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.

Massignon, Maritain, Delbrel

I’ve been thinking all month about a great trio of French Catholics whose lifestories and thoughts pushed or presaged much of what was involved in the kairos of the Second Vatican Council, namely, Louis Massignon, Jacques Maritain and Madeleine Delbrel.  Massignon for his pushing the Church’s friendship with Islam, Maritain for pushing the Church’s friendship with democracy and Delbrel for pushing the language of the Church out of the Church and back to the “ordinary people of the streets.” It is amazing how fresh this trio reads in 2011. Delbrel, poetic and joyous:

Why should the song of the lark in the wheat fields, the buzzing of the insects in the night, and the droning of the bees among the thyme, nourish our silence, and not the crowds in the street, the voices of the women in the market, the yells of the men at work, the laughter of the children in the garden, and the songs coming from the bars? All of these are the noises of creatures advancing toward their destiny, all of this is the echo of the house of God in order or in shambles, all of this is the sign of life encountering our life.

Silence does not mean running away, but rather recollecting ourselves in the open space of God.”

I don’t want to drive a comparison or shake syncretism out of this note, but I had early 20 century Algerian Islamic reformers on my mind as I read early 20th century French Catholics this month, Ibn Badis and Malek Bennabi especially. What might the freshness of Massignon, Delbrel and Maritain tell us in a reading near Bennabi and Ibn Badis? It strengthens my hope that politics illuminated by the light of faith might help in the bulwark building of tolerant, plural and, even, religious democracies in North Africa today, as it helped do the same in Southern Europe.

Democratization in the Land of Tibhirine

[This month’s post is being hosted by The Review of Faith and International Affairs]

Fifteen years ago, seven Trappist monks were kidnapped from their monastery of Notre Dame d’Atlas in Tibhirine, Algeria and assassinated in the mountains surrounding their home. In many ways, the story of these Catholic monks is an absurd entry point for a political reflection on contemporary Algeria. The Algerian Christian church is a tiny community in an overwhelmingly Muslim population, and the monks represent merely seven of the thousands of lives—perhaps as many as 200,000—that were extinguished during Algeria’s years of violence. Yet, with the recent release of Xavier Beauvois’ film, Of Gods and Men in the United States, millions of Americans are being introduced to the monks’ story for the first time and, through their story, to Algerian politics. Given the film’s coincidence with political developments in the rest of North Africa, I would like to situate the film in its larger Algerian political context and consider what insights the spirit of Tibhirine might offer toward creating sustainable democracy in Algeria today…. read the rest of the article here

Islam, Islamic Anxiety and Muslim Women in America

Several recent surveys on religious attitudes in the US have confirmed the rise of anxiety among Americans towards Muslims and the grafting of that unease onto the political spectrum. Data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), in addition to the results of Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s new book, American Grace, all point to American feelings towards Islam as an emergent factor shaping the contours of US political alliances and rhetoric. This growth trend, as Dionne and Galston write for the Brookings Institute, can be captured in responses to the question of whether Americans believe that Islamic values are compatible with American values. In the PRRI post-election survey, for example, two-thirds of Republicans answered this question in the negative compared to only thirty percent of Democrats. Newt Gingrich and Sharon Angle’s warnings about Shari’a law, mobilization against the Ground Zero Mosque, and support for the Oklahoma referendum banning any future implementation of Shari’a law are all recent manifestations of these sentiments from the American political right.

It would be interesting to probe the growth of these fears and anxieties a little more- are they mostly a function of the insecurities produced by the links between Islamism and international terrorism as John Green of the Pew suggests? Or do they have more to do with the non-Judeo-Christian otherness of Islam, as Putnam and Campbell suggest? Assuming a top-down institutionalization of Shari’a law is still a far off threat in America, what is most unsettling to voters on the right about American Muslims taking a more active part in American public life? In fact, what would that America look like anyway? Perhaps not surprisingly, and seemingly in response to this very question, a pair of pieces from the liberal-leaning media (nytimes’ “Muslim Women Gain Higher Profile”  and PBS’s “The Calling”) have sketched what that America could look like by showcasing the lives of Muslim women in the US. Neither of the pieces shy away from the women’s difficulties and sufferings, but both also celebrate just how much American-mosaic-building these women have accomplished by assimilating big American values while unapologetically adding their own religious values to the pot. It gives us a glimpse of how this experiment might succeed (again) and what the fruitful magnifications of such success might entail for both America and Islam.

Middle East Christians and Religious Liberties

Ten days ago a gruesome attack on a Syrian Catholic Church in Baghdad highlighted the oft-hid plight of the millions (seven by some counts) of Orthodox Christians in the Middle East who have been forced to take on the status of refugee over the last decade. The attacks also put a tragic endnote on the close of a Special Synod on the Middle East which brought together many of the leaders of the Middle East’s traditional Orthodox Catholic Churches at Nicosia on Cyprus (see Sandro Magister’s analysis here). The discussions and stories at the Synod brought to light some of the pricklier issues of religion-state issues in the Middle East today, especially over the status of religious minorities within a religious state.

While very few of the states of the Middle East (Israel included) claim to be “secular” states, nearly all of them claim to be democratic. This means that in most of these countries, Islam (or Judaism) retains a privileged place in state constitutions, even as those same constitutions, in theory, also privilege and protect individual rights of choice, expression, and assembly. In this light, therefore, Muslim representatives who were invited to the Cyprus Synod all stressed the tolerance inherent in Islam (and Islamic states) towards Christians and their Churches throughout their addresses.

Yet, as several of the Synod fathers pointed out, that religious tolerance, in practice, often only extends to the right to worship, not the right to conscience. In fact, one of the recent trends in religion-state relations in the Middle East, in countries like Iran and Algeria, has been the increasing criminalization of acts of proselytism and religious conversion away from the Islam of state.

