Calling the Turning Falcon

Calling the Turning Falcon

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful

God says in the Holy Qur’an: We made you a middle nation, that ye may be witnesses over the people, and that the Messenger may be a witness over you ( Al-Baqarah 2: 143).

I AM HONOURED TO WELCOME on behalf of His Majesty King Abdullah II this meeting of the global C-100 group for West-Islamic World Dialogue. His Majesty has always welcomed all efforts to spread peace and goodwill across the world and especially in our region, and we hope that C-100 will be able to make a positive and lasting contribution in this direction.

God says in the Holy Qur’an: Oye who believe, fear God and speak words straight to the point (Al-Ahzab 33:70). Thus, I wish to: (1) describe the current situation between the West and the Islamic World, as I see it; (2) touch upon the major problems; (3) state what our common goal should be in light of this situation; and (4) identify two critical challenges facing the C-100.

The Situation

In the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were three very influential political theories regarding the future of the world. You all know Samuel Huntington’s 1993 thesis of a Clash of Civilizations, and you all know Francis Fukayama’s The End of History and the Last Man written in 1992. Many of you will also remember Robert Kaplan’s seminal article The Coming Anarchy of ‘February 1994, where he uses the image of a luxury car driving one way on a highway and a stream of destitute refugees walking the other way to suggest that whilst one part of the world is moving comfortably and prosperously forward, much of the rest of the world is suffering horribly, and disintegrating due to poverty, disease, crime, conflict, tribalism, overpopulation and pollution. Assessing each of these theories can help us better understand the historical context of where we are today.

Huntington gets a B. He was right about tension and conflict between Muslims and the West (e.g, Bosnia 92-95; Kosovo 96-99; Chechnya 94-96, 99-2001; 9-11-2001, Afghanistan; Iraq 2003-2007 etc.) but dead wrong about either side unifying, never mind Muslim countries uniting with China. Moreover, every single Muslim country in the world has denounced terrorism, and the vast majority of governments of Muslim countries have sided with the West in one way or another. Inside Syria and Iran, the two notable exceptions, Christian-Muslim relations are excellent (witness Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius of Antioch’s open letter rebuffing the Pope after his September 2006 Regensburg address).

Fukayama, who declared the triumph of Western-style democracy, gets a C. President Bush’s plan for a new more “democratic” Middle East as outlined on 6 November 2003 to the National Endowment for Democracy still languishes. The most “democratic” (in the Western sense) Muslim countries in the Middle East (Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and Lebanon) are either in civil war or close to it. And as we should know from Hitler’s 1933 election – or from the actions of the majority of Hutus in Rwanda in 1994, or of the majority of Serbs in Bosnia from 1992- 1995 – western-style democracy simply does not work where: (a) there are no preexisting democratic institutions that can overrule demagoguery; (b) there is no democratic culture that can control and channel fear and hatred, and (c) where the majority seeks to gain power in order to slaughter the minority, for reasons that go back hundreds of years. Plato warns us of this in the eighth book of The Republic, and Herodotus hints at it in the third book of his Histories.

Kaplan gets an A minus. He was right about increased anarchy and wealth in the world, but he failed to see the unique tensions existing between Muslims and the West. After all, Muslims and Christians together constitute some 55 percent of the world’s population, so this is a significant omission.

So where are we now? Sectarian wars, and political and religious distrust dominate the peoples of the Middle East and its relationship to the West. Chaos, conflict and disease ravage the horn of Africa and Darfur. Terrorism threatens everywhere in the world. We pray conflict does not break out in the Persian Gulf.

It is true that polite and educated company all over the world make positive and optimistic comments about the other side, but there is not enough trickle-down to the masses and to popular culture. Moreover, as the current Pew Global survey shows, religious attitudes between Muslims, Christians and Jews are generally hardening and getting worse, not better. A cursory review of the world’s biggest bookseller, Amazon.com, shows that more Americans are buying books about Islam written by vitriolic former Muslims now touted as experts and sponsored by Christian Fundamentalist groups, than written by serious Muslim or non-Muslim scholars. In the West there are whispers of a “Long War”; an idea which in the Islamic world is taken to be directed against all Muslims.
The Problems

I will very briefly sketch the major causes of tension. They are well known. On the Western side you have fear of terrorism; a loathing of religious coercion; suspicion of the unfamiliar and deep historical misunderstandings. On the Islamic side you have, first, Palestine. Despite the denial of certain parties, Palestine is a grievance rooted in faith (since Muslim holy sites lie occupied); after all Muslims ought to know what they themselves are upset about. To deny that is a kind of racism. Then you have Western foreign policy; wounded pride arising from the colonial experience; poverty and unemployment; illiteracy; ignorance of true Islam and of the Arabic language; social and political oppression, and a technology gap. On both sides you have vast centrifugal forces unleashed by fundamentalist and extremist movements, and by missionary activity. These far outweigh the centripetal forces set in motion by hundreds of interfaith and intercultural centers all over the world and by world governments (e.g. the Spanish-Turkish “Alliance of Civilizations”; the Russian “Dialogue of Civilizations”; the Kazakh “Dialogue of Confessions”; the Amman Message; the French Atelier-Culturel; the British “Radical Middle Way”; the Malaysian Islam Hadari etc. etc. and the umpteen “declarations” of “this or that city”). The fundamentalists are better organized, more experienced, better coordinated and more motivated. They have more stratagems, more institutes, more people, more money, more power, more influence.

