Step 2 in Muslim-initiated Interfaith Dialogue => Action

Dateline: Vienna, July 16, 2009

Shalom, salaam, shantih, namaste, peace ! --

The two of us (Rabbis Phyllis Berman & Arthur Waskow) are sharing our notes from the Vienna meetings of the Follow-up Committee for the Madrid World Interfaith Dialogue held a year ago. Both meetings were sponsored by the Muslim World League and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, especially in his religious capacity as Protector of the Two Sacred Places. In addition to our own comments on the meeting, we are including the three workshop reports that we were asked to write.

We are sending this report to all those whose email addresses we have from either the Madrid or Vienna meetings. We welcome your sharing the report with others who took part, and with others you think would find it useful.

The follow-up committee --- made up of 45 people invited from among the 300 or so who were at Madrid --- was asked to focus on joint action going forward. The Madrid meetings were themselves a major step forward in world interfaoth dialogue. This meeting took additional major steps forward as compared with Madrid; still continued one important disappointing aspect of Madrid; and ended with a shock.

The major steps forward were (1) that almost all the sessions were face-to-face discussions with each other, rather than talk-at-them formal paper presentations. This made for some real give-and-take; and (2) that the steering committee announced some steps toward creating a permanent interfaith organization with offices in Vienna, to sponsor ongoing world interfaith dialogue.

Each session focused on an important concrete issue being faced by the world's religious traditions, rather than the abstract question of "dialogue." These were Freedom of Religion; Human Dignity in a Pluralistic World; Dialogue as an Instrument for Peace and Reconciliation; Promoting Women, Youth and Family through Dialogue; Common Responsibilities for Preserving our Environment and Heritage; Joint Efforts towards Global Sustainability and our Common Future.

Rabbi Waskow was asked to act as rapporteur for the "Environment" workshop and as moderator for the "Sustainability" workshop. Rabbi Berman was asked to act as rapporteur for the "Freedom of Religion" and "Human Dignity" sessions.

The important disappointment was that only three women were actually invited to be participants in the conference.

At four of the six workshops, specific mention was made and most of the participants agreed on the importance of involving far more women -- ideally an equal number --- in the process of interfaith dialogue and action on all these issues.

The two earth-centered sessions actually worked out a series of affirmations and suggested actions to propose to the body at large. (The reports from those two workshops (prepared by Rabbi Waskow) and the two on "Freedom of Religion" and "Human Dignity" (prepared by Rabbi Berman) are appended below.)

In the "Peace" workshop Rabbi Waskow discussed the continuing military action of the US and its allies in the broader Middle East from Pakistan to Palestine and Israel, in contrast with President Obama's strong rhetorical outreach to the Muslim world. He pointed out that these military conflicts between the US and parts of the Muslim world were not solely the responsibility of the US, since people claiming to speak in the name of isklam had attacked the Us and since some of the governments and leaderships of Muslim-majority countries had sanctioned acts of terror despite Islam’s prohibition of such acts.

He also reported the growth of more and more open opposition among American Jews to Israeli settlements in the West Bank; more and more Jewish support for President Obama's demand that they stop; and growing open back-and-forth support between many American Jews and President Obama for a serious peace effort -- signaled especially by Obama's meeting this week with leaders of J Street and Americans for Peace Now, among a broad array of liberal and centrist Jewish organizational leaders. He also reported on support from (at that point) more than 50 rabbis for the just-beginning Fast for Gaza as additional evidence of change at the grass roots in the American Jewish community.

Though this number is a small minority of American rabbis, Rabbi Waskow pointed out that one year ago, zero rabbis would have signed the Fast for Gaza statement, nor would the organization of Reform rabbis have voted to support the President's demand that the Israeli government stop building settlements, nor would J Street or APN (which define themselves as pro-Israel, pro-peace, and pro-Obama’s demand to halt settlement-building) have been invited to the White House.

