World Council of Dialogue Conference
Paper presented by Dr. Aly Elsamman
Madrid - July 18, 2008 Shaping and Developing the Dialogue
I would like to express my appreciation and respect to the Custodian of The Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saoud of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, for his historic initiative that represents a turning point in the course of interfaith dialogue.
I would also like to express appreciation to the Muslim World League and its secretary, General Dr. Abdullah Bin Abdulmohsen Al Turky, for shouldering the responsibility of organizing this conference. The Muslim World League is well known for its long history in the field of interfaith dialogue and is doing everything to ensure the success of this conference.
Please allow me, as a Muslim, to say that I am very proud that followers of the three monotheistic religions have gathered in response to a Muslim-organized initiative, one in which the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques has encouraged us to come together in search of common ground to help achieve peace that is inseparable from justice.
I repeat that I’m proud of this initiative as a Muslim, and hope that we may present to the world accurate representations of each other’s religions in the sacred texts and references of our religions.
Islam - the religion of peace, of moderation and intermediation. I salute those who selected Spain as a location to hold our conference today, a country that has demonstrated peaceful coexistence between monotheistic religions.
The Future of Dialogue
Please allow me to begin with a practical suggestion, to propose in an international arena the idea of establishing an Ethics of Dialogue Charter that encompasses ideas, rules, manners and goals determined by all the parties to the dialogue. I would like to present the following ideas:
First: Readiness for self-criticism. In self-criticism there is both self-respect and respect for others. There is also a rejection of having a monopoly on the facts.
Second: Rejecting generalization, that is, not to speak about or judge the West or Christianity or Judaism as a whole. Muslims must also call for the rejection of generalization in judging them when Muslims commit crimes, like those of Al-Qaeda. God knows that the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and H.E. the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Al-Sharif were the first to denounce the events of September 11th.
We must remember that Islam has taught us not to generalize judgment. These were the words of God Almighty, when teaching us that upon speaking about a group of people, it is important to use the terminology, “some of them” or, “several people among them” or even, “most of them” and never to generalize.
I would modestly add that self-criticism and rejection of generalization is a civilized attitude, and upon including it in a Charter for Dialogue, we take the initiative while others follow our footsteps. Let me speak openly with you. I would rather hold specialized dialogues than general and philosophical ones.
Examples of specialized dialogues are:
Interfaith dialogue, simply because one religion adds value to another religion in the course of searching for their common values and bases for cooperation between them. Along these lines I believe that in the coming period we are facing an important challenge changing from the concept of coexisting to that of cooperating, that is to say we have to move to a period of “common work”.
East-West dialogue, which isn’t only restricted to the east and the west, but as an economic dialogue represented by the establishing of common projects, through which our part of the world seeks to occupy a certain area in the field of the entire world’s technology, so that we do not continue being imitators and recipients of the transfer of technology.
Gentlemen. We have read and understood the Ten Commandments including God’s order, “Do not kill.” We have read and learned the Constitution of Medina drafted by Mohamed to define Muslim and non-Muslim relations. Moreover, we have read and understood the message of Jesus Christ regarding how important and essential love is.
Now, in the 21st century, we need an executive bill gathering the aforementioned historic charters. Yes, we need a strong stance confronting murder, torture, oppression and the general disdaining of people’s will. Openly I say that despite the Ten Commandments and Jesus Christ’s message of love, as well as the Constitution of Medina, still some of your children kill our innocent children ... and still some of our children commit suicide in order to kill some of your innocent children.
Will we proceed towards convening the next interfaith conference just to present more words to people? Will we take the risk of losing peoples’ trust in the efficiency of our work?
Ask yourself whether interfaith dialogues have attained their desired goals or not? The response is definitely, “no.” Unfortunately, this is because most of the outcomes of the dialogue are only echoed inside the hotel meeting rooms and conference halls. I think we are all aiming for our message to resound outside of today’s conference hall and meeting rooms. So I say that we need a new language and a new approach in dealing with interfaith dialogue, before those around us lose hope in the face of worldwide violence and aggressive attitudes and blasphemy launched against the values of Islam.
Every one of us must be bold enough to anger some of his people by telling the truth and denouncing the wrong, the misdoings and the injustices, in order to be on the side of truth, justice, equality and peace.
Dialogue should also be transferred from the elite to the general public through overcoming “conference language”, and paving the way to the “language of dialogue.” And, we should work side by side so as to establish an Ethics of Dialogue Charter, based on the rejection of generalization and the acceptance of self-criticism.
Third: Emphasizing to a greater degree the role of countries and international organizations in supporting dialogue and confronting its impediments. The absence of mutual cultural understanding between one other is among the reasons for confrontation and disagreement. I think that it is a suitable time for the followers of the three monotheistic religions to say clearly with strong faith and belief, that we are not alone in our religious doctrines but that there are others, especially in Asia. It is time to extend our hands to each other so as to attain the desired common cooperation, fraternity and understanding, because man’s stability, freedom and happiness is our final desired goal.
