A funny thing happened after the Saudi Arabia-sponsored 2008 World Conference on Dialogue in Spain: People began paying attention.
For those readers who may have forgotten, King Abdullah initiated the interfaith dialogue conference with the hope of bridging the gap that exists primarily among Muslims, Christians and Jews. Not unexpectedly, the conference was greeted with a lukewarm response, if not more than a little hostility by the Western media. Saudi Arabia, according to the argument at the time, was presumptuous to sponsor a conference on religious harmony since no churches are permitted in the Kingdom.
Media coverage was casual and the event was soon forgotten. Or maybe not. According to the Washington Times, an arch-conservative newspaper and ordinarily a harsh critic of Saudi Arabia, some Jewish leaders have recognized that such conferences can narrow the gap that separate Jews and Muslims.
Rabbi Marc Schneier, who heads the Foundation For Ethnic Understanding in the United States, attended the conference in Spain and a similar one later in Vienna.
“The challenge of the 21st century is to narrow the chasm between Judaism and Islam,” Schneier told The Washington Times. He added that, “the King has realized how much damage has been done by religious fundamentalists and extremists, particularly in Islam.”
Well, okay, that’s true as far as it goes, but what Schneier doesn’t mention is the utter failure of the media, both Western and Arab, to convey what Islam means to Muslims on a personal, not political, level, and just how removed the vast majority of Muslims are from extremist ideology.
Although speaking from a Western viewpoint, Blake Michael, chairman Ohio Wesleyan University’s religion department, puts the Muslim position in better context than Schneier: “A lot of Muslims around the world are utterly bewildered by terrorist and jihadist efforts. They want to get the truth about the complexity of Islam out there. They feel the Western media cover a narrow strand of what Islam is about.”
The number of interfaith dialogue conferences has increased tremendously over the past five years or so, but even more so since King Abdullah’s 2008 conference. The inclusion of Muslim imams who were previously absent at interfaith conferences has added another layer of dialogue.
Unlike Christian, Jewish and other religious leaders, Muslim leaders have two strikes against them when participating in religious conferences. They must answer questions about extremist ideology found on dozens of websites that is perceived as speaking for the Muslim community. They also must find a solution to the manufactured threat of Wahhabism, which is considered by Western conservatives as a conspiracy to create a caliph.
Most non-Muslim religious leaders recognize these two issues are not reflective of the Muslim community, but whether they convey that message to the members of their church or synagogue is another issue. I think not. It’s one thing to participate in large scale conferences like the ones held in Spain and Austria and the ones that followed, but the greater challenge is to bypass the Christian and Jewish hierarchy and speak to the people themselves.
Saudi imams and sheikhs might consider educating non-Muslims on the true voice of Islam by participating in events at smaller venues outside major metropolitan centers. Many non-Muslim centers, for example, have guest clergy from other faiths give lectures and presentations.
Discussions between imams, priests and rabbis will help break down significant barriers.
King Abdullah got the ball rolling two years ago and Muslims are quietly being heard by non-Muslim leaders, but the next step is to make sure that message is delivered unfiltered to the rest of the non-Muslim community.