|To end religious strife, we need a leap of faith
Put a hundred people, mostly scholars and religious leaders pious in one of the three Abrahamic faiths, in a room for a dialogue on peaceful coexistence and what do you get?
Monologue most of the time, distrust, a sense of despair, but also words of hope and introspection. This is what actually took place recently when the Gulf state of Qatar held its fourth inter-faith dialogue conference in the capital, Doha. Jews, Muslims and Christians may be confronting one another - indeed killing one another - on a near daily basis in Palestine, Jerusalem, Baghdad and beyond, but participants in the dialogue made an attempt to look forward to a possible future of peaceful coexistence.
The participants heard Jews condemning the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the West Bank and a call for respect for human rights regardless of religious belief - comforting words to hear in a time of hatred and annihilation.
"You may not be aware that there are many Jews around the world who are working against Israeli occupation," said Jacob Bender, an American Jew from New York. "You may not be aware that at my synagogue in New York, Muslims have spoken [about Israel's atrocities]. All of us have suffered. The worst we can do is to have a contest of suffering.
"We can build walls and fences, both actual and symbolic, or we can build bridges and work together for a world of justice and peace," Bender said emotionally in a tone of contrition.
Bender was not the only Jew who spoke with introspection about what has been done by people who profess to share his faith during the three-day meeting. Some Muslims also denounced any gross stereotyping, either of Jews as aggressors or Muslims as terrorists.
"We should remember that not all the Jews are representative of the problem. The Jews as a whole are not our enemy," Mohammed Al-Sammak, secretary-general of Muslim-Christian Committee for Dialogue from Lebanon, reminded his fellow Muslim participants.
Other Muslim participants reminded their fellow believers in Islam that Prophet Muhammad's last sermon stated that all human beings are equal.
Then we heard representatives of the Vatican denouncing the unjust treatment of others and the need to overcome persistent prejudices amongst people of the three faiths.
"Christians have a tendency to hold the religion of Islam responsible for the backwardness of Islamic countries in the fields of science and technology, organisation and general civilisation," said Father Christian W Troll, attending on behalf of the Holy See. "Muslims constantly confuse the West with Christianity, as if the Christendom of the Middle Ages had not been replaced long ago by secular states.
"Christians have a tendency to consider especially the fanatic militant Muslims who are linked to acts of terror as the true representatives of Islam. They deliberately overlook the peaceful and peace-loving majority of Muslims in the world. [On the other hand] Muslims insist upon branding Western society as a decadent society without taking the trouble to look more closely at this society in its various components and to consider also its critical phenomena in an effort to arrive at a fair assessment. They suspect almost everywhere in the 'Christian' West traces of a crusade mentality."
Hearing all these compassionate and even enlightened words, one may feel tempted to rejoice prematurely and thank the organisers of the conference and their respective Gods and declare it a success. However, words alone may not be enough - these liberal views have to be internalised and reconciled in the hearts that have been wounded by decades of conflict and killing. Distrust runs deep, as Father Troll warned, and some participants didn't feel like hiding it.
"There is no such thing as the land of Israel," shouted one Muslim participant during the plenary session of day two. Another accused the Israeli government of producing children's stories that portray Arabs as people who treat their children as hostages and tell Israeli children of the need to get rid of Arabs from Palestine because they're "alien and dangerous".
During the last lunch we had, one Palestinian Muslim confided to this writer that all the words of the Jewish participants from the US and even Israel sounded fine, but he couldn't trust whatever they said.
"And even if they were true, they can't change anything because they're not in charge of their governments," the scholar said as we partook of the sumptuous Lebanese food on the table. Another warned that there could be no peace without justice.
Even such a leading scholar on the Middle East as the influential Princeton University Professor Bernard Lewis wrote in one of his best-selling books, "The Crisis of Islam", that Muslims' ethos is indeed alarmingly different from people of other faiths.
"In contrast to the other religions of humanity, including Judaism, [Muslims] believe that they alone are the fortunate recipients and custodians of God's final message to humanity, which is their duty to bring to the rest of the world," Lewis wrote, adding that the Holy Koran could also be interpreted as offering militant and violent guidance.
This belief is echoed in Britain today among people who fear that the minority British Muslims in the country will eventually overwhelm them and turn the United Kingdom into an Islamic state in the not-too-distant future.
Nevertheless, the Emirate of Qatar deserves credit for funding and hosting this dialogue, and more are certainly needed. However, it's evident that these people of faith who share much common religious ancestry need to take a leap of faith. They need to first have faith not just in themselves but in the other side: that together they can make a difference and sow the seed of peace. The seed may not grow immediately, but it's much better than other options.
Surely, this can't be too much to ask of people who claim to have deep faith to begin with.
The writer would like express his gratitude to Qatar's foreign affairs ministry for the invitation to participate in the 4th Doha Inter-Faith Dialogue.