Dr Reza-Shah Kazemi presented a paper at the conference: “Al Azhar and the West - Bridges of Dialogue”. Held in New Cairo from 3 to 5 January 2009, the conference was convened by the Rector of Al Azhar University, Dr. Ahmed Mohammed El Tayyeb. Muslim scholars in the West were invited to this conference to serve as "bridges of dialogue" by advising Al Azhar's scholars how to communicate Al Azhar's perspective within the norms of Western discourse.
Dr. Kazemi's paper "Beyond Polemics and Pluralism: The Universal Message of the Qur’an" was deemed to be particularly relevant for any attempt by Arab Muslims to "dialogue with the West". Dr. Shah-Kazemi noted that dialogue is inconceivable when Muslims are their own victims of, what he described as, "the spiritual sterility of polemics and the logical absurdity of religious chauvinism". Dr. Kazemi's paper argued that these two barren states of mind, which typify thoughtless fanaticism in the contemporary Muslim environment, contradict both the spirit and letter of Qur’anic revelations of universalism. According to Dr. Kazemi, the universalism contained within the Holy Qur’an is most profoundly grasped by classic Sufi metaphysics and in particular by the school of thought derived from Ibn ‘Arabi.
Dr. Kazemi also insisted that Muslims must go beyond the debilitating relativism of the pluralist model so often upheld by participants, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, in Inter Faith dialogue to a more profound and authentic perspective that does not attempt to blur clearly defined differences between Islam and other religions but rather transcends those intrinsically exoteric differences to a higher reality of transcendent universalism. In response to the concerns that prompted this conference, Dr. Kazemi structured his refutation of the polemical and chauvinist perspective by imagining a question and answer encounter between a Western, non-Muslim interviewer and "a Muslim" (by inference, an Azhari attempting to dialogue with the West).
Among the other Western Muslim scholars who responded to the Conference's theme were Emma Clark, Lecturer at the Prince's School of Traditional Arts in London; Prof Alan Godlas who heads Islamic Studies at the University of Georgia; Prof. Caner Dagli of Holy Cross University; Virginia Gray-Henry, CEO of the publishing house Fons Vitae; and Dr. Aref Aly Nayed from Cambridge University.
Earlier, Dr. El Tayyeb called upon S. Abdallah Schleifer, Distinguished Professor at the American University in Cairo, to open the inaugural ceremonies with a speech on behalf of all of the Western Muslim scholars participating in the Conference. Prof Schleifer said that Al Azhar, faithful to its role as a Sunni Muslim institution resting upon both a material (Al Azhar Mosque) and intellectual foundation bequeathed by the Shi‘i Fatimid Rulers of Egypt, has always been in the forefront of respectful dialogue within the broad community of Islam. He observed that Western Muslim scholars were honoured to be of service to Al Azhar in its efforts to be more effective in its discourse with the West. Professor Schleifer's comments were echoed in still greater detail in the welcoming response and remarks of the Rector. Prof. Schleifer also noted that several American Muslim scholars were already functioning as bridges to the West as members of the Leadership Group of the US Muslim Engagement Project along such prominent figures as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, and presidential Envoy Dennis Ross.