Riccardo Cristiano

10 May 2024


Book Review:
Middle East’s Interfaith Dialogue Institutional Evolution

September 11 has profoundly marked the 3rd millennium. Within the Christian world, pivotal texts for grasping its repercussions include those authored by Professor Massimo Borghesi, titled The Catholic Dissent, and by Father Antonio Spadaro and Pastor Marcelo Figueroa in La Civiltà Cattolica, comprising two essays on “The Ecumenism of Hate.” In these works, they assert that while US President Bush once spoke of an “axis of evil” to confront and called for a duty to “rid the world of evil” following the events of September 11, 2001, today President Trump directs his fight against a broadly defined collective entity, that of the “bad” or even “very bad.” At times, the rhetoric employed by his supporters takes on tones that could be described as “epic.” These attitudes stem from the fundamentalist Christian-evangelical principles of the early last century, which have gradually radicalized. There has indeed been a shift from a rejection of everything “worldly,” as politics was once considered, to the pursuit of a strong and determined influence of that religious morality on democratic processes and their outcomes.

We are approaching a theopolitics that Borghesi links to 2001, stating: “To the progressive, optimistic, and superficial progressivism of the brief era of globalization, a counter-push is opposed, a reaction for which dialogue, solidarity, and commitment to peace appear suspect. This distrust encompasses the same conciliar legacy, which is no longer challenged solely by minority factions but by substantial sectors of the Church. September 11 changed the global landscape, and the Church suffers the repercussions. It is from this point that we must begin to understand the conservative reaction that has sought to distort and delegitimize Francis’ pontificate. The hatred and fear, the “rage and pride” as Italian writer and journalist Oriana Fallaci wrote, incited by the madness of Osama bin Laden’s suicide pilots, have caused a transformation in the very essence of witnessing.”

These interpretations of the Christian world’s reaction to terrorist massacres effectively elucidate how the “Document on Human Brotherhood for World Peace and Common Coexistence,” signed in Abu Dhabi on February 4, 2019, by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of the Islamic University of al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayyeb, stood as the most significant and crucial response in the name of coexistence.

However, to comprehend Abu Dhabi fully, it is essential to examine the post-2001 era by also considering the Islamic world, particularly the Arab world. Michel D. Driessen’s book The Global Politics of Interreligious Dialogue: Religious Change, Citizenship, and Solidarity in the Middle East proves immensely helpful in this regard. This work delves into the “other backlash,” primarily affecting the Arab states of the Gulf, who recognize the vast potential offered by the globalized world but find themselves constrained by fanaticism and terrorism, necessitating a profound theological reevaluation within Islam. Thus, the emergence of Christianity coincides with the onset of an anti-Islamist, or post-Islamist, endeavor, brilliantly contextualized and represented by Driessen.

It is intriguing to observe that just around the turn of 2001, the direction of dialogue between civilizations had been assumed by the major non-Arab Islamic nations, such as Khatami’s Iran and early Erdogan’s Turkey. However, post-2001, this non-exclusive leadership swiftly shifted towards the Gulf countries: notably Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. In his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis emphasizes the importance for the Church to prioritize initiating processes over merely occupying spaces, stating that “time is superior to space.” This perspective provides the framework to assess the institutionalized dialogue initiated by numerous Arab-Muslim entities: while occupying space (facilitated by globalization and relations with the West) was their initial need, it sparked a process that has brought about, and has the potential to bring about even more profound changes, which may become clearer and more assessable over time.

Driessen elucidates this, stating, “There were security and geostrategic dynamics propelling these initiatives. At the same time, it was evident that these initiatives were also interconnected with broader religious and social dynamics in the region, along with innovative theological and religious activities by various actors.”

