James Kidner directs the Coexist Foundation – a UK-based charity that works across the world to promote understanding between Jews, Christians and Muslims through education, dialogue and research.
I feel honored to be addressing such an illustrious group of scholars and leaders from such a diverse range of different faith communities. This should be a proud moment for us all – as others have noted, here in the heart of Spain, we are today recapturing the ideals of Al-Andalus, where Jews, Christians and Muslims were able to live together and debate together freely and in friendship. I congratulate the Spanish team who have helped pull together the practical arrangements for this conference, and above all the World Muslim League and the Government of Saudi Arabia for inspiring such a gathering, and for making it happen.
But I think we need to acknowledge that the friendly atmosphere of enquiry and goodwill that underpins these discussions is not typical of relations between faiths today. There are terrible strains between Jews, Christians and Muslims – and within the different strands of these traditions. The media are dominated by headlines which emphasise difference and distrust – every day, across the world, lives are being lost as a consequence of the hostility this engenders. This hostility, coupled with ignorance about the generous traditions of our own faiths, and of others, fuels two competing and destructive ideologies. On the one hand, those of faith are tempted to retreat into ever more hard-line and exclusive positions – people take refuge in absolutes, and persecute those who will not accept them. On the other hand, in today?s post-enlightenment, globalized world, where science and technology claim to answer so many of the questions which were once explored through faith, many are seeing religion as the problem, rather than the solution. There is a new divide here: not between religions, but between those of faith and those who see faith as the problem.
It was to bridge these divides that the Coexist Foundation was established. The main focus of our work is education – teaching people about what it means to be Jewish or Christian or Muslim; helping people to understand the shared roots of these three traditions; and inspiring people to explore their own and other people’s faith in more depth: respectfully, and with goodwill. I will come back to these programs and projects a little later. But I would like, if I may, to start with what I see as the most immediate and urgent challenge in bridging this divide between faiths: the destructive influence of so-called experts and commentators on faith issues in emphasizing difference and danger and distrust. Headlines that shout: ‘A new crusade against terror!’, or ‘One in four Muslims want to become suicide bombers!’, or ‘More Jewish outrages on the West Bank!’. Television stations that feed us un-nuanced images of brutality and ugliness. Stereotypes which emphasise a Clash of Civilizations. What are these facts behind such stereotypes? That is what we sought to establish – and, through a 10-year not-for-profit partnership with the Gallup Organization, we hope to help puncture some of the myths that sustain them.
For the last six years, Gallup, the world’s most famous polling organization, have been talking to tens of thousands of ordinary people across the world, to establish what Muslims really think, and what the world really thinks of Muslims. The results of their polls have been startling – the facts don’t support the idea that there are impassable divisions between Islam and the West; between different faiths; between different societies. What Gallup have done, in their words, is to ‘democratize the debate’ – they help us to go beyond the bald absolutes of the Media, and discover a more generous, more nuanced, more encouraging world behind the headlines.
So what have Gallup’s polls established about the state of this relationship between Islam and the West?
Firstly, that contrary to what many people might assume, especially here in post-Christian Europe, faith remains central to most people?s lives. Gallup asked ‘Is religion an important part of your life?’
In many Muslim countries, more than nine out of ten citizens answered yes to this. In the United States, more than two-thirds. In Europe, by contrast, only about one-third of people say that religion is an important part of their life. There is always a danger in relations between cultures when we assume that others think as we do. We in the West need to remember that, in a globalized society, our tendency to see religion as essentially a private matter, to be conducted discreetly outside the public space, is not what everyone else does. If we are to engage with the world courteously and respectfully, we need to understand the part faith plays in their lives; to listen and to learn. Secondly, Gallup found that most Muslims want better relations with the West, and that most people in the West want better relations with Islam.
But the problem is that most people in the West don’t believe that Muslims want better relations with them.
And this difference is aggravated in a mirror image of the same problem – the West cares about improving relations with the Muslim World, but few people in the Muslim world believe this. So the media stereotypes have indeed created a gulf: we need to overcome fear and mistrust to build bridges over that divide – and, in my view, events like today’s are an important step in that process.
Respect is the key word here – and Gallup’s polling brings out the central importance of respect in this relationship between Islam and the West. Muslims feel, with some justification, that the West shows little respect for them [Slide5]
Again, the problem is mirrored. In a household poll in the United States in December 2005, Gallup asked ‘What do you admire about Muslim societies?’ The most frequent response was ‘Nothing.’ ‘I don’t know’ came next – between them, these two answers amounted to 57% of the Americans surveyed. [Slide 6]
We in the West need to do much more to learn about Islamic societies if we are legitimately to claim that we respect them. When Muslims were asked what the West can do to improve relations with the Islamic world, most people answered to respect Islam, and stop thinking of Muslims as inferior.’
I encourage you to explore Gallup’s findings in more detail through their excellent book, ‘Who speaks for Islam?’, which we are pleased to share with you, and through their website www.MuslimWestFacts.com.
For me the key theme that comes out of this, on so many issues, is the striking similarity between responses in the Muslim world and those in the West – again, contrary to the stereotypes, we are all more like each other than the pundits might presume. What are the issues that most trouble Muslims and Westerners alike? Job security; the need to control extremism and corruption; lack of unity within our various communities. What do we want from ‘the other’?
Understanding and respect
Understanding, as others have said, begins with two things: generosity, and knowledge. Generosity is central to all our faith traditions, and today’s conference is, I think, a good example of this – a warm-hearted desire to reach out to the other, not to huddle, isolated in the security of our own traditions. Knowledge is vital if we are build on that generosity, and so discover what we share.
The Coexist Foundation, with Cambridge University, the Tony Blair Faith Foundation and other partners, is committed to a long-term, worldwide program which we hope will transform the way that students and the wider public will learn about their own and other people?s faith. If we are to transcend today’s obsession with difference and distrust, we need our children to understand better than we do the rich inter-leaving and inter-dependence of our various traditions.
From knowledge and understanding, comes respect, and respect is surely at the core of every civilized society. It permeates our religious and cultural traditions – but it seems a sadly rare commodity in public life today.
This conference, to the credit of all those who have worked so hard to make it possible, is a step on that journey towards greater respect. I think I speak for all of you here when I say how grateful we are for the encouragement and inspiration it has given us.