Doha played host to its eighth annual Conference of Interfaith Dialogue last week. Sitting at the plenary session, my husband quipped, "This is the most kippot (Jewish skullcaps) I've seen in Doha." To which I replied, "You mean more than zero?" With the purpose of generating dialogue between the three Abrahamic faiths, each panel had representatives from the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities. The gathering was one of many conferences organized by the Qatari government, and an impressive effort to ameliorate the so-called "clash of civilizations."
The conference opened on an optimistic note with a welcome by Qatar's Minister of Justice H.E. Mr. Hassan bin Abdulla Al Ghanim, who spoke of the principles of peace and universal brotherhood.
Unfortunately, the next speaker was Sheikh Teyseer al-Tamimi, Chief Justice of the Palestinian territories. An unannounced speaker, Sheikh Tamimi used the platform to deliver a harangue against Israeli policies in Jerusalem which, among other allegations, he maintains are responsible for the substantial decline in the city's Christian inhabitants. The veracity of the substance of Tamimi's fiery rhetoric is debatable, but that is not the point. At a conference on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict such claims could be productively explored. At a conference on interfaith dialogue, his contribution was regrettable. His belligerent approach - as well as his exclusive focus on politics - evinced little interest in faith and none in dialogue.
Sheikh Tamimi's speech was not his first salvo in a context intended for interfaith reconciliation. A year ago during Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Jerusalem, Sheikh Tamimi delivered a similar rant. Once again, he was not invited, and this time, his speech led the pontiff to leave the event. Pope John Paul II was treated to a similar diatribe in 2000. Curious to learn the official Qatari position on Sheikh Tamimi's unannounced speech at last week's conference, I contacted the event's press officer. He declined to comment.
Happily, most of the conference's participants evinced a genuine interest in building bridges. In particular, I had a wonderful chat with Sheikh Jihad Hammadeh of Brazil's National Union of Islamic Entities about his country's Muslim community and his extensive efforts toward intercommunal dialogue in Brazil and beyond. Rabbi Hershel Gluck was another notable conference participant. A British orthodox rabbi and chairman/co-founder of the Muslim-Jewish Forum, Gluck spoke after Tamimi during the opening session. His speech, both in tone and content, was a welcome antidote. The only one of the panelists to speak without notes, Rabbi Gluck appeared to choose his words from the heart.
"I would hope that this conference is about transcending . . . differences, transcending this conflict," he implored. "Religion is the most potent force against conflict."
Witnessing dialogue between Muslims, Jews, and Christians in Qatar was a heartening experience. Inshallah may there be hope for interfaith reconciliation after all.