The decision, apart from addressing the self-preservation needs of “authoritarian regimes,” has brought about objective challenges due to structural complexities. As one of the prominent figures of spiritual Islam and dialogue, Lebanese Muhammad Sammak succinctly expressed, “Islam needs a Vatican,” which it lacks. Instead, there exist governments that identify as Islamic or explicitly associate with it, alongside an official Islam that emerged during the era of second colonialism (the Western one, following the Ottoman era) to provide religious legitimacy to regimes often lacking historical legitimacy. These regimes were either installed by colonial powers or entrusted to their proxies, necessitating such legitimacy. The collapse of “pan-Arabism,” which promised the redistribution of colonial gains with decolonization, bolstered the subversive movement within the religious sphere, epitomized by Sayyd Qutb and his doctrine of “social justice through Sha’aria.” Within a short span, the predominant influence on the largest Arab university campuses shifted from Marxism to Islamism, coinciding with the rise of Khomeini in Iran. Subsequently, figures like Bin Laden emerged, following a path marked by desperation, anger, and complexity. Meanwhile, pan-Arabism faded into obscurity under the rule of domestic military leaders (or generals), all of whom were native to the region and not foreign powers.

Driessen adeptly avoids the pitfall of compartmentalizing the three distinct yet interconnected levels within the post-9/11 Arab-Islamic context: those of political and geopolitical power, political and theological ideologies, and social and religious practices. We embark on a journey that concurrently safeguards space and initiates a transformative process.

One of Driessen’s most intriguing observations stems from the correlation he identifies between the evolution of institutionalized dialogue and the crisis facing liberal democracy. This correlation leads to the quest for a post-secular system founded on mutual learning. In the Arab world, it manifests as the emergence of post-Islamist thought and practice. Driessen elucidates, “Both post-secularism and post-Islamism disrupt a traditional and predominant way of conceptualizing the relationship between religion and political modernity along a linear continuum. This continuum typically positions tradition, religion, and authoritarianism on one end, and rationality and political modernity on the other. Instead, these theories envision the potential for diverse, religiously inspired frameworks of modernity that draw upon moral resources from religion and patterns of social interaction to configure politics and democratic societies in various ways.”

The concepts of “safeguarding space” and “initiation of the process” are clearly delineated. The former is exemplified by the allusion to Abraham and, consequently, to interfaith dialogue within the peace agreements with Israel. These agreements safeguard the geopolitical interests of the states and, by extension, the regimes they represent. The latter is evident in the initial steps toward implementing the objectives of the Arab Spring, which were vehemently opposed by those regimes. There exists a profound connection between citizenship rights, a fundamental aspect of interfaith dialogue, and the aspirations of the Arab Spring, which fervently advocated for them. This linkage stands as one of the most significant revelations from Driessen’s comprehensive analysis.

Furthermore, citizenship has consistently occupied a central position in the Holy See’s vision for the Middle East, dating back to the synod for Lebanon convened by Pope John Paul II in 1995. Notably, Lebanese Muslim religious leaders were invited to this synod, albeit with some reluctance, thanks to the efforts of Rafiq Hariri.

If the synod on Lebanon marked the initial step towards a dialogue aimed at achieving full and equal citizenship, the Arab-Islamic trajectory of this journey, which involved garnering consensus within Islam, was diverted by the rise of militant leaders, who sought to protect the regimes and states in power while altering their discourse, even from a democratic standpoint. This deviation found its genesis in Qatar, notably in 2005 with the establishment of the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID), officially inaugurated in 2007. Since 2008, DICID has been oriented towards amplifying the voices of post-Islamism.

As Driessen elucidates, “Qatar’s investment in interfaith dialogue was closely tied to its endorsement of the wasatiyya school of thought, or ‘moderate Islamic knowledge,’ which has direct associations with the teachings of al-Qaradawi and segments of the Egyptian community. Qatar’s dedication to the wasatiyya school, evidenced by the establishment of the al-Qaradawi Center for Moderation and Renewal in 2008, underscores the substantive intellectual aspirations driving Qatar’s engagement in dialogue. These aspirations align Qatar with the evolving democratic inclinations of the wasatiyya school and the political endeavors of various reformist Islamists.”

