FaithWorld

Can academia help Islam’s dialogue with the West?

Prince Alwaleed bin TalalSince 9/11, studying the relations between Islam and the West have become a growth field in academia. Among its leading proponents is Saudi Arabian investor Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, a billionaire who has spent tens of millions of dollars via his Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation creating study centres at leading universities, including Cambridge, Harvard and Georgetown, with the goal of fostering interfaith dialogue and understanding. (Photo: Prince Alwaleed in Kabul, 18 March 2008/Ahmad Masood)

In the wake of the Islamist attacks in Mumbai last November, the foundation’s executive director, Muna AbuSulayman said recently, the organisation is keen to set up a centre in India and also to foster dialogue between Muslims and Jews.

A Mumbai Jewish community centre was seized and its rabbi and his wife killed during those attacks, in which 179 people were killed in a days-long rampage by members of a Pakistan-based militant group. “What has happened in India with the shooting was a wake up call,” she said. “India and Pakistan have a history, there’s a reason they separated. We want to help them minimise that.”

During an interview in London, AbuSulayman, wearing a cream-coloured headscarf, talked broadly about the need for interfaith dialogue, and included Judaism in that. But she said the Alwaleed Foundation definitely wouldn’t open a centre in Israel even though it does support dialogue with Jews.

“Would we do something on Jewish studies? Most definitely. We really do separate the idea between Zionism and Judaism,” said AbuSulayman. “We do believe in this tradition of all of the Abrahamic religions being together.”

from Global News Journal:

Saudi king basks in praise at UN interfaith forum

The price of oil may have dropped by more than half in recent weeks but the Saudi petrodollar appears to have lost none of its allure, judging by the procession of very important visitors to the New York Palace Hotel this week and to the U.N. General Assembly. With President George W. Bush in the lead, they have all come to present their compliments to King Abdullah, the Saudi ruler, who has turned the Manhattan hotel and the world body into an extension of his court, complete, it would seem, with a Majlis to receive petitioners.

Naturally, all the VIPs visiting him are eager to congratulate his majesty on his interfaith initiative, a gathering of religious and political leaders which took place  this week under the auspices of the United Nations. The meeting has attracted extravagant praise from, among others, Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister,  and Shimon Peres,  the veteran Israeli president.

It is a fact that the king's initiative is unprecedented and bold, taking place despite the displeasure of many influential religious clerics at home. It is also a fact that he is the first Saudi leader to have travelled to the Vatican, opening dialogue between the two largest religions.

How credible is a Saudi initiative on interfaith dialogue?

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, which the U.S. State Department lists as a “country of particular concern” because of its severe restrictions on religious freedom, is sponsoring talks at the United Nations in New York today and tomorrow on improving interfaith dialogue. Is this a credible exercise? (Photo: King Abdullah with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at U.N. in New York, Nov 12, 2008)

Analysis leading up to the meeting has been full of reservations. Our Riyadh bureau chief Andrew Hammond noted that the influential religious establishment in Saudi Arabia shows scant support for the king’s initiative. Our Middle East news editor Samia Nakhoul quotes Saudi delegation member Jamal Khajoggi as saying “The king can change positions, he can hire and fire people but he cannot change the mind-set of people or the clerical establishment quickly. It has to be gradual.”

The most brutal assessment came from Ali al-Ahmed, a Washington-based Shiite Muslim dissident from Saudi Arabia quoted by the New York Times: “It’s like apartheid South Africa having a conference at the U.N. on racial harmony.”

Cardinal sees possible “favoured channel” in dialogue with Islam

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, has made statements in the past that made him sound quite sceptical about the value of a theological dialogue with Muslims. (Photo: Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran)

That wasn’t what I found when I interviewed him last Saturday at his office on Via della Conciliazione, just down the road from St. Peter’s Basilica. The subject was the Catholic-Muslim Forum he had just hosted on Nov 4-6 between a Muslim delegation from the Common Word group and Catholic delegation of Vatican officials, Catholic Islam scholars and bishops from western and Muslim countries.

The Common Word group, he said, could become a “favoured channel” for Vatican contacts with Muslims, even while it retains other channels of dialogue. While he still had some reservations about the group’s approach because of differences he sees in ways of reading scriptures, he was quite positive about the actual dialogue itself. “In discussing the love of God, we were doing theology unintentionally,” he said. That jibed with a point that Muslim delegates made during the session itself. “I thought they didn’t want to discuss theology but we’ve been doing that from the start,” University of Cambridge Islamic studies lecturer Tim Winter remarked halfway though the conference.

Catholic bishops want practical results from Muslim dialogue

The synod of Roman Catholic bishops that just ended in Rome has reminded the Vatican that it wants concrete issues such as religious freedom for Christians in the Islamic world to be part of any dialogue with Muslims. It’s not as if the Vatican has forgotten this — check out a recent statement by Rev. Christian Troll S.J., a leading Church expert on Islam. All this comes as the Vatican and the Common Word group of Muslim scholars prepare for the Catholic-Islamic Forum due in Rome next week.

The full text of the bishops’ proposal (number 53 of the 55 published only in Italian) reads in English:

“The Church regards with esteem … the Muslims who worship the one God” (Nostra Aetate 3). They refer to Abraham and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting. The dialogue with them permits us to know each other better and cooperate in the promotion of ethical and spiritual values.

