FaithWorld

GUESTVIEW: Missing dimension in Middle East peace process

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Rev. Bud Heckman is Director for External Relations at Religions for Peace (New York) and Matthew Weiner is Program Director at the Interfaith Center of New York.

By Rev. Bud Heckman and Matthew Weiner

obama-and-muslim-womenIn the foreshadow of President Obama’s much anticipated speech to the Muslim world and on peace this week, there is new hope for peace in the Middle East. Its source is the opposite of what many may think: religion, and the extraordinary promise of principled inclusion of religions in seeking solutions for peace and justice.

Of course, in one sense this is nothing new. Think of the Peace of Westphalia and the political virtue of tolerance developed in response to bloody religious civil wars, which were no less serious than any religious conflict we face today. One difference now — to some degree the result of secularization — is the assumption that the political and public is more frequently separate from the religious. That is to say, an assumption arises that we can do without religion in the public sphere to solve public problems. With this secular mind set, when making a political peace, it is assumed that religion should be sidelined or asked to join only in some superficial way. (Photo: An image of Barack Obama made from postage stamps at the Asian International Stamp Exhibition in Jakarta, 25 Oct 2008/Dadang Tri)

But this neglects the very real power of religion when it comes to developing shared forms of peace-building and reconciliation. In fact, the very frameworks of social justice and peace that good minded politicians hold dear often emerge from these religious moral principles.

Again, U.S. President Barack Obama will make what presages to be an historic address in Cairo on June 4. We are among those who eagerly await details of his peace plan as well as the dialogue that his announcement will spark around the world. Together with President Obama, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and King Abdullah II of Jordan have each offered to bring fresh initiatives towards achieving security and peace in the Middle East. These are encouraging signs. Prioritization of attention and resource allocation on behalf of the United States, the other members of the Quartet, and Arab countries are welcome developments.

Obama wants to address the Muslim world — but from where?

Now here’s an interesting question. The New York Times reports that President-elect Barack Obama wants to make “a major foreign policy speech from an Islamic capital during his first 100 days in office.” But from which one? As NYT staffer Helene Cooper explains, it’s a question that’s fraught with diplomatic, religious and personal complications. After a day of calling around Washington, she found a consensus:

It’s got to be Cairo. Egypt is perfect. It’s certainly Muslim enough, populous enough and relevant enough. It’s an American ally, but there are enough tensions in the relationship that the choice will feel bold. The country has plenty of democracy problems, so Mr. Obama can speak directly to the need for a better democratic model there. It has got the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist organization that has been embraced by a wide spectrum of the Islamic world, including the disenfranchised and the disaffected. (Photo: Obama image in Jakarta, 25 Oct 2008/Dadang Tri)

That’s a diplomatic answer, the kind you’d expect to get inside the Washington Beltway. Let’s look at this more from the point of view of religion. If the American president gives a major speech in a Muslim country, it will be seen as an indirect comment on the type of mosque-state relations found in that country. It’s not for him as a non-Muslim to endorse a certain type of Islam over another, say Sunni over Shi’ite. But as a politician from a country where church-state relations are a lively issue, one could expect him to ask what message his choice will send concerning the political relationship with religion in the state he chooses.