The Makkah Conference on Inter-Faith Dialogue: Stirrings of a New Beginning?
Yoginder Sikand, June 12, 2008

The recently concluded three-day international conference on interfaith dialogue organised by the Muslim World League at Makkah marks a major step towards promoting bridges of dialogue and understanding between Muslims and people of other faiths. This comes at a time of mounting Islamophobia the world over, when negative stereotyping of Muslims and their faith has become deeply ingrained in large sections of the international media and also in policy-making circles in many countries. The organizers of the Makkah conference undoubtedly felt it crucial to promote the notion of interfaith dialogue in order to address this issue of Islam-bashing, and it is to be hoped that they also felt it urgent to combat similar negative stereotyping of other faiths and their followers that are equally widely prevalent among many Muslims themselves.

Clearly, however, there are limits to the sort of progress on the inter-faith dialogue front that this officially Saudi-sponsored event can inspire. For one thing, there were, presumably, no non-Muslim participants in the conference, for it was held in the city of Makkah, where only Muslims are allowed to enter. Surely, genuine dialogue cannot be promoted without the presence of a dialogue partner! The absence of non-Muslim dialogue partners in the conference meant that, for practical purposes, the discussions that ensued were all part of a monologue by a select group of Muslims speaking to and among themselves. How, one must ask, does this advance the cause of inter-faith dialogue in practical, as opposed to rhetorical, terms?

Secondly, the fact that the conference was held by an organization that is, for all practical purposes, under the aegis of the Saudi King, whose regime represents the sternly literalist and exclusivist Wahhabi understanding of Islam (and one that is perfectly comfortable with monarchy and Western imperialist domination, both presumably not quite Islamic phenomena) surely limits the sort of progress in improving inter-faith relations that the conference was ostensibly intended to promote. Since its very inception, Saudi Wahhabism has been, and continues to be, fiercely intolerant not just of religions other than Islam, but also of other understandings and expressions of Islam, such as Shi'ism and Sufism. How, then, can one expect major positive achievements to emerge on the inter-faith front from an initiative that is probably the brainchild of the repressive and totalitarian Saudi regime, which has had such a poor record when it comes to inter-faith and even intra-Muslim sectarian relations?

As is evident from newspaper reporting about the event, the Makkah conference proceeded on much the same lines as have umpteen other such inter-faith dialogue conferences that have been held before it elsewhere, by Muslims as well as others. What typically happens in such conferences is that speaker after speaker extols the virtues of his or her own faith as he or she interprets it, and issues passionate calls for peace and inter-community solidarity. Rarely, if ever, is their any discussion of practical steps to be undertaken once the conference is over, unless, of course, it is to decide on yet another
conference on the same theme, but this time in another exotic or interesting location. Rarely, too, is their any admission of the undeniable fact that religion—all religions—can and have been interpreted in various diverse ways, some of them in ways that seek to justify hatred of and uncalled for violence towards people of other faiths. At least that has been my experience of almost all the inter-faith dialogue conferences—and these have been many—that I have attended in the last twenty years in India and elsewhere. And, judging from the reports emerging in the press, this is, broadly, what the participants in the Makkah inter-faith dialogue conference have also done.

Undeniably, inter-faith dialogue conferences of this sort are important, and one cannot simply dismiss them simply because they do not produce any immediate tangible results. They are significant in that they signify efforts on the part of key religious leaders (or people who are projected as such 'leaders') to fashion different understandings of their own religions insofar as they relate to people of other faiths, implicitly or explicitly critiquing exclusivist understandings of their religion by some elements that are used to foment hatred and violence against others. Surely that is no mean achievement, for such conferences, attended by presumably senior religious spokesmen, do send out powerful messages that can impact on how their 'ordinary' co-religionists relate to people of other faiths.

