OFTEN, THE PHRASE “interfaith dialogue” evokes peace signs and a romanticized understanding of religious diversity. Interfaith initiatives have been associated with a wateringdown of religious principles, coupled with inaction. How is it then that the 63rd Session of the UN General Assembly convened on 1213 November 2008 was organized on the very principle of interfaith cooperation? This shift in public perception of the value of interfaith work has been progressively challenged over the years, with inter-religious ambassadors only now recognizing the benefit and, moreover, the necessity of using the platform of faith to advance their socio-political agendas. Whether it’s a call for global tolerance of religion through the UN General Assembly, or improved relations between Christians and Muslims through the seminal initiative, A Common Word, interfaith dialogue has evolved.
As a response to Pope Benedict XVTs negative portrayal of Islam in his Regensburg’s address in September 2006, 38 interdenominational Muslim leaders issued an open letter that – despite an upsurge of mass denunciations in the Muslim streets calling for boycott and a guarded public apology of sorts – launched instead A Common Word, now a full-fledged global interfaith initiative. Consequently, in October 2007, a groundbreaking document was drafted as the catalyst for social change. A Common Word Between Us and You highlights the love of God and love of neighbor as common ground between the Muslim and Christian communities. This document was endorsed by 100 signatories of note, in addition to the original 38 under the leadership of H.R.H. Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan. That number has now risen to almost 300. While this international Muslim group sought social change by engaging in bridge-building that is firmly rooted in theology and scripture, the political vein of interfaith work was also being developed. A month after the Common Word document began making waves, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz AI-Saud met Pope Bene diet XVI on 6 November 2008, countering criticism that the Saudi Kingdom limits the practice of Islam to a very stria observance of the Sunni variety. Saudi Arabia is home to a significant population of Catholic expatriates, which remains a sensitive issue due to the impermissibility for non-Muslims to publicly practice their faith.
To offset this perception of intolerance and address the need for a new discourse within and outside the Muslim community, the Mecca-based Muslim World League hosted the International Islamic Conference for Dialogue on 4-6 June 2008 under the patronage of King Abdullah AI-Saud. “The way to the other is through shared values,” he said in his opening remarks, “advocated by the divine messages, which were revealed by Allah the Almighty for the benefit of humanity to preserve their dignity and promote the ethical values and dealings which certainly are not in conformity with deception.”
The 500 Muslim scholars and leaders from across the world concurred that cross-cultural dialogue “is one of the most significant ways in which Muslims can address the world; and through which Muslims can achieve a number of objectives” – among them addressing human rights violations and developing positive relationships with people of other cultures and faiths.1
The “Makkah Appeal for Interfaith Dialogue,” issued at the culmination of the three-day event, specifically called on the United Nations to “confront both the culture of hatred among people and the sectarian calls that instigate hatred against others.”2 This recommendation was echoed at a subsequent conference that hosted leaders from across various faith traditions.
As part of a two-pronged approach, the June conference – aimed at convening diverse Muslim leaders – was followed by a global interfaith summit from 16-18 July, 2008 at the Royal El Prado Palace in Madrid, Spain. “The World Conference on Dialogue” was organized by the Muslim World League under the patronage of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and the Spanish King Juan Carlos to assemble a larger body of leaders from diverse faiths. Over 250 delegates from 50 countries were addressed by King Abdullah on the need for such a gathering. “This message declares that Islam is a religion of moderation and tolerance, a message that calls for constructive dialogue among followers of religions, a message that promises to open a new page for humanity in which, God willing, concord will replace conflict.”3
The conference brought together a colourful and diverse group of faith-leaders, scholars and interfaith activists but at a global event that emphasized the message of tolerance for all humanity, women were scarcely present in the program. Dr. Makeia Najar, a Muslim woman and researcher from Spain, was the only female panelist at the Madrid conference. She spoke on the role of women in interfaith dialogue and cultural development.
