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Madrid, Arlington, and Rome
by David M. Denny

The second half of 2008 witnessed several hopeful milestones in relations between Abrahamic believers. In July, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah became the first Muslim Arab leader to convene a multi-faith conference. It took place at Madrid’s Prado Palace. In October 2008, in announcing his support of Sen. Barack Obama’s candidacy for President of the United States, former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell defended the patriotism of American Muslims. November also marked the first anniversary of the publication of “A Common Word Between Us,” a letter from 138 Muslim teachers and scholars throughout the world to all Christians. “A Common Word Between Us” was a response to Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 Regensburg speech, which angered Muslims around the world. In his speech, the Pope cited an anti-Muslim comment by a medieval pope. To honor the “Common Word” anniversary and attempt to “deflate suspicion between their two faiths,” according to the New York Times, the Vatican convened a Muslim-Christian dialogue.

The King and the Rabbi

Although King Abdullah’s Saudi Arabia lacks what many of us understand as religious freedom, he has recently become a proponent of tolerance, at least beyond his own borders. But the king is to be commended, according to Rabbi David Rosen, who attended the July meeting in Madrid, for having initiated a dialogue fiercely resisted by powerful Muslims within Saudi Arabia. “The Arab media interviewed us incessantly,” writes Rosen, “and prominent Arab figures approached us, many of whom had never before met a Jew—let alone a rabbi” (read article here). Rosen noted that although the World Muslim League, which organized the conference, is unaccustomed to interfaith dialogue, the gathering was surprisingly open. Rosen, an Israeli citizen, encountered the conservative Muslim belief that Muslims may dialogue with Jews, but not with Israelis. Rather than encountering a closed door when confronted with this belief, Rosen was invited to respond. This enabled him to suggest that Jews and Muslims must be able to accept and respect each others’ self-understanding. This means that Judaism may not be completely separated from the land of Israel, because Jews understand themselves in the context of the Promised Land. On the other hand, “Jews need to appreciate what Jerusalem means for Muslims, as well as Muslim solidarity with their Palestinian brothers and sisters.”

Tombstone Becomes a Milestone

On October 19, former Sec. of State Colin Powell appeared on “Meet the Press” not only to endorse Barack Obama’s candidacy, but also to make an historic statement about Muslims in America. He refuted the rumor that Mr. Obama is a Muslim, noting that Obama is Christian. But he added, “What if he is? Is there something wrong with being Muslim in this country? No, that’s not America.” Powell was deeply moved by a photo in the New Yorker depicting the mother of a slain American soldier, Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, leaning on her son’s grave stone. “I stared at it for an hour,” he told New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. “Who could debate that this kid lying in Arlington with Christian and Jewish and nondenominational buddies was not a fine American?”

Two days after the election, the Times’ Paul Vitello interviewed Muslim students (read article here) at New York University to see how they felt about Obama’s victory. They were ambivalent. One said she felt she had a false choice between a candidate who stereotyped her community and another “who is not defending us.” But when Powell spoke up, the tide shifted, lifting “a sense of alienation” that N.Y.U. graduate Lina Sayed “had come to accept, and was almost unaware of.”

From the Ashes of Sarajevo

Finally, Catholic and Muslim scholars met at the Vatican November 4-6 for the first seminar of the Catholic-Muslim Forum. “Let us resolve to overcome past prejudices and to correct the often distorted images of the other, which even today can create difficulties in our relations,” said Pope Benedict XVI, greeting the Muslim delegation. Iranian professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University in Washington, Seyyed Hossein Nasr addressed the Pope and the attending scholars with a reflection on the common ground between the traditions as well as the differences. “For both us and you,” he noted, “God is at once transcendent and immanent, creator and sustainer of the world, the alpha and omega of existence—the Almighty whose Will prevails in our lives, the Loving whose love embraces the whole of the created order.”

He admitted that “Yes, both our histories have been intermingled with periods of violence,” but emphasized that “various political forces have carried out violence” in the name of religion “and in certain cases this violence has received legitimacy by religious authorities. Certainly we cannot claim that violence is the monopoly of only one religion.” Using language that President Obama would later echo in his inaugural address, Nasr said that “we as Muslims from different schools of Islamic thought and countries have come together here to extend to you our hand of friendship, seeking to meet you in God’s love, beyond all our theological differences and memories of historical confrontations.”

Whereas some critics of religion view it as a primitive expression of tribal exclusion, Nasr assured his listeners that Muslims “seek to extend … the border of the definition of neighbor to include not only you and us but the whole of humanity, and even beyond that the rest of God’s creation.” If Nasr’s religion is tribal, it is a “tribe” of inclusion, embracing plurality, not monoculture. If we are to compete, then let us “vie one with another in good works” (Qur’an 5:48).

His Eminence Mustafa Ceric, Grand Mufti of Bosnia also addressed the gathering, calling the event “a major step forward for the Muslim-Catholic dialogue” that “affords great hope for a better future” for the whole human family. He noted prominent fears and irrepressible hopes that our global family harbors and insisted that:

ours should be a time of the healing of human hearts, not the killing of human minds; ours should be a time to build up a civilization that will gather building-stones together instead of casting them away; ours should be a time to embrace each other in the love of God who created us all, not to turn away from our neighbor; ours should be a time of love, not hate, a time of peace and justice, not war; a time not to keep silent, but to speak out fearlessly as Christians and Muslims for the Holy Land to become a place of Holy Peace.

The seminar’s Final Declaration included fifteen points of agreement. They included affirmations of reason and free will, the equality of men and women, respect for persons’ “choices in matters of conscience and religion,” respect for religious minorities, the “plurality of cultures, civilizations, languages and peoples” as “a source of richness,” the duty “to promote accurate information about each other’s religions,” our common vocation “to be instruments of love,” the need to “work together to alleviate the suffering of the hungry, and to eliminate its causes.”

If these declarations seem mere lofty ideals held by scholars removed from the daily injustices encountered by many believers, the Grand Mufti reminded his listeners that “I am a survivor of the four years of the Sarajevo siege at the end of the last century. As you know Bosnian Muslims suffered genocide. I have come here to join with you in prayer for truth, justice, peace and reconciliation of our common land of Europe.” These are not the words of a man who hates the West or Christianity. Despite the suffering meted out to him and his neighbors by Christians, he came to Rome in peace.

As we Christians celebrate Easter 2009 in the midst of heightened suffering in Israel/Palestine, especially in Gaza, I find it encouraging to hear from an Israeli rabbi, an American general and statesman, and a Bosnian Muslim survivor that we may still hope for a human community that will be strengthened, not threatened, by a plurality of faiths.

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