The reason that I address this topic is because we have paid, are still paying and continue to pay a dear price to rectify the damage caused by such a chauvinistic culture. Religious terrorism is nothing but a branch of nationalist and religious bigotry. Religious bigotry protects itself by insulting anyone who seeks to combat, undermine, or differ to it especially if the protestor is not a member of the clergy or does not wear the appropriate religious attire.
Thus, the voice of Saleh Bin Hmaid was especially important partly because it came from the most important Islamic holy place, the Grand Mosque in Mecca and partly because this is a significant time for Muslims following the celebration of Eid-al-Fitr. His words were like cold water to extinguish the fiery sermons by preachers of hate who unfortunately, form the majority of Islamic preachers. A few questions arise, however. Why was Sheikh Saleh”s sermon much shorter than other sermons? Why is it that expressing religious tolerance is so rare? Is this the fault of the speakers, or the audience, or even that of the mode of communication?
We are currently living through a period of dangerous religious polarization in which every person is categorized according to his or her religious identity. We yearn for a time when brothers and sisters of conflicting political tendencies would live together peacefully under the same roof.
During an interview on Al-Jazeera”s ”Khayr Jalees” show, which is presented by Khaled al-Hroub, the Sudanese writer Khaled Al-Mubarak argued that politicians from the greater Syria region were always surprised when they would find Sudanese politicians of all trends dining together. They would find a communist, an Islamist, a member of Itihad and a member of Ummah (the two largest political-religious parties in Sudan, in opposition of each other) together. However, al-Mubarak added, "this only took place in the Sudan of the past."
The interview focused on a book by Tariq Ali and according to al-Mubarak, Tariq sets a precedent in his call for Islamic reforms along the lines of Martin Luther King. Tariq Ali, whose parents were communists, calls for replacing Huntington”s concept of "Clash of civilizations" with the idea of "Clash of Fundamentals." Paradoxically, Ali”s father became a communist only after returning from the Haj pilgrimage. Furthermore, many prominent figures from Najaf in Iraq were also members of the communist party Hizb Fahad but only after anti-religion sentiments were sidelined.
My repeated message, or rather, warning, is that we will suffer greatly if the culture of bigotry is not confronted effectively on all levels in order to eradicate the root of the problem. The occasional few good words in the form of a sermon are simply not enough. Such glimpses of hope, however, should not be ignored, and the voice from Mecca that was heard recently should be heard again.