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Middle East Festival, MESP, Background Information Print E-mail

Some Background on the Middle East Festival

During the 1970s and 80s, many people were involved in the citizen diplomacy movement that sought to bring citizens of the UK and USA in contact with citizens of the USSR. As those of us who participated discovered then, what we don’t yet know about each other may be much more important than what we do know, or think we know. Stereotypes break down in the actual presence of another person like ourselves. Citizen diplomacy also created the context for later political change. This diplomacy began when those who engaged in it were willing to really meet the “enemy,” deliberately laying aside the preconceived ideas they held of each other.

Throughout the history of the Middle Eastern spiritual traditions, the mystics and prophets have often offered points of view contrary to the prevailing mainstream. From Meister Eckhart and John of the Cross in the Christian tradition to the Sufis al-Hallaj and Suhrawardi in the Islamic to the historical prophets of the Hebrew bible, they have often suffered for it. In modern times, prophets and mystics continue to offer their voices for new, non-violent solutions to conflict, even when these opinions subject them to criticism or danger.

One of the purposes of Festival and Conference has been to show that a great range of opinion exists not only between traditions but also within each. The idea that any one group or person can claim to speak for the totality of any religion or spiritual tradition seems greatly outdated in a multi-cultural society, and many scholars of religious studies or comparative spirituality today prefer to speak, for instance, of multiple Christianities, Judaisms and Islams. The media’s tendency to want to stereotype any particular tradition or religion or to quote a single “Christian,” “Jewish,” or “Islamic” opinion on any issue has often hampered more than helped religious and interreligious understanding.

As organizers we are seeking to engage a progressively wider and more diverse range of representatives who have been working with spiritual tools in the fields of non-violent conflict resolution and world peace. No speaker represents the totality of any tradition. Likewise, no religious group or organization, or the Festival organization or sponsors, should be identified with the opinions of any speaker, whose opinions remain his/her own. One of the primary principles of the Festival is that all mystical and prophetic voices for non-violence and peace should be allowed a hearing, without censorship or prior vetting by any religious group or organization.

Many complex political and ethical issues face religious leaders and organizations today. Speakers may hold various personal points of view on these subjects; however, we have asked that they focus their talks and presentations on spirituality and spiritual approaches for peace, as there are many other forums in which to discuss other, better known political and ethical issues. The conference and festival themselves take no fixed position on any political, ethical or cultural question. We intend rather to create a forum in which we can listen to each other more deeply and learn with a more open mind and heart.

The festival grew out of a small conference of Jewish and Muslim peacemakers from the Middle East which, coincidentally, took place on the day war broke out in Iraq in 2003.

Our inaugural festival and conference in March 2004 brought together at least three different kinds of presentations. First, we learned from each other about our shared traditions, as well as those that form the unique voice of any one of us. Second, we heard from those who have been active in peacemaking on a spiritual basis on the ground in the Middle East. Among those we heard from included Rodef Shalom Eliyahu McClean and Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bukhari, who have promoted ancient Middle Eastern rituals of forgiveness and reconciliation (called sulha) in their peace work in Israel and Palestine. Third, we invited participants to share in the musical and devotional spiritual practice presented, in order to gain an experiential view of the traditions we discussed. Simply knowing facts (or presumed facts) about another does not become real meeting without such an experience. The spiritual practices shared by participants included chant, shared prayer, sacred movement, meditation and Dances of Universal Peace.

The 2005 Festival and Conference continued to focus on these three aspects of spiritual peacemaking, in potential and in action, in order to supplement the many other forums available for interfaith dialogue. In particular, this conference focused on the “missing voices” often represented by mystical and prophetic voices for peace.

There were over eighty events in the Festival in 2005, an increase of at least three times over the offerings of the 2004 Festival in terms of content. Spiritual practice was woven into many Festival events to allow the spiritualities under consideration to be present to direct experience. The Festival in 2006 will be even richer and more diverse with a significant increase in events over the 2005 Festival.

The 2005 Festival included participation from Baha'i, Brahma Kumaris, several Buddhist traditions, most of the Christian denominations in Scotland and some international Christian traditions such as the Melkite Catholic Church, Druze (through the work of the Interfaith Encounter Association), Hindu, Sunni and Shia Islam, Ismaili, Orthodox Judaism, Reform Judaism, the Edinburgh Liberal Jewish Community, the Jewish Renewal Movement from USA, Sikhism, several traditions of Sufism, Zoroastrianism, as well as representatives of interfaith organisations and of further spiritual movements, such as the Dances of Universal Peace, Whirling Dervishes, Mevlevi Tariqat, the World Peace Prayer Society, Subud (we had an international delegation from Subud at the Festival), Sahaj Marg, Anthroposophy, Shamanism, Goddess Spirituality, Paganism, Amma Spirituality, Radhasoami/Universal, Esoteric Christian, Christian Healing, Sanatana Dharma, Gnostic, FFWPU and others, reflecting an impressive spiritual diversity among the participants, which was further enriched by ethnic, cultural and national diversities.

In MESP 2006 five strands to the Festival will be more explicit, to allow a range of entry routes into the Festival, and to allow a range of participation identities, namely:

1. spirituality, and relations among spiritual traditions;
2. education and audience development;
3. arts and culture;
4. celebrating the diversity of Scotland and the UK
5. celebrating Scotland and the UK in international terms.

MESP 2006 presents an impressive range of events across these five strands, including spiritual retreats, workshops and conferences; a wide range of education events, including Persian and Arabic Calligraphy, and printmaking and sculpture workshops; a wide range of spiritual and peace concerts; Middle Eastern percussion events; film series on Music of the Middle East and peace films; events on spiritual movement and dance; photography and visual arts exhibitions; poetry and theatre events on spiritual themes of the Middle East; Mesopotamian storytelling; all women spiritual and cultural events and workshops; community-led cultural events which celebrate Middle Eastern diversity within the wider context of diversity in Scotland – including events with the Moroccan, Turkish, Kurdish, Iranian, Iraqi, and Armenian communities; community hosted food events; services; peace walks; multi faith and spiritual forums; scholarly lectures; book launch events; among others, and all celebrating Scotland and the UK in international terms of reference.

MESP is a celebration, and we look forward to welcoming guests to the Festival from across the UK and further afield to enrich the conversations and the spiritual and cultural exchange.

Festival Directors and Contacts

Festival and Conference Directors:
Neill Walker and Dr Neil Douglas-Klotz.

Edinburgh International Centre for World Spiritualities,
EICWS, Scottish Charity, SC030155,
4 William Black Place, South Queensferry,
Edinburgh, EH30 9PZ. Scotland. UK.
T: +44 (0)131 331 4469, E:
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Edinburgh Institute for Advanced Learning, EIAL,
42/4 Sciennes, Edinburgh, EH9 1NL. Scotland. UK.
Office: +44 (0)7005 802 580
Fax: +44 (0) 7005 802 581
Mobile: +44 (0) 7766 704 879
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