The conference was organized around this and various other themes. Among them, “Dialogue and Its Religious and Civilizational Foundations” – which introduced the importance of dialogue in Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and “Oriental creeds” referring to Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, and Confucianism. One of the objectives reiterated throughout the conference was countering arguments for the clash of civilizations.
In a dynamic change from interfaith dialogues that allow only clerics and faith leaders to speak on religion, the final session featured the heads of participating delegations. Among them, former Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio spoke out: “To promote the idea that religion is one of the principle sources of harm and violence in the world is not only unfair, it also is dangerous because it diverts our attention from the political roots of most conflicts.” Sampaio highlighted the state of religion in contemporary society, emphasizing its impact on the world. “The positive influence of religion can be felt through the core values and common ideals of the great faith traditions who coerce their believers to respect both the most fundamental human value – the right to life of all – and the right to live in dignity.”
At the culmination of the three-day summit, organizers presented “The Madrid Declaration”. This document affirms ten guiding principles, the first of which is that the “Unity of mankind as its origin is one, and equality among human beings irrespective of their colors, ethnic backgrounds and cultures.”4
The declaration issued in this session also lists five recommendations to counter terrorism, and goals that were set by conference attendees to advance its dialogue objectives. Among them is the decision “to call upon the UN General Assembly to support the outcome reached by the Conference, and to benefit from it to push the dialogue among the followers of religions, civilizations and cultures by holding a special session on dialogue.” This call was taken seriously by the United Nations and a special session of the General Assembly was convened on 12- 13 November, 2008 .
Prominent world leaders, such as U.S. President Bush, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and other high-raking officials and heads of state attended the UN high-level meeting. Where initiatives like A Common Word are only as far-reaching as the constituents of those religious leaders present, and the changing of global perspectives through their landmark encounters, the participants of the UN General Assembly held political weight and therefore greater power to affect more immediate change .
Thus, former Israeli PM Shimon Peres had no qualms about using the event as a platform to discuss the Palestine-Israel crisis in his address. “Today we are making progress with the negotiations with the Palestinians; we are exploring the possibility of real peace with the Syrians, the last in the list of the historic conflicts,” Peres said. “However, there are those in our regions who sow hatred and try to widen the abyss and erect barriers , those who seek to wipe out other people and encourage killing.” Members of Iran’s parliament have since condemned the United Nations and the Saudi government for allowing Peres to participate in the initiative. Objections were raised to his remarks, which are in stark contrast to the reality on the ground. Israel has not permitted the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, to bring in supplies since 4 November during cross-border fighting in which more than a dozen Palestinian fighters were killed.5 This has now turned into open aggression by the Israelis and a brutal attack on Gaza.
Saudi Arabia has also been criticized by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom for violating religious freedom and human rights based on discriminatory practices against Shi’i Muslims, non-Muslims, and women. In response to this charge, Prince Saud ??-Faisal, Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, emphasized at a press conference at the conclusion of the summit the importance of dialogue premised on the avoidance of attacking what he considers religious practice. “In Madrid we agreed to leave dogma aside and to leave ideology aside and concentrate on common values so that you can bring people together…” Prince ??-Faisal said. “But to say from the beginning ‘you have to transform yourself into something which you aren’t now or nothing else can be achieved’ is, I think, carrying the argument too far.”
It remains to be seen how the resolutions of the recent session will be implemented. The UN has announced that 2010 is deemed the International Year for the Rapprochement of Cultures – and attendees at the special session have stated their dedication to advancing rapprochement through their respective programs. Addressing the General Assembly, King Abdullah II of Jordan mentioned the Common Word initiative, based in Amman, as an advancement of global dialogue. However, he recognized the importance of bringing interfaith initiatives to inherently political organizations such as the United Nations. “It is impossible to talk about interfaith harmony, especially between East and West, without also discussing conflict resolution in the Middle East.”
Although the Common Word initiative may be inching closer to its vision of renewed relations between Christians and Muslims, bringing interfaith work to the political realm is much more precarious and fraught with obstacles. Remarkably so, the Saudi-based initiative is one of the first attempts at deconstructing these barriers toward a more religiously tolerant world stage.