Summer of Love?
AMSTERDAM — Has a new "summer of love" begun, reminiscent of the hippie euphoria more than 40 years ago? From here it appears so, and not just because of the persistence of semilegal hashish-selling in the Dutch metropolis. Rather, the month of July has now seen French President Nicolas Sarkozy playing host to Syrian dictator Bashir al-Assad alongside Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, as well as the Bush administration sending Under Secretary of State William Burns to Geneva in order to engage in direct talks with Iran.
Meanwhile, in Madrid, a long-awaited summit of Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and other Indian and Chinese religious functionaries was held on July 16 to July 18. The event was a less-than-spectacular culmination of months of excited promises from Saudi King Abdullah, who heralded interreligious dialogue as a new strategy for his kingdom. But the conference itself proved little more than a kind of interfaith Davos conference, with a few stars or wannabes delivering pretentious declamations about the utility of debate, and several scandalous moments.
Perhaps the first questionable aspect of the enterprise was its sponsorship by the Muslim World League (MWL), the Saudi-backed international agency that is widely identified as a financier of extremism. Fortunately for the participants, the Madrid summit received little coverage in international media. The Spanish conservative and Catholic daily ABC was alone, apparently worldwide, in having the courage to mention that a prominent invitee, the American neo-Nazi William Baker, who spoke in the Friday morning session on "Dialogue, Peace, and Coexistence," is associated with neo-Nazism.
In 2002, the Orange County Weekly exposed Baker's long relationship with prominent and scabrous Jew-baiter Willis Carto. That led Southern California Christian preacher Robert Schuller to throw Baker out of his circle of advisers. But Baker was a fine catch, it seems, for the Saudi sponsors of the Madrid gathering. To emphasize, while the big Spanish papers gave nearly-daily coverage to the festival of faiths, and other international papers mentioned its opening, only the traditionally-hardline ABC, on July 19, described it as "inconvenient for the Spanish authorities because of the background of some of the guests, including William Baker, an ex-Neo-Nazi."
Baker was one of three Americans granted prominence on the program at Madrid, alongside Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the chief Wahhabi lobby entity in the U.S. The third was Rabbi Arthur Schneier, an Orthodox Jewish leader. So two out of three American speakers represented radical Islam and its non-Muslim but extremist sympathizers. The fix, shall we say, was in.
Coverage of the Madrid affair was enlightening in other ways. The Palestinian daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi gave its July 19 front page over to a large photograph of Saudi King Abdullah about to shake hands, or touching fingertips, with an American rabbi. The headline read, "Hard Words Between Muslims and Jews Are Heard in Religious Dialogue at Madrid." The day before (July 18), the Tehran daily Ettela'at reported that the lone Iranian participant, a professional interfaith ayatollah named Mohammed-Ali Taskhiri, used the opportunity to denounce Israel as a "usurper" state "founded on injustice."
The list of conference participants revealed its superficial status, as a public relations event for the Saudis, although King Abdullah deserves credit, at least, for enabling Jews, Muslims, Christians and others to sit down together under his patronage. Such a conclave still cannot take place on Saudi territory, where no faith but the Wahhabi form of Islam may be practiced by law. But King Abdullah has initiated undeniable if small, positive changes in the kingdom, and this palaver must count among them.
Yet what else could it have been than a religious Davos, when no identified Israeli was invited? Rabbi David Rosen, chief rabbi of Ireland, had the most exalted title among the Jewish group, but his comments were strictly ameliorative. "If it moves ahead and there are meetings including official Israeli representatives in Saudi Arabia and it expands this, it will be a wonderful beginning," Rosen said. No such followup is now expected.
In addition to the Iranian delegate Taskhiri's blast, United Arab Emirates political adviser Izzedin Mustafa Ibraham ranted against the Jewish state. Other aspects of the Madrid meeting were problematical. Russia sent a Christian Orthodox delegation including two clerics, Moscow Patriarch Alexi II and Metropolitan Kirill, who both stand for exclusion of the Roman Catholic church from any legal recognition in Putin's domain. China was represented by state religious functionaries acting in the name of Taoism, Buddhism, and the Chinese state itself. No Tibetans were welcome. Along with the lone Iranian demagogue, one Iraqi, Jawad al-Khalisi, a secondary figure at most, was included. A single Turkish state functionary, Mehmet Gormez, arrived and spoke. The organizers seemed intent on limiting the "dialogue" to those whose messages would be predictable and unproductive. Countries where dialogue would mean something were off the agenda.
Among other global religious "superstars," the roster of attendees included Egyptian cleric Mohammed Syed Tantawi, head of the religious university of Al-Azhar and a man of oft-praised but questionable moderation; four rabbinical and other Jewish leaders among a French delegation of about a dozen: German Catholic thinker Hans Kung, who was not a featured speaker; four middle-level papal officials including Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and a few political members of what might best be called "the league of squeezed lemons," including ex-prime minister Tony Blair of Britain, with a large security staff but no place on the program, and South Africa's Rev. Desmond Tutu, barely remembered by most of the world.
A new summer of love? In Madrid, at least, the event might better be called "dances with wolves." If this is the beginning of interfaith cooperation, a great deal more remains to be done. Saudi King Abdullah has great power and responsibility for the future of Islam. We will see if he has the fortitude to use it.