ISFAHAN – From Cairo to Qom, from Jerusalem to Peshawar, there is a widespread perception among 1.3 billion Muslims, Sunni or Shi’ite, that Islam is under siege.

Persians pride themselves on molding Islam from the Arabs into a much more refined – and pure – faith. While Arab governments are basically mum, the Iranian government has taken the initiative to counteract what is perceived as Islam and religion under fire.

The setting could not be more appropriate: fabled Isfahan, “half the world” when it blossomed under the Safavid dynasty, and the cultural capital of Islam since January, as voted by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

The “International Conference on Constructive Interaction Among Religions,” discussing legal-political, cultural-historical and religious-ethical topics, was billed as the first international attempt in the world of Islam to unite religious leaders and thinkers from basically four monotheistic religions – Islamic, Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian – so they could study the “problems and obstacles in the way of the growing trend of religious spirituality in the world.”

Timing was of the essence, scholars and clerics agreed, especially in the aftermath of the Danish cartoon controversy over caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed and the bombing of the Golden Dome in Samarra in Iraq.

The conference adopted a final declaration which, among other topics, called for a broader role for religious leaders in the near future, regretted “the silence of some political leaders towards the unfair sacrilege of religious sanctities, particularly the affront to the Holy Prophet of Islam,” and supported “the anti-war movements protesting the war against Iraq.” The wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, in much of the Arab/Muslim world, have been interpreted as a concerted attack on Islam.

The conference, set up by the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization, which is directly linked to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was definitely a political gesture; it meant the Iranian government making a public stand against attacks on Islam ahead of any OIC-member state. But this was not only about Islam.

In many aspects, it was an extraordinary sight. Right at the heart of the Islamic Republic, one could see Rabbi Moshe Friedman, the hyperactive chief rabbi of the Orthodox anti-Zionist community in Vienna, lashing out at Zionist control of the world economy and media. New Delhi-based Swami Agnivesh, a proponent of “applied spirituality,” in full sartorial orange splendor, was denouncing that “conventional weapons kill more people than the so-called weapons of mass destruction.” And Dr Bawa Jain, the New York-based secretary general of the World Council of Religious Leaders, was dreaming of politicians really having to pay attention to religious feelings.

A few technical glitches were inevitable. Not all of the expected 120 leaders and scholars from 38 countries could come to Isfahan because of visa problems. There were no Buddhists. There were no Wahhabi clerics – but they are not in favor of inter-faith dialogue anyway. The Iranian ayatollahs, of course, placed their criticism in terms of Islam – and not religion as a whole – under siege.

For instance, widely revered Ayatollah Abdollah Javadi Amoli, a member of the Council of Experts who was very close to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, said that “if the divine prophets such as Abraham, Moses, Jesus Christ and Prophet Mohammed are blasphemed by the Salman Rushdies, the Danish cartoonists and the demolishers of the shrines of Imam Hadi and Imam Askari over the centuries, it is because they are entrapped in the embryo of nature and consider the outside free atmosphere opium and spell.” Iranian scholar Hamid Moulana stressed that “if we fail to offer our definition of science, we will become vulnerable.”

Bring down the Zionists

In the maze of expert sessions held in the Abbasi Hotel – a fabulous converted early 18th-century caravanserai built in the reign of the last Safavid king, Shah Sultan Hossein – there was no shortage of Westerners, from Spanish specialists in Islam to an Argentine lady converted to Shi’ism and fighting a lone battle for the right to wear the scarf. Westerners stressed that inter-religious dialogue must be “philosophical, anthropological, with no dogmas, in the framework of a dialogue of civilizations,” as a Greek scholar put it.

US researcher Muhammad Legenhouzen is heavily involved in Catholic-Shi’ite dialogue. He’s been teaching in Qom on and off for 10 years, studying the Crusades and dissecting the thoughts of Carl Schmidt, the chief ideologue of the American neo-conservatives. His suggestion is to push for more cosmopolitanism. Easier said than done. Legenhouzen has also worked with a Filipino Catholic bishop in his theological school in Qom. But he has to admit that “only 20% of the Filipino bishops are in favor of inter-faith dialogue.”

Considering the recent outbursts of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad on Israel and the Holocaust, Vienna-based Rabbi Friedman was definitely the star of the show. An avid proponent of inter-faith dialogue, he can lash out for hours against “Bolshevik/Stalinist perpetrators” and “messianic sects like Zionism” bent on “exterminating the faith in God.”

