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Distorted Dialogue at the Washington National Cathedral

10:15 AM, Mar 5, 2010 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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The Qazwinis and other Shia clergy outside Iran have been notable by their silence on the massive Iranian political challenge to the Ahmadinejad-Khamenei clique. But the failure of Khatami to show up at an event on American soil which he was credited with inspiring, as well as the nonattendance of Damad, were details of the National Cathedral affair that were doubtless lost on most of the audience. Capture of the Shia role in a debate hosted by a major American church, by Ahmadinejad-Khamenei loyalists, indicates the difficulties facing the Iranian opposition in its search for global allies. The only surprises in the evening came when Ali Qazwini called for a “peace lobby” to be organized in Tehran, and a Shia colleague from Dearborn, Imam Muhammad Ali Elahi, pointedly praised the missing Khatami. Their comments were brief, but at such moments, the curtain over the proceedings was pulled back slightly--for those with knowledge of the background.

In all other respects, the interfaith jamboree was typical of the genre. Washington Post pundit David Ignatius moderated pompously, beginning with praise for Chas Freeman, the former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Freeman is a prominent apologist for extremism in Riyadh as well as for the Tiananmen massacre in Beijing in 1989, and a failed Obama appointee to chair the National Intelligence Council. The assembled preachers delivered nostrums about the world’s problems and faith-based solutions for them. The shock of September 11, the London underground terror bombings of 2005, and even the Crusades, were invoked as portents and purported causes of “the clash of civilizations”--a trope to which Ignatius returned insistently.

On the Sunni side, Dr. Mahmoud Abdel Salam Azab, who teaches Islamic studies at the Sorbonne, spoke in favor of French secularism, while a female faculty member from Al-Azhar and professor at the American University in Cairo, Sanaa Aly Marei Makhlouf, defended wearing an elaborate headscarf (hijab) as “obedience to God.” Fr. James Massa, executive director of ecumenical and inter-religious affairs at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, happily declared that his institution cooperates with the fundamentalist Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the radical Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), the latter being an arm of the jihadist Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan.

At the end of the evening, Ignatius noted that Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Israeli-Arab conflict had never been mentioned. But enough words have been spilled over those themes to make it almost impossible to imagine such a conclave producing anything novel, much less useful, about them. The new and pressing issue in global relations with Islam remains the fate of Iran, about which the “summit,” including its purported Iranian patron, Muhammad Khatami, had effectively been silenced. Among both the ruling and reforming Iranian clerics, Khamenei and Khatami, there is little dedication to democracy as we know it, or even to the ideals of the young Iranians who fill the streets of their cities with cries of “death to the dictator.” But in accepting the censorship of the Iranians who allegedly encouraged them, the bien-pensant functionaries at the National Cathedral, along with most of their guests from the various religious communities, served as accomplices in oppression, not heralds of conciliation.

Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor.

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