The United Nations interfaith conference on the Dialogue of Civilizations, participated by dozens of world leaders, including President Asif Ali Zardari, has concluded with an important resolution that underscores the significance of international inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue for global peace and harmony. This special UN moot was held on November 12-13 at the UN General Assembly in New York on the initiative of Saudi Kind Abdullah bin Abdulaziz made at another international inter-faith conference held in July in Madrid. The resolution, titled “Promotion of Inter-religious and Intercultural Dialogue, Understanding and Cooperation for Peace,” was tabled by Pakistan and the Philippines. It was co-sponsored by close to 80 countries, including the United States, China and Russia.
The resolution plants the seed for the eventual declaration of a United Nations Decade on Interfaith Dialogue and Cooperation for Peace from 2011 to 2020. It encourages UN member- states to consider the idea of “an enhanced process of dialogue among world religions.” The resolution also lauds the “right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion as integral to building tolerant societies and durable peace.”
Gravity of Crisis
Since the terrorist events of September 11, 2001 in the United States, the world has seen unprecedented inter-religious friction in modern history, especially the rise of Islamophobia in the West. Samuel P Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis floated at the start of the post-Cold War world in the 1990s did conceptualize this potential friction, but 9/11 and a number of instances of terrorism preceding and following it saw it manifesting practically at the global stage.
This explains why each year since September 2005, when the first inter-faith moot was organized on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session, the office of the UN Secretary-General has attempted to expand international efforts to counter what has become a gravely divisive trend in the world. Apart from hosting the recent conference, the Secretary-General sponsors the Alliance of Civilizations initiative between the European Union and the Organization of Islamic Conference, with Spain and Turkey as respective lead nations on the two sides.
Since the initiative for the recent inter-faith conference had come from Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah remained a central figure on the occasion, winning laurels for his efforts towards global peace from almost every leader who spoke, including President Zardari and even Israeli President Shimon Perez.
In his speech, the Saudi leader described terrorism and criminality as “the enemies of every religion and every civilization,” which, in words, “would not have emerged except for the absence of the principle of tolerance. “Throughout history conflicts over religious and cultural issues had led to intolerance, causing devastating wars and bloodshed…Human beings were created as equals and partners on this planet. Either they live together in peace and harmony or they will inevitably be consumed by the flames of misunderstanding, malice and hatred,” said King Abdullah.
President Shimon Peres wished that King Abdullah’s voice became “the prevailing voice of the whole region, of all people…It’s right, it’s needed, it’s promising.” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also praised the Saudi leader. He described the meeting’s closing statement, which affirmed the participants’ rejection of the “use of religion to justify the killing of innocent people and actions of terrorism, violence and coercion,” as a “strong message to the world.”
President Zardari also made an important speech on the occasion, especially when he highlighted a principal dilemma facing the inter-faith dialogue and the need for building consensus on an international agenda.
As for the dilemma, he said: “Unfortunately at a time when most Muslims are advocating interfaith dialogue they also witness events that frustrate our call for dialogue. We hear hate speeches across countries and regions in which Islam as a religion is attacked. Hate speech against Islam also leads to injustices against Muslims. Indeed the imaginary fear of Islam has been rising. This is exactly what the terrorists had hoped to provoke. Those in the West that accept this are falling into the trap of the terrorists. This imaginary fear of our religion has created a new form of discrimination and is giving rise to new tensions.”
President Zardari underscored the need for building consensus on an international agenda wherein: “Hate speech aimed at inciting people against any religion must be unacceptable. Injustice and discrimination on the mere basis of one’s faith must be discouraged—not only in words but through meaningful actions! Bigotry manifested in Islamophobia and anti-Semitism must be combated. Dialogue, and not discord, between civilizations and faiths must be encouraged.”
The global crisis generated by terrorist expressions through the abuse of religion is so grave that no one can possibly expect it to be resolved merely through such gatherings of world leaders and what they say. Actions, not words, will be needed to eventually resolve this crisis. And, for that, not just there has to be enhanced state-level cooperation between countries of the East and the West, or the Muslim world and the rest, but their respective populations also would have to stop perceiving each other through the “us-and-them” prism.
Until the Westerners in general, and the Europeans in particular, both at societal and governmental levels, forego an inherently negative perception of Muslim immigrants as “The Other,” we will continue to come across growing instances of Islamophobia. The same goes for the Muslim world, where anti-Semitism is a living reality.
There is no better example of it than both Iran and Hizbullah condemning Shimon Perez’s participation in the UN inter-faith conference. Inter-faith dialogues are all about bringing the erstwhile rivals to the same forum so that they can exchange ideas. This is the only way to create and sustain a spirit of trust and confidence among nations and civilizations of different faiths, including the three Abrahamanic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which have more in common than any other faiths in the world. There is no reason why their followers should remain divided.
Seen in this backdrop, the rare gathering of so many world leaders and the diversity of ideas they speak, and the fact that the process of global religious accommodation and learning after each such inter-faith event is only expanding are anything but extremely crucial steps for international peace and security and for defeating all the forces of fanaticism having a stake in a world divided on the basis of religion.
Access column at weeklypulse.org