Almost seven years after the tragic attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, little progress has been made on the all too critical "clash of civilisations" front, which set out to answer the poorly thought out "why do they hate us" question. To help alleviate this heavy burden, Saudi Arabia and Spain convened a conference to encourage genuine dialogue among cultures. The well-attended congress received strong coverage in the Middle East, limited reporting in Europe and Asia, and hardly any exposure in the United States. What does this tell us about the need to foster "co-existence between people of differing ethnicities, religions and cultures"?
Nearly 300 delegates representing the world's major faiths - Judaism, Christianity, Islam, as well as Buddhism, Hinduism and others - gathered in Madrid to listen to the Saudi king set specific parameters. "We all believe in one God," declared King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz, "who sent messengers for the good of humanity in this world and the hereafter".
In his carefully worded presentation, the Saudi king emphasised that "differences must not lead to conflict and confrontation", because whatever "tragedies that have occurred in human history were not attributable to religion, but were the result of extremism with which some adherents of every divinely revealed religion, and of every political ideology, have been afflicted".
While no one could logically disagree that promoting dialogue among religions and cultures would strengthen world peace, one is tempted to ask whether such calls are the best avenues for understanding, or even worthy goals to pursue. It is critical to raise this concern because dialogue occurs best among equals or, more accurately, when all protagonists accept their putative parities. Are there such perceptions today among believers who gathered in Madrid? Do Jews, Christians, Muslims, along with many other non-monotheistic religions, accept that they are co-equals?
Optimists assume such commonalities, whereas pessimists rejoice that differences galore enhance their cynicisms. In the spirit of moderation, nevertheless, one is tempted to state the obvious: while such sensitivities are not impossible to identify, they are rare indeed.
It was ironic that participants in Madrid were reminded of the 1994 UN declaration for tolerance, whereas many attendees knew that the 1998 Oslo Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief - which celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - reaffirmed that every person was privileged to such entitlements. These were nice sentiments in 1998, which sounded pleasant a decade later, even if they still remained hallow both in content as well as substance.
What is different now is the link between laudatory objectives uttered in Madrid, and the so-called "clash of civilisations", as the latter thrives on perpetual conflicts. Today, terrorism and counter-terrorism almost always take on independent lives and, more important, precedence over any and all dialogues. Calls for moderation and the exchange of ideas, therefore, intend to limit the amount of instability that confronts the international arena.
Truth be told, few "officials" can justify dialogue - serious or otherwise - when faced with life and death challenges. While terrorism requires unified international efforts to tackle this man-made scourge, competing and contradictory definitions ensure that the dialogue remains tangential at best, statements to the contrary notwithstanding.
Under the circumstances, it is not enough to have a universal vision that all believers uphold common values, because they do not. To be sure, everyone could play a role in solving problems, but beyond the humanitarian perspective among isolated religious leaders and well-protected dignitaries, how are their messages conveyed to those in need of hearing them most?
Even for a believer, in 2008 religions face specific puzzles, not dilemmas among themselves and with each other. In fact, the need is not for a new era in interfaith relations, even if that cannot but conceivably help. Rather, what is desirable is for religious figures to abandon cloistered rhetoric to stand with their flocks, and for secular leaders to step back from moral pedestals. All to work for common grounds where the rights of ordinary people are respected as eloquently promised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So that policemen treat everyone with dignity, soldiers disobey orders to shoot a blindfolded prisoner's leg, or interrogation guards do not rely on water-boarding to torture.
The most ironic utterance in Madrid came from former British prime minister Tony Blair, now a special envoy of the Middle East Quartet, who believed that a conference "with religious leaders of all different faiths is significant". Wow! What more can one add to such depths? Is this not precisely how nations secure their moral upper hands? More seriously, reaching out to other faiths to counter extremists and fanatics, King Abdullah did, was certainly commendable especially when that message conveyed the voice of moderation. One cannot but agree that the promotion of a culture of tolerance and understanding through dialogue is immensely valuable though, it is worth repeating, clearly insufficient.
What the community of nations requires are ethical principles, which means that one reaches out for dialogue first, before embarking on the revenge bandwagon. If history starts at the last moment of every event, and every incident gains existential value, then everything that preceded that particular occurrence becomes meaningless, which can justify immoral responses each and every time.
Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is a commentator and author of several books on Gulf affairs.