Historic Public Dialogue

For the first time in the history of modern Egypt Muslims and Christians engaged in public dialogue at the popular level. On May 15 an evangelical pastor and a Muslim preacher discussed the topic: The Concept of Salvation in Christianity and Islam. Nearly 250 people crowded into the downtown lecture hall of the Sawy Culture Wheel on the banks of the Nile River in Cairo. They received a complete presentation, replete with Bible and Qur’anic verses, and were given ample time for questions and answers. An event with almost no precedent, it proceeded with both excitement and respect, in sharp contrast to general practices of inter-religious communication.

Representing the Christian position was Pastor Nagy Maurice of the largest evangelical church in Egypt and the Arab world, Qasr al-Dobara, located in the heart of downtown Cairo. Initiative for the seminar, however, came from the Muslim preacher Fadel Soliman, director of Bridges Foundation, an organization dedicated to the peaceful worldwide presentation of Islam, and long time leader of a mosque in New Jersey. Knowing the difficulty Islam has to gain a hearing in the Western world he did not want the same error repeated in Egypt. When first approached to lecture on this topic he insisted a Christian leader join him to speak about his faith. Perhaps normal in the West, the Sawy Culture Wheel agreed to take this risk.

An increasing religiosity among both Muslims and Christians has made the discussion of religion among the most sensitive topics in society. On the one hand, dialogue between top level religious dignitaries projects the image of national harmony, which correctly describes historic relations and official policy but downplays a growing sectarian tension. On the other hand satellite preachers from both religions frequently engage the opposing creed with polemics and occasional vitriol. The result is a wary culture that knows the topic can lead easily to troubles, and a government that desires to avoid these troubles at all costs.

Soliman first sought out a representative from the Coptic Orthodox Church, which composes 90-95% of the Christians in Egypt. His overtures were met with caution and then polite refusal, prompting his frustration. “They are missing an opportunity to speak of their faith. They have created in their minds a belief of persecution, and then act according to it.” Yet according to Sawsan Gabra, director of the Center for Arab West Understanding, “Orthodox would only welcome such an event if it were held in the church. They do not like public gatherings.” Indeed, there was no official Orthodox representation, even in the audience, reluctant to join an unsanctioned event. According to Sheikh Sa’d al-Din Fadel, director of religious programming at the Sawy Culture Wheel, though their events are published in advance, “We did not inform the authorities of this seminar, being unsure about their reaction.”

Each presenter was given twenty minutes to describe the position of his faith, and then five minutes for summation. The moderator emphasized this was a dialogue, not a debate, and pressed the need for respect upon the audience. Fadel estimated the crowd to be about 75% Muslim, but was likely more as it included over 100 Muslim women clothed in hijab, the head covering seen as normative by most Egyptian Muslims. By the time Maurice began his remarks the original chairs were all filled, and organizers were busy trying to accommodate the overflow, which spilled into the aisles making for standing room only.

The atmosphere was both expectant and curious, as people listened attentively to Maurice and Soliman present clearly the message of salvation as described in the divergent scriptures. Neither disparaged the beliefs of the other, and applause was given to all in the end. There was nary a disruption in the audience from either side.

During the question and answer period the majority of queries elicited further explanation about Christian theology. According to Mohamed Hassan, an Islamic Studies Masters student in the audience, this was appropriate. “Most people in Egypt are unable to discuss religion without it leading to trouble, because they are ignorant of the other’s beliefs. Today we started to break down this wall.” The normalization of religious dialogue is quietly but historically underway.

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What’s Right with Islam

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend a public lecture given in Cairo, featuring Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf and his wife Sally Khan in a gathering sponsored by the US Embassy. Though not necessarily a household name, he has been in the news recently for efforts to build a mosque and community center near Ground Zero in New York City (see story here). Imam Faisal is the son of Egyptian Azhar scholars, but was born in Kuwait and raised in the United States. He is the chairman of the Cordoba Initiative which is an independent effort to engage both governmental and non-governmental entities in promoting a new vision of Islam for the modern age as well as breaking down barriers which exist between Muslim majority nations and the West. The initiative also sponsors programs to foster youth and women’s empowerment, in twin initiatives entitled Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow and Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality. He is also the author of a book — What’s Right with Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West — of which an Arabic translation was presented free of charge to all in attendance. His book deals with explaining the basic message of Islam to a Western audience steeped in misunderstandings and suspicions. Yet it also speaks of the necessary modern translation of Islam into Western culture, many aspects of which will challenge the traditional interpretations held by so many in the Arab and Islamic worlds. The bringing together of all these diverse groups and ideas is a principle cherished by Imam Faisal, as well as the Sawy Culture Wheel, and the interview conducted between the imam and Mohamed Sawy, founder of the center, provided details about this vision.

