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‘A Common Word’ in the News

Why the Common Word is more than worthy platitudes

As interfaith
conferences go, I have a lot of time for the Common Word initiative. It is rare
for high-profile personalities from both the Muslim religious world and the
Christian equivalent to meet, but the Common Word conference at Georgetown University in Washington
this month was such an occasion.

There have been meetings before, of course – at Yale, Cambridge and the Vatican
– in the two years since Muslim scholars and clerics wrote A Common Word
Between Us and You to Christian leaders, and they seem to have been fruitful
and intriguing encounters.

at the Georgetown conference one
good friend asked me: “What has happened with the Common Word so far? Is it
really all that important? Isn’t it just another gathering of nice people, who
speak lovely platitudes, but cannot actually do anything in their own parts of
the world?”

Obviously (since I was there) I do not think it’s a waste of time. In fact, I
believe several factors make the initiative unique.

first is the weight of the signatories – many of the most powerful religious
leaders in the world. The second is the honesty about differences, and not
pretending to be all exactly the same. For me, those two make it a worthwhile

Beyond that, Georgetown was an
interesting gathering in and of itself, even if it was not part of any
collective initiative. One bishop in particular caught my attention.

Evangelical Lutheran Bishop of Jordan and the Holy Land, Dr Munib Younan, set
the cat among the pigeons when he brought up politics in a way that left no
doubt that Muslims and Christians alike in the Middle East will not be
satisfied with any global interfaith initiative if it chooses to ignore the
plight of the Palestinians.

All too often, it is tempting to plaster over these hardcore political issues
so as not to offend – and consequently run the risk of living in a parallel
universe. In this world, people have problems that just won’t go away.

that has been said before, and was not the part of the bishop’s remarks that I
particularly noticed. He also said something unique: he insisted on making it
absolutely clear that while Christians might be numerically fewer than Muslims
in the Middle East, they are not a minority. Psychologically, that is saying
something: it is demanding the right to be recognised as an integral part of
the Arab world.

fascinating thing was that he was not saying this to correct his Arab Muslim
compatriots in this setting: on the contrary, he said they recognised Christians
as such. Which left me to wonder – was he (and I suspect he may have been)
directing his comments at American lobbyists who insist on thinking of Arab
Christians as a separate minority in the Arab world?

Looking at European religious minorities, particularly at the moment, I think
he is bringing to bear on the world an important truth: that if real,
sustainable community cohesion is to take place, all communities have to think
of themselves, psychologically, as integral to the societies in which they
live. For that alone, I appreciated the bishop’s contribution.

I look at the state of things in both the West and the Muslim world, I wonder
if that issue of considering different communities “integral” to our societies
is not going to be a litmus test of the interfaith community. If they manage to
deal with that, then the community, including those who signed the Common Word,
might easily be collectively more worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize than Barack
Obama. If they do not, they may find that interfaith dialogue continues – but
in a world where there are no Muslims in the West, and no Christians in the
Muslim world. In such a situation, we would all be the losers.

is for that reason that I have just completed a book looking not at
Christian-Muslim relations in particular, but pluralism in general, and how we
are to navigate the different pitfalls of multiculturalism, nationalism and
identity in the 21st century.

This world is shrinking all the time – events so far away affect change on our
local streets, and while there are many benefits to our lives in a material and
intellectual sense, we have to remain aware of the tensions and the troubles.
The far right, for example – or al Qa’eda, for that matter – could not function
without the mechanisms and avenues that globalisation provides.

have to be responsible about those mechanisms – and perhaps the interfaith
movement of the Common Word can provide a moral and ethical voice in that