A Common Word (4)
The promoters of “the Doom Scenario” seek to sharpen the Islam/West divide and, by doing so, they hope to increase the chances of turning the “clash of civilizations” prophecy into a historical reality. They will succeed, unless we make the effort to stop them.
Since the clash is often presented in religious terms, its antidote would work most effectively if it too is presented in religious terms. As we are told that religion is the problem, we ought to respond by showing that religion could also be the solution. The good news is that this key to defeating “the Doom Scenario” has already been identified by a number of faith communities. Such faith communities are small and somewhat marginal, but they are also growing in both number and strength. They are part of the solution.
One such initiative is the open letter, titled “A Common Word,” that was written and endorsed by 138 Muslim scholars and leaders in the fall of 2007, addressing Christian leaders from around the world. The letter asks Christians to consider the basic teachings of the Bible that they share with Muslims, i.e., the imperative of loving God and loving the neighbor. On that twin foundation, the Muslim letter offers a challenge to Christian leaders: Let’s come together and work for promoting peace. Christians and Muslims together form more than half of the world’s population; unless there is peace between these two communities, there cannot be peace on earth.
The Muslim initiative is based not on a modern or postmodern discovery of religious pluralism, but on the imperative for dialogue that is inscribed within the Islamic scripture itself.
The Muslim letter has been well-received by the Christian world, as indicated by the overwhelmingly positive responses from a variety of Christian denominations, as well as by the number and level of actual dialogue initiatives that have emerged as a result of these responses.
The time is indeed ripe for such a dialogue. There is more than sufficient motivation on both sides, which is to prevent and avoid the clash; there is a clear perception of the goal, which is to recognize the mutual differences between the two communities but then to go beyond them in order to promote our agreed-upon values; and a common ground as the foundation for dialogue has also been clearly articulated in the form of the twin imperatives of loving God and loving the neighbor.
And yet, this phenomenal opportunity may wither away unless it is vigorously supported by the active participation of both Muslim and Christian communities. Talks between the Pope and a few top Muslim figures are certainly important, but what is even more crucial for the full flowering of this initiative is the participation of ordinary Christians and ordinary Muslims who care about their faith as well as the fate of the world. The contact and exchange at the level of clergy and scholars represent a most welcome development, but this alone will not suffice. In the final analysis, it will be the extent and quality of grassroots participation that will determine the success or failure of this initiative.
Here is a list of what you and I can start doing today, without having to wait for our religious leaders to take the initiative.
1. Reject “the Doom Scenario.” This requires a thorough understanding of the logic that seeks to promote this scenario, so that we may detect its nefarious presence wherever it raises its ugly head. We have to be outspoken in this regard too, doing whatever we can to show our intolerance for this sort of thinking, particularly when it arises within our own faith community.
2. Find Common Grounds. It is imperative that we educate ourselves on world history and cultural geography as much as possible. We need to recognize that Muslims and Christians have had a long history of cultural exchange and peaceful interaction over the centuries, that thre are common values that both communities hold dear, and that the problems that we are facing today are not restricted to one or another of these communities.
3. Build Connections. We can start by diversifying our friends, joining interfaith groups, traveling abroad, and reading works of fiction written by foreign authors. There is no reason to restrict our social lives within our own ethnic or religious circle, nor is there anything wrong in showing sincere curiosity about each other’s cultures, religious beliefs and practices, and political viewpoints. This kind of communication, however, does require genuine listening and the ability to defer moralistic judgments.
4. Turn Politics Around. Democracy only works with informed and thoughtful citizens, or it soon degenerates into its opposite. The most important imperative here is to be informed. Know the issues, tune in to alternative media, make up your own mind, and keep a close eye on your political leaders.