A Muslim cleric invokes the name of Allah, surrounded by Jewish worshippers at the Washington Hebrew Congregation. Black gospel singers belt out “Amazing Grace” at the Islamic Center of Washington. Later, everyone strolls down Massachusetts Avenue in a collective tribute to Mohandas K. Gandhi, whose statue graces the Indian Embassy.
It seems quite appropriate for this particular gathering to focus on India’s spiritual leader, who was once asked if he was a Hindu. “Yes, I am,” he replied. “I am also a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Jew.”
It’s hard to get more interfaith than that.
And that’s precisely the point of the 9/11 Unity Walk, an annual event now in its fifth year that normally attracts a thousand or so people — and one of a growing number of local efforts to bridge the gap between faiths amidst a global onslaught of terrorist attacks, fanaticism, wars and random acts of religious violence.
This year’s Unity Walk was attended by only 500 people, mainly because of a heavy downpour that kept people at home. “Even so, the worship houses were thrilled,” said organizer Kyle Poole. “You couldn’t even get into the National Sikh Gurdwara, there were so many people. It helped they were giving away Indian food.”
Poole, who calls himself a “Presbyterian homeboy from North Carolina,” said the Oct. 18 walk was attended by Christians (20 percent of the total), Muslims (another 20 percent), Jews (15 percent) and a smattering of Hindus, Buddhists, Zoroastrians and others.
“It was fascinating to see people of all different faiths sitting down and enjoying Indian food together,” he said. “In Washington, D.C., a city known for power, these simple acts show what’s possible.”
Poole says the 9/11 Unity Walk — broadcast internationally by CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera — is not a political protest march.
“We still have a semblance of a Gandhi-style walk, where people of different faiths put aside their differences,” he explained, noting that the afternoon pilgrimage was led by the great man’s grandson, Arun Gandhi. “So there are no signs, banners or placards allowed — not even a peace sign.”
At Georgetown University, an interfaith gathering of a different kind recently took place. In early October, some very high-ranking religious and political leaders — including former British Prime Minister Tony Blair — got together for two intense days of lofty dialogue.
Some 750 people, mostly students, attended the opening event of a conference billed as “A Common Word Between Us and You: A Global Agenda for Change.”
The conference was a direct outcome of an October 2007 letter written by Jordan’s Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad — and signed by 138 Muslim leaders and scholars — to leaders of Christian churches and communities throughout the world. It marked the fourth meeting of the Common Word initiative; previous gatherings have taken place at Yale, Cambridge and the Vatican.
Dr. John L. Esposito, founding director of Georgetown’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, said it was really Iran’s Islamic revolution of 1979 that put Islam on the map for most Americans, years before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“Today, we are challenged to see religion as part of the problem, but also part of the solution,” said Esposito, a world-renowned professor of religion and international affairs. “Muslims and non-Muslims both desire a safe, stable environment. All are concerned about their economic futures. All admire Western technologies. But the question is, how do we pursue these things when we live in a world of both hope and hatred?”
Such questions take on even more immediacy in the wake of tragedies like the Fort Hood, Texas, rampage in which U.S. Army psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan, a Muslim, killed 12 soldiers and one civilian.
“Islam is utterly against extremism and terrorism, but unless we understand the factors that provide a rationalization for terrorism and extremism, we will never be able to eradicate this scourge,” declared Ali Gomaa, the grand mufti of Egypt, who on Oct. 8 spoke at Washington’s Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies on the subject of eradicating violence and extremism.
Gomaa added that “it is important for us at this time of great sadness that we do not demonize Muslims without cause — not because it is good for Muslims, but because our future ability to coexist in peace depends on it.”
At the Georgetown conference, one speaker after another pointed out that Muslims and Christians make up 55 percent of the world’s population, and there cannot be world peace unless there’s peace between these two religions.
Yet Kjell Magne Bondevik, former prime minister of Norway and president of the Oslo Center for Peace and Human Rights, also pointed out that in Europe, debates on religion tend to be reduced to relations between Islam and the West.
