Interreligious Dialogue in Doha

The Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID) recently held its ninth annual Conference, from October 24th to 26th in Qatar. This year’s theme was “Social Media and Inter-Religious Dialogue.” An impressive group of international Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders and scholars reflected on how religious leaders might translate the moral insights of religious thought in such a way as to provide ground rules for an ethical use of social media.

The setting of the conference, however, was just as interesting as its theme, and revealed how the relationship between religion and state is being re-evaluated in contemporary global politics. This re-evaluation recognizes that religious institutions continue to provide services which further the business of statecraft in a way that the state, by itself, is not always capable of doing. Whether it be through promoting inter-religious dialogue in Qatar, reconciliation in post-conflict societies, religious political parties in emerging democracies or faith-based initiatives in the United States, regimes are attempting to harness the power of religious projects in increasingly explicit ways. The advantages and risks of the new relationships between religion and states which form as a result are not often well understood, and the DICID conference put both on display.

Let’s begin with the opportunities. The sponsorship of the DICID by the state of Qatar has clear advantages for advancing the success of interreligious dialogue as well as its normative goal to build peaceful coexistence among peoples and nations of different religions. The most important of these advantages is that the DICID guarantees that a major, inter-religious dialogue will be hosted annually in the heart of the Middle East by an Islamic-friendly, modernizing state. In this sense, the projection of inter-religious dialogue is not only good for world peace, but good for Qatar as well, and its ambitions of becoming the region’s leading diplomat-at-large and global promoter of “Muslim modernity.”  As an economically powerful, Muslim-majority state, Qatar is burning to prove to the world the success of a religiously infused model of modern Muslim society.  The DICID’s opening video, replayed throughout the conference, emphasized the extraordinary promise of this vision, with moving images which recalled Qatar’s media campaign to host the 2022 World Cup.

The success of this vision, so far, endows Qatar with a unique credibility within the Muslim-majority world to act as a trustworthy interlocutor with religious others in the West. Thus, the conference was able to include religious leaders and clerics from the Muslim world who might normally be suspicious of the political agenda of an interfaith dialogue initiated in the Christian or secular West (as many such initiatives are). An eminent cleric of Mauritania, for example, began his presentation by heaping profuse thanks and admiration for the projects of the Emir of Qatar, saying, “I do not have much hope for the success of interreligious dialogue, but I came because of the good work of the state of Qatar.”  For interreligious dialogue to succeed, and bring religious leaders to a meaningful, transformative discussion, it must gain the confidence of these skeptics and convince them of its neutral design towards peace. As the conference’s host, Qatar can do much to build this confidence in the Muslim world.

Yet, at the same time, the very nature of the conference as a state-led political project complicates this quest for a religious consensus among the leaders that could build such peace.  As its host, Qatar implicitly recognizes the importance of interreligious dialogue as a political tool for order, security and peace, and justifiably uses its position of power to invite religious leaders to help in the task.  The effectiveness of a meaningful consensus among religious leaders, however, is hampered when that consensus becomes a function of a political agenda, as opposed to a religious one.

In this respect, it was interesting to note the paucity of prayer at the conference, and the lack of any organized attempt at a shared sacred ritual among participants. Although the meeting began with a prayer by a Muslim Imam, the sacred content of the meeting remained in the background. In other inter-religious initiatives which are hosted and led by religious organizations (the Sant’Egidio International Prayer for Peace, for example), the attempt by religious leaders to unify hearts and souls together and beg God for illumination, compassion and mercy, is the explicit framework which sets the tone for religious leaders’ search for consensus and peace.

As the Grand Mufti Ceric argued, part of the business of inter-religious dialogue is to ensure that the “serious business of politics is not left to politicians alone.” Inter-religious dialogue can help do this by articulating universal truths about human existence and question, critiquing, fustigating, and pulling politics (and each other) towards divine ideals.  Religion, of course, is also too important a business to be left to religious leaders alone. It is the political imperative of constructing everyday peace and order which moves politicians to host initiatives such as these in the first place and to invite religious leaders to remember their vocation as mediators of divine compassion, including here on this earth. These, in essence, represent the contours of a new model of religion and state in global politics, one in which religious and political leaders recognize their distinct, but dependent, universes of action and meet together in the public sphere to work towards the common good.

Qatar, therefore, has a difficult line to walk in order to encourage inter-religious dialogue, but to not set its agenda; to encourage an inter-religious framework for peace, but to set the dialogue free and to allow its religious logic and gifts to fill out the political imperative for dialogue today. If Qatar is successful in doing this, and I hope it is, it will not only further its distinctive political prowress in the gulf, but will have also contributed to the creation of a fruitful model of religion-state cooperation in the Middle East today.