I am reminded of the words of WB. Yeats:

Turning and Turning in the Widening Gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

the ceremony of innocence is drowned.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

are full of passionate intensity.

The Goal

Our goal is very simple. We must avoid a greater worldwide conflict between Muslims and the West, and we must resolve all our current crises. Then we must find a modus vivendi to live and let live, to “love thy neighbour”; this idea must be expressed from within our religious scriptures. It must then be applied everywhere. I would like to emphasize here that getting secular Westernized Muslim academics together with Westerners to accomplish this cannot work, because: “Man does not live by bread alone, but from every word that issueth from the Mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Moreover, secular modernists command no following in the Islamic street, and on the contrary their promotion creates popular outrage that drives the moderate traditional majority of Muslims into the embrace of the fundamentalists. The 9-11 Commission report, the current Rand Report and everyone who subscribes to this approach are just wrong. “Love thy neighbour” is in all our scriptures in different ways: let our authentic, traditional religious authorities bring it out for us. If we do not let the orthodox voice of our religions speak for peace, our religions risk being misused and manipulated to move us towards conflict.

The Challenges

Since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960S – but especially since 9-11-2001- hundreds of bodies all over the world have been engaging in interfaith and intercultural dialogue; in peace-making and in “bridge building”. This is good, but their efforts are not coordinated; are continuously duplicated; are ineffective and are often at odds with each other. If the C- 100 could make a religiously authentic ecumenical “constitution” or even a “mission statement”, and then get it adopted everywhere – and through it lead the coordination of world dialogue activities – then that would have a tremendous impact, God willing. It would give clarity and focus to the various well-intentioned but uncoordinated efforts. This, I think, is the first challenge, and it starts with a statement of purpose for the C-100 themselves.

The second challenge is “trickledown”. We have outlined our own Amman Message Initiative’s strategy for “trickledown” on www.ammanmessage.com. I wish to add here only that the news media is an ongoing area of concern. Do not misunderstand: the news media is critical for a just society and is instrumental in exposing hidden truths. But consider this: we estimate that there are over 20 million Muslims in the West (not including Russia which officially is 18 percent Muslim); over 10 million Christians in the greater Middle East; over 5 million Muslims who have studied is some form in the West; over 5 million more have visited the West, and at least 10 million Westerners have traveled to, or worked or served, somewhere in the Islamic World. That is 50 million people (out of over 3.5 billion Christians and Muslims, admittedly) with a firsthand experience of human contact and of being a religious minority. And this does not even take into consideration Africa, India or the Far East, where Muslims and Christians are often indigenously split down the middle in their millions. Yet I have never seen a headline that says: “Today Ahmad visited George; had coffee; exchanged a few ‘how’s your fathers?’ and ‘Bob’s your uncle,’ and complained about the taxes and the new national football coach.” I have never seen a headline saying: “Auntie Susan visited Grandma Leila; had a nice cup of tea, some stale baklava, and opined that bunions are an underestimated problem.” I am joking of course, but you get the picture. This happens every day, everywhere, times 10 million – acts of love – and who knows about it but God? Instead, every day on CNN.com or the like, I see a headline saying: “Mob of angry Muslim radicals in a far place burns X or Y flag, and chants down with W or Z.”

A case in point: one month after the Pope’s inflammatory Regensburg address in September 2006, 38 of the world’s leading Muslim scholars from all Islam’s currents got together in an unprecedented way, and wrote him a very cordial letter in which they did their best to accept an apology he never gave (His Holiness just said: “I am sorry you feel bad,” not, “I am sorry I did it”), and what made the world’s headlines? – the latest outrage from Sheikh Hilali down in Australia. This is not some conspiracy, but results from the inherent nature of television and the media. You see, unless there is conflict (emotional or physical), there is no drama and all you have on the screen is a “talking head”, which most producers feel is boring. Love and mercy, which reside in people’s hearts, cannot be shown on TV, except extrinsically. Here the centripetal forces of peace are always at a disadvantage to the corrosive images of strife. What is required is a way around this impasse. I believe if it can be found, applied and institutionalized – then our message can be transmitted effectively.

And if these two challenges can be met – and if the true message of our religions can be transmitted effectively then that, God Willing, might hold the centre and turn the blood-dimmed tide; that might make the turning and turning falcon hear. Jesus Christ, peace be upon him, said: And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free (John 8:32). And God says in the Holy Qur’an: Nay, but we hurl the true against the false, and it doth break its head and lo! it vanished . . . (Al-Anbiya, 21:18).

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