The Great Divide

The disconnects among different worlds come through powerfully at World Economic Forum (WEF) meetings. Bringing everyone together under one tent is a feat all by itself, but once they get there they can talk quite different languages.

The WEF is best known for the Davos meeting it organizes each January, but a long series of regional meetings takes place under the WEF aegis in different parts of the world as well. The annual Middle East meeting took place in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, this year, from May 18-20. The WEF looks at global issues and prides itself as a place where world leaders meet and act. Its founder, Klaus Schwab, talks movingly about how important both ethics and religion are for leadership. But when the meeting gets underway, the business leaders tend to network like crazy and gravitate to certain kinds of discussion (say about inflation or new technologies), while those whose focus is intercultural dialogue go in different directions. They might as well be at different meetings.

It’s not that there’s any lack of trying to connect.

Shortly after 9/11, the WEF established a council with the tantalizing title “C100”, or Council of 100. The C100 has operated now for about five years, a loose gathering of some pretty distinguished people, notionally divided between “Muslim World” and “West”, and five sectors: politics, religion, business, civil society/academia, and media. Chaired jointly by Lord Carey (former Archbishop of Canterbury) and Princess Lolwah Al Feisal (Saudia Arabia), it meets around WEF meetings, particularly Davos and the Middle East regional gathering.

The C100 focuses largely on dialogue and networking and has issued an annual report about what is going on in Muslim-West relations ( But from the very beginning it has struggled to engage its political and business members. Religious leaders, academics, and nongovernmental organization leaders grumble and muse about why.

Last week in Sharm El Sheikh a long discussion about Christian-Muslim dialogue centered on the Common Word statement signed in September 2007 by a large group of Muslim theologians and leaders (initially 138, with more still signing up. The discussion raised some existential, high-stakes issues, about what causes extremism and the course of world history. But as talk turned to love of God and love of neighbor, I noticed a crop of Blackberries coming out. During another discussion about how businesses should in fact be engaged in addressing Muslim West tensions, the religious leaders and academics were clearly tuning out and even among the business leaders who were on the spot, their body language suggested that business impatience was setting in. Overbooked agendas and a “results culture” took over as the group moved like a herd to the next meeting that featured Tony Blair.

Even the vocabulary suggests that the different sides aren’t hearing each other. Sitting next to Dan Shine, from the computer company AMD who wears a Silicon Valley aura, I asked about his conference bio, which said he does evangelism – anything to do with religion, perchance? Heavens no, he said, it refers to spreading computer technology. I notice that an article about him refers to a Crusade to bring computers to kids but again there is zero religious content–or awareness that the word may be offensive to Muslims. .

Meanwhile, at the Sharm meeting at large, outside the C100 discussions, religion and civilizational dialogue got only passing mention. The meeting theme was “Learning from the Future” and dozens of sessions explored the future, with a focus on youth and technology. Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, was everywhere. The WEF organized a fairly elaborate scenario exercise, exploring three different paths: the “hyperlinked world”, the “sustainable world”, and the “multipolar world.”–but intercultural dialogue or multicultural societies were not really part of the discussion.

Where was the C100 in all this? Plainly at the margins. Religion did come into the picture wherever peace and conflict came up, but even there it got shunted aside. Interfaith dialogue is about people getting along in today’s plural society and it tends to focus on the long term, not the here and now.

The business leaders who converge at WEF need to realize that there are parts of the world where the terms Ipod and Mac and HDTV would elicit not a flicker of recognition, and that those places may be the most important to the future security of the United States. They could even offer vast market potential–if, one day, they become part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Posted by Katherine Marshall on May 27, 2008 1:15 PM