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A New Challenge for Interfaith

A Christian monk has a plan for how to deal with Al-Qaeda
(Hint: It doesn't involve invading anyone)

Brother Wayne Teasdale is a pioneer in the interfaith movement and author of A Monk in the World.

by Carter Phipps

Pop Quiz: What forum plays host to tens of thousands of people, has a potential television audience of hundreds of millions, and has been largely ignored by much of the world's political intelligentsia? No, it's not the Super Bowl, it's not Mecca, and it's not a Britney Spears show at the Superdome. It's the Parliament of the World's Religions. Call it the religious answer to Davos, this granddaddy of all modern interfaith forums will be holding its next meeting this summer in Spain, and it promises to be a massive undertaking by any standard. For nearly a week, Barcelona will play host to more than twenty thousand people from just about every walk of life on God's green earth—spiritual, secular, and otherwise. And they will address issues that run the gamut from local to global, from theological to ecological, from the practical and pragmatic to the sacred and sublime.

Now if the term Parliament of the World's Religions seems somehow familiar, it might be because of its now-legendary beginning in 1893 in Chicago, when the great Hindu sage Swami Vivekananda took the podium and made East-West history with his stirring address to the assembled religious leaders. Back then, few had ever seen an Eastern swami, and the sight of this noble gentleman wrapped in sanyasi robes introduced America to a notion of interfaith harmony that went well beyond the Abrahamic religions, and certainly beyond a détente between Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, and Baptists. A hundred years later, in 1993, the Parliament was reborn. It convened once again in Chicago and has since helped inspire a significant movement toward reconciliation and dialogue between the jostling faiths of our global village. But the urgent question facing this movement today is: How, in an increasingly secular society, can noble interfaith ideals be translated into real results on the world stage? Do the religious traditions still have the power to make a significant impact on the political and cultural agendas of the international community? It is a question that might sound a little strange, given that we seem to be hovering on the edge of a civilizational war over what essentially amounts to a profound difference in values—values that are, in many respects, deeply religious. Indeed, how will the Parliament address the building tensions between Islam and the West that threaten to undermine the tenuous movements toward solidarity that the world has achieved in the last quarter-century? Brother Wayne Teasdale, a lay monk, mystic, and Christian pioneer in the interfaith movement, spoke to WIE recently and gave us the lowdown on what will be happening—and more importantly, what should and could be happening—to address the current concerns over terrorism, this summer on the east coast of Spain.

What Is Enlightenment?: What is the focus of the Parliament of the World's Religions going to be this year?

Wayne Teasdale: The Parliament is going to be more activist in its orientation because of the four themes it wants to investigate: water issues, debt relief, refugees, and the end of religiously inspired violence. They are planning to look into these areas with an eye toward really making a contribution. European television is going to devote two hours a day to coverage, so there will be an audience of half a billion people watching. There will also be many other things going on—dialogues, teachings, a science symposium. I think it is going to be an historic event.

WIE: We seem to be living in a time when the influence of the religions in global affairs, at least in the West, is dramatically waning. Given that reality, what do you feel the Parliament can do to stay relevant in today's crisis-ridden world?

Teasdale: Well, first of all, it's more than just the religious traditions. The Assembly, a collection of leaders that will be gathering at Montserrat Abbey before the main session of the Parliament, is made up of four hundred members. And they are not just religious and spiritual leaders. Yes, the religions are a major part of it, but also included are inspired mystics, sages, etcetera, as well as people in the media, people in the corporate world, diplomats, scholars, scientists, and activists. This is the human community in microcosm—it's the most diverse group that ever meets on the planet. Quite frankly, it's more diverse than the United Nations. You never see the indigenous peoples in the UN. But this is a very diverse group, and every segment of the world is represented. However, one thing that I think would make the Parliament have a huge impact would be to invite some of the Wahhabi mullahs from Yemen, Somalia, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.

WIE: You're referring to the Saudi Arabian sect that is spreading a very extremist vision of Islamic life across the Islamic world. Isn't Al-Qaeda in large part influenced by Wahhabism?

Teasdale: Yes. Wahhabism is a very eccentric sect that began in Saudi Arabia 150 years ago. The thing about the Wahhabis is that a lot of scholars suggest that they are not truly Qur'anic. It's more of an Arabian cultural movement, and it contains many elements that you see accentuated in the Taliban, because they're inspired by the Wahhabi model. It's really problematic for Islam, but we have to deal with these people because these are the spiritual leaders of the terrorists.

WIE: I would imagine that they would be unlikely to come to the Parliament.

Teasdale: I think some of them would come. There are some good mullahs among them. It would be an educational opportunity for them. They can be informed by a larger perspective and get an up-close look at the larger reality of the world.

Now, the whole Islamic world is not going to become Wahhabi, but we do need to get a dialogue going and we are simply not going to have a dialogue between the U.S. and Al-Qaeda. But we could have these back-forum dialogues going on between the Wahhabis and members of other traditions. It would be a formative opportunity for the Wahhabis to see that there is another reality on the planet, and that Wahhabism is basically a step back—way back—and not an authentic step back. Wahhabism is a desert phenomenon. It won't survive in the cities; it won't survive in modernity. So you don't destroy it; you reform it, you build on it, you evolve it.

WIE: Has there been any contact at this point?

Teasdale: Some. The Parliament had consultations two summers ago with the World Islamic Council, which is an influential Saudi-based organization. I was able to speak to a couple of leaders there and suggested that it is important for Islam to develop an authoritative body that represents all of Islam, a body that can interpret the Qur'an and take it away from these individual mullahs who just proclaim their own interpretation and then mislead the community. But I actually couldn't see them being part of the Assembly itself. The people who come to the Assembly are already committed to a kind of universal collaboration.

So rather than overwhelm the Wahhabis with dialogue, and with the agenda of the Parliament, it would be best for them to just be able to go there, experience it, and then go back to their communities and process it. If they just had the opportunity to look and to see what's going on, I think it could be very, very useful.


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This article is from
Our Collective Intelligence Issue


May–July 2004