Madrid’s Interfaith Conference: Optimists, Pessimists and Wishful Thinkers
Madrid’s Interfaith Conference: Optimists, Pessimists and Wishful Thinkers
Sunday, July 20,2008 07:19
By Claude Salhani

MADRID -- One of the by-products of the three-day interfaith dialogue conference held in Madrid earlier this week at the initiative of Saudi Arabia"s King Abdullah is what some observers describe as four conflicting schools of thought: the optimists, who believe that eventually everything will fall in order; the pessimists, who like the cartoon character Chicken Little, believe that the sky is falling; and wishful thinkers – among this category one can include Saudi Arabia – who believe that if they wish for something strong enough to happen, it happens. At least in their mindset. And finally, there are the critics of the Saudi initiative, who regardless of what this conference may have achieved, or will achieve, will only look at the dark side of Arabia.

The optimists are those who tend to congratulate themselves because they were able to gather together some 200 Christians, Jews and assorted Asian religions – Buddhists, Sikhs and Taoists, as well as various branches of Islam, including Sunnis and Shiites, two branches of Islam traditionally in conflicts with each other. While Sunni and Shiite religious leaders in the Spanish capital are exchanging business cards and hoping for peace, their co-religionists in Beirut and Baghdad are exchanging gunfire and mortar shells. Sunni suicide bombers in Iraq continue to target police recruitment centers killing mostly young Shiites.

It is this sort of violence, triggered by friction between religious groups that the participants of the Madrid conference hope they can lay the groundwork for, thus paving the way for a more peaceful future.

Hassan Moussa al-Saffar, a Shiite cleric from Saudi Arabia had nothing but praise for the event, which he said can only help advance the cause of peace.

"It is an invitation of love from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia," said Coptic Orthodox Bishop Pincentti of Egypt. "I am very optimistic about the decisions and the recommendations of this conference," he added. Egypt"s Coptic community is frequently the target of violence from Muslim vigilantes.

"The optimists think if you have a crowded meeting room, it is a good sign, whereas the pessimists say "it is quality and not quantity that is needed," said Musharraf Hussain al-Azhari, director of the Karimia Institute, in Nottingham, England.

But these are the relatively moderate pessimists. There are others who seem to think there"s a Muslim terrorist hiding under every bed, lurking behind every street corner and ready to commandeer every airliner in the free world. They see the green flag of Islam in much the same way Senator Joseph McCarthy saw the red flag of communism. This group are the ones calling that "the sky is falling, the sky is falling." Only they are saying," "The jihadis are coming," "The Islamic Caliphate is returning."

To be certain, Osama bin Laden and his followers make no secrets of their desire to reestablish the Caliphate. Realistically, this has about as much of a chance of becoming a reality, as has a communist revival throughout Europe. And don"t for an instant think it"s because communism is dead; there are as many staunch old-line communists as there are extremists, fanatic old-line Muslims. One of the aims of this Madrid conference is to distance such ideas from mainstream Islam.

Indeed, if the Caliphate had to take hold somewhere, why did it not find fertile ground for its ideas in the very home of Islam, Saudi Arabia and the other oil-rich states? The answer is because the kings and princes of Arabia do not want to see the return of the Caliphate anymore than U.S. President George W. Bush does.

And finally are those in the fourth category, who will not miss a chance to point out Saudi Arabia"s shortcomings. Saudi Arabia is the only Arab country where only Islam is allowed to be openly practiced; where no churches are allowed to be built, and where even fellow Muslims (Shiites) are looked down upon by the majority Sunnis.

True, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia can hardly be called a democracy, but it is implementing changes. However, while the West expects rapid changes as it"s accustomed to fast paced, fast moving societies, reform in Arabian society is compelled by a tradition to move as slowly as the grains of sand blown by the winds of changes.

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