By Peter Welby
October 10, 2018
The secretary general of the Muslim World League (MWL), Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, always has interesting things to say, and last week’s MWL conference drove headlines on some important issues. Last Thursday, before an audience of religious leaders and policy makers in New York, he gave a speech that included a call for Christians, Muslims and Jews to jointly visit Jerusalem, visit each other’s holy sites, and begin a new approach to resolving the long-running Israel-Palestine conflict: A brave religious initiative for a conflict focused on a religious city.
The conference was on “Cultural rapprochement between the Muslim world and the US.” Being neither a US citizen, nor a Muslim, I’m not sure what I could add by my presence, but I was nonetheless happy to be there, and to speak myself, on the second day.
Of course, cultural rapprochement between the Muslim World and the US actually requires rapprochement across the West. Modern politics and cultural movements are so interconnected, US politics cannot be considered to be in a vacuum. The cultural memory that has led to such a distrust of Islam in the US is shared across the Western world, both old and new.
As I prepared for my own speech at the conference, I came across an interesting 2011 poll of Muslim attitudes in Muslim-majority countries toward Westerners, and non-Muslim Westerners toward Muslims. It found that a majority of Muslims regarded Westerners as greedy, immoral, violent, and fanatical. No positive terms received over 50 percent. Meanwhile, majorities in the West regarded Muslims as fanatical, violent and — just to mix things up — honest.
Such attitudes don’t arise from nothing. They are the legacy of 1,400 years of rivalry around the Mediterranean. In North Africa, the bastion and theological proving ground of the early Christian Church, though fatally riven by schism, there remains only one church with a history predating the Muslim conquest: That of the Copts. Jerusalem, a city sacred to the three Abrahamic faiths, was surrendered by Patriarch Sophronius to Caliph Umar in 637, and the loss of which struck deeply at the Western Christian psyche, with a direct link to the Crusades. The loss of Spain and the glorification of what is known as the Reconquista; the fall of Constantinople and the Eastern Roman Empire; the creeping conquest of the Ottomans in the Balkans and Eastern Europe; and no list of rivalry between Christendom and Islam would be complete without mentioning the Ottomans at the Gates of Vienna in 1683.
This may seem like ancient history. The majority of people in the West won’t be able to tell you about the defeat of the Ottoman armies in 1683 — but by that time the European colonies in North America were well established. In any case, the cultural impact of historical events last long beyond their popular memory. And, however much the West secularizes and moves toward a post-faith society, its attitudes and values are shaped by the legacy of Christianity.
Cultural memory perpetuates hatred long after all reason is forgotten. That cultural memory can be found in the deep suspicion of Islam in the West today. History is a story of winners and losers: Victory or defeat does much more to foster identity than examples of engagement.
That is not a counsel of despair. A house, which takes months to build, can burn down in an afternoon, but no one would suggest that is an argument against building houses. Julius Caesar killed or enslaved at least 20 percent of the population of Gaul, but the history of cooperation between Italy and France long ago expunged that memory. Cultural memory can be changed through engagement. It is hard but necessary.
Which brings us back to Al-Issa’s keynote speech. His agenda, apparent in all of his work since his appointment as secretary general in 2016, is cooperation in order to resolve some of the most pressing areas of distance between the Islamic, Jewish and Christian worlds, as he put it, “spiritually, politically, economically and culturally.”
The most striking area in which he views an opportunity for cooperation is in Jerusalem. He called for a “peace caravan” of Christians, Muslims and Jews without political affiliation in the dispute to work together to bring a new perspective on its resolution. These were significant words, and it is right that they were noticed. But there are opportunities here to work with those already seeking to do just that.
The Patriarch of Jerusalem (the successor to Sophronius) is the acknowledged “primus inter pares” (first among equals) of the Christian leaders in Jerusalem, and treads a difficult line between Israeli and Palestinian politics, as well as threats from extremists on both sides. His only concern is that there should be peace, security, and protection for the Christians of the Holy Land.
Another such figure is Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah — mentioned in this column previously — who, two years ago, set up an “American Caravan of Peace” to bring together Christians, Muslims and Jews in the US to work together for the common good.
This concept is not one that we have heard previously from the MWL. But then, its secretary general, as he outlined in a detailed interview in this newspaper, is someone who is bringing fresh ideas to the table, suffused with energy and vision. That vision should become a reality, working together with others engaged in the field of building peace through friendship and cooperation. It is much needed, and a requirement for long-lasting reconciliation.
Peter Welby is a consultant on religion and global affairs, specializing in the Arab world. Previously he was the managing editor of a think tank on religious extremism, the Center on Religion & Geopolitics, and worked in public affairs in the Arabian Gulf. He is based in London, and has lived in Egypt and Yemen. Twitter: @pdcwelby