A “Shi’ite invasion” of Sunni Arab countries? Qaradawi sees one

Yousef al-Qaradawi, 10 May 2006/Fadi Alassaad Egyptian cleric Yusef Al-Qaradawi has provoked a storm of criticism with comments this month attacking Shi’ites for alleged attempts to proselytize in Sunni Arab societies. It’s a debate which has been bubbling since 2003 when the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein — which the Sunni Arab governments didn’t like but know how to live with — was removed by the American-led invasion and ultimately replaced by a Shi’ite government reflecting the demographic superiority of Shi’ites in Iraq today.

Free to contact work with fellow Shi’ites in neighbouring Iran and develop links with the powerful Shi’ites of Lebanon and even with the more precariously-placed Shi’ites in the Gulf Arab coutnries, the rise of the Shi’ites in Iraq has been nothig less than a seismic shift in the region’s potical landscape. Numerous Arab leaders have shown their concern with comments suggesting a crescent of Shi’ite power was developing across the region from Lebanon to Iran (as Jordan’s King Abdullah has said) or that Arab Shi’ites real loyalties are to Iran (according to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak).

Al-Jazeera.net logoQaradawi’s intervention is of equal import. He is one of the most influential of Sunni religious figures, a former Muslim Brotherhood sheikh in Egypt who settled in Qatar where Al-Jazeera television gave him a weekly television show. His opinions generally reflect the mainstream of Islamist thinking, veering neither into the rigid obsessions of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism nor appearing to compromise principles for the sake of a modernity that suits the West.

Pope wants real interfaith dialogue, not just talk

Pope Benedict in Lourdes, France, 14 Sept 2008/Regis Duvignau Is Pope Benedict getting impatient to make some progress in dialogue with Muslims? He told French bishops in Lourdes today that the Church wants to pursue interreligious dialogue, but it must be real dialogue about serious theological issues and not just polite talk that leads nowhere.

“Good will is not enough,” he told them at a meeting during his pilgrimage to the famous shrine. “One must follow closely the various initiatives that are undertaken, so as to discern which ones favour reciprocal knowledge and respect, as well as the promotion of dialogue, and so as to avoid those which lead to impasses.”

These comments may help put an end to a long-standing doubt about how committed Benedict is to dialogue with Muslims. The doubt started soon after his election when he sidelined the Vatican’s top Islam expert, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, and folded his Council for Interreligious Dialogue into the larger Council for Culture. His Regensburg lecture in 2006 seriously set back relations with Muslims by suggesting Islam was violent and irrational. As part of the patching-up work, he restored the interreligious council as an independent Vatican department. But he handed it over not to an Islam or dialogue expert but to a former diplomat, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who publicly said that theological discussion was impossible with Muslims (much to some Muslims’ surprise) and that the world was “obsessed” with Islam.

“Something in the air” in Christian-Muslim dialogue

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.”

In interfaith dialogue, beware of Saudis bearing gifts?

Saudi King Abdullah at Mecca interfaith dialogue conference, 4 june 2008/Ho NewSaudi Arabia’s King Abdullah looks determined to get his proposal for an unprecedented Muslim- Christian-Jewish dialogue off the ground. A three-day conference in Mecca to discuss this ended with a soaring declaration of goodwill and benevolent intent. Saudi media reported that Muslim clerics from around the world had supported the call and confirmed that dialogue with other faiths was legitimate in Islam.

The official Saudi Press agency said the meeting recommended holding “conferences, forums and discussion groups between the followers of the prophetic messages and relevant civilisations, cultures and philosophies to which academics, media and religious leaders will be invited”. Given the gazillions Riyadh must be earning with oil at $140 a barrel, it may not be long before we see all sorts of petrodollar-funded “dialogue sessions” being held here and there.

Interfaith dialogue is a good thing, but the recent rising chorus of calls for more such talk hasn’t just emerged out of a vacuum. There is already a decades-long history of dialogue sessions that essentially exchanged pleasantries and generated warm feelings but did little to actually reduce misunderstanding and mistrust. The latest generation of initiatives — for example the Common Word consultations and the “Painful Verses” book we’ve blogged about here — takes the disappointment with earlier efforts as its starting point and aims to tackle the issues that earlier dialogues tended to avoid.

Interfaith talks on agenda in Mecca, Rome and London

Saudi King Abdullah (r) and former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, 4 June 2008/Ho NewThere were interesting words on interfaith dialogue from Mecca and Rome today and London yesterday. Efforts to improve contacts and understanding among the main monotheist religions have been gaining steam recently and we’re starting to see some concrete steps. But, as a meeting in Mecca showed, the road ahead could still be quite rocky.

The Mecca meeting, organised by the Saudi-based Muslim World League, is supposed to draw up guidelines for the inter-faith dialogue that Saudi King Abdullah says he wants with Christianity and Islam. “You are meeting here today to say to the world with pride that we are a fair, honest, humanitarian and moral voice, a voice for living together and dialogue,” the monarch said in a high-minded speech.

But former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the few prominent Shi’ites at the conference, rained on his parade with broadsides against the United States and Israel. But he also said: “To have a dialogue with other religions we need to start talking among ourselves. The call needs to be directed at ourselves first of all, and all the sects need to agree on shared points. As a Muslim and a Shi’ite … I say the things we agree on are many.”