Sunday, July 06, 2008

Prelude to the Madrid Interfaith Conference (Updated)

More details of the upcoming Madrid Interfaith Conference have come out, and I'm starting to think there is a possibility that it can be constructive after all:

Arab News, 6/22: According to Muslim World League Chief Abdullah al-Turki, the Madrid Conference will follow the program outlined at the Mecca Conference. It will last three days and topics will include
social amity, international cooperation, human rights and peaceful co-existence...the religious and cultural roots of dialogue, moral values of contemporary man, and the role of religion in combating crimes, drugs and corruption.
Turki adds, "King Abdullah's initiative has been hailed unanimously by the Muslim world, which was represented at the [Mecca preparatory] conference by prominent scholars and thinkers."

This is what is called "securing your base". Politicians often take this step before abandoning old positions and thereby frustrating their constituents, who put all their faith in their man only to be left with little or nothing. Warriors, on the other hand, take this step before they leave home to conquer new territory.

AFP: Saudi King Abdullah will launch the conference July 16th, and according to al-Turki "will discuss cooperation between communities from different religions and cultures over common human values".

Al-Jazeera: Saudis Invite Israeli to Madrid Parley
AP: Israeli rabbi invited to Saudi interfaith meeting:
Rabbi David Rosen said Saudi Arabia called the conference, set for Madrid from July 16-18, to bring world religions together to confront common challenges. Rosen called the invitation "a historic step for them."

But he warned that it might be no more than a Saudi attempt to improve its image and that of Islam in the face of criticism over the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S. and other instances of Islamic extremism.

Rosen, former chief rabbi of Ireland who serves as head of interfaith relations for the American Jewish Committee, is not identified as an Israeli on the conference list; rather, as an American Jewish Committee official.

Rosen is a very important rabbi, but he is being invited as an AJC official, not in his capacity as a member of Israel's Chief Rabbinate. The Jerusalem Post and CBN quote Rosen as saying,
"They are building up to the big summit in stages," Rosen said. "Apparently, it would be too big of a step for the Saudis to invite either of the two chief rabbis of Israel. But I hope they will reach that step eventually."

Since Rosen is also a member of The World Congress of Imams and Rabbis for Peace, he may have had a hand in crafting the Madrid Conference in the first place. Note that he envisions Madrid as only the first in a series of inter-religious conferences.

Arab News, 7/6/08
: In addition to invitees from the Muslim world,
those invited from other faiths include: Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head of the Papal Council for Inter-Religious dialogue, Rowan Williams, head of the Church of England, Robert Edgar, secretary-general of the National Council of Churches in the US, Rabbi David Weiss of Neturei Karta, Bawa Jain, secretary-general of the UN Millennium World Peace Summit, Rabbi Michael Paley of American Jewish Archives, Karen Armstrong, a Jewish researcher, Alan Race, director of International Interfaith Center at Oxford and American thinker Francis Fukuyama.

I find it difficult to take anything the NKs say seriously. Tauran and Williams are not without controversy, as they have been criticized for giving concessions to and excuses for Muslims without getting anything in return. Calling Armstrong "a Jewish researcher" is probably inaccurate - she's tried several faiths, and last I heard she was a Muslim. The inclusion of Fukuyama reflects the Mecca Conference's decision to include researchers and academics.

IINA: 200 religious leaders to attend Madrid Interfaith Conference: Additional invitees include: former US Vice-President Al Gore, Unesco Secretary-General Koshiro Matsura, Head of the Papal Council for Dialogue with Religions Jan Loi Toran, Fourth Archbishop of Hartford Henry J. Mansell, Secretary General of the Middle East Council of Churches Dr. Guirgis Saleh and Head of the Indian Sikh Council Paramjit Singh Sarna, an official of the EU Rabbi Council, a Jewish Reform Federation Chairman, and the chief of the Protestant Bishops Council.

Presumably Rafsanjani will represent the Iranian Shia, hopefully without a terrorist sidekick. I wonder whether there will be representatives from Buddhist and Hindu communities?

While all the inviting is going on, trouble is starting to brew, as Shia Saudi clerics protest an edict by their Sunni counterparts that classifies them (along with Jews like me) as infidels. The Sunni-Shia split is almost as old as Islam itself; why should it be newly prominent now?
The edict by representatives of the conservative wing in the official Sunni religious establishment was seen by some observers as a shot against King Abdullah's plan to set up a dialogue between Muslims, Jews, Christians and other faiths.

No wonder the Saudi King is moving forward so quickly with the Madrid Conference; he has to act before opponents to his plans (whatever they are) get their act together.

