Current Page: Opinion | Thursday, June 26, 2008
Cheers, Not Sneers

Cheers, Not Sneers

The Economist pays more and more attention to religion in world affairs. This time, "When Religions Talk" (June 14) deals with a topic which is often trivialized or treated with yawns, or, as here, partly faint—I think it is faint—condescension by the unnamed editorial writers. Why yawns? Because interfaith talk can be boring, its participants may sometimes be self-important; the hard topics are often circumvented.

The editors are in favor of faiths "trying to talk to each other," and welcome the "many initiatives to head off global confrontations involving religions and the cultures they have spawned." They recognize the many tense front lines: "Al Qaeda's war on the West is by no means the only religious or pseudo-religious dispute in the world. In India, militant Hindus are at odds with other faiths. Sri Lanka's Buddhist monks often support the battles with Tamil separatists. In Northern Ireland and the Balkans, conflict has raged ostensibly between different forms of Christianity." It goes without saying that various Muslim factions are in shooting wars with each other.

So we read a subhead, "Gabfests galore." "Plenty of people, from theology professors to international-relations wonks, perpetually available to provide services as talkers," talk. A bit of condescension there. "And no shortage of business leaders and politicians with an interest in avoiding a complete breakdown in relations between Islam and the West who are the natural supporters of 'inter-faith' initiatives." The magazine then picks up a bit by citing powerful groups with some potential achievements: the "Council of 100 leaders," an adjunct to the World Economic Forum; the "Alliance of Civilisations," connected with the UN; the Cordoba Initiative, and more. Most explicitly religious is the "Common Word" sent to Christian leaders by 138 Muslim scholars, with Jordanian royal backing. Even the Saudis are getting in on the stir.

Back to the slight sneer: "almost all such gatherings…reach the noble conclusion that…" (you can fill it in.) The editors properly mention that some subjects are too tense to be taken up, for example the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and "neo-fundamentalist" Islam. I once attended a conclave of thirteen Muslim, thirteen Jewish, and thirteen Christian scholars at Auschwitz. Even in that setting, agenda-makers had to duck the Palestinian-Israeli factions. The best paragraphs deal with the toughest questions, such as how to reconcile freedom of speech with Muslim demands for a ban on such? Should there be some kinds of restrictions? The final paragraphs treat the words of Famile Fatma Arslan, a Dutch Muslim lawyer, who says "it'a great time to be a European Muslim," and asks her co-believers not to mess things up. "If there is a problem between Islam and the West, people like [Ms. Arslan] are surely part of the answer."

Leaders in interfaith movements are well aware of their problems. They can sometimes hear people who can't hear, and they know how quickly conversation ends when military action begins. In a time when, far from battle fields, citizens can sound macho for suggesting readiness for spiritual or even physical combat with any who is "the other," who is named "the enemy," it takes a different kind of courage to make efforts to discern the thought-processes of those anchored in militant religious movements. If sometimes the talk is slow, muffled, and apparently pointless or self-serving, people like Ms Arslan, who impressed the editors, just might offer a better option. Cheers, not sneers, please.