Yale Divinity School Conference – New Haven, Connecticut
21-23 February 2010
Throughout history religion has been used in both valuable and destructive ways, as a powerful force for good and as a tool of abuse by its followers. When we examine the sacred text of any religion there is no doubt that it is a real charter of morals, ethics and education. So the problem is not in the religion but in the behavior of individuals who commit dangerous errors in terms of manipulating holy texts, generalizing condemnation of others and educating children.
Manipulating a holy text is to isolate it from its context, to interpret its meaning in a negative way, and to influence followers to use the text as an excuse for violence and abuse. Simply stated, regardless of interpretation, no religion has a monopoly on God, a monopoly on the meaning of God’s words, or a monopoly on the relationship to God.
Generalizing condemnation is the tendency of some religious followers to condemn all members of another religion for the words or behavior of a few. For example, when non-Muslims categorize all Muslims as terrorists because of the violence of al Qaeda, or when all Christians are criticized when the Pope uses unfortunate wording when speaking about Muslims and the Koran.
We do not have the right to generalize and say “the Christians” or “the Muslims” when referring to the words or behavior of individuals, regardless of their official capacity within a religion. The same applies when we speak about Jewish people. Even when a group of Israelis or the Israeli government commits an act of violence or injustice towards non-Jewish people or the natives, we must never generalize or blame all Jewish people.
Educating young people with inflammatory or biased information about other cultures and religions is a global danger and correcting such information is a huge responsibility. The impact of information in textbooks is powerful as lasting impressions are formed in a person’s early years. We must take note that schoolbooks are powerful tools for shaping the future of US – Muslim relations.
After 20 years of dealing with interfaith dialogue I have come to the conclusion that we must not separate culture from religion. Cultural understanding, which includes knowledge of the history and values of a people, can provide enormous support to religious understanding. The clash in Denmark two years ago over the caricature of the prophet Mohamed and the subsequent violence was more of a culture clash than a religious one. If we expand our efforts to share our cultures in other countries, this will surely help to avoid future confrontation. For this reason, three weeks ago I changed part of the name of the organization I preside in France from Interfaith Dialogue to Intercultural and Interfaith Dialogue.
In the history of most Muslim countries there are models of positive relationships with predominately Christian countries that give hope for the future. Using Egypt and the US as an example, it is not widely know that in 1870 Egypt’s Muslim head of state, Khedive Ismail, appointed Brigadier-General Charles P. Stone as Chief of Staff of his army. In fact, about 50 Civil War officers served in Egypt as soldiers, diplomats and cartographers.
As early as 1877, Egypt began receiving US presidents, in this case Ulysses S. Grant. In 1922, the US was the first super power to support and congratulate Egypt in its independence from Great Britain when Warren G. Harding welcomed Egypt into the “the family of free nations”. In 1943, Cairo was chosen as the location of the historical “Five Powers Conference” to deliberate the fate of World War II. And of course, the Camp David Peace Treaty of March 26, 1979 signed by Sadat, Begin and Carter, initiated an era of peace.
Finally we come to the historical speech of President Obama on June 4 2009, a speech where religious values were combined with the political target of bringing peace to the Middle East, an example of the honorable use of religion in its proper context. But disappointment has been expressed for the lack of quick tangible results. I would like to repeat President Obama’s request from Doha, in his televised speech a few days ago, asking for patience, to give peacemakers more time to do their job. And let us not forget that peacemaking is our collective responsibility, depending on every nation and each individual. As for Egyptians, with our 7,000 years of history, we can afford to be patient!