Authority, Community & Identity article

Interreligious Dialogue and the State in Muslim Modernity

The Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID) recently held its ninth annual conference on October 24-26, 2011. The only major interfaith dialogue event in the region, the conference is a state-sponsored event that brings together prominent scholars, practitioners, government officials, and interested publics, and aims to improve understanding and cooperation between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.

Inter-Religious Dialogue and Social Media

This year’s theme was “Social Media and Inter-Religious Dialogue,” and the conference brought together an impressive group of international Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders and scholars from 55 countries, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Archbishop Patrick Kelly of Liverpool, the Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rabbi Herschel Gluck of London and the former Grand Mufti of Egypt, Dr. Nasr Farid Wasel.

Panelists and discussants reflected on how religious leaders might interpret the moral insights of religious thought so as to provide ground rules for an ethical use of social media. Hence the proliferation of wordy paper titles like, “How to prepare and qualify individuals religiously for the use of social networking sites in the renaissance of community development.” In addition to the panel sessions, the conference included how-to workshops on harnessing social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter for the practical work of interfaith dialogue. Within a general recognition of the need to engage social media in order to use it as a force for good, voices of skepticism were raised about the effect of the medium itself on efforts at inter-faith community building. Most participants, for example, argued that dialogue requires face-to-face encounters to build trust, make community sustainable, and forcefully counter those who would do otherwise.

The setting of the conference—notably, its sponsorship by the state—was just as interesting as its theme, and revealed how the relationship between religion and state is being re-evaluated in contemporary global politics. This re-evaluation recognizes that religious institutions continue to provide public services which further the business of statecraft in a way that the state is not always capable of doing. Whether through reconciliation processes in post-conflict societies, religious political parties in emerging democracies, state-funded faith-based initiatives in the United States, or now inter-religious dialogue in Qatar, regimes are attempting to harness the power of religious projects in increasingly explicit ways. The advantages and risks of the new relationships between religion and states which form as a result, however, are not often well understood, and the DICID conference helped put both on display.

Opportunities for “Muslim Modernity”

The sponsorship of the DICID by the state of Qatar has clear advantages for advancing the success of inter-religious dialogue as well as its broader goal of peaceful coexistence among peoples of different religions. The most important of these advantages is that the DICID guarantees that a major event on inter-religious dialogue will be hosted annually in the heart of the Middle East. The promotion of such an event is good not only for world peace but for Qatar as well, and particularly for its ambitions of becoming the region’s leading global promoter of “Muslim modernity,” distinguishing itself from its glitzier neighbor, Dubai, by emphasizing culture, education, sports and the media.  As an economically powerful, Muslim-majority state, Qatar is burning to prove to the world the success of a religiously-infused model of modern Muslim society.  The DICID’s opening video, which was replayed continuously on a TV screen in the lobby throughout the conference, emphasized the promise of this vision, with moving images recalling Qatar’s media campaign to host the 2022 World Cup.

The success of this vision, so far, endows Qatar with a unique credibility within the Muslim-majority world to act as a trustworthy interlocutor with religious “others” in the West. Thus, the conference was able to include religious leaders and clerics from the Muslim world who might normally be suspicious of the political agenda of an interfaith dialogue initiated in the Christian or secular West (as many such initiatives are). An eminent cleric from Mauritania echoed the skepticism of many by saying, “I do not have much hope for the success of inter-religious dialogue, but I came because of the good work of the state of Qatar.” For inter-religious dialogue to bring religious leaders to a transformative discussion, it must convince these skeptics of its neutral design towards peace. As the conference’s host, Qatar can do much to build this confidence in the Muslim world.

The Limits of State-Sponsored Inter-Religious Dialogue

Yet the very nature of the conference as a state-led political project complicates this quest for a religious consensus that could build such peace.  As its host, Qatar justifiably uses its position of power to invite religious leaders to help in the task of creating order, security and peace.  The effectiveness of a meaningful consensus among religious leaders, however, is hampered when that consensus becomes a function of a political agenda, as opposed to a religious one.

In this respect, it was interesting to note the paucity of prayer at the conference, and the lack of any organized attempt at a shared sacred ritual among participants. Although the meeting began with a prayer by an Imam, the sacred content of the meeting remained very much in the background. In other inter-religious initiatives hosted by religious organizations, there is usually an attempt by religious leaders to appeal to a common transcendent source, to unify hearts and souls together and beg God for illumination, compassion and mercy. This transcendent focus is part of the explicit framework of religious leaders’ search for consensus and peace. And its absence at this event was not entirely overlooked either. One Jewish rabbi, for instance, at the end of his talk expressed the wish—while admitting the likelihood that it would not be taken seriously—that participants would join together in song.

Despite organizers’ efforts to keep the event focused on questions of whether and how different religious traditions could appropriate new technologies to better foster interfaith understanding, political questions—notably, frustrations about the situation in Palestine—remained simmering concerns that would inevitably erupt during unscripted moments such as Q&A sessions. The challenge that some participants posed is whether such dialogue, held so remotely from key centers of political power and decision-making, does any practical good at all for the real challenges faced by religious communities.

An additional challenge is how the state can allow such dialogue to flourish without setting serious limitations on the scope of the discussion. For instance, one Protestant pastor living in a neighboring Gulf country shared with the authors after his talk that the organizers had given him a slap on the wrist for having brought up a sensitive and taboo topic in the region—the situation of migrant laborers. His paper openly addressed the serious problems faced by many of these workers due to abusive employers—locals and foreigners alike—and was an impassioned plea for religious leaders to work together to solve this problem. Both his talk and the discussion that followed—in which a member of the audience attempted to deny the existence of the problem—were prematurely wrapped up. In a region where even implied criticism of governments is often met with punishment, it remains to be seen how a state like Qatar can balance this pursuit of open discussion and dialogue with its prerogatives to maintain its public face.


As the Bosnian Grand Mufti Ceric argued, part of the business of inter-religious dialogue is to ensure that the “serious business of politics is not left to politicians alone.” Inter-religious dialogue can help to do this by articulating universal truths about human existence and questioning, fustigating, and pulling politics (and each other) towards those divine ideals.  Religion, of course, is also too important a business to be left to religious leaders alone. It is the political imperative of constructing everyday peace and order that moves politicians to host initiatives such as these in the first place and to invite religious leaders to remember their vocation as mediators of divine compassion, including here on this earth. This represents a new model of religion and state in global politics, one in which religious and political leaders recognize their distinct, but dependent, universes of action and meet together in the public sphere to work towards the common good.

Qatar, therefore, has a difficult line to walk in order to encourage inter-religious dialogue without determining and constraining its agenda; to encourage an inter-religious framework for peace, but to set the dialogue free and to allow its religious logic and gifts to fill out the political imperative for dialogue today. If Qatar is successful in doing this—we should certainly hope for this—it will not only further its distinctive political prowess in the Gulf but will have also contributed significantly to the creation of a fruitful model of religion-state cooperation in the Middle East today.

Michael Driessen
Michael Driessen is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at John Cabot University in Rome, Italy. He teaches courses on Religion and Politics and co-direct the University’s Interfaith Initiative. His research interests include the nature of public religions in Catholic and Muslim societies and the role of interreligious dialogue in contemporary global politics.
Brandon Vaidyanathan
Brandon Vaidyanathan Chair of the Department of Sociology at the Catholic University of America. He received his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Notre Dame in 2014. He has researched and worked on the cultural dimensions of institutions in South Asia with his work being published in journals such as Business and Society and the Journal of American Academy and Religion.

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