It is crucial, as Driessen asserts, to recognize that “we cannot comprehend the proliferation of interreligious dialogue without considering the Arab Spring and the social and political aspirations it engendered.” It appears as though the aftermath of 9/11 is compounded by the repercussions of the Arab Spring, which were already a source of apprehension for the ruling regimes. To fully grasp the intricate dynamics and significance of Qatar’s embrace of diversity, one must delve into its complex relationship with the Arab Spring, the Muslim Brotherhood, often perceived as a facade by the Saudis and Emiratis, the potential for deradicalization within a region radicalized by the repressive measures of regimes, and the downfall of the Egyptian experiment under Muhammad Morsi’s leadership. These elements can only be comprehensively understood by considering the groundbreaking impact of Al Jazeera, the assertive Qatar-based satellite television network that shattered the longstanding information monopoly held by official Arab channels.

Following Qatar’s lead, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, along with Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, and Morocco, rose to prominence. Jordan adopted a supranational approach as early as 2007, when it initiated efforts that played a crucial role in resolving the infamous “Regensburg Incident.” This was achieved through the publication of “A Common Word Between Us and You,” a document endorsed by circles within the Jordanian royal family and signed by 138 theologians from various Islamic nations. I vividly recall the warm reception they received at the Vatican.

However, I would like to focus on another significant visit that followed shortly after: on November 6, 2007, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia visited the Vatican to meet with Pope Benedict XVI, presenting him with a sword that unmistakably symbolized the sword of Islam. It is worth noting that the Saudi flag features two swords, one representing the kingdom’s founder and the other symbolizing Islam itself. There was little doubt as to which sword the Saudi monarch wanted Benedict to emphasize: the gift served to officially declare, on behalf of the “Guardian of the Holy Places of Islam,” a commitment to peace. This visit, which also included a stop in Vienna for the signing of significant preliminary agreements, laid the groundwork for the establishment of the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) in 2012. KAICIID became the driving force behind the kingdom’s new policy aimed at disassociating itself from theological extremism and traditional Wahhabism. Presently, KAICIID operates in conjunction with the Muslim World League, led by a reformist closely aligned with Mohammed bin Salman, former Minister Mohammad bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa.

The journey has been lengthy, characterized by twists, transformations, and challenges, particularly for the Arab-Islamic side, as elucidated in Driessen’s work. Under prevailing political circumstances, these countries could only delegate the task of engaging in institutionalized dialogue to official Islam, thereby institutionalizing it as a tool for initiating profound changes within the realm of official Islam itself. This shift towards pluralism was occurring even within states resistant to pluralistic ideals.

However, the evolution of religious leadership remains ongoing, objective, and significant, driven by a desire to position themselves as champions of authentic Islam. It is almost as if each entity proclaims, “What we are advocating for is the true Islamic state,” a notion that, as underscored in foundational documents of the dialogue process such as the Marrakesh Document, is nonexistent for non-fundamentalist Muslims. This document reminds us that Muhammad, who drafted the Charter of Medina, a constitution of sorts, did not establish a confessional state. Instead, the Charter ensured the coexistence of Muslim and Jewish tribes within the “city,” granting them full freedom under its provisions.

In this intricate interplay between “space” and “time,” a transformative process has commenced, fraught with obstacles yet yielding discernible outcomes. This process entails granting Islamic legitimacy to the pivotal concept of pluralism rooted in inclusive citizenship, thereby fostering the prospect of a non-sectarian state. Notably, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has played a significant role in advancing this agenda.

Foremost among the UAE’s initiatives is the auspicious decision to host the “committee of elders” of Islam since 2014. This supranational body, helmed by Ahmad al-Tayyeb, the esteemed rector of the prestigious Islamic University of al-Azhar, comprises representatives from various Islamic denominations, including Shiite Islam, a noteworthy inclusion given the inherent challenges of internal coexistence. Abu Dhabi’s history with dialogue underscores a narrative of fracture, institutionalization, and public financing, exemplified by the pioneering efforts of Abdallah bin Bayyah.

Bin Bayyah, once associated with radical Islam, broke ties with prominent figures like al-Qaradawi to establish the Forum for Promoting Peace in the Muslim World in the UAE. This initiative, funded publicly, has become emblematic of Emirati dialogue since 2013, gaining further momentum under the innovative leadership of Muhammad bin Zayed, the de facto president of the country. The UAE’s strides in promoting religious freedom earned it accolades, with figures like Sam Brownback, former U.S. President Donald Trump’s ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, hailing it as a “pioneer of religious freedom in the region.”

