Thoughts on the 12th Doha Interfaith Conference

Usually, when I go off on my travels I enjoy posting on Facebook/Twitter before, during and after the trip. I love to travel and I love to share it with friends and followers.

But when I attended the 12th Doha Interfaith Conference, organised last week in Qatar by the Doha Centre for Interfaith Dialogue, I avoided mentioning it anywhere publicly. My reticence was, I think, warranted: My social media friends and followers span the political, cultural and national spectrum and attending such a conference in Qatar could have occasioned a lot of criticism and hostility from some quarters (particularly since the organisation that runs the conference is state-run). So I wanted to get my thoughts in order following my return before I posted something.

Here’s the bottom line: the conference was an extraordinary, valuable experience. And I’d go back next year, if I’m invited.

There were certainly limitations to the conference format. To start with, despite having 2–300 guests from around the world (I don’t know the exact number)there were some glaring absences: Although it’s billed as an interfaith conference, the vast majority were Christians, Muslims and Jews. No problem with holding an Abrahamic faiths conference of course, but the title implies something bigger. Muslims predominated (I’d guess about 75%) but there were no Shia, at least that I saw, and this despite Qatar having good relations with Iran. The Jewish contingent was small and was predominantly compromised of liberally-minded Jews like me, although I understand that Orthodox Jews have attended in the past. Most glaringly, there were no Jewish Israelis. The presence of Palestinian citizens of Israel exposed this absence all the more strongly. [In fairness I should also point out a) Qatar did have an Israeli trade mission for a time and still apparently has a very discrete Israeli presence and that b) when I asked if there was a problem if I had an Israeli stamp in my passport the organisers said it was fine, although as it turned out I got my current passport since my last visit to Israel.]

Aside from these absences, the panels were often frustrating. They consisted of short ten-minute papers with virtually no time for questions. Some presenters seemed to offer little more than boilerplate platitudes. There was no public occasion when difficult dialogues took place.

My paper — on how religions relate to the media — was of course the exception and was brilliant :)

I’ve participated in a fair amount of interfaith work in the past and I am very aware of the tendency for some forms of ‘dialogue’ to be little more than reiterating fixed positions. I’m also aware of the limitations of ‘high level’ interfaith occasions like the Doha conference that do not impact on actually existing ‘grassroots’ interfaith relations.

And yet…

This was still one of the most powerful interfaith experiences in my life. Why? Because of what happened outside the panels. At meals, in corridors and in the lobby I met a quite astonishing range of individuals, particularly Muslims. Even taking account the absences, the conference brought home to me that sheer size and diversity of the Islamic world. I talked to Muslims from Gambia, Indonesia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the US and more. I talked to conservative Muslims, liberally-minded Muslims and those who didn’t fall into any neat category. I talked to secular Muslim women in tight trousers, Muslim women who were near-fully veiled and Muslim women who had found their own particular path. Some conversations were superficial, some were profound, all of them were convivial.

The most extraordinary experience occurred during the conference dinner, at a restaurant in the Doha souq. I arrived alone, having done some shopping, and was seated randomly on a table that had one place remaining. As it turned out, all the people at the table were Palestinian. The evening was awkward in places but only because the end of the table I was sat at consisted of some young, shy female students who spoke very little English. No one seemed to be phased at all that I was Jewish. I did converse with the English speakers (who were the kind of highly educated Palestinians that always remind me of Jews) but what I did much of the time was simply listen to the conversation around me. I don’t speak Arabic so I didn’t know the topic of the conversation most of the time but in some ways what I took away was more valuable: a sense of how a group of Palestinians, most of whom were strangers to each other before the conference, interact with each other on an everyday level.

The Doha Interfaith Conference is not the place where global conflicts will be resolved. Nor do I believe that simple exposure to ‘the other’ is enough on its own to create better relationships between people. Yet there is a huge value in simply being reminded of the diversity of humanity. There are delights to be had in simply chatting to people from different backgrounds. I live in a cosmopolitan city and have travelled more than most, but the conference was the single most diverse space I have ever inhabited.

Diverse spaces, such as the Doha Interfaith Conference, are spaces with potential, even when the format of the space may discourage the deeper and more difficult kinds of interaction. I know full well that the Qatari regime is not one that share my values on many issues; their vision of interfaith dialogue may be much more limited than my own. What I am convinced of, though, is that the conference, and the wider society that has been built in Qatar and other gulf states in recent decades, can perhaps provide the foundations for something greater than they actually intended. Qatar, like other oil/gas-rich gulf states, has a small citizenship, massively outnumbered by a huge expat population from all over the world. Its potential to act as a meeting place for humanity is enormous.

So, if they will have me, I will return to the conference in future years.