Saturday, May 19, 2012

Inter-Continental Dialogue: The Role of Religions

By: Dr. Pamela Chrabieh Badine

Danish-Arab Dialogue Conference

With the world becoming increasingly interdependent as a result of globalization, migration has led to more interaction—and friction—between different cultures and faiths, fueling such theories as Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations”. This expression was used before by Bernard Lewis in an article in the September 1990 issue of The Atlantic Monthly titled “The Roots of Muslim Rage”, deriving from the ”clash of cultures” – already used during the colonial period. According to these theories, people’s cultural and religious identities are the primary source of conflict in the post-Cold War world. Still, many academic writers challenged Huntington’s and Lewis’ claims. Amartya Sen (1999) writes that diversity is a feature of most cultures in the world, including what is called the ’Western Civilization’. Treating civilizations as monolithic would be a great mistake.[1] Paul Berman argues there are no distinct civilizations, nor a clash, especially when considering relationships such as that between the United States and Saudi Arabia, and the fact that many Islamic extremists spend a significant amount of time living and studying in the ’Western World’.[2] Edward Said argues also that cultures are interdependant, religions are not fixed coherent realities.[3]

Another response to the theory of ’Clash of Civilizations’ has become in the recent years the center of some international attention: ’Dialogue among Civilizations, Cultures and Religions’. Even 2001 was named by the United Nations the Year of Dialogue among Civilizations. The end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century witnessed a dissemination of collective bilateral and multilateral initiatives of dialogue partly based on interfaith and intercultural cooperation. Our gathering follows the same path of helping maintain open lines of communication, exploring differences and implementing conviviality between different identities, world views and practices. It should provide strong foundations for a greater understanding of a diversity of religions and cultures in an effort to promote peace.

Considering the rising influence of non-state actors in international relations, and their interpretations—or  misinterpretations—of religion, it seems logical that by continuous and unified calls for peace and conviviality, our initiative and others can help deconstruct the misrepresentation of religion and its use to promote acts of violence. Unfortunately, no major religion has been exempt from complicity in conflicts and human injustice. Yet we need to be aware of an almost universal propensity to oversimplify religions – and in particular Islam nowadays – and reduce them to a negative reality. Sacred scriptures are often interpreted in contradictory ways. The Quran for example, such as the Tanakh (Jewish Bible) and the Christian Bible are seen by many as the sole or even primary cause of conflict; and by others as messages of peace. While it is crucial to emphasize the peaceful interpretation and thus practice, one cannot dismiss the existence of the opposite. Two questions should be tackled: how could we contribute in enlarging spaces of dialogue based on interfaith/intercultural constructive relations? And how could we help in deconstructing destructive views of religious/cultural otherness?

I believe that religious affiliation and conviction can motivate individuals and communities to advocate peace-related policies. Both through theological teachings and service, faith communities play important roles in shaping attitudes and action towards peace. An understanding of the theological underpinnings inspiring and driving care for peace, can help inform effective policies, at the local, national, and international levels. A major task to be undertaken is to delve into an exploration of key peacebuilding concepts as they are portrayed in religious scriptures and traditions, including dialogue, forgiveness, reconciliation, justice, non-violence, etc. Another task is to combine words and deeds – espoused principles and direct action -: talking about peace and doing something about it, thus the importance of uncovering, refurbishing and innovating concrete and specific practices of peacebuilding that realistically embody and incarnate the ideals people commonly acknowledge yet too frequently ignore in their actual conduct of life.

