By Dr. Aslam Abdullah, Editor-in-chief of The Muslim Observer
We Muslims are good at making a mountain out of a molehill. We expend a lot of our energy in discussing non-issues. Take for example, the question of meeting with Pope Benedict who was on a tour in North America. Muslim leaders are now divided on the issue to meet or not to meet the Pope. There is very little relevance if Muslims, Jews or Buddhist meet the Pope or choose not to meet him. On the one hand are those who believe that Muslims must meet the Pope in the spirit of interfaith harmony and on the other hand are those who strongly argue that Muslims must not meet the Pope because of the controversial statements Pope Benedict has made in the past.
I believe in either case, no one would even notice one way or the other. People will go about their lives as usual. Muslims will continue to practice their faith without the intervention of a clergy and Catholics will continue practicing their faith according to the dictates of the Vatican. However, controversy over this issue will give Muslims one more opportunity to create more distance among them selves and others.
Meetings such as these are ceremonial and offer good photo opportunities. But hardly anything substantial is discussed in these meetings. If Muslims were to go to these meetings, they will not resolve the issue of the divinity of Jesus or the Catholic Churchâ€™s clandestine conversion movement in the Muslim world. They will not raise the issue of Spanish inquisition and certainly they will not ask the Pope to return all the books stolen from Muslim Libraries of Spain in the fifteenth centuries by the Church or its agents.
Similarly, the Pope will not tell Muslims that their salvation does not lie in Islam. They have to convert to Catholicism in order to make their lives meaningful.
However, based on what the Pope has said about Islam in the past, the Pope might advise Muslims to reign in terrorists among them. He would ask them to pressurize Saudi Arabia to open up the Kingdom for Catholic Churches and other such issues.
In fact, such interfaith meetings have only ceremonial significance for those who attend them. Every one feels good at the end of the meeting claiming that his or her group is the most tolerant among all religions. There is hardly any substantive issues discussed in these gatherings. Rarely, one finds issues pertaining to justice, human rights, poverty, immigration and exploitation of unskilled labor. Hardly, anyone talks about the work needed by all religious groups in order to bring human beings to a level of dignity that would not contradict the purpose of his creation. Hardly, anyone talks about the real issues, ordinary and average people face in their daily lives.
Such superficial interfaith forums serve good public relation purpose. They also provide a basis for low level cooperation on issues that are not theological. Interestingly, all major religious groups not only have a big budget but also a well defined agenda for these interfaith forums. Muslims, on the other hand, lack both an agenda and a budget. There are many probationers of interfaith dialogue among Muslims. However, a few of them could spell out clearly the objectives of these forums. Each one has a different perspective each one is in these dialogues for different reason.
Obviously, if Muslims attend these forums without an understanding of what is happening, they are not only wasting their time but the time of others as well.
Perhaps for this reason, a few Muslims who are associated with the Parliament of World Religions have called for a meeting of Muslim interfaith probationers in the month of August. The meeting is likely to place in Las Vegas and it would be hosted by the Islamic Society of Nevada. The purpose of this meeting as explained by its organizers including Dr. Rao Irfan Khan, a prominent member of the World Parliament of Religions is to develop a common understanding on the goals and objectives of interfaith faith dialogue from a Muslim perspective. â€œSo far, we do not have an agenda and we have not clearly spelled out our goals in these forums, added Dr. Ahmadullah Siddiq, a communication professor Western Illinois University and a prominent participant in international interfaith forums.
Obviously, such a meeting is long needed. Once, we Muslims, develop a common understanding on our objectives in interfaith forums, meeting with the Pope or other religious leaders would have some meaning. Until then, many of us can keep arguing that it was wrong to have met with the Pope or it was right to have met the Pope.