MANILA, Philippines – “Journalists oftentimes seem unable to tell the difference between the collapse of civilization and a bicycle accident,” George Bernard Shaw once snorted.

We’ve yanked all plugs on coverage of faceless Malacañang staffers stuffing wads of bills into the back pockets of all-too-willing officials. Fine. But would GBS recognize the ho-hum, inside-page reporting of a unique letter from 138 Muslim scholars to Pope Benedict XVI and other Christian leaders?

Without healing the fractured, often tense, relations between these two faiths, there can be no meaningful peace in the world, the 29-page letter said. Groping for common ground between adherents of these two religions, who account for over half of the world’s 6.8 billion population, wasn’t “simply a matter for polite ecumenical dialogue.”

Titled “A Common Word Between Us,” the letter also went to the archbishop of Canterbury, heads of Protestant churches and Orthodox patriarchs.

With meticulous scholarship, the 138 authors go over their shared beliefs in detail. Muslims and “People of the Scripture” worship the same God. Both the Bible and Koran emphasize “the primacy of total love and devotion to God” and “the love of neighbor.” Truths shown to the Prophet Mohammed were revealed to the Old Testament (the Jewish Torah) and the New Testament, including Jesus.

The letter further cites verses in the Koran that tell Muslims to treat disciples of Jewish and Christian prophets with particular friendship and respect. “We say to Christians: We are not against them and that Islam is not against them — so long as they do not wage war against Muslims on account of their religion, oppress them and drive them out of their homes.”

For a post-Sept. 11 world, it adds: “To those who nevertheless relish conflict and destruction for their own sake or reckon that ultimately they stand to gain through them, we say: Our very eternal souls are also at stake if we fail to sincerely make every effort.”

This is not just another inter-faith letter. “Looking down the list of signatories, there is one person after another with large followings, often numbered in millions,” observes Cambridge University professor of divinity David Ford. They come from countries as diverse as Russia, Egypt, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Yemen. There are Sunnis, Shias, Ibadis and even the Ismailian and Jaafari schools. “The fact that they’ve signed it means it will be taken seriously at the grass roots.”

The significance is in “the emerging voice of mainstream Islam (which has been) missing for so long,” British Broadcasting Corp. religious affairs correspondent Robert Pigott pointed out.

Islam has little of the hierarchies that characterize churches headed by leaders who credibly represent their faiths. “There is no Muslim pope,” he said. “There is no single voice, or even group of voices, generally acknowledged to speak for global Islam… This produced a vacuum.”

And it has been easy for extremists to move into that void, whether locally in a town or city, in a country or in whole regions, Pigott wrote. “Extremists, from maverick imams to the leaders of al-Qaeda, have found it easy to claim to speak for Islam.”

Those who fire-bombed Bali, kidnapped Filipino hostages in Palawan, booby-trapped Paradise Hotel in Mombasa, or killed because of Danish newspaper cartoons on the Prophet cloaked their atrocities with glib claim to Islamic adherence.

“A Common Word Between Us” strips away that farce with its voice of calm reason. By going back to fundamentals, the Muslim scholars undermine the extremists.

In an earlier perceptive “leader” or editorial at the millennium’s start, the Observer noted that as countries tightened security, terrorists “turned to softer targets” like tourists and civilians. It added:

“Many Islamic leaders feel threatened by the brutality of the fundamentalists. They also fretted over the lack of democracy in Muslim countries and the often violent treatment of Christian minorities, especially converts to Christianity.

“There are the beginnings of signs that many moderate Islamic communities and secular Arabs see [that] radical Islamic terrorism threatens to turn all Arabs and Islam into pariahs. But so far the criticism remains muted.

“It takes bravery, within the Islamist world, to speak out against this kind of terrorism and the way it targets innocent civilians. Those who do speak out should know that the (world) is listening and will respond with appropriate policies.”

Now, “A Common Word Between Us” could help “strip away the baggage of history and culture.” It produces a blank sheet for a new relationship.

Indeed, it took more than three years to muster the 138 voices into a resonant voice, letter signatory and Cambridge professor Aref Ali Nayed says. “We can’t solve all of Islam’s problems with a single document,” he notes. “But this is just the beginning for a dialogue that must take place.”

Isn’t that what those ulama-bishops conferences and peace talks in Mindanao are all about?

If Iran gets the nuclear bomb, what will it do with it? asks Noah Feldman, of the Council on Foreign Relations. Does Islamic law justify the use of weapons of mass destruction? Is there a Shiite urge for an apocalypse? Is atomic warfare suicide bombing writ large?

With parochial mind-sets, we Filipinos are not going to ask such questions. But they can help us avoid mistaking the collapse of civilization for a bicycle accident.