The point, he suggested, is that important change is occurring within the American Jewish community, which combines strong support for the safety of the State of Israel with increasing insistence that a two-state solution between Israel and a viable Palestine, along with peace between Israel and all Arab states through negotiations that take the Arab Peace Initiative as a crucial starting point, is necessary for the sake of peace, justice, and security.

Rabbi Waskow suggested that all this indicates the time is ripe for an Abrahamic alliance among some American Jews, some American Muslims, and some American Christians for a new US foreign policy toward the broadest Middle East.

Almost all the other participants in that workshop (Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Shintoists, Hindus from all over the world) responded warmly to the possibility of such an Abrahamic Alliance for peace in the broadest Middle East. The workshop, however, did not work out such a proposal for the body as a whole.

At the last plenary session, the steering committee reported that it had agreed on a stage-by-stage process intended to create an independent body on world interfaith dialogue and action headquartered in Vienna with a governing body that would involve leaders from the major faiths represented - a step beyond sponsorship and "midwifery" by Muslims only, yet with continuing strong involvement of Muslim leadership. This step offers the possibility of the emergence on the world scene of an important new arena for interfaith dialogue and action.

This closing session was scheduled to include reports from the six workshops to the conference as a whole, but on the motion of the steering committee, the session ended abruptly before reports from the six workshops could be shared with the conferees as a whole.

This left in limbo both the call for far more involvement of women that had come from four of the six workshops, and the proposals for activist steps on the climate crisis that had come from the relevant two workshops.

The three workshop reports we prepared are below.

Shalom, salaam, peace ---
Rabbi Arthur Waskow and Rabbi Phyllis Berman
I. Report from the workshop on "Environment," amended and endorsed by the Workshop on "Sustainability." Submitted by Arthur Waskow, acting as rapporteur of the "Environment" session and moderator of the "Sustainability" session.

We propose that the World Conference on Dialogue and its continuing preparatory committee adopt the following statement:

1. We affirm that the common future of all humanity requires that all religious and spiritual communities take responsibility to protect and heal the sacred earth by seeking to abolish nuclear weaponry, preventing the climate crisis from becoming a climate disaster, and shaping a world of justice, equality, and compassion so as to radically reduce the danger of war and terrorism.

2. We affirm that all religious and spiritual communities encourage a rhythm of Doing and Being, work and rest, action and celebration, and all teach that production and consumption do not make up the whole meaning of life. We affirm that increases in production should be used to alleviate poverty and hunger and to provide time and support for education, celebration, and spiritual life, rather than focus on sheer material consumption.

3. We encourage people as households, congregations, and nations to reduce unnecessary consumption in general and, in particular, unnecessary consumption of meat and fossil fuels because this over-use is endangering the global climate and is increasing poverty and hunger.

4. In accord with the religious teachings that someone who is planting a tree and hears the advent of Judgment Day or the Messiah should finish planting the tree, we encourage the reforestation of our planet to reduce the climate crisis.

5. We affirm that in order to help the poorer nations reduce poverty and hunger without pursuing paths that worsen the global climate crisis (such as deforestation and fossil-fuel dependency), the richer nations have a religious obligation to financially assist the poorer to develop sustainable energy sources so as to achieve sustainable prosperity.

6. We affirm that the full involvement of women is a necessary part of interfaith efforts to heal the earth and make a world of justice, compassion, and equality.

7. We encourage all religious and spiritual communities to set aside a week this fall, in advance of the December 2009 Copenhagen conference on the climate crisis, in which our communities will pray, learn, and act to heal our endangered planetary climate.

8. We propose that this World Interfaith Dialogue and its continuing preparatory committee, looking toward a permanent institution, proclaim these commitments publicly; create an Interfaith/Earth website to educate our communities in the religious obligation to do this work; and set up an interfaith presence at the Copenhagen Conference to monitor and strengthen the work of national governments there to address the climate crisis.

