Hats off to Saudi king

The custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah is the quintessential leader with no equal. He is the guide par excellence. King Abdullah has left other leaders of the world in the dust by reaching out to other faiths in a bid to take the edge off tensions and misgivings that have got spawned between Islam and primarily the other two Abrahamic religions - Christianity and Judaism. He has written a new chapter in interfaith relations by mounting a three-day World Interfaith Dialogue Conference in Madrid with the purpose of enhancing interfaith relations. King Abdullah has footed the bill of this prestigious conference. Madrid was selected as the site for this meeting of note as Spain was where Islam flourished and coexisted peacefully with other religions for the good part of 500 years. King Abdullah hit upon this idea of arranging a gathering when he met the Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican in November. It is instructive to note that the king is the first Saudi ruler to have made an official visit to the Vatican where he met Pope Benedict XVI. For all practical purposes, Saudi king has made reaching out to other faiths a hallmark of his rule since taking the helm of the oil rich kingdom following the death of his half brother in 2005. Last month, he hosted an extraordinary jamboree of 600 religious scholars and intellectuals in Makkah, in the vicinity of the Grand Mosque to put a thinking cap on ways of building bridges with other faiths. He, indubitably, deserves a Nobel Peace Prize for his blockbusting performance in this regard. Madrid Conference, which was attended by more than 200 participants, brought together religious figures from all leading religions including Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism and Confucianism. This has been a good fist of tearing down the psychological barriers that sprung up after the 2001 terrorist attacks in the US. Sept 11, 2001 attacks have put a crimp on the image of Muslims, the world over. What makes one hacked off is that extremism, prejudice and fanaticism are spreading something that may, at long last, add up to a collision resulting in disaster. It is a historical reality that religious, cultural and ethnic differences have stoked up misunderstandings, hostilities and conflict. So the motif of this Madrid Conference was to weed out the communication deficit between the various belief systems. King Abdullah had struck a right note in the conference when he made a plea for "constructive dialogue" to end disputes between the world's major religions. He exhorted the followers of the world's leading faiths to turn away from extremism and embrace a system of reconciliation. He analysed the situation through and through and concluded that religions could combat many of the problems of the modern society - terrorism, the breakdown of families, drugs, exploitation of the weak - as all this is the fall out of a spiritual void. The conference called for an international agreement to combat terrorism, "a universal phenomenon that requires unified international efforts." The participants of the gathering appealed for a special session of the UN General Assembly to promote dialogue and stave off a clash of civilisations. The low-down on the conference is that its essence cannot be underestimated or overemphasised as dialogue between faiths is sine qua non if the world is to sport an idyllic look. Dialogue is the bedrock of mutual respect and making it up. If people do not look up to each other, how can they coexist. And at the heart of the respect for each other has to be the respect for each other's faiths and religious sensibilities. Back in the day, all this mattered less. Cultures and faiths lived side by side, but it was just that - side by side. They were geographically isolated and they did not come into daily contact with each other. But now it is a different kettle of fish. The segregated world no longer exists. We now live in a global village. Go to the USA, to Britain, to France; there are Americans, Frenchmen, Britons who are Muslims, Jews, Hindus, living and working side by side with the majority Christian communities. Go to almost any major city in the world; none of them are any longer single - faith societies. Work, economic development, investment and education: all have drawn in people from different races, cultures and faiths. Mass tourism, cheap flights, the Internet and satellite TV have further eroded the dividing walls and exposed us to other cultures and ways of life. Dialogue does not entail any dilution of faith. Just because Muslims, Christians and others interact and learn about each other does not make a Muslim any less a Muslim or a Christian any less a Christian. It is about breaking down bigotry, thus helping weaken Islamophobia and all the other religious phobias that have marred international relations. But building bridges between different faiths will be a long haul and take a lot of doing. It would necessitate persistent and unabated efforts matched by well-conceived practical steps as it is not a cushy number. In order to make interfaith dialogue get off to the flying start, commonality should be searched for rather than differences between different faiths. Above all, we need to plug away at these steps. The writer is a freelance columnist E-mail: irfanasghar99@yahoo.com

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