Bahrain recently hosted an international conference entitled "All civilisations in service to humanity," where hundreds of participants from all over the world and different religious and belief systems came together to find ways to talk and achieve peace through debate, dialogue and understanding.
There are many obstacles in our current world that negatively affect dialogue and its benefits. Sheikh Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayeb called in his speech at the opening session of the conference for a dialogue in the Arab and Muslim world first and then a dialogue between Islam and the West.
It is worth mentioning that there are good examples in Bahrain of encouraging coexistence and tolerance. For example, Pastor Hany Aziz who is the head of the Evangelical Church in Bahrain was granted Bahraini citizenship and he is liked by Bahrainis because of his good work in the country. In addition, the Bahraini ambassador to the United Kingdom, Alice Samaan, is a Christian.
Those examples and others should be replicated and expanded in Bahrain and other countries since diversity is vital to achieve unity. Pastor Hany told me, "Diversity enriches unity."
If one looks at the current situation in our world, one can find sectarian wars and violence in Iraq, Syria, Ukraine and others locations. Religion is used for political goals and this puts dialogue into a dilemma. It is a complex picture and there is an urgent need to start a real dialogue and find practical ways to put dialogue into practice. Sheikh Khaled Al-Khalifa, the Bahraini justice minister, told me in an interview, "We need to find the common amongst civilisations and belief systems in order to achieve unity and coexistence." He added that there are differences in the same religions amongst different sects and it is not healthy to be unified in one sect. Differences and diversity is a reality and it is a daunting mission to put differences aside and build unity through diversity.
Getting religious leaders from all over the world together is itself success where networking and knowing each other is the first step to overcoming stereotypes and prejudice. However, it is not enough to meet and talk. There should be a practical agenda to move forward and go beyond Bahrain to make dialogue the theme of the coming decade. In addition, the Lebanese grand mufti, Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Qabbani, said that ethics should be taught in schools to help people to understand each other.
There are many divisions in the Arab and Muslim world. It was mentioned during the conference sessions that it is the responsibility of the Arab and Muslim world to start a dialogue to overcome the deep conflict between Sunnis and Shias and other differences. It is also important to tackle the politicisation of Islam and the violent groups that damage the image of Islam and Muslims. In this context, Sheikh Al-Tayeb proposed that Al-Azhar can continue what started in Bahrain. Because of the position of Al-Azhar in the Muslim world, it will be a vital step to making this conference a success. In addition, the role of education and the media is crucial to promote a culture of dialogue. Those institutions have a huge audience and address different types of people.
There are hopes expressed by the organisers and participants that this conference can be a boost for dialogue and building alliances amongst civilisations. There was an agreement that was signed between Bahrain and the UN to spread the culture of dialogue in order to stop violence and killings in the name of religion.
There are other suggestions to follow up what started in Bahrain. Moreover, those conferences and meetings that discuss the importance of dialogue should be held in the six continents in order to raise the awareness of the world that it is time to talk to each other and achieve more cooperation. In this context, Pastor Aziz told me that there will be follow up meeting and conferences to implement the recommendations of this conference. Furthermore, special attention should be directed towards new social media that reaches many people. There is an urgent need to use social media to face the challenges of radical groups. There is a danger if those efforts fail or do not move fast enough, because the alternative is more violence and instability. However, there is hope because people are tired of violence.