From “Security” To Compassion – A Needed Shift For Obama Gov’t

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Libyan theologian Aref Ali Nayed is a senior advisor to the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme and a leading signatory of A Common Word.

By Aref Ali Nayed

Being held in the early days of the Obama presidency, this year’s U.S.-Muslim World Forum in Doha last weekend was particularly luminescent with rays of hope. One was the very fact that its host, the influential Brookings Institution think-tank, invited faith leaders to discuss how to improve the dreadful state of relations between Washington and the Muslim world. The basis for discussion was A Common Word, an appeal by 138 Muslim scholars to Christian leaders to join in a dialogue based on the shared commandments to love God and love one’s neighbor.

That a theological and spiritual initiative is of keen interest to policy planners is indeed a fresh ray of light.  Basking in that hopeful light, moreover, I had the rare privilege for a Muslim theologian of listening to the U.S. CentCom Commander General David Petraeus expound there on a “network of networks” that constituted a “security architecture” for our Middle East region.

(Photo: General David Petraeus addresses the U.S.-Muslim World Forum, 14 Feb 2009/Osama Faisal)

General Petraeus argued that security can only be achieved through a multi-layered and multi-faceted network of networks that involved training, tooling and equipping, information sharing, and infrastructure building.

I very much liked the talk of a network of networks and indeed agreed with the need for training, tooling, information sharing and infrastructure building. Alas, I had to keep reminding myself, while looking at the elegantly uniformed speaker, that it is a military network of networks that he was advocating and that all those nice-sounding activities pertained to matters military. It turned out that I very much liked the structure of what General Petraeus was proposing, but definitely not its content!

The training we truly need is training in compassionate dialogue between all of us and in compassionate living amongst each other. The tools and equipment we truly need are those of compassionate communication and understanding. The information sharing we truly need is the honest sharing of, and witnessing to, our loftiest ideals and values and the cooperative shedding of dark stereotypes and caricatures of others. The infrastructures we truly need to build are infrastructures of public and shared spaces in which we respectfully appreciate and cherish each other just as we stand firmly rooted in our respective traditions.

The Obama presidency does NOT need more of the same “security architecture” inherited from the destructive, divisive and corrosive years of the Bush presidencies. Rather, it urgently needs a fresh “compassion architecture” that is constructive, mending and healing. Such a compassion architecture can only be communal and cooperative. All religious, spiritual and philosophical communities, Muslims included, must contribute to it.

(Photo: Aref Ali Nayed at U.S.-Muslim World Forum, 15 Feb 2009/Sohail Nakhooda)

Compassion architecture is built on the theological fact that true security can only come from God’s own compassion towards humanity and the compassion of humans towards humans. Compassion is the condition of possibility of true security.

A Common Word, which was launched in October 2007, is an important  contribution to an alternative compassion architecture. Its signatories, whose number has since grown to 301, include Muslim scholars and thinkers of all theological schools, both genders, all ages and occupations.

The response from Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox Christians has been very  positive and several constructive conferences have already been held with them to explore our common ground. Some Jewish scholars have also made positive and encouraging comments and they will be addressed in a similar document.

For example, Muslim scholars met evangelical Christian leaders last summer at a conference at Yale University, for many the first time either had sat down to discuss faith with the other.  It was a transformative event.  The dark and twisted images Muslims and evangelicals often had of each other came tumbling down. A door for compassionate cooperation opened.

Last November, a Common Word delegation of two dozen Muslim scholars, led by Grand Mufti of Bosnia Mustafa Ceric, met Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican and held three days of talks with leading Catholic scholars there.  The encounter was soothing and healing after the wounds of the pope’s speech in Regensburg in 2006.

(Photo: Pope Benedict and Grand Mufti Ceric at Vatican, 6 Nov 2008/Osservatore Romano)

Last month, one of Islam’s top Muslim television preachers, Amr Khaled, toured several Muslim countries including Sudan to rally tens of thousands of young people around the theme of A Common Word. The response proved overwhelmingly positive.

Initiatives such as A Common Word are giving rise to a “network of networks of compassion” with multiple nodes and growing complexity and interconnectivity. Much like the internet, this network of networks does not depend on any one node. It is robust and resilient precisely because it is so widespread and interconnected.  Compassion achitecture will rise from a wide variety of initiatives such as A Common Word coming together.

In a ‘stuck’ or ‘jammed’ world situation, A Common World hits the reset button with fresh and purified presuppositions. Now, we watch the lights come on in a fresh way, a way that may very well get our world going again. What better presuppositions to start with than Love of God and Love of Neighbor?

Reorienting and purifying intentions is the most important change to make if the Obama “change platform” is to work. Change requires a shift from self-righteous arrogance to attitudes of humility, concern for others, brokenness-before-God, compassion and understanding.

What humanity needs most today is a prophetic teaching of compassion and love. Inherent in A Common Word is a lofty, scriptures-based exhortation from which many lessons, sermons and much guidance can flow.

(Photo: Amr Khaled preaching in Sanaa, 1 July 2007/Khaled Abdullah Ali Al Mahdi)

Today we are all frightened, in one way or another, physically, politically, socially, and economically. For too many years, fear ran our lives both as actors and acted-upon. During those terrible Bush years, the generals and security agencies thrived on offering their “Security Architectures”. It is time for true change: change from fear to hope, from hate to love, from madness to sanity and from cruelty to compassion. The new day is indeed luminescent with rays of hope!

God knows best!