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‘A Common Word’ in the News

“We will be respectful” – Obama gives a political dimension to the on-going inter-faith dialogue

Editor at Large

When
the new American president finally made his much anticipated speech and
reached out to the Muslim world, Barack Obama did well. He spoke
without bluster, seeking a deep and long lasting understanding, calmly
making clear that “America’s relationship with the Muslim world cannot
and will not be just based on opposition to terrorism”. Obama made
clear that America needs better understanding and better cooperation
with the Muslim world for its own sake.

In
a speech mainly focused on relations with Turkey, which also touched on
Palestine and other regional issues, he offered a small and eloquent
section that he knew the whole of the Muslim world will be examining: “
We
seek broader engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect. We
will listen carefully, we will bridge misunderstandings, and we will
seek common ground. We will be respectful, even when we do not agree”.

Two
points in this speech mark Obama’s approach to Islam as totally
different from that of his disastrous predecessor. Firstly, he did not
try to reach out to ‘moderate Islam”, which is a Western phrase trying
to distinguish between the very small and violent radical fringe and
the mainstream of Islam. But it is wrong to use the word moderate as
though it was a sub-set of Islam. It is possible to have a very devout
and actively practicing Muslim, who is socially moderate or liberal;
just as it is also possible to have a very moderately practicing Muslim
who is socially xenophobic and militant. The phrase ‘moderate Islam’
has been used to describe what most Muslims see as ‘Islam”, the
religion that millions of people live their lives by every day, which
is not ‘moderate’ but is a whole religion.

Secondly
Obama did not dodge the differences between Christianity and Islam, and
he recognised that “we will not agree”. This vital point is at the
heart of more practical steps to promote understanding between faiths.
The difficulty is that when people of different faiths meet, by
definition they know that people of other faiths are wrong. It is not
possible to be grey about faith: if someone believes one thing, then
someone who believes something else has to be wrong.  This conundrum
was solved in part by the Kenneth Cragg, the great Anglican Bishop of
Jerusalem in the 1950s, who worked hard at developing the ground rules
for inter-faith dialogue, and found progress in simply agreeing to
share the common experience of belief.

Many
great religious thinkers have worked how to bridge this necessary gap
over the years, but the work was taken to a new level by the
ground-breaking ‘A Common Word’ initiative, launched in 2007 by over
300 leading Muslim scholars from all leading Muslim communities, who
wrote an open letter stating that “
Muslims
and Christians together make up well over half of the world’s
population. Without peace and justice between these two religious
communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world. The future
of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians”.

The
founders of ‘A Common Word” went on to say that “The basis for this
peace and understanding already exists. It is part of the very
foundational principles of both faiths: love of the One God, and love
of the neighbour.” They picked two principles common to both
Christianity and Islam, and proposed to Christian leaders that this
should be the basis of taking the search better relations forward.
Representatives of ‘A Common Word’ have met the Pope and senior figures
from the Catholic Church, as well as many other Christian churches.

The
well-considered reply from the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury shows
how this Muslim initiative has found strong support. “In your
invitation to come to a common word we find a helpful generosity of
intention. Some have read the invitation as an insistence that we
should be able to immediately to affirm an agreed and shared
understanding of God. But such an affirmation would not be honest to
either of our traditions. It would fail to acknowledge the reality of
the differences that exist.”

The
reply continued saying that “A Common Word is a more realistically
hopeful recognition that the ways Christians and Muslims speak about
God are not mutually unintelligible, and allow peaceful cooperation
without compromising fundamental beliefs”.

It
is a major step that Obama’s speech about Islam has come into this kind
of space. By refusing to treat Islam as a problem, and by treating it
with respect, Obama has opened the possibility that a whole range of
religious and social dialogue will find powerful political backing.

However, he did this without any backing down on his long-held objective of “denying
al Qaeda a safe haven in Pakistan or Afghanistan. The world has come
too far to let this region backslide, and to let al Qaeda terrorists
plot further attacks.” He was uncompromising on that struggle, with
which he has the goodwill of the Muslim world.

END

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