People in the Muslim world feel a sense of anger and injustice, a leading Islamic intellectual said yesterday on the heels of a historic meeting between the Pope Benedict XVI and Muslim scholars. Sheikh al Habib Ali al Jifri, the founder of the Tabah Foundation, the privately funded research institute in Abu Dhabi, said western policies and pronouncements in some Muslim countries were reinforcing negative stereotypes.
He said this was despite the efforts of A Common Word, or Kalimat Siwaa, an initiative launched by Muslim scholars to deliver a message of understanding. "The street's anger is fuelled by the leaders' political decisions, the education curricula and the religious sermons," said Sheikh Jifri. "The UAE is one of the few countries that manages successfully to eliminate hateful religious sermons, but this is not the case in many parts of the Muslim world, or even among some Muslim clerics in the West."
Muslim and Christian leaders met in Rome last week, the culmination of attempts to rebuild relations after a controversial speech two years ago by the pope, which was widely perceived to link Islam with violence. One month later, in Oct 2006, 42 Islamic scholars and authorities launched A Common Word, which has attracted more than 400 Muslim signatories, including muftis, religious leaders and scholars who can reach millions of their followers.
"But the West has done so much more to advance the goals we're working toward in the Common Word," said Sheikh Jifri. "In Europe, individuals who are divisive or incite hatred are looked upon as fanatical, but this is not so in our part of the world." Sheikh Jifri referred to one development in particular, a letter that was endorsed by 300 Christian theologians and leaders, titled Loving God and Neighbour Together: A Christian Response to A Common Word Between Us, which was published in The New York Times last year. The letter was effectively a recognition of wrongs done by Christians against the Islamic world.
"For centuries, Muslims have asked for an apology for the Crusader wars," he said. "And on Oct 2007 there was a full apology." In contrast, the Muslim world is "crawling slowly toward progress". Sheikh Jifri was not able to travel to the Vatican summit because of the catastrophic floods in his native Yemen. But he was satisfied that the meeting had advanced several major objectives. They included a promise from both sides to examine contentious claims by certain Muslim and Christian leaders accusing each other of proselytising a fundamentalist version of religion.
"We're now studying how we can look at places like Indonesia and the African continent and identify the fundamentalist churches and imams that preach there," Sheikh Jifri said. "We've already broached this subject with the Anglican and Protestant churches." Education must raise a new generation of Muslim thinkers, he said. "Continuing to be angry won't work," he said. "Nor is the solution exclusively with the Muslims. The leaders of other religions in the Muslim world must be engaged as well."
Among the concrete steps being taken by the Tabah Foundation is a new website that will showcase literature about Islam and Christianity that has been approved by both sides as fair and accurate. "We've spent the past two years investing time and energy in interfaith dialogue, and we got far on that front," he said. "For next year, we're thinking each one of us will focus on their own local community, so as to get the Muslim street involved in the efforts of the Common Word."