Muslim-Christian dialogue offers hope
For many people, Christmas and peace seem to be fused as one theme. But when the holiday season is over, will the world be any closer to, if not peace itself, at least a reduction in violence and warfare?
I take great heart this festive season in two developments that are lifting up international civilized discourse and laying the groundwork for human reconciliation: improved Muslim-Christian dialogue, and the start of an Alliance of Civilizations.
First, 138 Muslim scholars and clerics published on October 13, 2007, a remarkable letter addressed to “leaders of Christian Churches, everywhere,” identifying the common ground that both great religions stand on. That common ground is love of God and love of neighbour. “If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace.”
Pointing out that both Muslims and Christians are challenged to overcome conflict because of the terrible weaponry of the modern world, they said: “The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake.”
A group of 300 Christian leaders responded with a full-page advertisement in the New York Times, stating: “It is no exaggeration to say that … the future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.” Calling for a new dialogue between Christians and Muslims, they said: “If we can achieve religious peace … peace in the world will be easier to attain.”
Although extremist actions and deep-seated prejudices within both religions continue to dominate public attention (cartoons, banning of the hijab, a “Muhammad” doll), serious work is uncovering the common ground in the two faiths, which make up 55 per cent of the world’s population. Since both faiths are unambiguous on the sanctity of human life and the protection of all forms of creation — including the environment — their joint action for the common good of protecting God’s creation from catastrophes such as climate change and a nuclear holocaust could have a potent effect on political decision-makers.
The Muslim-Christian opening exchange has already produced positive results. Pope Benedict XVI, who got himself in trouble a year ago with some injudicious remarks about Islam, has invited the principal signatories of the Muslim letter to a “working meeting” at the Vatican. U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown said his government would publish a Green paper encouraging interfaith groups to come together in every constituency in the country. Karen Armstrong, the former Catholic nun who has famously become a scholar on Islam, said: “The coming together of Muslims and Christians, who have such an unhappy history of hostility, is a beacon of hope and an example to the whole of humanity.”
A Muslim-Christian dialogue is meant to avert a “clash of civilizations,” and this is also the goal of a new international organization, the Alliance of Civilizations.
When the terrorist attack on Madrid trains occurred in 2004, Spanish Prime Minister Rodriguez Zapatero retaliated not with bombing, but to find new ways to promote harmony.Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan joined him in sponsoring an international commission on Alliance of Civilizations. With Archbishop Desmond Tutu and other notable religious figures participating, a high-level group spent a year assessing the political, social and religious forces that foment extremism and identifying actions to strengthen mutual understanding.
The group, presenting its report in November 2006 to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, called for stronger education, youth, migration and media policies to reduce cross-culture tensions and build bridges between communities. Annan’s successor, Ban Ki-moon, appointed Jorge Sampaio, former president of Portugal, as UN High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations. The first Alliance of Civilizations Forum, to be held Jan. 15 to 16 in Madrid, will bring together representatives of governments, international organizations, civil society groups, foundations and the private sector.
Though this work is in its early stages, already we understand better that there is no basis to the claim that civilizations are on an inevitable collision course. Despite periods of war, Islam, Christianity and Judaism all benefited from each other through intellectual and trade exchanges. The widening rift between Muslim and Western societies in modern times is not rooted in religion or culture, but rather economic and social exploitation. Politics must now be re-inspired to build the conditions for peace.
The inspirational power of the Alliance of Civilizations lies in its potential to transform the world from exclusive societies to inclusive societies comprising diverse peoples. While the exigencies of our time forced the Alliance of Civilizations to examine societal relationships through the prism of Muslim-Christian relations, the true value of its work of reconciliation is that it speaks to all of humanity.