II. Report from the workshop on Human Dignity in a Pluralistic Society moderated by Swami Agni Vesh:

All of our religions have principles that teach that all people are created in the image of God. Yet there are four prejudices/discriminations that exist even before birth: against women, against people of color, against the poor, and against those of a lower caste. Our challenge at this conference is to ask ourselves: are we ready, however "inconvenient" it is, to commit ourselves at each moment to defend the many people "out of power" who are oppressed in our society?

We must use "right words" in talking with or about those who are different from us. However, even here in this session it takes deliberate consciousness to refer to "human beings" and to "humankind" rather than to "men" and "mankind" when referring to God's creation of all human beings in the Divine image. " Right language" has a powerful effect upon our awareness and upon our treatment of one another.

The dignity of all humans demands that we abolish torture, that we honor the elderly, and that we weigh in on issues of bio-ethics. People who are denied citizenship or whose land is occupied are deprived of freedom and dignity.

All of us lose when any one of us is diminished. We need to have self-awareness of the gap that exists between our lofty principles (words) and our discriminatory practices (actions) around issues of human dignity and oppression. Without that self-awareness, we are blind to the realities of the world and to our part in that discrimination. We need to be self-critical about the role that our religions have played, through hate- and fear-producing interpretations and misinterpretations, that have contributed to this gap between principles and practices in our traditions.

We need to do the theological/ethical work of correcting these interpretations of religious texts that lead to oppression and discrimination and do the work of educating not only our children but also adults who have been taught wrong or not taught at all what our religions believe. We need to create opportunities for people at every level of society to have direct experience with people who might be considered "other" so that we can all know and feel the truth of God's Presence in each other.

True dialogue gatherings must include a significant number of women (33-50%) among its participants so that women are not experienced as "other" or only as mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters; rather, including women as serious dialogue participants can enable men to experience women not as "strangers" whom they can silence, or ignore, or beat, or dehumanize in other ways but as colleagues, scholars, teachers, and religious leaders with contributions to the reconciliation, peace, and justice that we all desire.

(Summary notes submitted by Rabbi Phyllis Berman, facilitator of The Tent of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah in the U.S.)
III. Report from workshop on Freedom of Religion, moderated by Dr. Izzeddin Ibrahim Moustafa and Senator Larry Shaw (State Senate, North Carolina, USA).

The session began with five brief talks by Rev. Keiichi Akagawa (Buddhist), Swami Agni Vesh (Hindu), Dr. Riyadh Jarjour (Arabs for Christian-Muslim Dialogue in Lebanon), Harvinder Singh Sarna (Sikh), and Rabbi Marc Schneier (Jewish). Afterwards, everyone present who wished to speak had a few minutes each to do so.

Dr. Moustafa urged us all to be guided by the "package" (King Abdullah's original invitation in Madrid in July '08 to followers of all religions to come together to talk without veto, to cooperate to implement our shared values, to live our civil lives harmoniously whether we are majorities or minorities in our countries) rather than by the "topic" in our session together.

The following are a selection of comments made without attribution to specific speakers:

(1) Being faithful to our one's own religion doesn't deny the validity of other religions.

(2) In a time when there are strong protests in response to ignorant caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, why are there no protests when peoples of the world are caricaturing Allah by abusing the earth which Allah has created for us all?

(3) Governments must guarantee full equality of religious practice under the law.

(4) We must honor King Abdullah's extraordinary initiative by making this gathering not just another time for words alone, but a gathering with action connected to our words.

(5) Real dialogue must include not only intellectual talk but also opportunities to learn one another's spiritual journeys so that we can come to know one another, care for one another, share spiritual intimacy without betraying our own religious traditions, and take skillful action together.

(6) When one religion is under attack any place in the world, it has great significance if colleagues from other religions speak up in protest and support of those who are under attack.

(7) Such speaking up is imperative right now in response to the attack on six Syriac churches in Iraq a few days ago.

(Summary notes submitted by Rabbi Phyllis Berman, facilitator of the Tent of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah in the U.S.


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