By Arab News
In Cairo, this week, sectarian violence resulted in more than 26 people being killed, most of them Copts. The divisions pose the biggest threat to the country’s stability and harmony in years and could well be the downfall of Egyptians’ hopes of a free and prosperous future. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a poll among Australian Anglicans indicated that antipathy to Muslims is on the rise, up 10 percent to 34 percent. In Iraq and Pakistan, there is yet more sectarian violence. In Norway, we have seen a fanatic kill and maim non-Muslims out of hatred for Islam.
Ten years after 9/11 unleashed a wave of Islamophobia in the West and a counter wave of resentment against it, the world is clearly still struggling with the consequences of mutual ignorance and hostility between and within faith groups. The need for dialogue between different faiths clearly has never been more pressing. The ability of politicians and those with their vision focused on power to exploit religious differences and play on peoples’ fears and ignorance is real and is happening. Most Egyptians are firmly convinced that is the case in Egypt at present.
It is against this backdrop that the importance of the new King Abdullah Interfaith Center, opened in Vienna on Thursday, must be seen. In a world bleeding from bigotry and ignorance, it gives hope for the future.
The importance of dialogue in a world turned global village, where Muslim, Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu and everyone else live cheek by jowl, should be evident to all. The need has certainly long been understood by King Abdullah. It led him to set up his interfaith initiative, first with the International Islamic Conference for Dialogue in Makkah at the beginning of June in 2008 and then, the following month, the World Conference on Interfaith Dialogue in Madrid.
There have been other follow-up conferences, in New York and Geneva. But more is needed than conferences. Dialogue, if it is to be meaningful, has to move beyond the occasional grand event. It has to move down into the community — to the mosque, the church, the synagogue and temple — if it is to work. For that it needs a constantly running motor to drive it, a motor that will produce the publications and the programs that can be used by ordinary communities as they work out dialogue in practice. The Vienna center is that motor.
As we have said before, dialogue is not about proselytizing or watering down anyone’s faith. It is about breaking down ignorance and fear, such as that cost the lives of 26 Egyptians this week. It is about replacing bigotry with respect, and thus helping destroy Islamophobia and all the other religious phobias that so endanger international relations. It is about working together for peace and justice. It is about realizing that Islam is no threat to Christianity, Judaism or Hinduism or vice versa.
The civilized world has boldly proclaimed that it rejects the notion of a clash of civilizations. Statements are not enough. There has to be action. The Vienna center is action in bricks and stone. It is a step on the path to the time when there will be interfaith conferences and centers around in the world — a world that will be so much safer as a result. That is why it is so welcome.