Promoting tolerance, an islamic leader’s mission: the Secretary General of the Muslim World League delivers a message of tolerance to interreligious groups in Rome

Prof. Mohammad Ben Abd ul-Karim Al-Issa, who was named Secretary General of the Muslim World League over a year ago and was formerly the Saudi Arabian Kingdom’s Minister of Justice and head of the Supreme Council for Justice, addressed over 400 invited guests at a reception and dinner held at the Hilton in Rome on September 20 before a papal audience and meetings with Italian government officials in following days. The audience was composed of 100 Italian Imams plus delegates of religious associations active in interreligious dialogue in Italy and internationally.

The conference room was divided into two sections with the “VIP” representatives of Italian Islamic and interreligious groups at tables nearest the speakers, and the 100 imams further back, separated by a stretched out ribbon. Among the groups were delegates of major Italian Muslim organizations such as COREIS and UCOII, and representative associations of immigrants from Morocco, Bangladesh, etc; Catholic organizations engaged in interreligious dialogue such as the Community of Sant’Egidio, the John Paul II Center, the Focolare movement; AJC (the American Jewish Committee); and the international, interreligious NGO – Religions for Peace (Italian section).

 

Surrounding Prof. Al-Issa on the speakers platform were Catholic, Jewish and Muslim speakers: Imam Alsheikh Mizanur Rahman, who invoked the opening prayer, Msgr. Miguel Ayuso Guixot, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue; rav Joseph Levi, the former Chief Rabbi of Florence; Dr. Abdulaziz Sarhan, the Director of the MWL’s Italian office; Salah Ramadan, the Imam of Rome’s Grand Mosque, and Prof. Abdellah Reduane, Director of Italy’s Islamic Cultural Center. A chair, unfortunately left vacant on the platform because of failed communications, was meant to host Franca Eckert Coen, Vice President of Religions for Peace/Italy

Notably, another leader of the Italian Jewish Community, Rome’s Chief Rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, also came to greet the new MWL leader in a public gesture of good will, joining the speakers for the final photographs.

It was a significant group of people, meant to project the Secretary General’s hopes of conveying an image of Islam as a religion of tolerance and moderation, to contrast the ever-growing “islamophobic” fears that perceive Islam as a religion of violence and terrorism and of Sharia, rigidly interpreted as Islamic Law, as a threat to western civilization.

MWL Secretary General Al-Issa delivered an impassioned speech in which he emphasized what he called Islam’s true values, with “tolerance” topping the list. “The acceptance of the diversity of others is a Divine Law willed by God, to give us the possibility of being different and discovering our own paths to righteousness” he declared.

He commented that “If we were all alike, the earth would be populated by angels. We may not have the same views but that does not mean that we are enemies. To expect conformity is madness.” To illustrate Islam’s tolerance of diversity, he referred to “all religions, including paganism.”

“Islam never advocates aggressive wars”, he said, but “resorts to war, historically, only for self-defense.” He spoke out against aggressive and authoritarian attitudes, condemning the use of force in religion or against whoever changes his religion and exalting the right of religious of freedom. “The Koran”, he said, “clearly instructs us to treat non-Muslims well and to provide food even for our enemies. Mercy is the highest value of the law of tolerance.”

An interesting, rather original approach to history and its use was expressed by the WML Secretary General in the context of a search for effective peace-making. “We must turn the page”, he said. “All religions, nations, races have committed errors in interpretations of their holy texts. The past is past, and we can no longer hold ourselves responsible for this past. Instead of always referring to the painful events of history, we need our memories to stress that which gives us honor. These values should be taught to our children. There is not only evil in our present period of history; it also contains much good – with examples that could serve to turn minds away from committing acts of terrorism. Extremists fear ideological war more than they fear weapons. Extremism is based on models of thought that must be eradicated on an ideological level, and not through further violence or war.”

Asked by “Vatican Insider” for a comment, Imam Yahya Pallavicini, President of COREIS (Italian Islamic Religious Community) said, “the Secretary General of the Muslim World League has sought to interpret the necessity for renewal in Islam’s responsibility for dialogue, tolerance and human rights. This represents a great challenge and requires coherence and concreteness.”

Prof. Al-Issa’s co-speakers, in their introductory speeches, pointed briefly to significant current interreligious issues. Msgr. Al-Ayuso Quixot emphasized the need to respect the value of freedom of thought, which includes, in particular, the freedom of religion, plus the safeguarding of human rights as “valid for all places, all times, on all occasions”. He also stressed the importance of dialogue for furthering peace. Dr. Abdellah Redouane urged the reopening of talks between the Italian State and its Islamic communities regarding the achievement of a national Agreement (Intesa), modeled on those already existing with other religions in Italy. Rabbi Levi expressed hopes for accelerating interreligious cooperation, recalling the past contributions of Jewish and Islamic scholars who made the great thinkers of antiquity available to Western culture through their translations. “This should provide encouragement for us today”, he said. He also remarked on the fortuitous coincidence of the celebrations for the Muslim and Jewish New Year falling on the same date (September 21) this year.

The evening ended with very positive reciprocal expressions of friendship. However, for the sake of journalistic objectivity, we must make mention of an embarrassing incident. To aid guests with further information on the important new mission of the MWL, reading material was handed out, including the August-September issue of “The Muslim World League Journal”. Amidst its interesting articles the Journal also contains a problematic first page entitled “Letter from the editor – The Closure of Al-Aqsa Mosque”, announced on the cover as “Attack on Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem: Islamic view”, that contains a rather one-sided report on a recent crisis when Israel briefly closed the Mosque and then required worshippers to pass through electronic controls before entering.

The Journal’s editor makes no mention of the reason for Israel’s temporary, restrictive orders, which were only a direct, immediate reaction to an attack by 3 armed Arab-Israeli terrorists (subsequently themselves shot), who killed 2 Israeli guards (of Druse ethnicity) outside the Mosque on July 13. The longstanding desire of Christians, Jews and Muslims for peaceful cohabitation in this beloved area of the world, considered sacred by many, would surely have been better served had the editor included all relevant facts – the cause, as well as the subsequent solution of this tragic incident.

Lisa Palmieri Billig (Vatican Insider)