By Samar Fatany
12 October 2013
As part of an outreach program to build people-to-people relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia, the board members of the Committee for International Trade (CIT) met with American religious leaders of the Los Angeles community to discuss interfaith relations and some of the initiatives that are making a difference.
The Saudi and American members had a frank and in-depth discussion about sensitive and critical issues that have been the source of religious conflicts between Islam and the West. The meeting was co-hosted with the LA-based Abrahamic Faith Peacekeeping Initiative and the Pico Union Project.
The American panelists included Reverend Dr. Gwynne Guibord, Founder and President of the Guibord Center, Dr. Maher Hathout, Senior Advisor, Muslim Public Affairs Council, and Naomi Ackerman, Executive Director of the Advot (Ripples) Project. The Saudi panelists were Omar Bahlaiwa Secretary General of CIT, prominent businesspersons Ali Hussein Alireza and Shoura Council member Dr. Salwa Al-Hazzaa and myself. The discussion was moderated by Dr. Steve Wiebe, Executive Director, New Vision Partners.
Hussein Alireza opened the discussion by boldly stating that the conflict between Abrahamic religions in the Middle East could be easily diffused and ended once politicians find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He elaborated that many make it seem to be a religious conflict when, in reality, it is a real estate problem.
The business community could solve it in no time bringing prosperity and peace to the whole troubled region. There was no animosity between Arabs and Jews prior to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The Jews lived in harmony in all Arab countries. They were well respected and many of them owned successful businesses at a time when they were prosecuted in Europe and the US, and were later subjected to extreme brutality by Nazi Germany.
Alireza concluded his statement by urging the need for religious leaders to play a bigger role in putting pressure on politicians and decision makers to finalize a two-state solution and allow peace-loving Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Christians and Muslims to live in peace and harmony.
Dr. Maher Hathout stated that there are many challenges facing Muslim communities all over the world today. It is important for Muslim scholars to address extremism and the issues that are troubling modern day Muslim societies, just as it is important to address Western misconceptions in a spirit of understanding in order to remove the barriers that divide us. There should be a renewed commitment to finding common ground and to preventing the extremists among us from using religion as a tool for selfish and political gains.
Dr. Hathout elaborated that people of faith need to differentiate between two kinds of religion. The religion of God and the religion of people. The religion of God values life and does not coerce people into believing. The extremist ideology uses religion as a political justification for committing terrorist acts. It is a religion of a people with grievances who use religion as a tool to publicize their cause. The religion of God teaches us to celebrate humanity and avoid enmity, so that communities can collaborate to find solutions for critical problems.
Reverend Dr. Gwynne Guibord talked about the need to promote interfaith dialogue as a valuable skill that teaches compassion toward people who hold different religious views. It is important to help people overcome theological differences and develop spiritual grounding to enable them to hold on to their own religious truths, while at the same time respecting the religious truths of others. She stressed that dialogue is the only way to find a means to connect and to build a new foundation for trust and harmony.
Naomi Ackerman talked about her experience in theater, musicals, films, television, and work in multi-ethnic/cultural productions with Arab and Jewish actors. She stressed the importance of using drama to deal with social and educational issues, and how it has helped her in celebrating Jewish and Palestinian identity. Her work focuses on collaborations between Jewish and Muslim religions to address critical social issues and ways for people to overcome their problems. She continues to explore the resources within her faith to promote peace and harmony between Muslims and Jews.
I added that building interfaith understanding can contribute to building better and safer communities. People of God should work together to safeguard the erosion of religious values, serve humanity and bring peace to our troubled societies. The real test that confronts people of the Book today is preserving the name of God on earth. Modern society is threatened with violent drug abusers, sex offenders, human trafficking and many other dangers. Faith-based organizations must work together to put God back into public life and protect universal religious values and ideals. We all have a responsibility to protect the future of our children and make our world a better place.
Omar Bahlaiwa shared Saudi Arabia’s commitment in supporting interfaith initiatives. He highlighted King Abdullah’s International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) which was established as an international organization with the objective of building bridges of understanding and contributing to conflict prevention and resolution. We all hope that meetings of religious leaders can effect change and end religious conflicts and spread lasting peace.
Initiatives such as the Saudi/ LA Interfaith Forum can have an important impact on world peace. Moderates in Muslim countries should remain engaged in dialogue with global Jewish, Christian and Muslim community leaders to counter the extremists that have hijacked our religion and given Islam a bad name. Moreover, there should also be further effort to address the sectarian divide that continues to threaten the security and stability of the Muslim world today.
Samar Fatany is a radio broadcaster and writer.