Tuesday 22 July 2008 (18 Rajab 1429)
Editorial: Madrid shows the way forward
22 July 2008 -
Back in the 1960s, when asked for his assessment of the 1789 French
Revolution, Chinese Prime Minister Chou en-Lai, famously said, "It is too early
to say." So too with last week's world dialogue in Madrid which brought
together representatives of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism
and other faiths. Just days after the event, it is too early to say what the
long-term international impact will be, although hopefully it will be much less
than 200 years before the conference is seen to have been what Custodian of the
Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah (whose idea it was), the participants there and
a host of religious and political figures the world over all want it to be: a
turning point in relations between faiths and cultures.
Certain results, however, are already clear.
It was no vain hope that those who attended would leave with changed
minds. "Historic", "a landmark", and "a new dawn": Such were the terms used by
participant after participant to describe the event. For them, its supreme
value was not its recommendations - among them calls for the UN to take up the
issue of interfaith dialogue and for an international agreement to combat
terrorism - but that the meetings took place at all. The sight of different
faiths talking to each other, of imams and bishops and rabbis and scholars
embracing each other, laughing with each other, sharing meals with each other,
is potentially momentous. If religious leaders can work in harmony, then so can
No one left with their own faith diminished but there was a shared
acceptance that faith (as opposed to a particular faith) has a powerful role to
play in our world - that it can help combat poverty, end discrimination and
racism, work to safeguard the environment, fight injustice and more - and that,
therefore, it is to be supported, not abused and attacked.
The other common sentiment expressed by all at the conference was
gratitude to King Abdullah for opening a door which they believe will not
easily close; interfaith dialogue is now going to figure firmly on the agenda
worldwide, in Muslim countries as much as in non-Muslim ones. The thanks were
in no way perfunctory. They were genuine. That is of major importance in
helping change perceptions, particularly about Islam.
The sad truth is there are some people in the West and elsewhere who
cling to the view that Islam is intolerant and a threat. Similarly, there are
some in the Muslim world who believe the same of Christianity and other
religions. The conference obliterated any basis for such thinking but it is
Islam that particularly benefits - because it is Islam that has been
particularly vilified in this respect. The discovery that it is a religion of
tolerance and peace and that Muslims want dialogue with Christians, Jews and
others, and to live in harmony with them, came almost as a revelation to some
at the conference; but a revelation that they took to their hearts.
Relationships were formed in Madrid that will undoubtedly result in individual
efforts at dialogue. Welcome though that is, the real goal was to start a
process that breaks down the barriers of religious intolerance and ignorance
and puts respect at the center of relations between peoples and societies.
For much of this decade, the political initiative in so many corners of
the world seems to have passed into the hands of bigots whose agenda is
offensive (in both senses of the term: attack and insult) and whose vision is
firmly stuck in the notion, "If you are not with us, you are against us." The
Madrid dialogue is only the start of a process but it enables those who believe
in tolerance to regain the initiative.