Update, 7/13/08

More from the Christian Science Monitor:
"It's very difficult to deal with [the radicals]) on an intellectual basis, to open up their minds," says Shiite political activist Jafar Al Shayeb. "So having these Muslim scholars from all different parts of the world pushing for a more tolerant course, I think will help the government in dealing with radical groups internally."...Former Vice President Al Gore and the Archbishop of Canterbury were also invited, but declined because of prior engagements...Abdullah first disclosed his plans for an interfaith dialogue during a meeting with visiting Japanese scholars last March, describing it as something that had "obsessed [him]...[At the Mecca Conference] The king made clear his concern about Islam's image, saying that it faces difficult challenges from Muslim extremists, who "target the magnanimity, fairness, and lofty aims of Islam." He urged the delegates "to face the challenges of isolation, ignorance, and narrow horizons, so that the world can absorb the good message of Islam."

An example of this extremism is offered by Gulf News:
"No one should feel safe without submitting, and those who refuse to submit must pay a high price. The aim of our movement is to turn the world into a series of "wildernesses" in which only those under our rule enjoy security. "

Alsharq Alawsat:
The Islamic world seems to be trapped between a rock and a hard place; between despotism and extremism.

At the Saudi Press Agency an Algerian "thinker" and a Christian Jordanian "official" praise the Conference initiative (1,2,3,4).

The New York Sun notes that the NK's have been disinvited:
Jews invited to the Madrid conference next week found the inclusion of the Neturei Karta so troubling that, according to one rabbi planning to attend, Marc Schneier of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, the national director of the Islamic Society of North America, Sayyid Syeed, took up the cause, telling the Saudi ambassador to America that unless the Neturei Karta representative was removed and disinvited, he himself wouldn't go to Madrid.

Arab News quotes Muslim World League President al-Turki:
the conference would not discuss controversial religious and political issues. “It will focus on common human values”

A most important indication of the Saudi attitude going into the Conference, I think: they want it to be constructive, not destructive; they want these first tentative steps to be a success. Well, there may be very little common ground, but it is a start. The Madrid Conference may establish the directions for what could become its permanent mechanism, the grandly named "King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Center for Civilization Interaction".

Arab News adds to the invitee list (1,2):
Claudio Epelman, director of the Latin American Jewish Congress...Mark Ebert, executive director of the Three Faiths Forum; Yi Cheng, chairman of the Buddhist Association of China; Andrea Riccardi, chairman of the SantŮŠEgidio Community in Italy...Carl A. Sheingold, executive vice president of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation in the US...Bishop Alexi II, patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church; Rev. Nichiko Niwano, president of the International Buddhist Congregation; Koichi Mori, director, Center for Interdisciplinary Study of Monotheistic Religions in Japan; Karan Singh, president of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations; Swamy Agni Vesh of Arya Smaj; and M.M. Verma, director of Interfaith Foundation India...

The participants from the US include Muzammil Siddiqui, former president of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA); Nihad Awad, director general of Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR); John Esposito, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding; and William Baker[!], president of Christians and Muslims for Peace.

Other confirmed participants are: Jean-Louis Pierre Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue at the Vatican; Federico Mayor Zaragoza, president of Cultural Foundation for Peace in Spain; Thomas Lemmen, president of the Christian-Islamic Relations Center in Germany; Francis Lamand, president of the Organization of Islam and the West in France; Zhang Jiyu, vice president of the China Taoism Association; and M. M. Verma, director of Interfaith Foundation in India.

Buddhists in Japan will be represented by Nichiko Niwano, president of the International Buddhist Congregation, while Protestant Christians in Egypt by Safwat Nageeb El-Biady, president of the Protestant Churches Center.

Prominent personalities from Islamic countries include Saleh Bin-Humaid, Abdullah Omar Naseef, secretary-general of the World Islamic Council for Dawa and Relief; Muhammad Tantawi, head of Al-Azhar in Egypt; Abdul Rahman Suwar Dahab, president of Islamic Dawa Organization in Sudan; and Mohammad Basyuni, minister of religious affairs in Indonesia.

Note: William Baker appears to be a fake academic! I hope the Saudis haven't been suckered into inviting too many of these certain spoilers to their party.

Arab News claims that results of the Madrid Conference will be presented to the U.N. How that would work I don't know. More interesting is the hint that the Interfaith Conferences will become an annual affair.

CAIR discusses its participation here.

On a more local note, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle runs an essay by by two Muslims who cite the Madrid Conference as an example of Muslims "rising to that challenge" of educating "educate others about their religious beliefs and the commonalities among all faiths." It isn't always easy to tell where they are talking about themselves distinctly as Muslims or addressing Americans in general. Perhaps that confusion is itself representative of the American Muslim community as it strives for a balance in its relations with non-Muslims.

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