The Makkah Conference on Inter-Faith Dialogue: Stirrings of a New Beginning?

Yoginder Sikand

Posted Jun 12, 2008      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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The Makkah Conference on Inter-Faith Dialogue: Stirrings of a New Beginning?

by Yoginder Sikand

The recently concluded three-day international conference on
interfaith dialogue organised by the Muslim World League at Makkah
marks a major step towards promoting bridges of dialogue and
understanding between Muslims and people of other faiths. This comes
at a time of mounting Islamophobia the world over, when negative
stereotyping of Muslims and their faith has become deeply ingrained in
large sections of the international media and also in policy-making
circles in many countries. The organizers of the Makkah conference
undoubtedly felt it crucial to promote the notion of interfaith
dialogue in order to address this issue of Islam-bashing, and it is to
be hoped that they also felt it urgent to combat similar negative
stereotyping of other faiths and their followers that are equally
widely prevalent among many Muslims themselves.

Clearly, however, there are limits to the sort of progress on the
inter-faith dialogue front that this officially Saudi-sponsored event
can inspire. For one thing, there were, presumably, no non-Muslim
participants in the conference, for it was held in the city of Makkah,
where only Muslims are allowed to enter. Surely, genuine dialogue
cannot be promoted without the presence of a dialogue partner! The
absence of non-Muslim dialogue partners in the conference meant that,
for practical purposes, the discussions that ensued were all part of a
monologue by a select group of Muslims speaking to and among
themselves. How, one must ask, does this advance the cause of
inter-faith dialogue in practical, as opposed to rhetorical, terms?

Secondly, the fact that the conference was held by an organization
that is, for all practical purposes, under the aegis of the Saudi
King, whose regime represents the sternly literalist and exclusivist
Wahhabi understanding of Islam (and one that is perfectly comfortable
with monarchy and Western imperialist domination, both presumably not
quite Islamic phenomena) surely limits the sort of progress in
improving inter-faith relations that the conference was ostensibly
intended to promote. Since its very inception, Saudi Wahhabism has
been, and continues to be, fiercely intolerant not just of religions
other than Islam, but also of other understandings and expressions of
Islam, such as Shi’ism and Sufism. How, then, can one expect major
positive achievements to emerge on the inter-faith front from an
initiative that is probably the brainchild of the repressive and
totalitarian Saudi regime, which has had such a poor record when it
comes to inter-faith and even intra-Muslim sectarian relations?

As is evident from newspaper reporting about the event, the Makkah
conference proceeded on much the same lines as have umpteen other such
inter-faith dialogue conferences that have been held before it
elsewhere, by Muslims as well as others. What typically happens in
such conferences is that speaker after speaker extols the virtues of
his or her own faith as he or she interprets it, and issues passionate
calls for peace and inter-community solidarity. Rarely, if ever, is
their any discussion of practical steps to be undertaken once the
conference is over, unless, of course, it is to decide on yet another
conference on the same theme, but this time in another exotic or
interesting location. Rarely, too, is their any admission of the
undeniable fact that religion—all religions—can and have been
interpreted in various diverse ways, some of them in ways that seek to
justify hatred of and uncalled for violence towards people of other
faiths. At least that has been my experience of almost all the
inter-faith dialogue conferences—and these have been many—that I have
attended in the last twenty years in India and elsewhere. And, judging
from the reports emerging in the press, this is, broadly, what the
participants in the Makkah inter-faith dialogue conference have also

Undeniably, inter-faith dialogue conferences of this sort are
important, and one cannot simply dismiss them simply because they do
not produce any immediate tangible results. They are significant in
that they signify efforts on the part of key religious leaders (or
people who are projected as such ‘leaders’) to fashion different
understandings of their own religions insofar as they relate to people
of other faiths, implicitly or explicitly critiquing exclusivist
understandings of their religion by some elements that are used to
foment hatred and violence against others. Surely that is no mean
achievement, for such conferences, attended by presumably senior
religious spokesmen, do send out powerful messages that can impact on
how their ‘ordinary’ co-religionists relate to people of other faiths.

