Imam Mohamad Bashar Arafat was in the Philippines recently to spread the word on interfaith dialogue. A visiting speaker of the US State Department, he has been traveling to various parts of the world to talk about his work in building bridges to different faiths. Imam Arafat is based in the US but was born and raised in Syria. He spoke with abs-cbnNEWs.com/Newsbreak’s Marites Danguilan Vitug. Excerpts:
Your visit is timely, with the breakdown of talks in Mindanao. Is this a good time for interfaith dialogue?
It’s prime time for interfaith dialogue in Mindanao.
Should it be part of the peace process in Mindanao?
Yes. Some Christians, I’ve read, do not want to be part of the Muslim homeland. That should be, by itself, a topic for discussion between the Muslims and Christians and to invite the open-minded clergy and politicians and be frank with each other.
Who should initiate this? Should government play a role?
There should be a national roadmap for interfaith dialogue, initiated by government. This should be part of the curriculum for the schools, to have a proper understanding about one another, who the Muslims are for the Christian students, and vice versa. In the US, in the middle school and high school, they study world religions in social studies.
The relationship between Christians and Muslims in the Philippines is an important issue to address, getting more important by the day. Those who are creating trouble are minorities. We have to be careful of extremists on both sides, Muslims and Christians, and their supporters, globally. You don’t want outside interference.
There are still deep-seated prejudices against Muslims.
Because of ignorance. The government can always do more. In most cases that I’ve seen, this ignorance is not going to be erased by pop culture. There are a lot of Christians who believe in interfaith dialogue but they have to have a stronger voice. Our main enemy is ignorance and misperception.
What are your impressions of Mindanao?
Some were asking for respect and recognition of their culture. I have seen among Christians that interfaith is a worthy effort. But it seems that the political situation and conflict have a negative effect.
The ulamas and imam could benefit a lot from outside experience in how to present the message of development as part of the Koran, on how to encourage women participation more and more in business, how to start businesses, and develop themselves as individuals. They need help in that area. I’ve realized that they’ve been receiving help from Gulf countries in cash—or in books and Koran and teachers for Arabic language. But they were not receiving like what the Churches were receiving from the West, help from the Evangelists. The Christians are ahead of the Muslim communities in how to run businesses. The Muslims who were receiving money, which sometimes went to the wrong pockets because of corruption, don’t need the fish, but need to know how to fish.
What is a success story of an interfaith dialogue?
America provides an example of the interfaith movement. It’s getting stronger by the day.
America soon is going to provide something unique to the world: We have interfaith prayers, meetings, and delegations that look into the Middle East peace process. There is a group from the top religious leaders in America—Christians, Jewish and Westerns—and they’ve met several times with Condoleeza Rice to provide a perspective on the interfaith dialogue to help the peace process between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
Who started this?
The open-minded clergy from mainly the Abrahamic faith. America’s power in the next generation is no longer going to be in the laser-guided missile. Its power is going to be in its ability to change and build bridges to the world.
Did this happen after 9/11?
Even before 9/11, the interfaith movement was there but it was shy. After 9/11, it became mature and had a stronger voice, demanding action, providing the road map. Given the nature of the American people, diversity is a beautiful mosaic in the American society. It’s very healthy for the Muslim community today in America to exercise its tenets of faith in an environment which welcomes diversity.
You’ve traveled a lot. How is interfaith dialogue in Southeast Asian countries?
I visited Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia. I’ve seen the strong influence, unfortunately, of a message which used to come from imams and scholars from Saudi Arabia and others who are not pro-interfaith. The voice of interfaith here is not yet strong as in the US. Interfaith is really how to deal with religious diversity.
So, there are critics of interfaith dialogue.
Yes. Before, interfaith was frowned upon by radicals. But 9/11 changed people in Saudi Arabia, including institutions which are funding madrasas in Southeast Asia. It’s going to take a long time to filter this change down to the schools which have been receiving funding. The voices now in Saudi Arabia are calling for openness, for reaching out. King Abdullah himself convened the interfaith conference in Madrid in July. I wonder when this message is going to get to the communities in Southeast Asia which have been receiving support from the Saudis.