The World Economic Forum, in collaboration with Georgetown University, launched last week their Islam and the West: Annual Report on the State of Dialogue -- just before its 2008 Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland.
President John J. DeGioia served as lead author of the report with Georgetown Professors Tom Banchoff and John Esposito. The document offers a systematic overview of how Muslim and Western societies perceive and relate to each other at the political, social, economic and cultural levels.
"As an annual global reference on the state of West and Islam dialogue, the report will elevate the visibility of dialogue activities around the world and strengthen efforts to advance greater interreligious understanding and cooperation at a critical juncture in history," DeGioia said. I am glad that Georgetown can play a role in fostering this important conversation and ongoing work.
Cultural, political and religious experts have long talked about Muslim-West relations, but it was time to take the next step, said Esposito. "There was a need for developing projects that you can put into place and to move things forward."
The report is the result of in-depth research conducted by leading academics and experts including Esposito, who also serves as director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding; Banchoff, director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs; and Katherine Marshall, a senior fellow at the Berkley Center. The two Georgetown professors and Marshall provided academic oversight and contributed short essays to the report, in addition to their work on the report's five chapters. Georgetown College Dean Jane McAuliffe also contributed an essay to the report.
One finding in the Muslim-West Dialogue Gallup Index section stood out.
"We were surprised by asymmetry in levels of respect," Banchoff said while attending the annual meeting in Davos "Citizens of Muslim majority countries indicate a significant level of respect for the West. Citizens in Western countries, by and large, do not reciprocate. This points to the importance of dialogue for building mutual understanding and trust."
The Gallup Index shows that fewer than half of those in Denmark, (30 percent); the United States, 42 percent; Sweden, 32 percent; and Canada, 41 percent, believe the West respects the Muslim world. In Israel and the Netherlands, the numbers are somewhat higher – 45 percent and 46 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, two-thirds of respondents in Indonesia – the country with the world's largest Muslim population – 65 percent – believe the Muslim world respects the West. Similar numbers are seen in Saudi Arabia with 72 percent; the Palestinian territories with 69 percent; and Egypt with 62 percent.
At the same time, the report points to a variety of dialogue activities, at the international, national, and local levels, designed to bring together Muslims and non-Muslims together.
On a global level, one can point to the U.N.'s Alliance of Civilizations, inaugurated under then Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Banchoff said. He also points to the Building Bridges Seminar, led by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, which gathers Muslim and Christian scholars to explore issues of mutual concern. The seminar has met twice at Georgetown over the past several years.
As for local and national efforts, Banchoff says there are numerous projects and activities. Locally, the Interfaith Conference has furthered interfaith dialogue in Washington, D.C., since the late 1970s, he said. Nationally there is the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Corps, which brings together young people from different traditions to work on service projects.
In addition to the Gallup Index and the survey on the efforts being made for interreligious understanding, the report presents an analysis of portrayals of Islam and the West in media across 24 countries by Media Tenor.
The media plays a role in affecting efforts for interreligious dialogue, said Esposito, citing that news agencies may defer to coverage of conflict -- rather than dialogue or understanding -- in an effort to make profits from readers.
"The challenge for media is how to present the broader picture. I have been asked consistently, ‘Why don't more Muslims condemn violence and terrorism?' There are all kinds of Muslim leaders who have expressed condemning violence, but how much major media covers that?" Esposito is the author of "Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think" (Gallup Press, 2008) due to be released in February.
He went on to say how important findings from the report are for building better religious and cultural understanding, especially since religion has become a major part of people's identities.
"Interreligious dialogue and understanding are critical today. We live in a world in which globalization is important -- communications, business, technology. We're interconnected," he said. "The whole premise of interreligious dialogue becomes critical to better understand and address cultural issues."