“Generally, Europe is marked by diversity but not necessarily pluralism. Diversity is simply the existence of diverse religious and cultural communities living side by side, easily leading to segregation,” explained Bondevik, who is also an ordained Lutheran pastor. “Mere diversity without real encounters and relationships will lead to increasing tensions within society. These uprisings in France, for example — riots carried out by young Muslim men — display feelings of frustration, alienation and exclusion. It is the voice of the second and third generation of immigrants who were never given the chance to find their place in society.”
Bondevik stressed that dialogue, “the language of pluralism,” requires both criticism and self-criticism. “Dialogue does not mean that everyone at the table will agree with each other, but pluralism means a commitment. It’s about learning to live peacefully with our differences, and not least about identifying common values used to mobilize for reconciliation,” he said.
This is one reason why Blair says it is so important to solve the seemingly intractable Arab-Israeli conflict. “One reason why peace between Israel and Palestine matters so much is that it is a test of even-handedness and respect. We share our common heritage in Abraham,” said Blair, who after resigning as prime minister was appointed official envoy of the Quartet on the Middle East on behalf of the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia. In May 2008, he launched his Tony Blair Faith Foundation.
“Peace between Jews and Muslims in the Holy Land would be such a powerful symbol of peaceful coexistence,” he added. “We hope that in time, Judaism will also become part of the Common Word — so that we can together fight poverty and bring hope to those who despair.”
All fine and good, says Joseph K. Grieboski, founder and president of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy. But such high-sounding principles don’t really amount to much unless they trickle down into local action.
“I’ve always believed that interfaith dialogue historically has been done with no actual goal or purpose. It takes place in order to have conversations. So we end up having people at the very top who agree to disagree, but they continue to meet,” said Grieboski.
“In order for interfaith dialogue to ever have any real impact, it needs to have an end-goal. So our approach has been to create interfaith dialogue on issues of common concern. For example, every faith has people who suffer from poverty, drug abuse and violence.”
Grieboski — whose Alexandria, Va.-based institute focuses on religious freedom in such diverse places as China, Kazakhstan and Serbia — said “one of the problems is that the vocabulary that’s used is often not agreed upon. The only major faith with a defined doctrine on religious freedom — the issue we deal with — is the Catholic Church. Despite that, Catholics from left to right would disagree on what that actually means.”
Grieboski told The Diplomat that he instead favors local grassroots initiatives like the 9/11 Unity Walk and the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington (also see “Bridging Chasm Between Western, Islamic Worlds” in the January 2008 issue of The Washington Diplomat and “A Holy Trinity: Friendship Grows Among Three Men of Different Faiths” in the November 2005 issue).
“The grassroots efforts are extremely important. That’s where we’ll have the greatest success as far as interpersonal understanding and cooperation. Those big meetings at the top are never disseminated among the membership,” he said. “How often do we go to a synagogue and hear what really came out of a meeting between the pope, the rabbi and the imam? The focus needs to be on local efforts.”
One such effort took place in September, when for the first time ever, a local synagogue hosted an iftar — traditional breaking of the Ramadan fast — for area Muslims. The venue for the event, dubbed Fast2Feed, was the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, and the unusual event was sponsored by Washington investment firm ML Resources, 9/11 Unity Walk, the All Dulles Area Muslim Society and the Islamic Society of North America.
Fast2Feed was free to the public, though participants were asked to bring canned goods and nonperishable food items to be donated to the Salvation Army’s emergency assistance programs. The event coincided with Interfaith Service Week, a part of President Obama’s “United We Serve” summer initiative.
“When people of faith come together as one, they have the power to make a positive impact on their community,” said Kalsoom Lakhani, director of social vision at ML Resources and daughter of the event’s organizer, Pakistani-born businessman Muslim Lakhani. “Through Fast2Feed, we are encouraging individuals to go beyond dialogue and engage in action.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.