“We Will Be Respectful” – Obama Gives A Political Dimension To The Ongoing Interfaith Dialogue

Editor at Large

When the new American president finally made his much anticipated speech and reached out to the Muslim world, Barack Obama did well. He spoke without bluster, seeking a deep and long lasting understanding, calmly making clear that “America’s relationship with the Muslim world cannot and will not be just based on opposition to terrorism”. Obama made clear that America needs better understanding and better cooperation with the Muslim world for its own sake.

In a speech mainly focused on relations with Turkey, which also touched on Palestine and other regional issues, he offered a small and eloquent section that he knew the whole of the Muslim world will be examining: “We seek broader engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect. We will listen carefully, we will bridge misunderstandings, and we will seek common ground. We will be respectful, even when we do not agree”.

Two points in this speech mark Obama’s approach to Islam as totally different from that of his disastrous predecessor. Firstly, he did not try to reach out to ‘moderate Islam”, which is a Western phrase trying to distinguish between the very small and violent radical fringe and the mainstream of Islam. But it is wrong to use the word moderate as though it was a sub-set of Islam. It is possible to have a very devout and actively practicing Muslim, who is socially moderate or liberal; just as it is also possible to have a very moderately practicing Muslim who is socially xenophobic and militant. The phrase ‘moderate Islam’ has been used to describe what most Muslims see as ‘Islam”, the religion that millions of people live their lives by every day, which is not ‘moderate’ but is a whole religion.

Secondly Obama did not dodge the differences between Christianity and Islam, and he recognised that “we will not agree”. This vital point is at the heart of more practical steps to promote understanding between faiths. The difficulty is that when people of different faiths meet, by definition they know that people of other faiths are wrong. It is not possible to be grey about faith: if someone believes one thing, then someone who believes something else has to be wrong.  This conundrum was solved in part by the Kenneth Cragg, the great Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem in the 1950s, who worked hard at developing the ground rules for inter-faith dialogue, and found progress in simply agreeing to share the common experience of belief.

Many great religious thinkers have worked how to bridge this necessary gap over the years, but the work was taken to a new level by the ground-breaking ‘A Common Word’ initiative, launched in 2007 by over 300 leading Muslim scholars from all leading Muslim communities, who wrote an open letter stating that “>Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world’s population. Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world. The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians”.

The founders of ‘A Common Word” went on to say that “The basis for this peace and understanding already exists. It is part of the very foundational principles of both faiths: love of the One God, and love of the neighbour.” They picked two principles common to both Christianity and Islam, and proposed to Christian leaders that this should be the basis of taking the search better relations forward. Representatives of ‘A Common Word’ have met the Pope and senior figures from the Catholic Church, as well as many other Christian churches.

The well-considered reply from the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury shows how this Muslim initiative has found strong support. “In your invitation to come to a common word we find a helpful generosity of intention. Some have read the invitation as an insistence that we should be able to immediately to affirm an agreed and shared understanding of God. But such an affirmation would not be honest to either of our traditions. It would fail to acknowledge the reality of the differences that exist.”

The reply continued saying that “A Common Word is a more realistically hopeful recognition that the ways Christians and Muslims speak about God are not mutually unintelligible, and allow peaceful cooperation without compromising fundamental beliefs”.

It is a major step that Obama’s speech about Islam has come into this kind of space. By refusing to treat Islam as a problem, and by treating it with respect, Obama has opened the possibility that a whole range of religious and social dialogue will find powerful political backing.

However, he did this without any backing down on his long-held objective of “denying al Qaeda a safe haven in Pakistan or Afghanistan. The world has come too far to let this region backslide, and to let al Qaeda terrorists plot further attacks.” He was uncompromising on that struggle, with which he has the goodwill of the Muslim world.