Moreover, I believe that linking dialogue to co-existence requires attention to mutual cultural cooperation between peoples. Cultural illiteracy leads to confrontation and conflict. Thus, interfaith dialogue and mutual cultural cooperation between peoples are interconnected. Unfortunately, many of the institutes working in the field of cultural rapprochement and interfaith dialogue have not succeed in conveying the message of co-existence and dialogue to the general public, keeping it mainly as a focus of the nation’s elite.
Accordingly, I urge all nations and institutes concerned with the issue of interfaith dialogue, to work together for the sake of widening the base of dialogue, in order to transfer it from the elite to the people. We have noticed that it is the elite who are aware of the dialogue and speak about it. We have also observed that there are grave issues and sectarian problems that defy solution. These enable the success of those who plot intrigues for the sake of creating conflict between religions and races in order to achieve certain political purposes having no relationship to Islam or Christianity.
It is also time for legal experts to determine and define the difference between extremism, violence, terror and the legitimate right of resistance. We can no allow those who have exercise injustice and oppression and who deprive innocent people of their rights to exploit our call for peace, cooperation and co-existence. Upon achieving true justice with regards to the issues of peoples and their rights in respecting their dignity and sovereignty, another vital target will be achieved, that of “respecting life or the right to live.”
At last, I take the responsibility of addressing those nations and international organizations, in the light of the currently escalating global struggles, to inform them that I do not believe that there are religious conflicts. I believe that there are struggles for political power, which seize religions as hostages in order to maintain control and destruction.
Fourth: The mass media’s role and its impact in spreading the culture of dialogue and coexistence between peoples. There is a vital role for the mass media to take between specialists from our region and those from the west, because every time we call for the presenting of true perspectives of Islam or Christianity, the problem lies with the mass media.
In the past, I have held round tables for specialists from the Western media and their counterparts from the Islamic world, in order to study some important current issues. I prefer these round tables to conferences that are dominated by rhetorical attitudes adopted to defend the participants’ points of view. The round tables I speak of are held between specialists who adopt a rational process to search for a means of solving the problems of misrepresentation of religions.
As a mass media expert, please believe me when I say that through specialized mass media meetings, we will learn how to tackle those issues that cannot be solved in a survey or study, and we can begin to transform the dialogue from the elite to the general public, while establishing a charter for the ethics of dialogue.
Here are several points to be raised about the mass media, please allow me to conclude with them.
1- Information today is a dangerous weapon, although it could be used as an educational tool for teaching the rejection of extremism, violence and terror, while explaining and clarifying to millions of people what programs and conferences cannot do with the same efficiency.
2- Moreover, information without message or target or principles provokes peoples’ emotions and leads to violence. This is a weapon more dangerous than any other that kills innocents - the honest and moderate people. We’ve all noticed during the past years, how an article or a picture or a movie challenging the values of a religion and its symbols have been able to provoke the emotions of millions of people.
Therefore, I believe that it is important to achieve an intelligent and an objective balance between the freedom of opinion, thought and expression, and to define the red lines which defend and protect others rights to have their values and symbols respected. Everyone has noticed that the points of disagreement during the past few years between Islam and the West were often focused on the crossing of these red lines by Western newspapers, infringing on sovereignty and violating sacred symbols of Islamic beliefs and values. Thus, for the sake of abolishing the points of disagreement, it is important to establish links and bridges of mutual trust and confidence between “Islam and the West”, in order to avoid a “Dialogue of the Deaf.”
I reiterate that we will not be able to achieve anything without being ready to pay a price. I admit that it will not be an easy fight and the land will not be paved with flowers. It will certainly be a fierce battle, an honorable battle, and one that is worth our sacrifice. Therefore, there is a work plan to be proposed to the high level Conference in order to support dialogue and reform its meaning:
Establishing an interfaith Charter for Dialogue that draws a roadmap transforming the context of dialogue to the implicit search for common values, creating a common ground of mutual cooperation between religions.
Holding a round table that tackles the international mass media’s actions that lead to explosions that hurt everyone. Ideally, we would hold a round table gathering of twenty professionals from Islamic and Western mass media.
Paying attention to the principle of self-reflection and self-criticism, which are indispensable to the achievement of development and attaining the dialogue’s targets.
It is a must to hold a high level international conference to discuss the school textbook problem and each other’s perspective through the schoolbooks.
Finally, I would like to suggest the following ground rules for interfaith dialogue:
No monopoly on faith in God
No monopoly on God’s words
No monopoly on defining God’s words
No monopoly on God’s estimation of people’s positions
In conclusion, dear brothers, I confirm that dialogue is a doctrine, a belief and a fight at the same time. It is an action, an initiative, bold and requiring will, not an exchange of social gestures. It is a confronting of violence and hatred and a defending of love. It is one of the solutions that will allow the entire world to enjoy peace and stability.