Well known to major newspaper editors in Europe, Friedman condemns the “worldwide Zionist-dominated media. And in this regard the situation in the United States media is even worse than in Europe.” He constantly refers to “the Holocaust used to give moral legitimization for the atrocities against the Palestinians, displace them and rob their land and their homes, without the international community protecting them. The Holocaust was even exploited for financial contributions to Israel.”

Friedman praises what he considers “honest statements” by Ahmadinejad regarding Israel – in the sense of the Holocaust being politicized. As he sees it, “the term ‘anti-Semite’ is substantially wrong and stupid as all Arabs are genuine Semites while many of the Zionists in reality do not have Jewish forefathers. I am proud to be a fundamentalist who stretches his arms out for peace and is willing also to risk his head for peace.” Friedman would not be exactly safe walking in the streets of Manhattan.

His overall battle plan is “to do everything possible in practical terms to bring Zionist world domination in the media, economy, etc, to an end as it can have even worse effects than a mere military occupation.”

The disenchanted and the engaged

Marcel Gauchet, director of studies at the prestigious School of High Studies in Social Sciences in Paris, was not at the conference. He should have been. In 1985, Gauchet published a remarkable political history of religion in French. His thoughts remain more than relevant. Gauchet now says that “the problem with Europeans is that they cannot understand what religion means anymore, in societies where it still remains a strong structuring factor. They have forgotten their own past.”

Gauchet saw in the cartoon jihad “the immense resentment of populations who feel themselves scorned, in the trash bin of history, in a situation of perpetual failure in relation to a Western world which does not measure up how the penetration of its ways of thinking and doing is destructive to the social relations in place, especially in this Islam which, more than a faith, is a rule of life. The West is blind over the effects of this globalization of the economy and social customs, in terms of the fragmentation of the traditional family, of the violent changes in the relations between men and women, and between generations. We are facing an existential rebellion.”

But how come what is regarded as humiliation in the Islamic world is a source of exhilaration in India and China? Gauchet says, “the nationalist resentment is not weaker, but these countries can count on a collective cohesion and political structures which allow them to appropriate themselves, like Japan did, of Western techniques and ways of economic thinking. They can nourish the ambition of beating the Westerners in their own game, even while they remain themselves in the process. There’s nothing similar in the Arab-Muslim world. States are at the same time fragile and tyrannical. There are no tools for modernization. Under these circumstances, one endures the ravages of rampant Westernization without collecting any benefits.”

The onslaught of materialism

New Delhi-based Swami Agnivesh amplifies this critique – emphasizing the conflict between Western materialism and Eastern religions. He says that “more than in any other field of knowledge, reductive Western ontology resulted in spreading deep-seated anxiety and hostility towards Eastern religions. In this the Western world, for some strange reason, overlooked the fact that all religions were of Eastern origin and that the only religion, or quasi-religion, crafted in the West was materialism. That being the case, it was inevitable that the spirit of distrust directed against Eastern religions spread, eventually, to Christianity also.”

Agnivesh warns that “religions should not be allowed to infect the emerging world order with the poison of alienation and hostility. The post-September 11 Afghan scenario needs to be seen as an early warning of the shape of things to come.”

Under these circumstances, it’s no wonder that Bawa Jain, a Jain from India, and the secretary general of the World Council of Religious Leaders, is on a mission. The council was established in 2002 in Thailand; its headquarters is in New York and the secretariat in Bangkok. Jain sees a conference like the Isfahan one as just the beginning of a long and winding road: setting up a truly powerful global body, “not within the framework of the UN,” probably in the Middle East; and provoke worldwide awareness so the council will be powerful enough to be seriously taken into account by the political leaders of the big powers.

As Jain put it, “I’m an Indian-American, but my ancestors are from Persia. I’m a follower of [Mahatma] Gandhi. I think what’s happening now is a fundamental lack of education. Political leaders need to be sensitized. Not a single political leader asked for forgiveness when 20% to 25% of the world’s population’s faith is Islam, and they feel insulted. Hindus and Buddhists also comprise 20% to 25% of the world’s population. Their feelings are also not taken into account.” Jain mentions how “a lot of people asked me why I was going to Iran, a dangerous country.”

More than 30,000 Jews live in Iran with no problems, go to their synagogues and are represented in the majlis (parliament). Jain sees it all as basically a public relations problem, from the point of view of Islam not managing to put its message across to the West.

Who in this case has to be responsible for a global change of perception? Jain points to “religious leaders, wherever they are; they must be heavily involved in social issues. They must be passionate, articulate – much more so than politicians.”

This might be the message of hope coming from the cultural capital of Islam.