Bin Bayyah’s success is evident in his pivotal role in promoting key declarations such as the Marrakesh Declaration (2016), the Washington Declaration (2016), and notably, The Alliance of Virtue (2019). The latter holds particular significance as it extends the alliance of virtue beyond the confines of the Abrahamic religions to encompass all humanity, based on a natural right grounded in Islamic tradition. This orientation towards natural law, akin to Catholic doctrine, signifies a departure from certain strands of Islamic theology, wherein actions are deemed good solely because Sha’aria commands them. Instead, Sha’aria commands them because they are inherently good. Consequently, encounters in the pursuit of virtue can transcend not only Islamic but also Abrahamic familial boundaries.

These factors—namely, the principles of natural law and the supranational approach—likely influenced the selection of Abu Dhabi as the historic venue for the signing of the “Joint Document on Human Brotherhood for World Peace and Common Coexistence” in 2019. It is worth noting that, regarding this document, which the Pope would officially sign on February 4, 2019, alongside Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayyeb, no one within the Vatican was initially aware, not even members of the Vatican delegation. Consequently, the official program did not include any provision for a signing ceremony.

In this context, it is essential to underscore the pivotal role played by Ahmad al-Tayyeb. Beyond his leadership of the Abu Dhabi-based committee of elders of Islam, al-Tayyeb organized a crucial conference on equal citizenship under the auspices of his institution, al-Azhar University, in Cairo in March 2017. The conference concluded with al-Tayyeb personally reading the final declaration, an act that resonated deeply with many Christians from across the Middle East, prompting them to remark, “We are no longer minorities.” This pivotal event allowed Francis to reestablish dialogue with al-Azhar and subsequently embark on an official visit to Cairo a month later.

The selection of Abu Dhabi as the venue for the signing of the “Document on Brotherhood” aligns seamlessly with other strategic governmental initiatives established in the Emirates. Notably, this includes the creation of the renowned House of the Abrahamic Family complex, inaugurated on February 16, 2023. Emirati President Muhammad bin Zayed, in somewhat self-celebratory tones, described the House as “a building for constructive civil dialogue and a convergence platform for peace and human brotherhood,” underscoring the Emirati commitment to fostering unity and understanding among different faiths.

Furthermore, the Emirati government’s recognition of the importance of both space and time is evident in two other significant forums. The first is the Abu Dhabi Dialogue (ADD), a platform for cooperation between Asian countries of emigration and immigration. This forum includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam, along with the six Gulf countries—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates themselves. Notably, representatives of civil society also participate as observers in this dialogue. The significance of this forum is underscored by the fact that remittances of migrant workers to the Gulf from the countries involved amount to $98 billion, representing one-sixth of the global total.

Additionally, the second forum, the Human Rights Dialogue between the Emirates and the European Union, now in its 11th annual edition, underscores the Emirates’ commitment to engaging with international partners on matters of human rights and governance.

Driessen aptly captures this process as akin to an Islamic version of Vatican II. Much like the Second Vatican Council’s “aggiornamento,” or updating, was a pivotal moment for the Catholic Church, the traumas of World War II, 9/11, and the Arab Spring have similarly necessitated a reevaluation within Islam. While Driessen does not explicitly state this parallel, the comparison is compelling.

It’s not about imposing a Catholic lens on Islamic history, but rather recognizing a broader trend of modernization and the endeavor of religious authorities to reinterpret tradition in light of modern challenges, with a focus on promoting freedom, citizenship, and rights. These efforts, occurring amidst what can be seen as a crisis of civilization, are geared towards fostering a common citizenship, echoing the aspirations outlined in John XXIII‘s encyclical, Pacem in Terris. In this context, the Abu Dhabi Document holds the potential to serve as a preamble to a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signifying a crucial step towards promoting peace, understanding, and shared values on a global scale.



Cover photo: The Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue (L), the Imam al-Tayeb Mosque (C) and the St. Francis of Assisi Church are pictured during a media tour at the Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi on February 21, 2023.  Photo by Ryan Lim / AFP.

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