Yet, and this must be recognized, such efforts are simply not enough. They cannot succeed on their own. They need to be accompanied by serious mobilization work at the 'grassroots' level if they are to impact on people on a large scale. Often, it is not simply prejudice or ignorance about other faiths that causes inter-community conflict, and so such conflict cannot be done away with simply by dialogue between religious leaders talking about the concept of peace in their own religions. Surely, there are often serious economic and political factors at work that cause friction and conflict between communities. Hence, these conflicts cannot be said to be a result of religious misunderstandings alone and cannot be solved simply by trying to fashion new theologies of peace. Take, for instance, the conflict over Palestine. It cannot be the contention of anyone other than the most naïve that the issue is entirely religious and that it can be solved simply by getting Jewish rabbis and Muslim maulvis to sit together and discuss the merits of their respective faiths and thereby discover theological resources within their religious traditions that can prove more accommodative of people of other faiths. While such inter-faith dialogue is certainly important, obviously the problem has also to be tackled at the political and economic level, and if these are ignored the problem can only further fester.

Religion teaches about claims to ultimate truths, and for those who ardently believe in them these are non-negotiable, for they believe that their own religions are the best or most true or even represent the absolute truth. Hence, there are limits to the sort of consensus that can be reached between people of different faiths on religious matters through inter-faith dialogue efforts. Further, often such efforts are extremely elitist, limited only to religious leaders or self-appointed leaders discussing theological niceties among themselves, and not involving the masses in any way. Surely a more productive approach to inter-faith dialogue is to move beyond (while also including) discussions at the theological level to promote what has been called 'the dialogue of social action'—where people of different faiths and ideologies (not just 'religious specialists', but 'laymen' too) , each with their own sources of inspiration, whether religious or otherwise, come together to work in solidarity on issues of common concern, be it the struggle against imperialism or capitalist depredation, the nuclear threat, gender discrimination, the killing of innocents in the name of religion and so on. In this way, they can put their faith into action, instead of leaving it confined merely to words, as generally happens at inter-faith dialogue conferences. Through this sort of practical action for common purposes they can reach out to people of other faiths in a far more direct and meaningful manner, for actions, obviously, speak louder than words.

Intra-faith dialogue is as crucial as inter-faith dialogue. While Protestant and Catholic Christians no longer kill each other (other than, and that too rapidly decreasingly, in Northern Ireland), now having been brought together by the ecumenical Christian movement, and while Shiavite and Vaishnavite Hindus have long forgotten their centuries' old enmities, intra-Muslim sectarian conflicts still rage, often violently. In fact, the Saudi Wahhabi regime, which, ironically, has sponsored the Makkah conference through the Muslim World League, has for long been one of the major backers of such intra-Muslim conflicts. Muslim scholars, such as those who assembled at the Makkah conference, need to seriously ponder on the issue of promoting ecumenism between the different Muslim sects. Surely, if they cannot dialogue among themselves, how can it be expected that they can do so sincerely and effectively with non-Muslims? How will their claims to be committed to dialogue be taken seriously by others if they remain willing to sincerely dialogue among fellow Muslims who follow a
different school of thought?

In the past, and still today, efforts to promote Muslim unity and solidarity, in line with Quranic commandments, have sundered on the hard rock of sectarianism. Many Muslim organizations and movements and almost all Muslim madrasas or seminaries are based on one or the other sectarian identity, reflecting the belief that this particular sectarian understanding of Islam is the only true one, the rest being mistaken, wrong or, worse still, actually 'un-Islamic' or 'anti-Islamic'. Because of this, it has often proved (and this remains largely the case even today) impossible for Muslims of different sects to work together for common purposes.

The Makkah conference on inter-faith dialogue thus is a blessing and a wonderful development, but, at the same time, it can be said to be only the first step towards a larger project that needs to be much more democratic, in terms of involving people of other faiths, people other than religious specialists (real or self-appointed), and more inclusive, in terms of going beyond mere statements and religious claims to work on practical projects and issues on which people of different faiths can work together and to also seriously consider the issue of intra-Muslim dialogue between the different Muslim sects. When seen along with similar efforts on the part of influential sections of the Indian ulema in recent months, who have been organising meetings across the country denouncing all forms of terrorism and lending support to inter-community solidarity, it appears that Muslim religious leaders in many parts of the world are waking up to the urgent need to take inter-faith dialogue much more seriously than they have before. At a time when there is much talk of an impending 'clash of civilisations', with Islam and Muslims being projected as principal actors in this drama of cosmic dimensions, surely the Makkah conference is no mean achievement. It might, for all we know, represent the stirrings of a new beginning.

Yogi Sikand can be reached at