Interreligious Dialogue and Conflicts Resolution in the Mediterranean-Middle East Region

Remarks at the Istanbul Security Conference 2016, organized by the Turkish Asian Center for Strategic Studies (TASAM) and the National Defense Security Institute.


If the international community aims to advance cooperative security prospects in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, addressing the political-religious dimension of the current crises is a major task that can no longer be overlooked or escaped. As a matter of fact, the geopolitical conflicts in the area continued to be fueled by the Sunni-Shia strife, which notably involves Saudi Arabia and Iran. Looking at Syria, Iraq and Yemen, but also at Lebanon, Bahrain and the rest of the Gulf, we could even speak of an all-out geo-religious confrontation unfolding in the hotbeds of religious intersection across the broader region.

Therefore, a process of genuine intra-Muslim dialogue, engaging institutional and religious authorities, decision-makers, officials and other relevant figures, would allow the smoothing over of the historical, ideological, and geopolitical causes that still prompt the hostilities, in order to pave the way for reconciliation – a reconciliation based on common roots and foundations as a platform to achieve compromise solutions and build an enduring peace.

The premise of such a dialogue already exists and dates back to the International Islamic Conference for Dialogue convened in Mecca by the late Saudi King Abdullah in June 2008, in the framework of the Muslim World League. The summit, which was also addressed by the head of the Iranian Assembly of Experts Rafsanjani, released an “Appeal for Interfaith Dialogue”. This Appeal highlighted the need for an increased dialogue to “strengthen communication among the followers of Islam, with the view to consolidating the unity of the Ummah, itself a necessary prerequisite to mitigate the effects of fanaticism and quarrels”.

Another attempt to prevent enmity from prevailing over dialogue was made by King Abdullah in August 2012, when he summoned a conference of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Mecca to advocate Islamic unity and solidarity against division and fragmentation. Among the speakers, the proceedings featured the Iranian President Ahmadinejad, who was heading a government delegation from Tehran.

However, these calls for reconciliation could neither stop nor curb the confrontation, which nowadays has reached its peak with no sign of decrease. A rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran is essential for the stabilization of the area, especially in a post-Daesh situation. To this end, opening new prospects of dialogue and reconciliation within Islam is not an option, and the Turkish chair of the OIC, inaugurated with the Istanbul summit last April, has already taken significant steps in this direction.

The Istanbul Declaration pointed out that OIC member states “refuse sectarianism and doctrinarism in all its forms and manifestations; and encourage national efforts aimed at combating sectarian and discriminatory policies and practices as well as at enhancing reconciliation among all Muslims”. The Final Communique “underscored the need to shun the sectarian and denominational agenda as it carries destructive impacts and serious repercussions for Member States’ security and stability and for international peace and security”. The Communique “stressed the importance of reinforcing relations of good neighborliness among the Member States”, and urged them “to strengthen existing mechanisms for intra-Islam dialogue in order to help avoiding misperceptions and promote better understanding and mutual respect”.

The OIC Program of Action 2025, also approved during the Istanbul summit, includes the promotion of “intercultural and interfaith dialogue” among its priority areas, and recognizes that “among the gravest threats to international and regional peace, security and stability are the long-standing unresolved conflicts in the Muslim world”.

Therefore, the way forward to bring about a peaceful co-existence between Sunnis and Shias, and the encounter between Riyadh and Tehran along with it, has been paved by the organization representing the Ummah itself. The international community should support such a process, using the “religious card” as an instrument to stop the infighting, achieve security and establish partnership relations among the variety of peoples and countries throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East region.