Historic Saudi-Sponsored Conference Provides Important First Step in Building Trust Among Many Faiths


Publication Date: 7/21/2008


by Dr. John Kaltner

Madrid--For many people the terms “dialogue” and “Saudi Arabia” are an unlikely pairing that could never be found in the same sentence. The Kingdom has often been accused by its critics of being taciturn, intolerant, and resistant to change, and few would disagree that the country often seems to play by its own rules. So what were the Saudis doing sponsoring the World Conference on Dialogue, which concluded Friday in Madrid? 

The gathering was organized by the World Muslim League and brought together more than two hundred and fifty religious leaders, scholars, and other interested parties—including Tony Blair and the Rev. Jesse Jackson—to discuss the present state and future direction of interfaith relationships. When word first surfaced that Saudi Arabia was behind the event and that King Abdullah would give the opening address some feared that the conference would be a three-day infomercial for the Saudi government and its policies. In fact, the King’s comments were decidedly apolitical, and that tone continued throughout most of the proceedings.

The conference came on the heels of a similar one held last month in Mecca at which Muslims from around the world met to discuss relations between Islam and other faiths. One of the recommendations that emerged from that meeting was to call a second one that included non-Muslims, and King Abdullah acted quickly on the suggestion. 

The historic nature of the Madrid conference was hailed repeatedly by speakers and attendees, and with good cause. This was the first time a Muslim country had convened a meeting of this scale to tackle an issue as sensitive as interfaith relations. In addition, several new partners were invited to sit at the table and join the conversation. Similar efforts at interreligious dialogue have usually been limited to members of the monotheistic faiths. But this time Jews, Christians, and Muslims were joined by Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and others, some of whom made keynote speeches to the entire assembly. Their inclusion and full participation signals an important shift in Muslim attitudes toward members of religions outside the Abrahamic line.

Also noteworthy was the attempt to place religious dialogue within a wider framework. There was considerable discussion of the cultural contexts that affect faith communities and to which they respond. Crime, human trafficking, drugs, pornography, and violence were cited as especially challenging social ills that must be addressed. Ecological damage and destruction of the environment were identified as among the greatest threats facing the planet. The critical role the family plays in the education and ethical formation of children was mentioned by several speakers. These issues and problems are universal concerns that are shared by people of all creeds, but they are not always a part of interfaith discussions. Clearly, fresh ground was broken and new paths explored.

On the other hand, it appeared that in some ways things would be business as usual. A common complaint concerned the lack of participation by women. The original program indicated that all of the more than twenty major addresses would be delivered by men. As one participant put it during a question-and-answer period, “How can we claim this is a conference on dialogue if more than one-half of humanity is prevented from fully taking part in it?” Saudi Arabia has long been criticized for its treatment of women, but it was encouraging to see the organizers take heed of a point made frequently during speeches and discussions—dialogue takes place between individuals, not religions. It is about people, not institutions. In keeping with the spirit of inclusion that dominated this extraordinary gathering, the voices of those who wished to see fuller representation were acknowledged and addressed. During the final session a Spanish Muslim woman was added as the final speaker on the program. On the surface this might appear to be a minor change, but it is movement in the right direction.

And that’s what this three-day gathering was all about. The World Conference on Dialogue was an important step in an ongoing journey toward interfaith understanding, and its setting in Madrid was rich in symbolic meaning. During the Middle Ages Spain was the center of Convivencia, a remarkable period in history when members of the three monotheistic faiths lived side-by-side in cooperation and harmony to the benefit of all. That type of peaceful coexistence is the ultimate destination of the journey, and the Madrid conference offered some exciting new possibilities about how to get there.

John Kaltner is the Virginia Ballou McGehee Professor of Muslim-Christian Relations at Rhodes College in Memphis and the author of numerous books and essays on this topic. He was an invited participant in the recent Inter-Religious Conference in Madrid July 16-18 sponsored by the Muslim World League under the auspices of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud.