Imams and rabbis work for peace, even if debating it can get tense
There’s one thing you have to say about the World Congress of Imams and Rabbis for Peace — when they disagree about something, they don’t mind saying so. The final session of their third conference in Paris on Wednesday was the stage for an exchange of dramatic charges and counter-charges abut the perennial problem of Israeli-Palestinian relations. The atmosphere was tense in the UNESCO conference room where the 3-day session took place and several participants spoke up to calm down their more agitated colleagues. Since this was the only session the media was allowed to witness, it would have been easy to conclude that the imams and rabbis needed to seek peace among themselves first before preaching it to others.
(Photo: An imam in Berlin, 3 Aug 2007/Fabrizio Bensch)
But there were actions that spoke louder than words in the hall. Several participants were frowning as the finger-pointing progressed. Others turned to the nearest participant of the other faith to chat. At one point, a rabbi in his Hasidic black hat and coat walked over to an imam wearing a karakul hat, embraced him warmly and sat down for a lively talk. A television camera would have had a field day contrasting the words and the deeds in evidence there.
(Photo: A rabbi in Debent, Russia, 17 Sept 2007/Thomas Peter)
At the news conference ending the session, the organiser Alain Michel announced there had not been enough time to agree on a final resolution — a sign of a serious disagreement, as any reporter who has covered summit meetings could tell you. But he proceeded to say the meeting had agreed to set up a steering committee that would work out joint statements whenever there were major acts of violence in the name of religion. Names of the committee members were read out and all seemed to be satisfied that this was progress. Here is my news report about the meeting and here’s the official programme.
When it came to question time, I couldn’t help asking how they expected us to think of them as imams and rabbis for peace when they fought so much during the debate. Several got up to defend the meeting, saying they had made progress and it was only natural that there should be tension when it came to Israel and Palestine. Several participants came up to me afterwards, during the lunch, to give their view on why the meeting was more constructive than it seemed to be.
(Photo: Yahya Hendi)
The question elicited several nice quotes. “The clash of ideas is the sound of freedom,” said Yahya Hendi, the Palestinian-born Muslim chaplain at Georgetown, a Catholic university in Washington. “Blunt talk is not against the process, it’s part of the process,”said Rabbi Tsion Cohen of Shaar-HaNegev in Israel, who added that his community was near Gaza and often got hit by missiles from there.
A rabbi and an imam — both from outside the Middle East — pulled me aside to say basically the same thing about their respective sides. There’s a Middle East view and an international view (the rabbi called it the “diaspora view”) at discussions like this, and the occasional Middle Eastern clash is hard to avoid.
Rabbi David Rosen, president of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, said that freewheeling session would have been better at a different time. “It’s not a bad thing if you do that at the beginning of the program. People feel they got it off their shoulders, they made their point and they get on to more practical things,” he said. Despite the programme, the meeting worked, he said, because it showed that imams and rabbis can meet and work with each other, contrary to a general impression many people have that they are fundamentally opposed. “It is not only possible but imperative for Islam and Judaism and their leadership to live in mutual respect. That’s the real significance of this meeting. Tha’ts the message that needs to get out,” he said.
(Photo: David Rosen)
Imam Yahya Sergio Yahe Pallavicini, an Italian Muslim leader, participated both in this meeting and in the Common Word conference with Catholic experts at the Vatican last month. He told me the imams and rabbis should keep their focus more narrowly on religious issues and not politics, as he said the Common Word group did. “We want to be involved in politics but not follow a political agenda,” he said. “We have to stick to our role” (as religious leaders). That last quote echoed a comment made by a rabbi during the open discussion.
(Photo: Yahya Pallavicini)
Rosen made another interesting point. Opening the conference on Monday, Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade invited the imams and rabbis to hold their 2009 congress in Dakar. Wade is the current president of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and an interfaith meeting hosted by him could draw some high-level participation from across the Muslim world.
There are quite a few dialogues between imams and rabbis going on in different countries but they don’t seem to be that well known. We’ve written about some of them here. Are you surprised to hear there may soon be joint Jewish-Muslim declarations denouncing terrorism? Do you think they will succeed in doing this?