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World Conference on Dialogue in Madrid

Updated: May 11, 2020

The formal meeting consisted of an inaugural ceremony at the palace in Madrid, a series of panel presentations on different focal points concerning dialogue and a formal declaration expressing “the heart” of the Madrid Conference.  Informally, it was an opportunity for significant bridgebuilding and networking among leaders who are typically not in the same room together.  I did note that no Israelis or Palestinians were present.  Clearly, the conference organizers wanted to avoid getting sidetracked by potentially deeply divisive issues.  Although I must admit that it is not often that one sees Saudis sitting together with Jewish rabbis from Europe and the United States.

The inaugural ceremony featured speeches by King Abdullah, King Juan Carlos of Spain, Dr. Abdullah al-Turki the Secretary General of the Muslim World League and Jose Carlos Zapatero, the Prime Minister of Spain.  There were such luminaries sitting at the luncheon tables as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. Civil Rights leader Jesse Jackson.

There were a series of five panels consisting of a moderator and four speakers each, which covered different aspects of the subject of dialogue among religions and its impact on society, the environment and contemporary geopolitics.  Most of the panel presentations were uninspiring and seemed devoid of genuinely helpful information.  There were, however, a few notable exceptions.  The Madrid Conference was not, in and of itself, a dialogue.  It was a series of presentations about dialogue.

The Madrid Declaration was a carefully crafted document prepared by a drafting committee led by the Deputy Secretary General of the Muslim World League.  Although a member of the drafting committee told me in private that the declaration was basically a “precooked meal” with little genuine openness to input from the committee.  At the end of the conference it was read to us in Arabic.  I listened to the English translation.  There were no questions taken from the participants.  There was polite applause that greeted the reading of the declaration which was not so much an expression of agreement as it was an expression of respect for the speaker.  This was not an organic declaration that arose from the hearts of the participants, but a carefully scripted statement that is complex and merits careful study to discern the genuine diplomatic signals being sent by the Saudi royal family and the Muslim World League.

So, what was the World Conference on Dialogue about?  There are three possibilities.  The first possibility is that it is an opening salvo by the Saudi king and the Muslim World League in a public relations campaign.  They are clearly aware that Islam has a largely negative image in the United States and Europe and that there is growing hostility toward Muslims in those countries as evidence by the increasing number of conflicts Muslims are having with non-Muslims.  One of the clear messages of the conference was to portray tolerance and dialogue as expressing the heart of Islam and that militant versions of Islam are a recent aberration that represent a reaction in the Muslim world to Western colonialism and the bullying unipolar behavior of U.S. administrations.  The problem is that the very tolerance and diversity of which they speak is not reflected in their own societies.  Clearly there is a disconnect between the message and the reality in the Muslim world.

The second possibility is that it is a form of proclamation showing a kinder, gentler face of Islam in hopes that it will convince non-Muslims of the supremacy of Islam as the last and greatest of all the divine revelations.  Clearly, one strand of the recent Mecca Declaration views dialogue not as an end in and of itself, but as a means to an end; to evangelize non-Muslims with the ultimate goal of conversion to Islam or submission to Islamic rule and authority (consistent with the wahabi modernist view).  The problem is that there does not seem to be the willingness to offer a level playing field that allows other traditions the opportunity to persuade Muslims of the “ultimate truth” of their religious traditions.

The third possibility is that it represents a paradigm shift in the Muslim world to create an alternative to militant Islam.  The King and the Muslim World League are smart enough to realize that moderation in and of itself does not create a credible alternative to militant Islam.  As such, this new emphasis on “Dialogue” is a courageous and sincere effort to be proactive in creating a militant or passionate alternative . . . dialogue vs. violence and terrorism.  In the draconian struggle for identity in the Muslim world the King and the Muslim World League may be seeking to offer a different paradigm that can transform hearts and motivate the “Muslim Street” toward tolerance and coexistence with other religions.  The problem is that “Dialogue” is not truly a transformational paradigm.  Dialogue simply brings “us and them” to the point of “agreeing to disagree”.  What is really needed is an alternative paradigm of faith-based reconciliation which represents the true heart of the Abrahamic tradition and offers the greatest hope for transformation and healing the broken family of Abraham.

So, what is the meaning of “Madrid”?  At this point I honestly don’t know which of these three possibilities, if any, are the truth.  However, until proven otherwise I will assume the third possibility; that this represents a first, but awkward step toward a paradigm shift in the Muslim world.  If that is true then King Abdullah and the Muslim World League have taken a courageous step and I hope to work with them in encouraging their thinking to evolve from “dialogue” to “Abrahamic reconciliation” which is the real need of our day and our time.


At the time of this writing, Brian Cox was the Senior Vice President of the International Center For Religion & Diplomacy in Washington DC. He currently serves as the President of the Institute for Faith-Based Diplomacy.

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