Despite Controversy, Conference Widens Interfaith Dialogue


By Mark R. Cohen

Published July 22, 2005, issue of July 22, 2005.
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The refrain that freedom and democracy are on the march in the Middle East may seem premature, but recent events — like last month’s conference in Qatar on interreligious dialogue — reflect positive and noteworthy changes.

The two previous conferences — held in Doha in 2003 and 2004, originally at the initiative of the archbishop of Canterbury — only included Muslims and Christians. Last year, however, Qatar Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani surprised some people when he proposed that it might be “useful to widen the dialogue in next year’s seminar to [include] the participation of representatives of the Jewish religion which concurs with Islam and Christianity in the belief in the oneness of God.”

In this spirit, I was invited to participate in this year’s conference in my capacity as a rabbi and as a professor of Jewish history at Princeton University who has written extensively on Jewish-Muslim relations in the Middle Ages. Three other American rabbis were also invited: J. Rolando Matalon of Manhattan’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, Burton Visotzky of the New York-based Jewish Theological Seminary and Nancy Fuchs Kreimer of the Philadelphia-based Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

Predictably, the conference was not held without complications and controversy. Initially Israeli rabbis had been invited also, through the offices of the Israeli Foreign Ministry (Israel maintains a low-level diplomatic presence in Qatar in the form of a trade mission). The Israelis were very pleased to be included.

But the Qataris came under intense criticism from radical Islamists for inviting Israelis and Jews in general. Caught between their enlightened impulses and pressure from right-wing extremists, the Qataris tried to find a way to respond to the criticism, while maintaining their resolve to include the Israelis. Organizers proposed the idea of welcoming the Israelis to the conference if they would agree not to deliver papers from the dais. The Israelis understandably opted not to send their delegation under these circumstances.

We four American rabbis withdrew from the conference in solidarity with our Israeli colleagues, but when we were subsequently informed by the Qataris in writing that all participants would have full participation, and were assured that this meant the Israelis as well, we decided to go. Of the 85 participants, only about two dozen actually spoke from the dais, but since the speakers included the five Jewish delegates from Europe and America (there was one from France), the Israelis felt they could not participate. The radical Islamists who had protested did not attend either, presumably because some Jews were still coming.

David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee, one of the invited Israeli rabbis, was quoted in The Jerusalem Post as saying, “It was suggested that it would be more useful if the American rabbis did go and express their disappointment that the Israelis were not there and that they expected them to be there next year.”

The conference itself was amazing. There was much good discussion of religious similarities, and promising relationships were forged. We heard words seldom spoken publicly in the Arab world. In this country — an aspiring democracy despite its official adherence to the stringent Wahhabi stream of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia — we heard unexpected voices of dissent from the “party line.”

When a Muslim from Morocco laced into both Christians and Jews in Europe and America for being Zionists, he drew words of disappointment from Dr. Aisha Yousef Al-Mannai, the conference’s academic organizer and dean of the faculty of Sharia and Islamic studies. “We must be frank,” she said. “I would have hoped your talk could have included some criticism of Islam as well.”

On my own panel, the former dean of the same faculty, law professor Sheikh Abd Al-Hamid Al-Ansari, made some surprising remarks. “If the Palestinian problem is solved will all our problems be over? No,” he said. “Muslims show hatred and opposition also among themselves…. There is a culture of hatred…. We need to address our own faults and failures, to be self-critical… if we want to have a fruitful dialogue.” The insightful remarks followed a rather strident anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian speech by a Christian-Arab cleric from Egypt.

My own contribution was meant to confront both Christian and Muslim participants with an alternative view that could steer thinking in a more constructive direction. I analyzed briefly the difference between Jewish-Christian and Jewish-Muslim relations in previous centuries, and attempted to explain why Jewish-Muslim interreligious dialogue has lagged so far behind Jewish-Christian interfaith discussion. I suggested two related explanations. First I noted that for many centuries, Jews and Muslims lived side by side, one subordinate to the other, but without fundamental differences of doctrine that had to be argued. Nor was there in the Islamic Middle Ages a threatening, irrational antisemitism like the kind that emerged in Christendom around the 12th century. That kind of antisemitism was only imported into the Muslim world in the 19th century — by Christian Arabs. Seeking greater acceptance in a fledgling pan-Arab nation, the region’s Christians wished to focus Arab enmity away from themselves and onto a new and familiar enemy. The other reason is the simple fact that historically Jews have had relatively little grievance against Islam. Jews living in Muslim lands, even where in recent centuries they were downtrodden and sometimes oppressed, felt embedded in the society around them, and friendships with Muslims often outweighed enmity.

In my response to questions from the floor, I seconded Sheikh Al-Ansari’s comments about the need for Muslim self-criticism, but added that it took a half-century for the “new historians” in Israel to engage in self-criticism. Only when the Palestinians have their own independent and economically successful state, I went on, can one reasonably expect them to catch up with the Israelis on self-criticism.

My closing point was an alert to both sides. We need more opportunities for Islamic-Jewish dialogue, especially within the Muslim world, like the Doha conference. We need it desperately, lest the hatred of the present, existing on both sides, completely snuff out the memory of the age-old commonalities of the Judaeo-Islamic tradition, which could form the foundation of a meaningful and peaceful discussion of what has bound us together in the past and can, with good will, bring us together in the present and the future.

The positive and hopeful message with which my colleagues and I walked away from Doha includes the knowledge that this project is ongoing, and we are reasonably certain that in the future it will continue to include Jews — Israeli and non-Israeli alike.

Mark R. Cohen is professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University and the author of “Under Crescent & Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages.”

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