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An opportunity to bridge gaps
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 13 - 07 - 2008

NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, United Kingdom – Academics expressed hope that the Saudi Arabian-sponsored inter-faith dialogue conference in Madrid Wednesday will be the first step to resolving the chasm between Jews, Christians and Muslims, but also expressed skepticism of how much can be accomplished at a highly public venue.
The conference will be held July 16-18 with many of the world's leading religious leaders and scholars attending.
Steve Fuller, a professor of Sociology at University of Warwick, UK, and author of the book, “The Intellectual,” said that the conference is an opportunity that goes beyond whatever constructive dialogue the representatives of the three Abrahamic faiths manage to have with each other.
“Hopefully, and more importantly, the conference will publicly underscore the distinctive character of this common religious tradition,” Fuller said, “The Abrahamic faiths are unique among the world's religions in singling out humanity as beings created ‘in the image and likeness of God.'” Fuller said this is probably the most powerful single idea in history, responsible even for modern political and scientific ideas.
At a time when the value of being human is questioned from many different quarters, he explained, the conference may provide a setting for proposing some new answers.
He said the conference would be a forum to denounce Samuel Huntington's “Clash of Civilizations” thesis. Huntington's thesis suggests that there is a fundamental and irreconcilable difference between the Judeo-Christian and the Muslim worldviews. Fuller said no one denies that there are specific political and economic differences between various nations and groups that claim the Abrahamic ancestry. “But these are largely differences over how best to implement, what are fundamentally the same pro-human values,” he said.
“The violence associated with the expression of these differences on all sides is regrettable, not least because they are so much smaller than the areas of agreement. If the conference made this point clearly, it would be a great achievement.”
The conference was called for by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz and is expected to bring together prominent leaders from the main three monotheistic religions in the world. More than 200 Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders are expected to discuss what they have in common as the children of one father, Abraham (pbuh). The fact that the conference will be inaugurated by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques adds significance to the gathering. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's most influential religious leader, also will attend. The conference was preceded by a visit by King Abdullah to the Vatican last November during which both sides stressed the importance of inter-faith dialogue and understanding among all religions.
The Muslim World League's secretary general, Abdullah Al-Turki was quoted saying that the conference will “discuss cooperation between communities from different religions and cultures over common human values.” Jermey Shearmur, a professor of Philosophy in the School of Humanities at the Australian National University, appreciated the timing of the conference, adding that it should be useful especially giving the current tensions and difficulties.
However, he expressed his fear that not much will come out of it.
“It is not clear that, in such settings, leaders will learn a lot from one another, even if they should wish to do so,” he said. There is a risk, he said, that one will get prepared, well-meaning statements, rather than actual interaction and learning because everyone will be conscious of their positions that they may be quoted in the press. His main concern, though, he added, was that religious leaders have relatively little influence in Western countries.
However, he said such a conference would be useful to bring out commonalities among participants and to speak frankly about grounds without suspicion and hostility.
“It would be useful to have authoritative figures from the different traditions provide reassurance, and to make it clear that fanatics, in all the traditions, are a small and often ignorant minority,” he added.
Shearmur said the conference demonstrates the good intentions of Saudi leaders. Nevertheless, it is important, he added, to perceive Western countries as secular rather than as having a religious basis to them.
As a result, he explained, while inter-faith dialogue is important, what would seem to be more significant for Muslims, would be to have discussions with those people who are leading (secular) figures.
Getting a better mutual understanding with religious people, he said, may be valuable, but it is not clear that people in Western countries who form and inform public opinion pay much attention to the views of Western religious leaders.
Mircea Itu, a professor of Communication and Public Relations, Faculty of Journalism, Spiru Haret University, Bucharest, Rumania, agreed with Shearmur there needs inter-religious and inter-faith dialogue. He said Spain is an excellent choice for this meeting, as it is a country with a rich Christian and Muslim heritage. Jews are also present there. To him, the presence of Archbishop of Canterbury as well as that of former American vice president Al Gore is inspiring. “We need decisions made by institutions and in a global perspective, beyond states' policies,” he said.
He praised the Saudi initiative adding that the best thing for Muslims at this critical time of their history is to confront attacks and criticism by dialogue. “Violence should not be fought with violence,” he said. __

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