When Religions Talk

June 12, 2008

Author: Kuala Lumpur and Sharm El-Sheikh

Source: The Economist


Debates about Islam and the West can throw up unexpected tensions. Take the American and the Brit, successful young professionals who met recently at a seaside resort in Egypt. As it happens, both were devout Muslims who pray five times a day. But as they discovered, manifest piety, of the sort ubiquitous in poorer bits of Egypt, arouses instant suspicion in parts of the country where rich tourists and important Westerners need cocooning—even when those Westerners have come to attend the august deliberations on “Islam and the West” taking place nearby with the blessing of Egypt's government.

The young men's daily supplications were snooped on aggressively by the police and they found themselves longing for the freedom to bow down before God that is taken for granted in California and the English Midlands. Inter-faith encounters, it seems, are tricky enough when they take the form of careful speeches by heads of government and other movers and shakers; for ordinary people who simply want to say their prayers, things can be downright baffling.

That doesn't, and shouldn't, stop faiths from trying to talk to each other. Since Osama bin Laden launched the war he describes as the renewal of an ancient conflict between Islam and the “Crusaders and Jews”, there have been many initiatives to head off global confrontations involving religions and the cultures they have spawned. Al-Qaeda's war on the West is by no means the only religious or pseudo-religious dispute in the world. In India, militant Hindus are at odds with other faiths. Sri Lanka's Buddhist monks often support the battle with Tamil separatists. In Northern Ireland and the Balkans, conflict has raged ostensibly between different forms of Christianity.