The visit to Britain of Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, from the Cordoba Initiative in New York, resonates not just with our reflections on the impending tenth anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy, but with the continuing quest for interreligious understanding in a conflictual world.
Over the course of human history there have been plenty of examples of conflict. Sometimes this has arisen over political questions, with European history providing numerous examples of conflict between nations.
Sometimes economic factors have been to the fore, with conflict arising for control of particular economic resources. Sometimes ethnic factors have been primarily responsible, so that rival ethno-linguistic groups have engaged in conflict. Religion too has sometimes been responsible for different kinds of conflict.
Usually all four factors are involved in one way or another in particular conflicts, and the difficult question is determining how much responsibility should be attributed to the different factors in any particular conflict. Thus World Wars One and Two were primarily political in nature, but economic, ethnic and religious factors cannot be completely discounted, while the Crusades might be seen as an example of a primarily religious conflict, but it would be erroneous to discount political, economic and ethnic factors completely.
In the lead-up to the tenth anniversary of the events of 11th September 2001 in New York and Washington DC, much attention will be focused on what is often described as the conflict between the World of Islam and the West, of which the events of that day are seen as a kind of paradigmatic example.
Just as with the conflict over the past decades in Northern Ireland, it would be foolish to see these events as having been motivated exclusively by religion, as many other factors, including the political, the economic and the ethnic, are also involved, but equally the specifically religious cannot be discounted completely.
So to what extent should the events of that day be seen as an example of conflict between Christians and Muslims?
Over the course of history, Christians and Muslims have sometimes enjoyed relatively harmonious relations and on other occasions have got on extremely badly. Thus on the one hand the Crusades would serve as an obvious example of conflict between Western Christians and Middle Eastern Muslims, while on the other the medieval Spanish idea of convivencia (living together, or peaceful co-existence) is an early example of Christians and Muslims, and Jews, living peacefully alongside each other and sometimes actually learning from each other.
Each community has also, of course, experienced severe internal tensions too, with the Wars of Religion in Germany in the 16th and 17th centuries and the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988 being just two examples of this. In terms of inter-religious relations, this has in practice often resulted in a situation whereby at any one time some Christians and some Muslims are fighting each other while at the same time other Christians and other Muslims are interacting much more positively and constructively.
As we approach the tenth anniversary of the events of 9/11, therefore, it is extremely important to remember the positive model of engagement between Christians and Muslims, alongside the tradition of confrontation and antagonism, whose existence cannot be denied.
Edinburgh’s Festival of Spirituality and Peace, which was established in the aftermath of the events of that day in order to promote awareness of the prominent role of religion in peace-making, to counterbalance the role that it has undoubtedly sometimes played in promoting conflict, is very pleased to be welcoming a leading representative of the inclusive tradition of Islam to the Festival this year, Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf. His Cordoba Initiative, based in New York, is a leading organisation seeking to promote better mutual understanding between different cultures and faith traditions, in the tradition of that medieval attitude of convivencia which the city of Cordoba represents.
Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf will be speaking on ‘The Day the World Changed’ on Saturday 27 August 2011, from 9.30 to 10.30am. at St John’s Church, Lothian Road, Edinburgh (Festival Venue 127), and on Wednesday 31 August, from 6.30 to 8.00pm. at Wellington Church, University Avenue, Glasgow.
He will also be receiving a Peace Award at the closing event of the Festival of Spirituality and Peace, on Sunday 28 August, at 6.00pm at St John’s Church.
* Tickets for the Edinburgh event (£6 or £4 concessions, free to under 18s and claimants) from Hub Tickets, Castlehill, Edinburgh (http://www.hubtickets.co.uk/auto_choose_ga.asp?area=1188 ) or at the door.
© Professor Hugh Goddard is Director of The Alwaleed bin Talal Centre for the Study of Islam in the Contemporary World, University of Edinburgh.