MADRID // If sheer variety of religious headwear were a measure of success, the recent interfaith conference in Madrid was nothing less than spectacular. A saffron-coloured, almost blindingly bright turban swirled atop the head of a Hindu swami from Delhi. The loose-fitting gutra worn by senior Saudi officials contrasted sharply with the opulence of the gold-threaded collars of their bishts. The peaked black cowl worn by the celibate archbishop of the Armenian Church in Lebanon is a symbol, he said, for Mount Ararat, where Noah's Ark is said to have come to rest after the flood, while the pleated silk cupola favoured by a Coptic Orthodox Christian bishop from Cairo signifies the dome of heaven - a sartorial reminder for its wearer to focus on God above.
For all of its pageantry and symbolism, though, a holy haberdashery was not the undertaking Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah had foremost in mind when he convened the interfaith dialogue. The Madrid dialogue, the 84-year-old King Abdullah declared at the opening of the conference, should be "a triumph of belief over disbelief, of virtue over vice, of justice over iniquity, of peace over conflicts and wars, of human brotherhood over racism".
It was lofty oratory one would expect. The question is whether it had any significant or practical effect at a time when governments of the Gulf vie with each other to launch interfaith initiatives and inter-religious dialogue is increasingly viewed as a matter of vital national and international security. Certainly, the more than 200 religious and civic leaders in attendance in Madrid usually said the right things. The Golden Rule ("Do unto others ?") was invoked frequently. Statements of the "some-of-my-best-friends-are-(fill in the blank)" variety were de rigueur.
So was the sight of conference participants flinging their arms around each other to pose for photos that would be brandished back at home as visual proof that indeed, everyone can get along. Perhaps the only glaring omission in this ecumenical revelry was the spectacle of participants joining hand in hand for a chorus of Kumbaya. Indeed, at times the grandiose title of the meeting - World Conference on Dialogue - seemed unwittingly to describe its most obvious limitation: it was talking about talking.
To make matters worse, the people doing the talking are an elite of professional conference goers and globe-trotting gabbers who do not necessarily reflect the views of a vast majority of their co-religionists. Talking is the name of their game, so when it was announced in Madrid that the United Nations would be urged to call a special general assembly session on dialogue, a palpable shiver of excitement passed through the audience at the prospect of yet more talking.
The giddiness of the occasion pushed many over the rhetoric brink. This is the "kind of event that hasn't been held since the beginning of religions", said Dr Abdelhadi al Tazi, a member of the Royal Academy of Morocco. "Religions are against all conflicts," said a representative of the Council of Churches of Egypt - except, he might have added, when they are not. The obvious problem is that while such words can be simultaneously translated, tolerance and understanding cannot - a fact no more in evidence then when, with a clutch of Arab men in dishdashas standing within earshot, an American woman asked loudly: "What do they wear under those things, anyway?"
What transpired in Madrid might have reflected the inter-religious and intra-religious struggles facing the world more accurately had the invitation list been more comprehensive. Only one Shiite Muslim was in attendance. Sufi and Ismaili Muslims were nowhere to be seen. There were precious few black Africans, and no Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians - a leading social, political and cultural force in the world today.
So-called "Eastern" religions - Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Shintoism, Confucianism - got short shrift, too. In all, however, the most glaring oversight was women, only one of whom was included on a panel and only then after frequent speeches embarrassed conference organisers into it. "There were no women of religious rank," said Dr Salih bin Addullah bin Humaid, speaker of Saudi Arabia's Shura Council, lamely explaining the initial exclusion.
One result of the stress on civility at all costs was the trivialisation of the differences between religious traditions. Each of the many sides involved in current interfaith dialogue is afraid of, and feels aggrieved by, the other. But with all the talk in Madrid about the essential oneness of all faiths, a listener might easily have assumed that all religions are downloaded from the same divine website - only the playlists are different. If it were only that simple.
