“Something in the air” in Christian-Muslim dialogue

July 28, 2008

Yale Divinity School chapel, 25 July 2008/Tom HeneghanMeetings of theologians don’t usually make news. But trends can make news. A series of meetings can start to show some direction the participants’ thinking is going in. If it’s a new direction, and one with potentially positive results, then we journalists on the Godbeat take notice.

The “Common Word” conference now underway at Yale Divinity School in the United States is at the heart of a trend towards increasingly frequent and detailed discussions among Christian and Muslim scholars and leaders. This trend is a reaction to September 11 and other Islamist attacks in Western countries. To our 24/7 news culture, this sounds like a very slow-fused reaction indeed, but changing attitudes and building trust takes time.

Just about every conference participant I’ve spoken to has stressed that work towards greater understanding between Christians and Muslims was now moving ahead on several fronts. “There’s definitely something in the air,” remarked Miroslav Volf, a Protestant theologian who runs the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. As University of Cambridge theologian David Ford put it, “People were almost waiting for an initiative around which they could gather and which generally gave some way forward for Muslim-Christian engagement. Many initiatives were on the Christian side before but this was a Muslim initiative. It’s had the desired effect.”

Sign at Yale Common Word conference, 25 July 2008/Tom HeneghanWe’ve blogged a lot here about the Common Word dialogue appeal last October by 138 Muslim scholars to Christian leaders. That appeal prompted Volf and three Yale colleagues to write a welcoming response signed by about 300 theologians and church leaders, mostly Protestants in the United States. It led to a meeting at the Vatican in March that agreed on a conference and meeting with Pope Benedict in November and a regular Catholic-Muslim forum. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams also hosted a meeting of Christian theologians in June to write another response that will be discussed at another Common Word conference at the University of Cambridge in Britain in October.

An interesting twist has been the burst of interfaith activity by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, whose strict Wahhabi sect of Islam came to be seen as a stumbling block to better relations between Islam and the West after it turned out that 15 of the 19 9/11 attackers were Saudis. Abdullah paid a surprise visit to Pope Benedict at the Vatican in November and announced he wanted to promote interfaith understanding. This was initially greeted with scepticism, including on this blog, because it King Abdullah (r) and former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani at Mecca conference, 4 June 2008//Ho Newlooked like this might be more a PR exercise than a serious initiative. But Abdullah held an interesting meeting in early June of Muslim scholars — Sunnis, Shi’ites and others — to win approval for his project. He then convened a surprising interfaith conference in Madrid this month that brought together Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and others.

Has interfaith dialogue become a bandwagon that Abdullah felt he had to jump on? Is he trying to compete with the Common Word? It might look like that, but conference participants here don’t think so. They think more initiatives only help the trend and don’t see Abdullah’s more diplomatic approach taking anything away from the theological discussion the Common Word is proposing.

A few comments from Muslim participants:

Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America, said many people thought the Madrid conference would only be a showcase for the Saudis, but she felt it had an important symbolic value. “I think it was a bold step and a good step. I don’t think it will be important programmatically. I think it’s important in opening minds.” Just by being the Saudi king, Abdullah can set a tone,” she said. “He can get people excited and then they’ll go off and figure it out themselves. That’s what I’m looking for, not for big initiatives to come out of it.”

Mustafa Ceric, grand mufti of Bosnia, said “I am glad that we now have from the Muslim world many movements of dialogue and interaction with the West. Each one has its own merit. King Abdullah wants to say something and I think we should listen to him.” The Common Word project, he said, “is based on the more intellectual and spiritual aspects of something everlasting. It is not temporary, it is not a political thing, it is based on a deep intellectual desire to understand the depth of the Christian-Jewish-Islamic message, or the Ibrahimic tradition.”

Ibrahim Kalin, director general of the SETA Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research in Turkey and spokesman for the Common Word at the Yale conference, said “we don’t see any rivalry with other initiatives. We wish them well.” Abdullah’s efforts were good for improving contacts and communications between Christians and Muslims. “If you place our initiative in the context of Islam-West relations, it is helpful in countering and correcting misperceptions. There is nothing like face-to-face interaction. You can read all kinds of books and write all kinds of articles, but it’s never the same as sitting with that person for a day or two discussing things.”

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