While religious intolerance has been one factor pushing many traditional Arab Christians to leave the region, however, economic opportunities have attracted others. This has added new dimensions of complexity and opportunity to the status of religious minorities in the Middle East. In countries like Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE, for example, Catholics have grown from representing 0 to 10% of the population over a fifteen year period, fueled by waves of individuals from the Philippines, Ethiopia and India taking up domestic and construction work. Just like Muslim immigration in Southern Europe, the dynamics these Catholic immigrants in the Gulf inject into their religious markets create new possibilities for rethinking the relationship between religion and state within non-secular political regimes. A shared vocabulary about human beings’ spiritual rights is indicative of the potential religious regimes possess to better their relationship with their religious minorities. As favored national religious institutions, official Islam ought to be in the best of vantage seats not only to help protect religious minorities (as Iraqi Christians plead) but also to help promote individuals’ freedom of conscience. Decriminalizing religious conversions would be a good place to start.

Faith and Political Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

This autumn’s issue of the Review of Faith and International Affairs has brought together an appealing group of articles which re-pore over the role of faith in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The issue reminds me of the voices I hear raised at conferences who complain that those worried most about the compatibility between Islamic immigration and European Christian culture aren’t really Christian politicians; that those most actively blocking democracy in Muslim countries aren’t Islamists; and that for all its talk about religious conflict, the Clash of Civilizations is never really framed theologically. In short, these articles appeal because, as Dennis Hoover writes, despite the overstated religious tenor to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, religion has still yet to really play a role in the making of its political peace.

The central theme of many of the articles, from Andrrea Bartoli to Dennis Brown, Suhail Khan and Michael Ostrolenk, is to think about how to recapture sacred tools and empower sacred leaders to respond to the sacralization of a conflict whose solution seems to lay outside of the political. In this sense, the articles are short on concrete proposals and often remain long on the level of anecdotes and hope. But, still, the hope and anecdotes help trace out resources which are already available to religious leaders in the Middle East, and it is a good idea to finger them to the front in this moment of negotiation possibility.  So Ostrolenk tries to dig about themes of reconciliation and mercy which run through Judaism, Christianity and Islam and propose them as catalysts for the negotiations, as they had been in places like South Africa and Chile. Bartoli leverages the Christian virtues of repentance and hospitality to make a point about the political potential for mercy. And Suhail Khan offers stories about religious leaders in the Middle East using sacred words well to speak to their constituencies’ spiritual needs for political peace. Food for thought as the peace envoys are stuck in salvage mode.

Park 51 and Burkas

It has been revealing to watch the French parliament’s 336 to 1 vote in favor of the ban on burkas this month together with the controversy over the building of a Mosque near ground zero.  Both events expose the unabated social apprehension towards Islam and Muslims on either side of the Atlantic. At the same time, however, the controversies also tell us something about how differently that apprehension gets politically framed in either country and brings to light just how different the United States and France’s institutional separation of church and state really are.

France’s “assertive secularism,” as Kuru terms it, embedded in laicité, has helped create the 336 to 1 collaboration between the right and left in France. For once, the ban on the burka sits well with both the right’s defense of French tradition as Catholic and Western and the left’s contestation of that narrative along with their own, alter-defense of France from any political religious identity or authority. In either case, Muslims using the public sphere to express and thus promote their religious values simultaneously plays to the fears of cultural weakness on the right and religious authority on the left.

Such a fear of the public presence of a religion, in and of itself, is much more difficult to politically channel in the US, thanks to its institutionalization of a “passive secularism,” (Kuru’s terms again) which is much more permissive of religious authority in the civil and public, although not political, spheres. While it is true that many in the American right have publically targeted Islam (New York Post comments here), their accusations were inherently less anti-Muslim than the French right, and they tried to articulate that their opposition was to the “radical” Muslims behind the project, not Muslims in general. Likewise, the American left generally defended the project (see an interesting interview with the project’s developer here) and the rights of Muslims to finance religiously-inspired community projects as a desirable expression of diversity and tolerance and something that was quite American.

Monks of Tibhirine

Although their story is still unknown in the U.S., the deaths of the 7 Monks of Tibhirine, in Algeria, in 1993, has long held the attention of both the French and Algerian public. For the spiritual testimony it announces. For the reflection of French-Algerian relations it provides. For the mire of french secret services it captures. The death of the trappist monks, which produced one of the most moving, contemporary documents of interfaith friendship, left behind in a letter of last testament by the abbey’s prior, Christian de Chergé, was always object of some mystery.  The official version, that the monks had been kidnapped and then assassinated by Algeria’s most notorious armed Islamist Emir, Djamel Zitouni, always suffered from some obscurantism. This past week, revelations by a French general, Francois Buchwalter, that the monks had been kidnapped by the Islamists but killed inadvertently in an ambush by the Algerian army, has re-stirred the mystery and ill.  Sarkozy was forced to speak about it in Italy at the G8, calling for the “truth” of the matter in a statement that seemed to hold both a veiled accusal towards the Algerian government, adding more disequilibrium to that delicate rapport, and a reminder to the French and Algerian public of the original accusals of complicity or simple botchedness of the event by the French security forces. If the Algerian Army was able to locate the monks, and kill them, even inadvertently, at a time when French forces were working hand in hand with them, then it would seem to imply a gross sin of incompetence for the French. If the darker accusals turn out to be true, that the Algerian Army, and not the Islamists, had orchestrated the kidnapping and assasinations, then that puts the French secret services in a much deeper mire. The monks testimony to friendship, over-violence and beyond religious tradition, which seems to have been very inconvenient for all the governments and armed forces involved, remains hidden between the accusals.