There are three kinds of large Islamic conferences: academic (boring and ignored); populist (consumerist and boisterous); and public relations (schizophrenic and confused). I've attended the first two myself, in debates about the hermeneutics of the Quran at various elite universities, and at the Islamic Society of North America's annual Labor Day convention, where everyone from Howard Dean to DOJ and DHS officials make a showing amid the bazaars and lectures. As I am not important (or interested) enough, I have never been invited to the third sort, but those are the ones I want to talk about.
Muslim bigwigs — especially since 9/11 — are the ones who go to the international public relations conferences. These are always promised to be genuine and honest discussions about the issues of the age: something about healing the rift between Islam and the West, something about a "dialogue" of civilizations, something about harmony of reason and revelation. They always have long and verbose titles.
Unfortunately, as two recent PR conferences show, such events are rarely true attempts to imbue the Muslim majority world with the spirit of liberty, inquiry and freedom of the kind that helped make it a world-historical religion. What they turn out to be, more often than not, is a showcase for dictators and theocratic stooges to wallow in self-pity.
Just last week, the elaborately titled 3rd Annual International Conference on the Muslim World and the West opened in Kuala Lampur. Such Muslim luminaries as Turkey's Ekmeleddin Ihsanouglu (head of the 55 member Organization of the Islamic Conference and a member of the Post-Islamist AKP Party), Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan (which, if you haven't heard, is not a dictatorship anymore), and Saudi Arabia's Prince Turki al-Faisal, were in attendance.
So what kind of principles did these political leaders from three great Muslim nations put forward? Joshua Trevino was there and in the aptly titled piece — Speechless in Kuala Lampur — reveals that one of their primary interests was proving that there is no such thing as freedom of expression.
In other words, rather than acting as leaders, these men played to the lowest common denominator: They peddled, pandered, dare I say, got down on their knees and gave a sumptuous blowjob to the guy who starts spitting when he hears words like 'Geert Wilders', 'Danish Cartoons', or 'Salman Rushdie'. Not one of them could manage to stand up and show Muslims that the best reaction to people like Wilders is to let them spout their ignorant head of steam while averting one's gaze. In fact, when it came to Wilders' movie (the subject of plenty of debate here at Jewcy) most Muslims in the West did simply turn a blind eye to it. Rather than use Western Muslims as an example, these three so-called leaders chose to give legitimacy to the idea that when people invoke religion to engage in violence against artists and poets and filmmakers they are doing a service to their faith. Shameful stuff.
Could it be that the Kuala Lampur conference was just a fluke, and others will be better? Not if Saudi Arabia's recent interfaith conference, held a week before the Kuala Lampur meeting, is any indication. The Saudi king's conference was focused not on relations between Islam and the West, but among Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. And from external appearances, it looked promising: a conference in Mecca! a few steps from the Holy Mosque! with not only Jews invited, but even prominent Shia leaders as well as other, mostly spiritual leaders of Islam! So, how did it go?
Well, let's check in with Guardian journalist Riazat Butt, who was there. A quick glance of her report reveals that shortly after King Abdullah's adequately harmonious tidings of tolerance, he was contradicted by the Grand Mufti of his own state, according to whom:
[D]ialogue with other religions was a way to bring non-Muslims into Islam. The cleric, who is the highest official of religious law, told the delegates that converting people to Islam was the ultimate goal of dialogue, a point he made several times. "It is the opportunity to disseminate the principles of Islam. Islam advocates dialogue among people, especially calling them to the path of Allah."
In other words, no one had told the most important religious leader in the room that tolerance is different from evangelism. The contradiction was so thick that Ms. Butt, a journalist, was forced to follow up her report with a blog-piece, where she called the views at the conference "dogmatic, intolerant and inflexible." (There was also the issue that no one really bothered to take the point about not bringing politics into religion very seriously, but let's not go there for now).
Light-hearted ribbing aside, there is a very serious issue underlying these two failed conferences, namely that neither political leaders (as with the Malaysian conference) nor religious leaders (as with the Saudi conference) are making any real effort to clean up their houses. Political leaders use these conferences to score cheap points before the audience. Religious leaders use the venues to galvanize their followers' evangelist zeal. In the process, the very real issues of women's emancipation, treatment of minorities, and separation of mosque and state go wholly ignored.
What these conferences show is that the very idea of international Islamic conferences is completely irrelevant. There is no such thing as top-down change. It is usually just pageantry or farce. If there is reason to have hope about resolving thorny issues in the Muslim world in liberal and democratic directions, that hope doesn't reside with Muslim leaders. It resides with average people who live and suffer through extremism and oppression, and thus can understand the value of qualities like generosity, tolerance, and openness, in ways no dictator or theocrat ever could.