Imam Faisal acknowledged that there were substantial forces opposing a broader rapprochement between the Islamic world and the West, but that even though the problems facing this goal are deep, he holds hope that there is no problem that cannot be solved if proper resources are dedicated to it. The scientific knowledge necessary for sending a man to the moon, he mentioned, existed over 200 years ago, but it took the vision, commitment, and resource allocation of President Kennedy to make it a reality. Imam Faisal hopes that he may play a similar role in creating a reality of peace between these two mutually misunderstood civilizations. Solutions are never easy, but history has shown they can sometimes appear out of nowhere, even from the unlikeliest of sources. If we do not commit our best thinkers to this goal, from every diverse ideology and interest group, we may find, somewhere, the ‘science’ to the solution, but the commitment to create the new reality will be missing. As in a soccer game, however, the closer a team comes to scoring a goal, the more resolute the defense becomes.

Imam Faisal has hope for this solution. He recognizes that the West already understands that Islam is not the enemy, as President Bush declared in a mosque shortly after September 11, 2001. On the contrary, whenever he speaks in churches, synagogues, universities, or think tanks, he is always impressed by the intellectual curiosity of Americans. They want not only to know what Islam is, but also what it ‘feels like’ to be a Muslim. Even those who have critical questions always do their best to understand and get to the root of the issues. This quality has also led some in the West to find spiritual peace in Islam. Having been disappointed by the material message preached in the West, they find the answer to their heart’s hunger for the face of God in the Muslim religion. Inevitably, through these but more so through the Muslim immigrants and their descendents in the West, Islam will become Western, in thought, culture, and values, all the while holding on to its Islamic essentials.

The obstacle to this mostly lies with Muslims themselves. Though 99% of the world’s Muslims, he claims, are peaceful people who only want a decent life for themselves and their families, the political movements in the Islamic world have increasingly borne a religious character. This frightens the West; though they understand political liberation movements of all varieties, this religious element leads many to believe such violent struggle is a necessary feature of the religion. This fear is amplified by the increasing demographic expansion of Islam in Western societies, especially Europe. Many believe they will be overrun by a foreign culture that is at odds with their own. These are legitimate fears, Imam Faisal believes, and Muslims must work hard to correct them.

This issue is seen in a nutshell over the controversy of building minarets in Switzerland. The government has decreed that minarets, though not mosques, may not be constructed, causing an uproar in many parts of the Islamic world. Rather than criticizing the Swiss for supposed intolerance—criticism in any sense only creates enemies and decreasing the chance for your message to be heard—he calls on Swiss Muslims to build Swiss mosques. What this should look like is unknown, but the challenge is not. In every country in which Islam took root the features of the religion adopted the culture, architecture, and ethos of the society. Yet in Western countries the features of Islam remain Eastern, as immigrant people transfer their culture abroad. Instead, they must strive to translate Islam to a new society, so that it can be acceptable and trusted among the majority people. This is the way Islam has always behaved, but modern Muslims are failing in this regard.

Towards the end of the presentation Imam Faisal and his wife spoke of their various initiatives, recruiting Egyptians to join their efforts. They spoke of their great desire to unite Muslims of all varieties, liberal and conservative, modern and traditional, Sufi and Salafi, so that their interactions would first produce understanding and acceptance, even amidst difference, and secondly spark a creativity which might locate solutions to problems faced by all, without demanding that one solution fit for all involved. Egyptians were invited to participate in this network, and many submitted their names for further information.

Imam Faisal spoke, however, to an Egyptian concern about himself. He stated unequivocally that he was not an agent of the US government. In fact, he has turned down a position offered him so that he may stay independent. Governments cannot take the lead in this cause, he said, because governments have their own interests which they must represent and protect. Nevertheless, he cooperates closely with government, since in finding resources for the cause these can aid substantially. He wishes to find friends wherever possible, and governments are among his friends, because they pursue together the cause of peace. Without peace there is no security and no development; increased peace in the world, especially between the Islamic world and the West, is a cause that everyone can rally around.

In a closing remark he illustrated the power of ideas within a collaborative network. In his book, What’s Right with Islam, he included a chapter on ideal American foreign policy, given the struggles which exist between the two civilizations, and the reaction which results in the defamation of America around the world. These ideas, he claimed, featured prominently in informing the speech of President Obama delivered in Cairo shortly after his election. While the American government will always follow its own interests—as it should—he was pleased that his ideas helped guide the current administration in determining these interests, and the manner in which they should be pursued.

In summary, Imam Faisal presented a picture of Islam translated into the Western world. While familiar to American ears, it prompted much thought and a bit of controversy among the mostly Egyptian audience. This, it is believed, was his very purpose. Time will illustrate if the gains he seeks will be realized, in whose interests these may be, and if from them further good may come to the world.