Common word, common work

Can Muslims and Christians (and people of other faiths) live together in peace? And what will be the principles upon which this goal can be achieved?

To answer these questions, Georgetown University hosted a major conference on Muslim-Christian relations on Oct. 7-8, 2009. Titled “A Common Word between Us and You: A Global Change for Change,” the conference brought together prominent political and religious leaders from both traditions to improve relations between Islam and Christianity. The Georgetown conference builds on “A Common Word” initiative, which was launched on Oct. 17, 2007 by a leading group of 138 Muslim scholars, academics and leaders to improve relations between Muslims and Christians. The three major conferences that occurred since 2007 were held at Yale Divinity School, Cambridge and Rome, where the Muslim delegation met Pope Benedict XVI. (see the official website of A Common Word at A Common Word)

A Common Word initiative begins with the premise that there will be no world peace unless there is peace between Muslims and Christians, who together make up about 55 percent of the world’s population. The two commandments to love God and to love one’s neighbor provide a solid context for a serious theological engagement and social interaction between the two faith communities. Despite various interfaith initiatives, Muslims and Christians have negative images of each other. They treat each other with suspicion, mistrust and at times hatred rather than compassion, understanding and respect. Part of the reason is prejudice and bigotry but part of it is also ignorance and the lack of context for relations and engagement.

The participants at the Georgetown conference reiterated the need for further contact between Muslims and Christians to prevent conflict and build on good practices. The Georgetown conference was organized by President of Georgetown University John DeGioia, Jordan’s Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal and John Esposito, the founding director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. Participants included former Prime Minister of the UK Tony Blair, former Prime Minister of Norway Kjell Magne Bondevik, former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia and the current opposition leader in the Malaysian Parliament Anwar Ibrahim, the twentieth sultan of Sokoto, Nigeria, Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar, Patriarch of Jerusalem Theofilos III, Egypt’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Ali Gomaa, the raisu’l-ulama of Bosnia, Mustafa Ceric, the bishop of London, Richard Chartres, Bishop Mark Hanson, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, John Voll, Sherman Jackson, Miroslav Volf, Ingrid Mattson, Aref Ali Nayed and many other academics, intellectuals and community leaders.

The following themes stood out in the discussions. A Common Word is the most important platform for Muslim-Christian relations to date. These two communities, together with others, need to talk and work together to address the world’s urgent problems, from poverty and epidemics to communal violence, intolerance and racism.

Globalization has made all of us more interdependent, and this forces the world’s major religions to recognize each other. The world is enriched by faith, not impoverished by it, notwithstanding those who manipulate religion. But dialogue and tolerance is not enough; we need action and cooperation on the ground. While theological and intellectual principles are very important, at times it is action that provides the best context for both religious and social interaction and dialogue. Some speakers pointed to the importance of the media and stressed that freedom of expression should be exercised with responsibility.

The Georgetown common word conference was held at a time when the need for serious engagement and cooperation between Muslims and Christians is more urgent than ever. Political and religious leaders have a particularly important role to play in easing tensions and building bridges of understanding without giving up on honesty and integrity. There is no doubt that the theological and political problems between Muslims and Christians are not easy, and no one should try to sweep them under the carpet in the name of religious tolerance. A serious theological engagement requires honesty as well as intellectual integrity and religious orthodoxy. But this is all the more reason why Muslims, Christians, Jews and people of other faiths need to work together for the common good of humanity.