Depending on who you listen to, the Common Word is an extraordinary opportunity, a watershed event that promises to counter threats of a “clash of civilizations,” or yet another interfaith dialogue in which narrow groups argue about the meaning of life and how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
All of those views were expressed at the annual Brookings Institution U.S.-Islamic World Forum last weekend in Doha, Qatar, where participants discussed security, the global economy, the Arab-Israeli conflict, science and technology — and religion and the pluralistic document known as the Common Word. Many leaders at the Doha event opted for the harder discussions, but the room where faith was the topic was crowded and those who engaged included former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Amr Khaled, the Egyptian evangelist and inspiration for young people across the Middle East.
What’s the Common Word? In the furor over the Pope’s Regensberg speech that riled Muslims across the world, a group of 138 Muslim scholars signed a letter in October 2007 addressed to the leading lights of Christian institutions — eminences, archbishops, Metropolitans, and so on. It stressed the important common ground that links Islam and Christianity, above all the two central and shared commandments: to love God and to love your neighbor as you do yourself. In stressing common ground it acknowledged differences and invited dialogue. Since then many have added their names to the list of signatories and a series of weighty meetings — at the Vatican, Yale and Cambridge Universities — have brought groups of leaders and scholars together, producing a series of responses. All are in the same vein: there is much common ground to build on and love is the common commandment.
The challenge at Doha was to take this promising start, and the aura and authority of its high level leadership, to the larger Christian and Muslim “flocks”, thus promoting the understanding and sense of common purpose that must be the foundations for peace in our plural world. Scads of ideas emerged. Not surprisingly communications and media were common themes: How can we make love newsworthy? How to spread the word? And what, asked Yale scholar Joseph Cummings, would a “policy of love” look like?
Plenty of thorny questions come up. What does this have to do with other faiths besides Christianity and Islam? What about non-believers? Madeleine Albright asked how extremists can and should be engaged; others noted the tiny representation of women among the various signatories of the documents. The Obama theme of mutual respect and mutual interests as a foundation for relationships with the Muslim world was stressed repeatedly, but few offered tangible suggestions about how to translate the noble and important ideas into practice. And it was hard to forget that self-respect is linked to jobs and jobs are more problematic than ever as the global economy seems to be in free fall.
Amr Khaled offered some vivid testimony on the Common Word’s appeal to those we all most need to reach – young people. He spoke recently about the Common Word at a large event, with some 40,000 people, in Sudan. Afterwards, as he drove away a young Sudanese girl chased his car, rapping on his window. Is the message about common ground among faiths REALLY in the Koran, she demanded? He cited the verse, and reemphasized the message and she darted away, smiling.
Washington’s Episcopal Bishop John Chane recalled an old Native American parable. A grandfather tells the child that he, like all people, has two wolves inside him. One represents revenge, anger and bitterness, the other compassion, curiosity, and love. They compete. “But which wins”, the grandchild asks. “It depends which one you feed, the grandfather replied. It’s that good wolf, the positive force of religion and interfaith understanding, that we want and need to nourish.
Judging from the oasis of good will around the Doha discussion, the Common Word is an excellent place to start.