'Building Bridges' conference concludes in Sarajevo
Thursday 19th May 2005The fourth Building Bridges conference - which brings together Muslim and Christian scholars from around the world - has completed its deliberations in Sarajevo.
The Conference took as its theme Muslims,Christians and the Common Good. It was convened by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and hosted by The Rais al Ulama, Dr Mustafa Ceric, Metropolitan Nikolaj and Cardinal Vinko Pulic.
Deliberations - first day
The theme on the first day was Faith and National Identity in Christian and Muslim Perspective and the gathering heard in public session two papers delivered at the Bosniak Institute. The first paper was presented by Maleiha Malik, Lecturer in Law at the School of Law, Kings College, University of London, which examined the precise nature of the relationship between the private and public identity of citizens. She told the conference that private and public virtue is a continuation of the same value and added:
"Muslims are faced with a public order in the modern world that fails to reflect and often contradicts their deepest and most passionate beliefs. For Muslims, to seek to intervene in the public sphere will - for all these reasons - be a considerable challenge. This challenge requires skills rather like those of the alchemist: the ability to recognise and maintain fine distinctions between those precious activities and relations with which there should be engagement and struggle and those areas of contemporary life which need to be rejected or endured in silence....
" ... I have faith in Islam to adjust itself to the reality of modern politics. I believe that Islam will not only survive but it may also - perhaps surprisingly for some, flourish in the modern secular world."
The second paper was presented by Bishop Michael Nazir Ali, Anglican bishop of Rochester in England, which looked at Christian Faith and National Belonging. His paper traced the origins of the different Christian attitudes to the State as found in biblical texts and the development of those concepts through the history of the church.
Coming to the present, he argued that it was necessary to acknowledge within Islam and Christianity the historical role which both had played in the formation of the constitutional and legal arrangements in various countries but also their potential influence for the future.
He concluded by reminding the conference that Christians had to reconcile themselves to the dilemma of being citizens both of earth and heaven:
"This tension between belonging and not-belonging, between being citizens and yet exiles in the present order has remained in Christian thinking about the relationship between faith and nation, faith and ethnicity and faith and culture...This tension cannot easily be resolved and we have to live with it creatively; both belonging and not-belonging, as part of society and yet strangers to some of its standards and values, as citizens but also as exiles."
After questions to the two presenters, the conference moved into private session and group discussion and plenary gatherings completed the day's work. In the evening, the Rais al Ulama, Dr Mustapha Ceric, hosted a dinner for the Conference at the Islamic Faculty in Sarajevo.
Deliberations - second day
The theme on the second day was Seeking the Common Good; Governance and Justice in Muslim and Christian Perspective and, as with the first day, the gathering heard in public session two papers delivered at the Bosniak Institute.
The first paper was delivered by Tariq Ramadan, Professor of Islamic studies based in Switzerland. He spoke about disagreements and disagreements that can be found among Muslims when dealing with the notion of governance, Sharia and justice. He brought to the fore the global principle that can be found when reading the scriptural Islamic sources which point to six essential objectives: 1) protection of religion, 2) protection of a person; 3) integrity of the intellect, 4) protection of family ties and 5) of human dignity, and 6) the state of the law, the Shura (consultation and deliberation). He stressed the differences between the historical and current Islamic trends in the world. He said
"If one relies on these six fundamental objectives and the principle of consultation in Islam (Shura) one can say that faithfulness to the Islamic message is to promote the state of law, equal citizenship, universal suffrage and accountability of the elected people. The principals are clear but Muslims need more creativity in the political field as to find an adapted model to the contemporary challenges."
The second paper was delivered by Professor John Langan, the Joseph cardinal Bernadin professor of Catholic Social Thought, Georgetown University, Washington DC. He outlined the way in which an understanding of the concept of common good had informed Catholic social thought, with roots in Aquinas and Augustine of Hippo and its outworking in modern Catholic documents.
In a more detailed examination of the concept of common good, he identified some challenges to the concept itself, arising from the difficulty in accepting that there could be a notion of the common good which was coherent, allowed for the rights of individuals and consistent with the adversarial claims of religion. He added that politics and religion were difficult to separate:
"The inescapable difficulty which stands in the way of achieving the separation of religion and politics is that religious people have rights to freedom of speech and association and political action which they may choose to exercise in ways which extend beyond the limits of secular expectations and which manifest a desire to eliminate the dualism of social norms which is taken as axiomatic by the separationists."
He distinguished four models for resolving the conflict of religious traditions. 1) the monopoly of one tradition; 2) one central tradition with other traditions subordinated; 3) internal reform of religious traditions to include commitments to religious freedom and respect for other traditions; 4) a secular regime imposing 'rules of the game' on the various religious traditions. He argued that 3 - the path of internal reform - is the most satisfactory resolution for religious communities.
The second day ended with a reception for the delegates hosted by Metropolitan Nikolaj at his residence in Sarajevo.