Yet, and this must be recognized, such efforts are simply not enough.
They cannot succeed on their own. They need to be accompanied by
serious mobilization work at the ‘grassroots’ level if they are to
impact on people on a large scale. Often, it is not simply prejudice
or ignorance about other faiths that causes inter-community conflict,
and so such conflict cannot be done away with simply by dialogue
between religious leaders talking about the concept of peace in their
own religions. Surely, there are often serious economic and political
factors at work that cause friction and conflict between communities.
Hence, these conflicts cannot be said to be a result of religious
misunderstandings alone and cannot be solved simply by trying to
fashion new theologies of peace. Take, for instance, the conflict over
Palestine. It cannot be the contention of anyone other than the most
naïve that the issue is entirely religious and that it can be solved
simply by getting Jewish rabbis and Muslim maulvis to sit together and
discuss the merits of their respective faiths and thereby discover
theological resources within their religious traditions that can prove
more accommodative of people of other faiths. While such inter-faith
dialogue is certainly important, obviously the problem has also to be
tackled at the political and economic level, and if these are ignored
the problem can only further fester.

Religion teaches about claims to ultimate truths, and for those who
ardently believe in them these are non-negotiable, for they believe
that their own religions are the best or most true or even represent
the absolute truth. Hence, there are limits to the sort of consensus
that can be reached between people of different faiths on religious
matters through inter-faith dialogue efforts. Further, often such
efforts are extremely elitist, limited only to religious leaders or
self-appointed leaders discussing theological niceties among
themselves, and not involving the masses in any way. Surely a more
productive approach to inter-faith dialogue is to move beyond (while
also including) discussions at the theological level to promote what
has been called ‘the dialogue of social action’—where people of
different faiths and ideologies (not just ‘religious specialists’, but
‘laymen’ too) , each with their own sources of inspiration, whether
religious or otherwise, come together to work in solidarity on issues
of common concern, be it the struggle against imperialism or
capitalist depredation, the nuclear threat, gender discrimination, the
killing of innocents in the name of religion and so on. In this way,
they can put their faith into action, instead of leaving it confined
merely to words, as generally happens at inter-faith dialogue
conferences. Through this sort of practical action for common purposes
they can reach out to people of other faiths in a far more direct and
meaningful manner, for actions, obviously, speak louder than words.

Intra-faith dialogue is as crucial as inter-faith dialogue. While
Protestant and Catholic Christians no longer kill each other (other
than, and that too rapidly decreasingly, in Northern Ireland), now
having been brought together by the ecumenical Christian movement, and
while Shiavite and Vaishnavite Hindus have long forgotten their
centuries’ old enmities, intra-Muslim sectarian conflicts still rage,
often violently. In fact, the Saudi Wahhabi regime, which, ironically,
has sponsored the Makkah conference through the Muslim World League,
has for long been one of the major backers of such intra-Muslim
conflicts. Muslim scholars, such as those who assembled at the Makkah
conference, need to seriously ponder on the issue of promoting
ecumenism between the different Muslim sects. Surely, if they cannot
dialogue among themselves, how can it be expected that they can do so
sincerely and effectively with non-Muslims? How will their claims to
be committed to dialogue be taken seriously by others if they remain
willing to sincerely dialogue among fellow Muslims who follow a
different school of thought?

In the past, and still today, efforts to promote Muslim unity and
solidarity, in line with Quranic commandments, have sundered on the
hard rock of sectarianism. Many Muslim organizations and movements and
almost all Muslim madrasas or seminaries are based on one or the other
sectarian identity, reflecting the belief that this particular
sectarian understanding of Islam is the only true one, the rest being
mistaken, wrong or, worse still, actually ‘un-Islamic’ or
‘anti-Islamic’. Because of this, it has often proved (and this remains
largely the case even today) impossible for Muslims of different sects
to work together for common purposes.

The Makkah conference on inter-faith dialogue thus is a blessing and a
wonderful development, but, at the same time, it can be said to be
only the first step towards a larger project that needs to be much
more democratic, in terms of involving people of other faiths, people
other than religious specialists (real or self-appointed), and more
inclusive, in terms of going beyond mere statements and religious
claims to work on practical projects and issues on which people of
different faiths can work together and to also seriously consider the
issue of intra-Muslim dialogue between the different Muslim sects.
When seen along with similar efforts on the part of influential
sections of the Indian ulema in recent months, who have been
organising meetings across the country denouncing all forms of
terrorism and lending support to inter-community solidarity, it
appears that Muslim religious leaders in many parts of the world are
waking up to the urgent need to take inter-faith dialogue much more
seriously than they have before. At a time when there is much talk of
an impending ‘clash of civilisations’, with Islam and Muslims being
projected as principal actors in this drama of cosmic dimensions,
surely the Makkah conference is no mean achievement. It might, for all
we know, represent the stirrings of a new beginning.