Why the Common Word is more than worthy platitudes

As interfaith conferences go, I have a lot of time for the Common Word initiative. It is rare for high-profile personalities from both the Muslim religious world and the Christian equivalent to meet, but the Common Word conference at Georgetown University in Washington this month was such an occasion.

There have been meetings before, of course – at Yale, Cambridge and the Vatican – in the two years since Muslim scholars and clerics wrote A Common Word Between Us and You to Christian leaders, and they seem to have been fruitful and intriguing encounters.

But at the Georgetown conference one good friend asked me: “What has happened with the Common Word so far? Is it really all that important? Isn’t it just another gathering of nice people, who speak lovely platitudes, but cannot actually do anything in their own parts of the world?”

Obviously (since I was there) I do not think it’s a waste of time. In fact, I believe several factors make the initiative unique.

The first is the weight of the signatories – many of the most powerful religious leaders in the world. The second is the honesty about differences, and not pretending to be all exactly the same. For me, those two make it a worthwhile endeavour.

Beyond that, Georgetown was an interesting gathering in and of itself, even if it was not part of any collective initiative. One bishop in particular caught my attention.

The Evangelical Lutheran Bishop of Jordan and the Holy Land, Dr Munib Younan, set the cat among the pigeons when he brought up politics in a way that left no doubt that Muslims and Christians alike in the Middle East will not be satisfied with any global interfaith initiative if it chooses to ignore the plight of the Palestinians.

All too often, it is tempting to plaster over these hardcore political issues so as not to offend – and consequently run the risk of living in a parallel universe. In this world, people have problems that just won’t go away.

But that has been said before, and was not the part of the bishop’s remarks that I particularly noticed. He also said something unique: he insisted on making it absolutely clear that while Christians might be numerically fewer than Muslims in the Middle East, they are not a minority. Psychologically, that is saying something: it is demanding the right to be recognised as an integral part of the Arab world.

The fascinating thing was that he was not saying this to correct his Arab Muslim compatriots in this setting: on the contrary, he said they recognised Christians as such. Which left me to wonder – was he (and I suspect he may have been) directing his comments at American lobbyists who insist on thinking of Arab Christians as a separate minority in the Arab world?

Looking at European religious minorities, particularly at the moment, I think he is bringing to bear on the world an important truth: that if real, sustainable community cohesion is to take place, all communities have to think of themselves, psychologically, as integral to the societies in which they live. For that alone, I appreciated the bishop’s contribution.

As I look at the state of things in both the West and the Muslim world, I wonder if that issue of considering different communities “integral” to our societies is not going to be a litmus test of the interfaith community. If they manage to deal with that, then the community, including those who signed the Common Word, might easily be collectively more worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize than Barack Obama. If they do not, they may find that interfaith dialogue continues – but in a world where there are no Muslims in the West, and no Christians in the Muslim world. In such a situation, we would all be the losers.

It is for that reason that I have just completed a book looking not at Christian-Muslim relations in particular, but pluralism in general, and how we are to navigate the different pitfalls of multiculturalism, nationalism and identity in the 21st century.

This world is shrinking all the time – events so far away affect change on our local streets, and while there are many benefits to our lives in a material and intellectual sense, we have to remain aware of the tensions and the troubles. The far right, for example – or al Qa’eda, for that matter – could not function without the mechanisms and avenues that globalisation provides.

We have to be responsible about those mechanisms – and perhaps the interfaith movement of the Common Word can provide a moral and ethical voice in that discussion.