Deliberations - third day
The theme on the third and final day was Caring for the world we share: Christians, Muslims and Global Poverty and the gathering heard in public session four papers delivered at the Bosniak Institute.
The first paper was delivered by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams. He told the conference that Christian and Muslim leaders should work together to forge a new vision of a propserous society to challenge the orthodoxies of the global economy. He insisted that poverty was not just a matter of material deprivation or lack of access to power and influence and said that Christians and Muslims had a common agenda in rejecting any simple idea of the good life.
"Wealth itself has to be redefined to mean access to the resources that make our existence stable and meaningful - so that material abundance created at the expense of such access, at the expense of cultural or family instability, or the presence of the signs of faith in public life, will represent a net move towards poverty.
"It has to be said clearly and often that the religious objection to aspects of the current global trade regime are not a sentimental aversion to wealth or a sort of commendation of endless alms-giving. It is rather to do with the ways in which certain practices make it impossible for some nations to be economic agents in any meaningful way.
"We know where the roots of poverty lie - in the refusal to accept the meaning that God gives the world; a refusal to which shows itself not only in atheism but also in the anxious and greedy spirit that cannot see the human context of economic activity."
The second paper was delivered by Mr Timothy Winter, Lecturer in Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge. He examined the apparently contradictory themes of poverty in the life and teaching of the Prophet Muhammad. The Prophet, he said, lived a life of studied poverty, cultivating it as the virtue zuhd which roughly translates as asceticism. Yet his firm denunciation of poverty itself, and his constant work to alleviate it where he could, argued some kind of contradiction. Certainly the Koran itself was clear about the duty to alleviate poverty and the denunciation of those indifferent to it. The Prophet's habits amounted not to an endorsement of poverty per se but to an indifference to, amounting to a rejection of, the comforts of the world, a rejection endorsed by most later Muslim scholars.
Islam itself sought to operate a quasi-egalitarian principal of sharing and solidarity in relation to wealth and the alleviation of poverty, he told the conference. He added,
"For most of its history, Islam placed the relief of poverty and sickness not in the hands of a clerical class, but in the hands of the entire believing community, which was itself 'priestly', and whose political leaders were accountable in Shari'a law for the distribution to the poor of zakat and the religiously-mandated tithes on land and on material resources."
Modern conditions and the adoption of the values of the Western establishment, he said, had led to populations in Islamic countries suffering following the abolition of such publicly administered schemes.
Despite their historic divergence, symbolised in the understanding of the roots of Christianity in Isaac and the roots of Islam through Ishmael, both traditions had a part to play in rejecting modern consumerist values:
"...perhaps there is a real convergence in aims and vision against the global corporate monoculture of greed. Here is an opportunity to court unpopularity together, to offer a radical way of valuing poverty, while being counted, as Christians and Muslims equally, among those who riot for bread."
The third paper was delivered by Professor Ellen F Davis of the Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, in the USA.
In a brief study of the theology of creation found within the writings of the Old Testament Prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah she illustrated how themes of warning find repeated expression in language describing the physical decay and destruction of the earth. The consequences of human failure are for the prophets, she said, bound up with the spoiling and waste of creation.
She told the conference that modern apathy and the lack of ability to be astonished by adverse environmental news are aptly addressed by the Old Testament prophets. They spoke directly to the heart, she said, urging a change of behaviour. She added:
"Both Jeremiah and Isaiah confront us with the reality of our creatureliness and specifically with these two facts: 1) Creation is bound into a single covenanted unity. Each of us is connected to every other living creature by the great web of life ... therefore charity and responsibility cannot be selective. 2) Like every other member of the covenant, we humans occupy a place that is delimited by divine teachings and when we violate those the consequences are inevitably disastrous for ourselves, for "all flesh" and for the earth itself."
The fourth and final paper of the morning was delivered by Dr Aref Ali Nayed, visiting fellow at the Centre for Advanced Religious and Theological Studies in the faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. His paper was on The Environment as Indicative Divine Compassion. He argued that an Islamic theology of the environment is very much needed as the basis of an Islamic Preaching on the Environment that can be translated into praxis. He focussed on the notions of ayat (divine signs) and rahma (divine compassion) as two important fonts for such a Theology of the Environment.
"As we begin to see, feel and engage our environment as a marvellous complex of divine indicators and an overwhelming manifestation of divine compassion, we begin to achieve a deeper and more harmonious way of living in our environment. We begin to realise that seeing the environment as a complex of mere things, devoid of indicative significance and efficacious compassion is already a form of violence against it. It is this basic and preemptive violence that is the condition of possibility of all the abuses of the environment that we live today. The rehabilitation of the vital notions of ayat and of rahma will enable us to articulate healthy and fresh Islamic Theologies of the Environment."
After further group work and discussion in private session during the day, the Building Bridges Conference came to an end with a formal concluding reception at the National Theatre in Sarajevo. This was attended by the conference delegates and hosts and other invited representatives from the region and from the Diplomatic Corps.