Editorial: Chron.com

Common word: Muslim theologians invite dialogue with Western counterparts. Now both sides need to act.

Oct. 24, 2007, 8:46PM

In a step that some scholars call unprecedented, 138 Muslim religious leaders sent an open letter to Christian leaders describing commonalities between the faiths’ core beliefs — and the grim consequences if they fail to live peaceably together.

Although the letter’s basis is religious (at 26 pages, it is a bit of a dry read), the groundbreaking aspect is its potential to launch worldly change. Is it a sign of the moderate Muslim majority claiming their rightful place from violent extremists? Could it lead to more dialogue between religious leaders who, especially in the Muslim world, wield great political power?

Will this letter empower Muslims to take further action in defense of the tolerance their clerics praise?

As with many religious writings, the letter’s intent is open to interpretation. Clearly, the main topic is the violence throughout the Middle East and the attendant threat of terrorism to the West. But the letter also is a rebuke to Pope Benedict XVI: The Muslim clerics delivered it to him (and other Christian leaders) about a year after his unconstructive speech quoting a medieval theologian’s dismissal of Islam as offering nothing but violence.

Though the pope’s intent also was ambiguous, the allusion did not add to peace or international dialogue. In contrast, the authors of last week’s letter, who represent the full spectrum of moderate Islam, performed a service by stressing the essential links between Christianity and Islam.

Specifically, their document highlights the admonitions to love God and love one’s neighbor. It’s a sorry reflection on each faith’s relations with the other that this letter might be the first such acknowledgment from a consensus of Islamic scholars.

The document sends a message to non-Muslims who are skeptical that the Islamic extremists killing fellow Muslims and so-called infidels really are outliers among the world’s billion Muslims. But to most nontheologians, the letter has real import only if it gives moderates the confidence to defend their values publicly.

This is a tall order: Few people anywhere are willing to put life and livelihood at grave risk to resist extremist thought and violence. Religious leaders, though, play a role in granting the strength to do so. South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Polish Pope John Paul II and El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero all showed this transformative power, partly by risking their lives.

There are a few hints that the Muslim clerics could include similar leaders. The missive “seeks not to be reactive but instead to initiate,” noted John Esposito of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.

It also calls for a dialogue between Muslim and Christian counterparts — an invitation that should have come long ago, and with persistence, from theologians in the West. Finally, the clerics note, “To those who never-theless relish conflict and destruction for their own sake … we say that our very external souls are also at stake if we fail to sincerely make peace.”

Their frame of reference is theological. But if these leaders guide moderate Muslims toward peacemaking and interfaith inquiry, the worldly rewards could be immense.

For the text and its signatories, go to: www.acommonword.com