From Weekly Blitz of Dhaka; September 2005



Why Interfaith Dialogue               

Dr. Richard L. Benkin

The need for open dialogue among people of different faiths would seem apparent; but the lack of such dialogue is at the root of misunderstandings so deep that they too often are assumed to be objective truth.  And that misinformation forms part of the ill-conceived bedrock of opinion that still separates Muslims from non-Muslims.

In the United States, our greatest conceptual barrier to understanding is an unfortunate tendency we have to view all of Islam through the prism of Arab nationalism.  There are approximately a billion and a half Muslims in the world today, about one fourth of the entire global population.  Only one out of five of them are Arabs.  In fact, Indonesia alone has 70 percent as many Muslims as the entire Arab world.  In fact, the five most populous Muslim nations are Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Turkey—not an Arab among them!  Information coming in from many of those countries indicate that the lesson taught by those numbers has not been lost on the practitioners of terror, even as most westerners pour ever-increasing resources into fighting or appeasing the Arabs.  A Rand Corporation study, published at the end of 2004 noted, “A great deal of the discourse on Muslim issues and grievances is actually discourse on Arab issues and grievances. For reasons that have more to do with historical and cultural development than religion, the Arab world exhibits a higher incidence of economic, social, and political disorders than other regions ….By contrast, the non-Arab parts of the Muslim world are politically more inclusive, boast the majority of the democratic or partially democratic governments, and are more secular in outlook. Although the Arab Middle East has long been regarded (and certainly views itself) as the core of the Muslim world, the most innovative and sophisticated contemporary work in Islam is being done [elsewhere] leading some scholars to ask whether Islam’s center of gravity is now shifting to more dynamic regions of the Muslim world.”

Many westerners might be quick to cite our own culture and media as the culprits; and we should not flinch from critically examining our own role in this conceptual disconnect.  An objective analysis, however, would attribute the problem—and solution—to Muslim actions as well.  What might they be?

There are three reasons why discussions of Islam are dominated by Arab voices and issues, each suggesting a path for correcting this misconception.

Problem #1: The high profile and reprehensible acts that have spurred the international war on terror have been carried out by Arabs who claim to be acting in the name of Islam.

Westerners often find it difficult to believe that these claims Islam are illegitimate when we see little or no official Muslim outrage.  Even if individual leaders have at times condemned these murderers, their condemnations too often were equivocal, either justifying the acts by the political motivations behind them or coupling them with equivalent condemnations of the terrorists’ targets.  Since these terror groups claim far more Muslim than non-Muslim victims, one would expect the strongest condemnation to emanate from the Muslim world


Solution #1: And that is really the first solution.  Muslim leaders—religious and political—must unequivocally condemn acts of terror wherever they occur and no matter who their victims are.  When an Israeli gunned down innocent Arabs recently, the entire Jewish world and Israeli government were uniform in calling it “Jewish terrorism.”  No one in authority tried to “understand” or justify it.  That is what Muslim leaders must do. Bangladeshi State Minister for Home Affairs Lutfuzzamen Babar’s placing of a wreath recently at the site of the 9/11 terror attacks is an example of this sort of action.  And the single voice with which Bangladeshi officials are speaking to US officials, making clear Bangladesh’s stance against terror is another.

Problem #2:  In seemingly every international forum, Muslim nations ally themselves with the Arab world, which often takes stands that it justifies as representing Islam. With no counter statements by non-Arab Muslim nations, the impression remains to be reinforced with every subsequent action.

Solution #2: Alliances for most of Muslim Asia are more naturally with the West.  The Arabs’ anti-development ideology stands in stark contrast with the aims of most Muslim nations.  Perhaps it is sustainable for a nation glutted with oil wealth, but do those nations share the wealth with their Muslim brothers and sisters elsewhere (or even within their own borders.  Non-Arab Muslim nations need to ally themselves with the more progressive and economically viable nations of the West—and the East, developing unique trade agreements and political and defense agreements.  This includes cooperating against terrorists of all stripes.  Finally, as a westerner, I suggest that Muslim Asia take charge of the OIC so it is not run as an adjunct of the Arab League.

Problem #3: Westerners—and certainly Americans—know too little about the non-Arab Muslim world, creating a knowledge gap that allows others to fill in the blanks. Even prominent think tanks (East and West) often fail to differentiate non-Arab Muslims.

Solution #3: Muslim governments should proactively provide the world with high profile Muslim actions that have nothing to do with Arab nationalism. Bangladesh’s large donation to victims of Hurricane Katrina in the United States is one example that was publicized throughout America for some time. Bangladesh, for example, can tout impressive statistics in its fight against poverty, it empowerment of women, and other advances.  How many Americans know what BIMSTEC is, and that Bangladesh is part of that regional alliance?  It is also promising to note that slowly but steadily, the government of Bangladesh is making inroads that help define it in terms other than its membership in the Muslim world.

Ultimately, however, tearing down walls of ignorance is best accomplished mutually.  As one of the world’s largest Muslim nations—and with traditional values of moderation as well as its religious minorities, Bangladesh is well suited to begin that process.  I suggest that it host an international interfaith conference in Dhaka.  Such a conference would be one of those high profile events that separates Islam from the politics and vitriol that often defines it for too many people.  Members of major religions can sit together, share information together, and strategize together so that we can use our different faiths to unite us rather than divide us, which is no doubt what our various faiths demand we do.

Writer is an analyst.