History tells us that extremist ideologies surface, thrive, and proliferate in times of crisis. What ails us is much more than financial failure. It is a failure of moral values. Greed and violence have replaced generosity and compassion. The drift seems all encompassing. There is hardly a sitcom or drama on TV that does not (in varying degrees) appeal to some extreme in the moral universe.
The ground is thus more fertile for extremism and violence than it has ever been. And in this, we are together. We can no more speak of "us" versus "them." From Marshall McLuhan's global village to Thomas L. Friedman's flat world, we are told that we have finally arrived at the point of sharing pain and joy. Unfortunately, we seem to be sharing more pain than joy these days.
But that is not the whole story. Luckily, many wise leaders (and the world surely needs more of them) sense the dangers this drift poses to our common future. They recognize the nexus between globalization and mutual intolerance. One such leader is trying to do something about the impasse.
The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques – King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia – began this journey in Mecca three years ago. He called on all 57 Muslim heads of state to meet in Islam's holiest city to ponder the issues of extremism and call for a Muslim renaissance. He called on his fellow heads of state to lead a new age of scientific, economic, and cultural achievements that would echo the golden age of Islam from the 9th through the 13th century, and reach out to other faiths to avoid a clash of civilizations.
The king reiterated that message in words and deed, ultimately leading in June 2008 to a historic meeting of Islamic scholars that called for more robust dialogue with the outside world, shortly thereafter followed by a gathering in Madrid that the king hosted alongside King Juan Carlos of Spain. At an impressive and heartwarming moment in human history, he met with priests, rabbis, Hindu luminaries, and a wide range of leaders from the major philosophies of the world.
In a cogent and moving speech that decried religious extremism and called for renewed efforts at serious dialogue, he stated: "Mankind is suffering today from a loss of values and conceptual confusion, and is passing through a critical phase which, in spite of all the scientific progress, is witnessing a proliferation of crime, an increase in terrorism, the disintegration of the family, subversion of the minds of the young by drug abuse, exploitation of the poor by the strong, and odious racist tendencies. There is no solution for us other than to agree on a united approach, through dialogue among religions and civilizations."
King Abdullah's initiative at Madrid has set the stage for a historic meeting at the United Nations this week.
It aspires to open a sincere, respectful, and frank interfaith and intercultural dialogue. The King's hope is that this gathering can begin to lay (or renew and repair) the foundation for the values needed to render globalization beneficial to all mankind.
There is no reason to despair that it cannot.
History, Islamic history in particular, informs us that interaction based on mutual tolerance between the followers of the three main religions can galvanize major advances in human culture and knowledge. This is what occurred in the Omayyad and Abbasi Caliphates. The earliest period in Islam was one of moral discovery, spiritual and scientific enlightenment, and interfaith dialogue. The meeting in New York proves beyond doubt that this spirit has not lost its redemptive power.
Some (from many faiths) would prefer to close rather than open minds, to deny rather than accept what we are learning about God's miraculous design of our universe, and to reject rather than acknowledge how those of different religious heritages could receive God's mercy. The process that King Abdullah has launched effectively rebuts their distorted vision.
To be sure, most people are alarmed by the current state of drift and polarization. But, like Victor Hugo, they know that "more powerful than the march of mighty armies is an idea whose time has come." Let us all pray and work for this brave and generous idea.