Distorted Dialogue at the Washington National Cathedral
by Stephen Schwartz
The closing meeting of a "Christian-Muslim Summit" at the National Cathedral in Washington on Wednesday evening was notable for who wasn't there. The public ceremony ended three days of talks between delegations from the Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches and Sunni and Shia Muslim clerics. The Vatican was represented by Jean-Louis Cardinal Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue; the Episcopalians by Rev. John Bryson Chane, bishop of Washington. The Sunnis were led by Ahmad El-Tayeb, a professor from Al-Azhar, the Islamic university in Cairo. Two Jewish figures were included as observers, but did not speak.
The Shia group was supposed to be headed by former Iranian president Muhammad Khatami, but the clerical regime blocked his trip to America. This fact was noted by National Cathedral canon John L. Peterson, who said "it is one of the unfortunate political realities of our time that President Khatami could not be present." The National Cathedral hosted Khatami in 2006, when he delivered a speech protested by a large anti-Tehran crowd gathered across the street.
Khatami initiated the process of debate between Christian and Muslim religious authorities that produced the "summit." But when the Iranian political crisis began last year, after the apparent theft of elections by dictator Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his sponsor Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Khatami sided with the reformers. The Tehran tyrants reportedly feared that if Khatami reappeared in Washington, his sympathy for Iran's so-called Green Movement would be highlighted in Western media. So the National Cathedral had announced that, in Khatami's place, the Shias would be guided by Ayatollah Mustafa Mohaghegh Damad, a figure little known outside Iran.
Ayatollah Damad is a highly cultivated theologian and disciple of the late Ayatollah Hosein Ali Montazeri, the former designated heir to Ayatollah Khomeini who, as described by Reuel Marc Gerecht, became the leading Iranian clerical critic of the Tehran regime and a powerful ally of the Green protestors. Aside from his Islamic education, Damad holds a doctorate in law from the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium. In Iranian religious affairs, Damad is considered intellectually superior to Khatami. But Damad also backs the Iranian reformers, and he, too, was prevented from appearing at the National Cathedral's interfaith celebration. So in the end, the principal Shia in the gathering was Ayatollah Ahmad Iravani, who has lived in the United States for 10 years, and teaches at the Catholic University of America. Iravani has signed on for a series of Catholic-Muslim meetings under the rubric "A Common Word"--the shared term being "God." Many of the leading participants in "A Common Word" have been fundamentalist Islamists, some aligned with the notoriously reactionary Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, the Arab hate preacher based in Qatar and associated with the radical Muslim Brotherhood.
The Shias appearing at the latest National Cathedral affair also included the Iraqi-born imam Hassan Qazwini of Dearborn, Mich., who leads a clerical clan aligned with Tehran. Hassan Qazwini also managed to get his brother Ali, who has run a Shia mosque in California, into the proceedings. The Qazwinis are nothing if not versatile in their affiliations. Hassan Qazwini endorsed the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq in 2003, and denounced "prejudice" in his Wednesday remarks in Washington. But in his 2007 autobiography American Crescent, he opined, "The war in Iraq was just as messy in my mind as it was on the ground. My Iraqi relatives had real freedom of expression for the first time in their lives--but amid the sort of turmoil where talking is of little use." Hassan Qazwini also argued disingenuously that American "Muslims didn't object to Senator [Joseph] Lieberman's Jewishness [during his 2000 Democratic vice-presidential candidacy], but rather to his unconditional support for the pro-Israeli lobby."
The Qazwinis and other Shia clergy outside Iran have been notable by their silence on the massive Iranian political challenge to the Ahmadinejad-Khamenei clique. But the failure of Khatami to show up at an event on American soil which he was credited with inspiring, as well as the nonattendance of Damad, were details of the National Cathedral affair that were doubtless lost on most of the audience. Capture of the Shia role in a debate hosted by a major American church, by Ahmadinejad-Khamenei loyalists, indicates the difficulties facing the Iranian opposition in its search for global allies. The only surprises in the evening came when Ali Qazwini called for a "peace lobby" to be organized in Tehran, and a Shia colleague from Dearborn, Imam Muhammad Ali Elahi, pointedly praised the missing Khatami. Their comments were brief, but at such moments, the curtain over the proceedings was pulled back slightly--for those with knowledge of the background.
In all other respects, the interfaith jamboree was typical of the genre. Washington Post pundit David Ignatius moderated pompously, beginning with praise for Chas Freeman, the former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Freeman is a prominent apologist for extremism in Riyadh as well as for the Tiananmen massacre in Beijing in 1989, and a failed Obama appointee to chair the National Intelligence Council. The assembled preachers delivered nostrums about the world's problems and faith-based solutions for them. The shock of September 11, the London underground terror bombings of 2005, and even the Crusades, were invoked as portents and purported causes of "the clash of civilizations"--a trope to which Ignatius returned insistently.
On the Sunni side, Dr. Mahmoud Abdel Salam Azab, who teaches Islamic studies at the Sorbonne, spoke in favor of French secularism, while a female faculty member from Al-Azhar and professor at the American University in Cairo, Sanaa Aly Marei Makhlouf, defended wearing an elaborate headscarf (hijab) as "obedience to God." Fr. James Massa, executive director of ecumenical and inter-religious affairs at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, happily declared that his institution cooperates with the fundamentalist Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the radical Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), the latter being an arm of the jihadist Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan.
At the end of the evening, Ignatius noted that Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Israeli-Arab conflict had never been mentioned. But enough words have been spilled over those themes to make it almost impossible to imagine such a conclave producing anything novel, much less useful, about them. The new and pressing issue in global relations with Islam remains the fate of Iran, about which the "summit," including its purported Iranian patron, Muhammad Khatami, had effectively been silenced. Among both the ruling and reforming Iranian clerics, Khamenei and Khatami, there is little dedication to democracy as we know it, or even to the ideals of the young Iranians who fill the streets of their cities with cries of "death to the dictator." But in accepting the censorship of the Iranians who allegedly encouraged them, the bien-pensant functionaries at the National Cathedral, along with most of their guests from the various religious communities, served as accomplices in oppression, not heralds of conciliation.