Defusing the clash of civilizations |

Defusing the clash of civilizations

John Colson

Elliot Gerson, John Bennett and Imam Feisal, left to right, at the "Searching for Shared Values in a Divided World" conference in Palm Beach in 2005. The Cordoba Initiative and the Aspen Institute organized the conference. (Courtesy John Bennett)

As tensions rise between the Islamic and non-Islamic countries of the world, fed largely by an ever-growing fear and hatred of the United States among some international Muslims, a past mayor of Aspen continues to do what he can to defuse the situation.Former Mayor John Bennett admitted this week that a recent high-level meeting, called to prompt meaningful and peaceable dialogue between Islamic and Western leaders, did not yield the kind of benefits that he had hoped for.But despite that setback, Bennett remains optimistic.”Somehow the world has got to find a way to extinguish the radical fire that is growing” in many places, Bennett said during an interview last week. And he said that, while no action plan emerged from the meeting, “very valuable connections were made” among representatives of the Islamic world and the West.These cross-cultural connections are the aim of The Cordoba Initiative, a small organization that Bennett co-founded in 2002.

Bennett, who was mayor of Aspen for four terms in the 1990s, hatched The Cordoba Initiative along with Egyptian-American Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his Kashmiri-American wife, Daisy Khan. Bennett had met Feisal at a Spiritual Paths Foundation seminar in Aspen, and he later sought the Imam out in New York for a talk on “what would it take to avoid the clash of civilizations?”

Feisal and his wife already had created the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA), with Khan as its executive director and a mission of “fostering an American-Muslim identity and building bridges between American Muslims and the American Public.”A new organization was needed, the three concluded, to foster debate between Islam and the West in general, including the world Jewish community. Thus, the Cordoba Initiative was born.The name comes from the city of Cordoba, which was the capital of Muslim Spain after Islamic armies took over the Iberian peninsula in the eighth century.”During much of its ‘golden age’ from the 8th to the 12th centuries,” states an explanatory paragraph on the Initiative’s website, “the Cordoba Caliphate witnessed a great flowering of culture, art and philosophical inquiry amid a remarkable climate of religious tolerance. The Cordoba name reminds both Muslims and non-Muslims that a great Islamic civilization was once the most open and tolerant of its era.”Under this new self-proclaimed “multifaith organization” based in New York, a growing group of international political, social and religious leaders has put together a number of programs. These have included panel discussions at the Aspen Institute among Jewish and Islamic participants (moderated by Institute’s CEO Walter Isaacson), entitled “When Cultures Collide.” Another was a 2005 conference in Palm Beach, Fla., “Searching for Shared Values in a Divided World – A Conference of Jews, Christians and Muslims.”The organization also has held what are termed The American Muslim Initiatives, a series of meetings and events geared toward promoting open and uninhibited dialogue among Muslims from different nations and traditions. Bennett believes these talks are likely to be the most critical undertakings of the Cordoba Initiative.

“My aspirations were too high,” Bennett said of the Sept. 19 meeting in New York City, explaining that the goal was “to brainstorm ideas for ways in which the Muslim world and the West could form new partnerships” to bring an end to the violent and worldwide “clash of cultures.”The meeting drew together such heavy hitters as former U.S. President Bill Clinton; Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright; and other international commentators and activists, as well as prominent Jewish leaders. The idea was to hold a meeting focused on Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah bin Ahman Badawi, head of government for the Southeast Asian nation and an internationally respected and moderate Muslim.”We originally tried to set it up with a group of U.S. senators,” Bennett explained, an idea that grew out of a lengthy meeting he attended in Kuala Lumpur, capital of Malaysia, in August.But inviting politicians to a meeting in New York City in early September, just as many congressional leaders were preparing to embark on their final campaign blitz before the November election, proved to be an impossible goal.Clinton already was high on the list of potential participants, Bennett said, and with him came Albright. The two, along with Imam Feisal, held a private meeting with the prime minister and his entourage. A more general second meeting was then held with journalists, economists, executives of nonprofit organizations and representatives of the Jewish community. Among the Jewish contingent, Bennett said, was Rabbi Bradley Hirschfield, of the CLAL (National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership), and Edgar Bronfman, of the World Jewish Congress.”I don’t want this to seem like a meeting between the prime minister and the Jewish community,” Bennett stressed. He noted that Badawi is “a deep believer in pluralism” and has “really marginalized the radical Islamic extremists” by bringing minorities into the government and building ties among the various cultural groups that make up his nation.”Malaysia has so far escaped the kind of violence that Indonesia and other countries have seen,” Bennett remarked.But the prime minister would not make unilateral deals with the Jewish community without first consulting other international Muslim leaders, Bennett emphasized.The New York meeting yielded no action plan, Bennett said, but it did result in an agreement that the CLAL will look into sending a delegation of American Jewish and Muslim leaders to visit Malaysia. The goal, Bennett said, would be for the delegation to study how Malaysia has dealt with its minority populations.And, Bennett said, it is possible that a subsequent visit might be made to Israel with the same goal, as a way of increasing understanding between Muslim and Jewish states.

Bennett remains full of enthusiasm for the Cordoba Initiative and his role in the organization’s work.

He points excitedly to different programs undertaken by the organization, such as a 2004 conference, “The Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow,” which brought together 125 young Muslims from all walks of life, with different perceptions about the faith and varying levels of orthodoxy.

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Bennett, who attended the conference, told of women calling for greater equality of the sexes in Islam’s hierarchy, and men agreeing with them.He spoke of the appearance, at Daisy Khan’s invitation, of the Danish journalist who published cartoons depicting Mohammed in September 2005, sparking an international surge of violence and condemnation. Bennett said a lone Muslim from California stood up and declared a need for open discussion of dissenting ideas, and freedom of expression, within the structure of Islam.And Bennett recounted a statement by Irshad Manji, a Canadian Muslim activist, feminist and lesbian whose book, “The Trouble with Islam,” has earned her death threats from extremists.”I cannot go along with any trampling on the rights of free speech [and] basic, core human rights,” Bennett quoted her as telling her fellow attendees at the conference.”It was the free and open internal debate that many people outside the Muslim world are hoping for,” Bennett declared, adding that such debates “are certainly indications of sentiments in the Muslim world … the seeds of this kind of thing are waiting to blossom.”

But he cannot directly take part in this aspect of the debate, he said, because he is not a Muslim.”The role of an outsider is more limited” when it comes to Muslim-to-Muslim discussions of Islam as a religion and a social order, an arena that Bennett says is where “the greatest opportunity for change takes place.”He plans to remain involved, he said, noting, “I can cheerlead, I can help organize, I can support it.”And substantive change, if it comes, “may take a generation,” he acknowledged wearily. “It’s a slow process. And it really has to be a Muslim-to-Muslim effort.”John Colson’s e-mail is

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