CONNECTICUT // Muslim theologians and their Evangelical counterparts are among the 150 delegates congregating at Yale University for what organisers hope will become a landmark union of two great faiths in the global battle against religious extremism.
Interfaith seminars have become commonplace nowadays, with initiatives being led by a bevy of statesmen from Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, but this low-key affair is being touted by insiders as “the one that counts”.
While other events have featured a similar cast of repeat speakers and conference-hoppers, the Yale meet unites a group of religious leaders who together command the opinions of enormous constituencies of worshippers.
Last night’s opening banquet was the first face-to-face meeting between the Christian and Muslim scholars, who wrote public letters to each other in the wake of Pope Benedict XVI’s inflammatory speech at the University of Regensburg in Sept 2006, in which the pontiff increased the interfaith antipathy by quoting a historical passage that described Islam as “evil and inhuman”.
A response to the pope’s lecture came in October last year, when 138 Muslim scholars took the unprecedented step of crafting a 29-page letter to Christian leaders that defined shared principles between the two faiths, titled “A Common Word Between Us and You”.
“It was something like a stroke of genius,” said Miroslav Volf, who is hosting the event as founder and director of Yale Divinity School’s Center for Faith and Culture, and one of more than 300 signatories on a welcoming response to the letter that ran as a full-page advertisement in The New York Times.
“It came as a surprise to many of us,” he said. “Once stated, it became obvious – but it wasn’t obvious in advance.”
For the first time, Yale’s respondents will meet en masse with the authors of A Common Word, a multi-denominational body of Muslims under Jordan’s Royal Aal al Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, and test “how far that agreement really reaches”, Mr Volf said.
Among them will be the Islamic spiritualist, Sheikh al Habib Ali al Jifri, founder and director of Abu Dhabi’s Tabah Foundation, together with Rick Warren, best-selling Evangelical author and pastor, and Jordan’s Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal.
The pope’s speech was just one example of the Islamic world being pitted against a predominantly Christian West, demonstrating the volatility inherent in a cocktail of political and religious identities that predates the Crusades and postdates George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
Islam’s scholars will be in sleepy New Haven with an agenda that includes addressing the right to freedom and religious defamation, according to Ibrahim Kalin, signatory to A Common Word and founding-director of Turkey’s Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (Seta). The issue made headlines this year with the release of the anti-Islamic film Fitna, by the Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders, although this paled in comparison to the violent reaction to the publication of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammed in Danish and other newspapers.
“It is about respect,” Mr Kalin said. “What some considered a freedom of expression was seen by others as an assault or a defamation of one’s faith. If everybody has learnt a lesson from that, it is that one must be responsible in what one says and does.”
Mr Volf acknowledged there was room to manoeuvre on what is evidently a key issue for Muslims, even though the right to freedom of expression represents an equally cherished liberty in the West.
“I want to put the sense of freedom of expression within the context of the love of the neighbour,” he said. “It’s not a sense of wanting to legally curtail freedoms, but I want a responsible way to exercise my freedom of speech that honours the humanity of the other person.”
Mr Volf cites comparable gripes from the Christian camp, with the “divisive issue” of the lack of religious freedom in parts of the Muslim world likely to be raised by ecumenical scholars during the four-day meeting.
Such topics will include Saudi Arabia’s long-standing refusal to allow a church in the kingdom, Mr Volf said.
Mr Kalin promised a lively debate on such topics. “Nobody will shy away from taking their positions. It’s better to have an open discussion than to brush these things under the rug.” No one is expecting any miracles at Yale, and future meetings are already scheduled to take place in Cambridge and at the Vatican over coming months. Nevertheless, Mr Volf hopes the week will yield a consensus resolution that condemns religious extremism.
“My hope is that, through this conference, we can suck out the air of religious legitimacy from the space in which extremists move,” said Mr Volf, who will teach a course on faith and globalisation with Mr Blair this autumn. “We want extremism to appear to the broader population as what it truly is: extremism, a misappropriation of religion.”