By Peter Welby
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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