Religious leaders and institutions, experts in Sciences of Religions and related fields in Human Sciences, are called to undertake these tasks. They can serve as communication links between opposing sides and provide training in peacebuilding methodologies. They can contribute to deepen the knowledge of other faiths and cultures. By deconstructing misconceptions and prejudices, they can influence policymakers in their countries. They can show that religion is a major element of identity and that, to some extent, it intertwines with politics. Therefore, its relation with politics should be well managed in a world where so many people draw on their religious repertoires for meaning and moral guidance. Interfaith/Intercultural dialogue is affected by the broader political context in which it takes part. In fact, the urgent need for such dialogue is to a large extent the result of international and domestic political affairs. US and European policies in the Middle East (Western Asia) and particularly on the Arab−Israeli conflict have an implicit effect on Christian−Muslim dialogue and with Jews.

It is advised here that our initiative and its essential aims should be presented as well among people in different levels – for example, students, youth groups, academic staffs, NGOs, etc. Interfaith dialogue should not be restricted to experts, religious people, politicians and intellectuals. It is worth mentioning that among the Arab Youth, there are individuals who could play a major role in spreading the principles and goals of international interfaith dialogue and encouraging their counterparts of different cultures to participate in this dialogue for better understanding of each others. Also, there should be a discussion of the gendered nature of the structures, interpretations, and evolution of religion and religious texts. These gendered structures of religious institutions, as well as of political institutions which mobilize people to war and violence using religious symbolism, are not negligible. I am not referring merely to the perspectives of men and women. What I am referring to is a deeper discussion of the connection between religious, political, and gender hierarchies and their relation to notions and endeavours of war and peace.

Furthermore, the experience of our encounters must be transferred into education and teaching. The formal education of children in primary and secondary schools, as well as in universities, is crucial. Many countries have developed new approaches to teaching religion, history, literature, geography, etc, with the aim of encouraging respect for other religions and cultures. International interfaith/intercultural dialogue needs to encourage and draw sustenance from an emerging conception of citizenship that understands the value of both commonality and difference, and enables them to co-exist, illuminate and reinforce each other. Such innovation requires critical reviews and new developments in curriculum design, textbook production, use of multimedia resource and above all, new patterns of teacher training. Many more countries – such as in the Middle East/ Western Asia – have hardly started such a process of renewal, and until they do, threats to peace will prevail. 

Finally, here are few recommandations:

-          Engaging local and international civil society organizations and media as partners in the process of enhancing interfaith/intercultural dialogue.
-          Promoting the study and appreciation of all religions at all levels through education.
-          Facing the past so that memories of discrimination, persection and hostilities could be overcome.
-          Encouraging and participating in developing cooperation among University Chairs and Departments of Religious Studies and Culture.
-          Engaging dialogue, whenever possible, with both Secularist and Religious Fundamentalist movements. At the moment, dialogue is focused on moderate elements, which has had the effect of marginalising groups that are actually the ones more likely to create problems/conflicts.
-          Developing consultative mechanisms and processes between religious communities and governments as a mean of resolving disputes and drawing on religious capacities.
-          Considering fielding proactive missions of religious conflict-resolution experts at the request or with consent of the states concerned.
-          Engaging young people, as part of the solution in building understanding and conviviality across nations. Still, we must be cautious in talking about interfaith dialogue that  we do not pigeon hole young people so that their faith becomes their primary identifying feature – they are also from different backgrounds, sub-cultures, peer groups, socioeconomic and geographical regions – and faith is only one element of this. Finding a balance is therefore crucial, whereby respect and understanding is fostered not only with regards to different faiths, but with regards to diversity in general. Initiatives need to do so in a way that allow young people to engage in a broader dialogue, to explore their own values, ideas and identities, allowing for a respectful and productive exchange about diversity and a celebration of common goals and shared visions. An important aspect of interfaith/intercultural dialogue that must be discussed is that it can act as a partial solution yet should not be confused as the only solution.
[1] Refer to: “Democracy as a Universal Value”. Journal of Democracy 10 (3): 3–17.
[2] Refer to: Terror and Liberalism, W W Norton & Company, 2003.
[3] Edward Said: The Clash of Ignorance , The Nation, October 2001; From Oslo to Iraq and the Road Map, New York, Pantheon, 2004.