On March 4th, 2008, a delegation of Muslim leaders visited the Vatican to establish interfaith dialogue between the two faiths. Both Catholics and Muslims welcomed the meeting as a step towards healing the relationship between them, especially after the friction created by Pope Benedict XVI’s comments in fall of 2006 and the angry protests that followed. It began when the Pope quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologos, who called Islam ‘evil’ and ‘inhuman’. After protests across the Muslim world, Sunni and Shiite Muslim leaders sent a letter, titled “A Common Word Between Us and You,” to the Vatican in hopes of establishing interfaith dialogue to prevent such events from occurring again. Indeed, the hope is that such misunderstandings do not happen and that we can live side by side being tolerant of one another—as the holy ayah states: “Unto you your religion, unto me my religion” (Qur’an 109:6). These events show how important it is to keep lines of communication open between religions.
However, hate-filled acts make it difficult for people of different religions to come together in peace and understand each other. Acts of hatred—such as the arson attacks on mosques in the UK, or the kidnapping and torture (which resulted in the death) of a Jewish man, Ilan Halimi, by a gang of Muslim immigrants in France—are all despicable to say the very least. In light of such events, people generally remind others of the way people of all faiths had lived in harmony in examples from the past: al-Andalus, India under Akbar, Ottoman Turkey, etc. Although these examples highlight our shared histories, we shouldn’t forget the efforts being taken today to promote mutual understanding and amicability.
In 2006, British Muslims and Jews took it upon themselves to resurrect bridges between their communities by launching an online radio station titled Radio Salaam Shalom. The radio station makes it a part of their mission to “promote positive relations and advance cooperation and understanding between the Jewish and Muslim communities.” The station, which just celebrated its first anniversary on February 1st, broadcasts Jewish and Islamic programs, as well as music. The presenters also showcase up-and-coming artists from both cultures and religions, and hold discussions on topics relating to Islam and Judaism. The organization, Salaam Shalom Ltd, funds the station and hopes to start similar projects to promote interreligious cordiality.
Another instance of religious cordiality was in November 2007, when a bishop returned to the St. John’s Church in Baghdad. Upon his return, a crowd of local Muslims and Catholic Christians were waiting to welcome him home. According to Lt. Col. Stephen Michael of the American army, Catholic Christians were the first to be harassed by the Al Qaeda terrorists, but local Muslims were the first to urge the American army to protect the Christians from Al Qaeda. Soon after, Al Qaeda’s harassments (which included asking to pay a non-existent “rent”) escalated into killings of both Christians and Muslims, forcing thousands of Iraqis to flee their own homes. On that peaceful day, however, the pews of St. John’s Church were mainly filled by Muslims, who just wanted their Christian friends to come home.
More recently, Muslim scholars sought to establish better relations with the international Jewish community. The Centre for the Study of Muslim-Jewish Relations (CSMJR), which is part of the Woolf Institute of Abrahamic Faiths based in Cambridge, is promoting a letter of understanding between the Muslim and Jewish communities. The letter emphasized the two faiths’ common theological beliefs—especially, strict monotheism—and the shared reverence for the Hebrew patriarchs. This attempt to reach out is long overdue, especially due to the animosity generated by Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has constantly damaged Muslim-Jewish relations. Signatories to the letter included Dr. Tariq Ramadan, Mustafa Ceric, the grand mufti of Bosnia, and Sari Nusseibeh, a Palestinian professor at al-Quds University in Jerusalem. Rabbi David Rosen welcomed the initiative by stating that modern politics had overshadowed the “remarkable cooperation and cross-fertilization” which often existed between Muslims and Jews.
These examples highlight some important steps already being undertaken in the world today. People, who are quick to remind others of the religious tolerance and amity in the past, fail to see the many campaigns in our contemporary world working to create that religious tolerance and amity today. Some may say that the examples mentioned above are limited to the Abrahamic faiths, which suggests to them that Muslims aren’t interested in amiable relations with other faiths. However, that’s simply not true. Last year, BBC Persian reported on Muslims monitoring the treatment of followers of the Baha’i faith in the Muslim world as part of an online network, which is appropriately called “The Muslim Network for Baha’i Rights.” Such undertakings ought to be encouraged, especially because there is a dire need for more bridge-building between Muslims and others. Channels of mutual understanding will help educate others about Islam and Muslims, as well as counter the growing Islamophobia in the world. With greater harmony between faiths, we will be one step closer to peace—no matter how you say it.