I first came into contact with John and Susan Collin Marks, the visionary leadership of Search for Common Ground some 10 years ago at the World Economic Forum. Their international organization is well known for its success in transforming the way people think and finding creative ways to break down the walls of hatred, bigotry and intolerance that separate communities and people.
To be one of three recipients of the organization’s 2012 Interfaith Award is a special thrill because I am in the company of two friends I admire and respect greatly. Rabbi David Rosen, formerly Chief Rabbi of Ireland and currently director of the American Jewish Committee’s interreligious affairs is noted for his powerful advocacy of religious freedom.
He is eloquent in speaking the truth from his heart. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, also a friend and colleague in the search for dialogue across differences, is the founder of the Cordoba Initiative that works to bridge the gulf between the Muslim and Western worlds. He too is often spotlighted for his ability to interpret Islam to the West.
As for myself, I have been involved in interfaith dialogue for more years than I can recall — and that is a long time. For some in my country the idea of an “evangelical” archbishop committed to interfaith harmony is as unlikely as a peace-loving Taliban! But I became convinced early on that I could not demand fairness, freedom and justice for Christians if that did not also include people of other faiths. So, with some surprise and much joy I found in Muslim and Jewish leaders the same commitment to God and spirituality that I found in my own life and that of fellow Christians.
With rabbis of the stature of Jonathan Sacks, Hugo Gryn and Tony Bayfield, Jewish-Christian relations have improved greatly. I am glad to have been a patron of the Three Faiths Forum, founded by Sir Sigmund “Sigi” Sternberg, which is doing such a fabulous job in the United Kingdom.
I think also of my friend, Sheikh Zaki Badawi, the unofficial voice of Islam in the UK until his premature death in 2006. It was Sept. 11 that gave a fresh urgency to religious dialogue. Together with Tony Blair I founded the Building Bridges Seminar that continues today with both Christian and Muslim scholars working together. Prior to that I had set up a nationwide consultancy that eventually led to the creation of a Muslim-Christian Council, similar to the historic Council for Christians and Jews.
Rabbi David Rosen, Iman Feisal and I are able to say today that in the course of the last ten years or so the landscape of religious dialogue has been transformed. Of course, this does not suggest that all differences are blurred and we are all the same. We are not, but if we cannot contain tension around differences and have respect for each other, our faiths will always fall short of their huge potential and confirm the suspicions of others that religions divide and demonize.
And let’s face it, our faiths are being increasingly questioned and judged negatively. Religion is often blamed for intolerance and prejudice. What justification is there for an American Christian pastor burning a Koran on the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11? In my opinion we Christians should have been more condemning in our criticism of that deed and other acts like it. I say that recognizing that Muslims have burned churches to the ground in Egypt, Pakistan, Iraq and Nigeria. I have been critical also of Muslim leadership who, in my opinion, have been half hearted in their condemnation of such shocking deeds. But criticisms and condemnations only deepen bitterness and feed stereotypes.
A better way is desperately needed, based on the common ground we find in the search for spirituality and faith. And this is what we celebrated in the Common Ground Awards on Thursday. I am deeply honored to take part and to be in such excellent company but huge challenges remain. Edmund Burke, prime minister of the UK at the time of the American Revolution once remarked: “No one has made a greater mistake than the one, who though he could do so little, did nothing.”
Search For Common Ground is a light in a dark world but the light it gives is hope.
Lord Carey of Clifton
was archbishop of Canterbury from 1991-2002.