Forum explores core values of faith

  • 23 May 2011

ABU DHABI: The West and Islam have much to learn from each other and much to unlearn as the core values of all three Abrahamic faiths are the same and rooted in consciousness, experts said on Tuesday.

“Judaism and Islam are closer to each other both doctrinally and in their approach to dispute resolution than either is to Christianity,” Chas W. Freeman Jr, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told a conference titled ‘A Civilised Dialogue' co-organised by the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research and the School of Policy and International Affairs at the University of Maine.

Freeman sought to shine the spotlight on the invention of irreconcilable conflicts between Jews and Muslims since time immemorial, saying it was a wilful distortion of history. “Zionist propagandists have imposed this false narrative of age-old religious victimisation on Israel’s battle with Palestinian nationalism. That is as prejudicial to peace as it is sinful.”

Freeman, also a former president of the Middle East Policy Council, said no relationship between diverse religious communities was without its tensions and bad moments.

Shining examples

“In retrospect, however, societies like Muslim Spain and the Ottoman Empire were remarkable examples of tolerance. Their experience offers hope for the peaceful coexistence of moral communities in our times, not evidence of its impossibility.”

He argued that the gradual re-emergence in today's Turkey of a tolerant secularism that respects liberty of religious conscience is a reminder that the best elements of the past can sometimes be reborn.

“The evolution of Turkey offers hope for the coexistence of Islam with other religious heritages. It is an example not just to Arab countries reawakening from the darkness of Islam's eclipse by Western imperialism but also to Europe. In Europe's treatment of its Muslim and other minorities, Europeans are once again demonstrating a dismaying inability to coexist with religious and cultural traditions other than those of Christianity. Islamophobia is the ugly successor to anti-Semitism.”

Dr Jamal Sanad Al Suwaidi, director-general of the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research, in his opening speech touched on the long history of interaction between the Islamic and Western worlds. There is much to be gained from the examination of shared cultural heritage, he said.

“The most unfortunate legacy of the 9/11 attacks was the rise of negative stereotyping in both the Western and Muslim worlds. Within the Western world, such stereotyping has distorted certain aspects of Islamic society and culture by describing them as autocratic, reactionary and supportive of the use of violence in defence of Islam. Within the Islamic world, some extremist groups have accused the West as being aggressive and expansionist and set on denigrating the interests of Muslims. Some of these extremists also contend that Islam could only be protected by excluding people of other faiths,” he said.

Globalised society

Dr Al Suwaidi argued that multicultural interaction and understanding are essential to shared prosperity within an increasingly globalised world and stressed that the current campaign against radical extremists is more a battle for hearts and minds than it is a military campaign. “Public and cultural diplomacy has a crucial role to play in ensuring that disillusioned and impressionable young people are not seduced by the appeal of extremists.”

Freeman said Osama Bin Laden had left the world “far worse” than it had been when he entered it but expressed hope that there would be many to take up the patient work of undoing the harm he and others of his kind had inflicted.

“Arabs and Americans face challenges that cannot be met without mutual trust and confidence that only intimate re-acquaintance can establish. So, too, the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim peoples of the Middle East. How, otherwise, shall we deal with the bleeding ulcer that is now the Holy Land? What shall we do about fitting a post-occupation Iraq back into its region? How shall we manage an assertive but internally divided Iran? What can we do to help Pakistan step onto a more promising path? What roles shall we play in a future, free Afghanistan? How may we benefit from the diplomatic invigoration of Egypt? How should we help the Arab Spring of North Africa not become an Arab winter elsewhere?”

The UAE has long exemplified the coexistence of Muslim piety with tolerance for other faiths and ways of life, said Chas W. Freeman, Jr, former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

“The UAE preserves a precious heritage from the Islam of bygone days that facilitates the dialogue of civilisations. The spirit of tolerance exhibited here is all too rare today. As a non-Muslim I admire it.”

Recounting a story he had heard about Founder of the UAE, the Late Shaikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, he said: “Apparently, Shaikh Zayed took an intense personal interest in the landscaping of Abu Dhabi’s lovely waterfront promenade. The Corniche was shaped by his hands and watered with his sweat as well as that of other notables of this city. It got so that his friends were afraid to drive by the construction site for fear that he would pop out of a hole he was digging and hand them a shovel.”

Shortly after the Corniche was finished, the story goes, Shaikh Zayed received a visit from a group of religious elders. They said to him, “Your Highness, we hardly know how to tell you this, but at the hotels on your Corniche, they are serving alcohol.” Shaikh Zayed thought for a moment, and replied, “Well, then. I guess you better not go there.”

Piety — even the piety of a faith one does not share — is truly admirable when it is married to respect for the moral autonomy of others and the rules they obey, Freeman stressed.