For the three Abrahamic faiths, in particular, there was the critical but unmentioned issue of chronology. Many Muslims see Islam as the culmination and fulfilment of the two Abrahamic faiths that came before it, leading to doubts that interfaith conversation is even important. "Why should we dialogue with them? They should dialogue with us. After all, we're on the right path," Qazi Hussain Ahmad, head of the Pakistani Islamist party, Jamaat-i-Islami, said recently in Islamabad.
Meanwhile, many followers of Christianity see their faith as a replacement for Judaism, and some Jews see the two monotheistic faiths that followed Judaism as corruptions of the original. All claims asserting the superiority of one religion over another based on chronology - first, last or in-between - undermine the mutual respect that any genuine interfaith dialogue requires. All differences aside, participants in Madrid and other recent interfaith dialogues are fond of noting that due to globalised markets, vast human migration and the internet, interfaith dialogue is no longer a matter of choice. It is forced upon us, whether we like it or not, they say. However, this argument can cut another way, too. What globalisation giveth it also taketh away - in particular, a sense of distinctiveness, if not uniqueness. And it is to their religious faith that many believers are clinging to for reassurance that they are not part of the madding crowd or mere flotsam and jetsam of the powerful economic and political forces roiling the globe.
The fear that interfaith dialogue will homogenise their faith and remove this badge of individual distinction is real. Globalisation is the biggest catalyst for interfaith dialogue; it may also be the biggest obstacle. For all of its glaring faults, however, Madrid was worthwhile, if only because the leader of Saudi Arabia called it. It was only in 1986 that the late King Fahd dropped the title, "His Majesty," in favour of the honorific, "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques". Yet it is a sign of just how seriously Saudi Arabia takes its pre-eminence in the Islamic world. That stature is more than symbolic: officially and unofficially, it pours untold millions of dollars each year into Islamic causes worldwide.
Thus, any signal of moderation that King Abdullah sends to the donors and beneficiaries of those funds - and any vehicle he uses to send it - should be welcome. Not everyone grasps the point. An editorial in the New York Sun lambasted the conference, quoting one participant as having said that all the meeting attendees were mere "props" on a Saudi stage. Yet what is arguably Islam's central stage is changing, however modestly and haltingly. One example suffices: until 2004, Saudi religious textbooks suggested that a good way to show love for God was to treat infidels with contempt. Four years later, Saudi Arabian media covered the Madrid conference extensively, including speeches by priests, rabbis and Buddhist monks.
In other words, if the interfaith conference in Madrid and others like it planned in the future are indeed signs of attempts by King Abdullah and other Saudi leaders to reach out to followers of other faiths and to curtail the excesses of Wahhabism, the official religion of the state, serving as a prop is a very small price to pay. The Saudi example is critical, for interfaith dialogue is seen as more necessary than ever in the Gulf, now home to a growing population of millions of foreign workers, many of whom are non-Muslims. King Abdullah, leader of a nation with more than one million Filipino Roman Catholics, is just one of the region's leaders to acknowledge this.
In May, Sheikh Hamad al Thani, the emir of Qatar, hosted its sixth inter-faith dialogue, and last month, on the heels of King Abdullah's visit to the Vatican in November, King Hamran of Bahrain visited Pope Benedict XVI and invited him to Manama. The pontiff's acceptance of the invitation would mark the first time a pope has visited Arabia. Finally, at the bidding of the pope, Muslim and Roman Catholic leaders and scholars will convene at the Vatican in early November for discussions under the title, "Love of God, Love of Neighbour". The Vatican, which is eager to smooth relations with Muslims following the pope's widely criticised description of the Prophet Mohammed in a 2006 speech, has passed the responsibility of determining the occupants of seats on the Muslim side of the table to Jordan's Prince Hassan bin Talal, brother of the late King Hussein.
Asked in Madrid if the Saudi king would be invited, Cardinal Jan Luis Turan, president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue replied: "I don't think so." Illustrating the kind of chasms ahead in any genuine interfaith dialogue, Cardinal Turan indicated what was at stake in further high-level Catholic-Muslim talks in a meeting with priests in the Spanish capital. "This is what we're standing for and this is what we want: the construction of churches in Saudi Arabia. There's a mosque in Rome," he told the priests, according to a source familiar with the details of the meeting.