As The World Burns, Faith Leaders Urge ‘Civilizational Acquaintance’ – OpEd


By Baria Alamuddin*

The shocking, racist comment that “Europe is a garden … Most of the rest of the world is a jungle, and the jungle could invade the garden” was made last month by the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell.

At last week’s Bahrain Dialogue Forum, Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb — without mentioning Borrell by name — retorted that such “irresponsible” statements demonstrated “gross ignorance of the civilizations of the East and their history.” Sitting alongside him, Pope Francis added his voice, warning that “in the garden of humanity, instead of cultivating our surroundings, we are playing instead with fire, missiles and bombs.”

This is an era in which wars, intolerance, environmental destruction and religious tensions are multiplying — yet never have complacent global leaderships appeared more apathetic and disengaged. This Bahrain event offered a moment for resetting the global clock, with high-level representation from all the world’s major faiths.

The Bahrain Dialogue Forum: East and West for Human Coexistence came into being with backing from major religious organizations like the Muslim Council of Elders, the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, Al-Azhar, the Catholic Church, and the King Hamad Global Centre for Peaceful Coexistence. During the event, Al-Tayeb made a groundbreaking call for Sunni-Shiite dialogue.

King Hamad stressed the necessity of working for “the good and advancement of mankind, so that every human being may enjoy a dignified and fulfilling life in a more stable and secure world.”

Bahrain is a microcosm for this vision of tolerant coexistence. Al-Tayeb stressed that Bahrain’s history was defined by the cherishing of “diversity and acceptance of the other, no matter the differences in race, belief, thought or culture … They have transformed the best aspects of these civilizations into a source of creative energy that fosters societal stability and constructive social development.” Pope Francis spoke movingly about how the islands of Bahrain served as a model of peaceful coexistence for mankind, reminding us “that we are indeed one family: not islands, but one great archipelago.”

This is a perilous era for religious coexistence. In India, the Hindu nationalist ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has unleashed a torrent of hostility and discrimination against Muslims and minorities. Not to mention the genocidal campaigns against the Uighur and Rohingya peoples.

The inexorable rise of the far right has been a dominant and destabilizing trend throughout the Western world. In recent days, extreme-right tendencies have surged to power in Israel, with Benjamin Netanyahu ushering in neo-Nazis and ultra-Zionist fascists on his coattails. This bodes ill for the Palestinian cause, as well as the prospects for coexistence between the region’s Jews, Muslims and Christians.

In the US midterm elections, a resurgent Republican Party is showcasing some of its most radical and deranged candidates for political office. The hammer attack against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband is a symptom of how hate speech, antisemitism, Islamophobia and conspiracy-mongering are universally on the rise.

In my own nation, economic collapse and political chaos herald major risks for Lebanon’s delicate balance of coexistence between sects and ethnicities. Hezbollah and Gebran Bassil, in their efforts to divide and conquer, have ruthlessly played the sectarian card over and over again, knowing that once the genie of interconfessional violence is out of the bottle, there is no putting it back. Iraq is in a similarly dangerous situation, for similar reasons, with Tehran ruthlessly stirring the pot in a manner that has allowed its sectarian proxies to sweep back into power.

Daesh recently exploited the unrest in Iran to stage its first attack in the country for several years, massacring worshippers at a major shrine in Shiraz. Daesh’s expansion throughout Africa has seen the burning of dozens of churches and the slaughter of thousands of Christians and Muslims.

All this demonstrates that efforts to foster religious coexistence are not merely window dressing, but rather constitute an essential element for ensuring mankind’s continued coexistence. For much of our collective history, humans have been genetically programmed to see those who are different, physically and culturally, as the enemy. This is glaringly apparent in Europe, where the fear of Black, Muslim or impoverished immigrants has long been a dominant political force. There are those who would be only too happy to see the boatloads of refugees fleeing conflict and persecution all drown in the Mediterranean Sea or the English Channel.

Borrell’s comment that the European “garden” was menaced by invaders from the world’s “jungles” exemplified these fears, while failing to recognize the irony that such intolerant dynamics are subverting the vision of a European oasis of progress, coexistence and stability that the EU seeks to propagate.

Al-Azhar’s imam called for replacing the “clash of civilizations” theory with the concept of “civilizational acquaintance” (al-ta’aruf al-hadari), highlighting the Qur’an’s emphasis of the need for acquaintanceship and engagement between “peoples and tribes.” He warned of the dangers of “stoking the fires of nationalistic and ideological sentiments … The cruelty of our world against humanity has grown even worse with the violation of man’s most basic rights to minimum security.”

Pope Francis warned of the “bitter consequences if we continue to accentuate conflict instead of understanding, if we persist in stubbornly imposing our own models and despotic, imperialist, nationalist and populist visions, if we are unconcerned about the culture of others, if we close our ears to the plea of ordinary people and the voice of the poor, if we continue simplistically to divide people into good and bad.”

We can never simply cast our enemies into the sea. Many religions teach how we have to learn to have love for our enemies and treat all mankind as our neighbors. If we desire as a species to survive into the 22nd century, then these are lessons we must quickly learn. I am often accused of being too idealistic, yet cherishing the hope that we do not destroy ourselves and our planet does not feel like an excessive aspiration.

The grand imam called for the rebuilding of “bridges of dialogue, understanding and trust, and to establish peace in a world full of wounds,” while the king of Bahrain urged the replacement of “disagreement with consensus” and “unity in place of division.”

Across this increasingly multipolar planet, we can either learn to amicably coexist or die in bloodshed and anarchy. As Pope Francis observed: “In a globalized world, we only advance by rowing together; if we sail alone, we go adrift.”

  • Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.

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