Muslim Wire

Gaza casts dark shadow over annual summit

Posted in Politics, Society by muslimwire on October 23, 2009

The fallout from the Gaza Strip invasion and the continuing conflict over Jerusalem’s holy places cast a lengthy shadow over the annual Doha Conference on Interfaith Dialogue this week.

The situation led to the prominent Islamic scholar Yusuf al Qardawi boycotting the event and, unlike last year, no Israeli rabbis travelled to Qatar for the two-day conference.

Indeed, at a time when there seems to be growing intolerance, particularly in parts of Europe, of others’ religious beliefs, the timing of this year’s Doha gathering – the seventh in the series – seemed particularly unpropitious.

Yet such problems were the very reason why dialogue among the world’s three great monotheistic religions must continue, according to Aisha al Mannai, dean of Sharia and Islamic Studies at Qatar university and board member of the Doha International Centre for Interfaith Dialogue.

“Let’s continue interfaith dialogue till the Judgment Day,” she said following the establishment of the centre last year. “We have no choice but to go ahead with such dialogues.

“If we failed to stop the clash between religions, at least we would be able to delay it. Even if the interfaith dialogue proved to be futile on the practical level, it would not harm any of those involved in the process.”

More than 250 delegates from 59 countries, including rabbis from Europe, the USA and South America, attended the conference, which took “human solidarity” as its theme.

Yet the spectre of Gaza and Jerusalem proved hard to avoid. Prof Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary general of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, warned that growing Islamophobia had led to violations of human rights and that the situation in Gaza and Jerusalem had exacerbated tensions among religious communities.

<a target=”_top” href=””><img src=”” border=”0″ alt=”” ></a>“What Israel has done resulted only in increasing hatred and triggering conflict,” he said. “If Israel is relying on its military dominance there is another force that cannot be defeated by military force – that is the force of truth.”

Prof Ihsanoglu called for proper respect for Muslim and Christian sacred sites in Jerusalem, branding Israel’s attempts at “Judaisation” of the holy city as “a brazen encroachment upon other people’s rights”.

But among the recriminations, there were messages of hope. Prof Robert Eisen, professor of religion and Judaic studies at George Washington University in Washington, DC, offered an intriguing prospect of reconciliation between Muslims and Jews in the Middle East.

Accepting that such a situation might appear “absurd” in the current climate, he said: “Yet, even if peace between Jews and Muslims is far off, maybe we need to do a little dreaming once in a while. Sometimes great things begin with a dream.”

Prof Eisen argued that there existed a greater commonality between Jews and Muslims than each side realised. “I’m thinking not of the religious issues that are most commonly discussed in interfaith dialogue between the two communities – such as similar religious beliefs and practices. I’m thinking of our respective historical experiences.

“These historical experiences have been critical in shaping the psychologies of Jews and Muslims and the way that each group thinks about the other.

“Moreover, there are remarkable similarities between the respective histories of the two peoples, though these similarities are not generally acknowledged, let alone discussed.”

“Yet, if these similarities were part of our discourse, it could help bring about a more peaceful relationship between the two sides.”

After outlining the historical similarities between the two groups, Prof Eisen added: “If Jews and Muslims do not deal with the fears and indignities that are deeply embedded in their respective psychologies, it is unlikely that the more immediate conflict between Israelis and Palestinians will ever be resolved.”

Jakov Weisz, a rabbi from the UK, held out the possibility of achieving a single, Muslim-Jewish state in the Middle East.

“If one’s group is seen as specially blessed or chosen by the Almighty how much should or may its members worry about the sufferings of other tribes of men?” he asked.

“It is this dilemma which haunts any discussion of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict which speaks in terms of one unitary state.”

He said the idea of one state, which would involve a transfer of vast economic power from Jews to Muslims, would be daunting for most Israelis.

“Beyond the transference of economic well-being, it would also require both peoples to say openly to each other: ‘We feel that you have deeply wounded us over the past 60 or 100 years. Yet, we are willing to look to the future and not to the past’.”

The rabbi accepted that this seemed to be “a utopian perspective” but he said that the “still and holy voice” within religious communities could lead the two sides to make peace with their enemies.

He also said Israel’s huge and growing military budget was leading to its economic meltdown and that there was a practical impetus for Israelis and Palestinians to create a single, sustainable economy.

“A pipe dream? Yes, it certainly looks that way today. But, with the Almighty’s help all things are possible,” he said.

“Economic interdependence amongst different peoples and former enemies may yet allow Jews and Palestinians to show the world a model of empathy and concern that may inspire other peoples to scale the same heights.”

Recognition of the concerns of many over Jerusalem were reflected in the delegates’ declaration made at the end of the conference.

“There was a specific concern for the need to protect places of worship and holy sites, whether in a place so central to all three religions as is Jerusalem, or where minorities seek hospitality and facilities, such as have been generously offered by the state of Qatar,” it said.

One practical step to emerge from the conference was an agreement on the right of a child to be educated in his or her own religious tradition, “as well as to learn with truth and sensitivity about other religions and cultures”.

Members of the Doha Interfaith Centre will now embark on a feasibility study to develop models for such educational material to be used worldwide.

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