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The Century of Religions | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has decided to devote his life to religion and interfaith dialogue and using religion to spread peace and encourage economic development. These were his words at the inauguration of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation which took place in New York recently.

We do not know the extent of Blair’s credibility or the degree of success that he will enjoy in his heroic mission – notwithstanding his own zeal after embracing Catholicism following his departure from Downing Street. However, his expectation that religious faith will be of the same significance to the 21st century as political ideology was to the 20th century seemed convincing to many.

If we look, at least superficially, at the reasons behind current international tension ,, we would find that religion is a major cause whereby religious and cultural arguments are used to justify the tension.

Al Qaeda has set world tensions on fire and marked a watershed with the events of 9/11. The US government responded by launching an ‘ideological war’ against Islamic fundamentalism which was considered by the US’ opponents to be an open war against Islam as a religion and as a large segment of the world’s population. What took place between the lines as a result of this war was negligible; it was nothing but the ramifications and aftermath of this ‘ideological’ war – or religious war, if we want to speak more openly.

One cannot avoid this war of religions as it is everywhere we turn., More often than not, the causes of conflicts can be traced back to religion. As a result of the arguments presented to us by zealous intellectuals and preachers, we see this tension between us and the West as a new crusade, similar to those that Salahuddin Ayyubi led his armies against.

Owing to the West’s right-wingers and intelligentsia, we are viewed as nothing but groups of Islamic extremists that threaten the West’s international values and culture. As such, amidst this religious uproar, it is no longer possible to hear the voices of moderation or the sounds of coexistence and peace.

This is why King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz’s call for interfaith dialogue has an important role in this agitated world. The Saudi monarch, who called for interreligious discourse last March, has once again consolidated this call through practical action on the ground.

The Muslim World League, upon the instruction of the king, finalized its preparations for the ‘International Islamic Conference for Dialogue’ and paved the way for another comprehensive meeting between “the people of different religions and civilizations” worldwide. The seminars commenced last Wednesday under the auspices of King Abdullah in Mecca.

But why is this call and conference so pertinent? They are important for numerous reasons, some of which I have mentioned in a previous article; but most prominently because the state from which this call is issued is Saudi Arabia, home to the Holy Kaaba that all Muslims worldwide direct their prayers toward every day. It is the heart of Sunni Islam and an important country in the international energy market.

In a speech delivered by the French President Nicolas Sarkozy to the Saudi Shura [Consultative] Council in Riyadh last January, he spoke at length about the importance of interreligious dialogue and praised the role of Islamic civilization at its peak, particularly its intellectual and philosophical openness and its advancements before rationality faded.

Sarkozy also spoke about the meeting that took place between King Abdullah, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, and Pope Benedict XVI, the head of Catholic Church, and said that the meeting was more effective than hundreds of conferences in terms of the impact that it would have on the raging fire between Muslims and Christians.

Does this mean that the issue is a simple one that can easily be resolved? Absolutely not! The communication crisis and mistrust between the Muslim and Christian communities around the world are detrimental and “deep wounds have been inflicted on both sides”, as former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami once stated.

Khatami was one of the first leaders to meet with Pope Benedict XVI after the controversy that followed his infamous lecture in September 2006 in which he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor. Many Muslims regarded the speech as provocative. At the time, Khatami stated that Muslims and Christians must desist from using God’s name to stir up wars and breed hatred.

So, what is the meaning of interfaith dialogue and what is its objective? If dialogue is steered toward a religious discussion and ‘debate’ then it can only add more fuel to the fire of fanaticism, rather than achieve peace and communication.

In an Arab Christian online forum called ‘Islamic Dialogue Forum’ I came across an article entitled ‘Twelve reasons why I reject the Prophet of Islam’. Contrastingly, I found an Arab Islamic forum called ‘The Forum for Dialogue between Religions’ in which an article entitled ‘A Fatal Blow to Christianity’ was featured.

The concept of dialogue is shrouded in ambiguity. However, the conference in Mecca pledged that it would take into account the errors of previous forums and would focus on “establishing a solid foundation” for the concept of dialogue within Islam itself before tackling matters related to non-Muslims.

How can we debate with them when we cannot agree over what we want of them? Who will we hold dialogue with and how? And are we ready for dialogue when internally we reject tolerance among ourselves? These are important starting points and determinants that we must first be clear on if we are to achieve fruitful dialogue instead of public relations conferences between clerics.

One of the reasons behind the failure to build bridges between ourselves and others stems from an error in the starting point. Muslims are not required to preach about religion to others or to explain the ‘virtues’ of Islam because it is assumed that non-Muslims who debate with Muslims are already well-informed about Islam.

Perhaps some of us have admired the debates of Ahmed Deedat, a prominent Muslim promoter of interfaith dialogue, and others like him. However, they fail to change social realities on any level; both Muslims and Christians will continue to subsist.

Another significant matter is that we must preserve the religious minorities among ourselves, especially Christians, in order to solidify our investment in interreligious discourse at home.

Meanwhile, the presence of Christians and other religious communities in some states may help quell the intensity of religious extremism among some, by familiarizing the majority with the concept of sharing the same homeland, bound by patriotism, with minorities. This social reality is more effective than a thousand theoretical lessons in religious tolerance.

Therefore, the duty of the Muslims and Arabs is to protect and reassure the non-Muslim minorities among them. Many observers have warned about the phenomenon of Christian immigration from the Arab Levant to live abroad in what seems to be a Christian evacuation of the region, which is detrimental to diversity and tolerance.

Indeed, this matter elicited the concern of the Council of Catholic Patriarchs of the Orient, which issued a statement in October 2006 warning that the Christians of the Levant are “the connecting link between the Islamic civilization and the Christian one, and constructive dialogue is held between them.”

The recent occurrences in the religiously diverse state of Iraq are regretful; they have whittled down the number of Christians, Sabeans, and even Jews, of whom only seven remain, according to the New York Times.

Dialogue is a gateway into understanding and knowledge of the truth. If we enter through this gateway we can access a vast realm of humanitarian richness and effective communication between civilizations and cultures. With dialogue between civilizations and religions, extremists will never be able to spew their poison of religious hatred and wreak havoc on mankind.

Humans are made human by their interests, dreams and their pursuit for peace. A Muslim is someone who is in search of this peace and communication; however, he is confronted with hardships as his Muslim brethren use his religion against him while non-Muslims around the world unjustly demonize him and his religion.

The time has come for this humane individual and the moderates among other religions to speak.