This year is marked by several important events, among which are the 550th anniversary of the Kazakh Khanate, the 20th anniversary of the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan and the 5th Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. Despite the fact that each of these events brings a particular message to the citizens of Kazakhstan and the world community, all of them are interconnected. The whole history of Kazakh statehood is a story of peace, good neighbourliness and creativity. Our people have never invaded foreign lands; on the other hand, those looking for shelter in the vast heart of Eurasia have always found it.
Today, the authority of Kazakhstan and its leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is so great that it can gather representatives of different states, ethnic groups and religions at one table for a peaceful dialogue that is difficult to imagine in other circumstances.
The role of interreligious dialogue in the modern world can hardly be overestimated. This is due to the fact that close cooperation between religious leaders can eliminate or mitigate conflicts between peoples and nations. The dialogue contributes to an atmosphere of peace and stability, as well as to uniting believers of different faiths to fight against global problems together.
However, the dialogue of religions is a huge responsibility that not every country could take over. The very concept of a dialogue in this context requires some explanation. This form of communication involves a willingness to meet other representatives of different faiths at one table.
It is necessary to clearly understand the purpose and characteristics of the dialogue. The modern dialogue of religions has nothing to do with medieval debates, where theologians tried to prove the advantage of their own faith and criticise others.
We have to discuss matters that bind different denominations within the community, different countries, regions and the world as a whole. First of all, it concerns the role of religion in public life and securing international peace. No one should encroach on the most sacred thing a person has, on their faith, by forcing the followers of other religions to adhere to alien dogmas. No one should impose their own system of worship, rituals or practices by claiming their superiority. The starting point of the dialogue should be the recognition that for every believer, his own religion is right, and the closest to God or any other absolute.
Dialogue between religions can be helpful if members will adhere to the following principles: Tolerance and respect towards all participants of the dialogue, especially of their religious beliefs. The equality of all partners and the possibility of free expression of opinions, perspectives and beliefs – none of the participants in the dialogue should have a privileged position in relation to others. The dialogue should not be aimed at converting representatives from one religion to another or at demonstrating the superiority of one religion over the others. The aim of the dialogue is not to eliminate differences between religions, but to search for common values and spiritual principles. The dialogue should be focused on finding ways for peaceful coexistence and cooperation between all peoples.
The demand for dialogue between different religions and cultures in the modern world seems obvious, but sometimes dramatic obstacles occur, impeding the interaction. The recent events surrounding the French magazine Charlie Hebdo showed how differently the ideas of tolerance and freedom are imagined in different worldviews. On one side we have those who defend liberal values, for which the freedom of speech has become an absolute priority; on the other side we see believers who consider it unacceptable to expose sacred objects of their religion.
The vast majority of Muslims in France and around the world condemned the terrorist attack on the publication. Moreover, among those who defended the journalists and gave their lives were followers of Islam. However, believers have also urged the mass media again and again to give up bullying their religious feelings.
Unfortunately, in this situation, we have not seen a dialogue, but an expression of opinions, which were initially unacceptable to the other side. This is not about the opposition of the Christian West and the Muslim East anymore, but a conflict between secular liberalism and traditional values. Liberalism has created Islamophobia, and peaceful Muslims who deny terror and violence have become victims of this. In their turn, radicals have exploited the tense situation that has emerged in Western society. This acute situation has generated a great deal of misunderstanding, with stereotypes prevailing and attempts to find simple solutions to such a controversial issue. We can say that in today’s world, much has been said not in the language of dialogue and cooperation, but in the language of alienation and mutual threats.
Of course, the dialogue of religions requires development on international, regional and global levels, as the level of mutual understanding and respect for the spiritual traditions of the partners depends largely on resolving regional conflicts. The dialogue may become a useful tool for the solution of many problems, including what may be called a “clash of civilisations.”
Kazakhstan can act as an example of cooperation between different ethnic groups and religions, where Islam and Christianity have peacefully coexisted for centuries now. Every religion brings people universal values in their language, establishes norms of behaviour in a society, acts as guardian of values that are centuries old. Currently, an inter-faith dialogue is a necessary form of communication and the best way of mutual enrichment, a way to prevent crises.
However, the implementation of the dialogue between representatives of different religions raises many concerns regarding the format of the dialogue and its content. The initial element of an interreligious dialogue is tolerance – which is not the same as mere “toleration.” It would be wrong to understand these terms as synonyms. Toleration points to certain limitations and constraints in the manifestation. It is assumed that people are forced to tolerate what they do not really like.
Meanwhile, “tolerance” has a deeper meaning, absorbing the valuable notion of self-restraint, self-control, respect, tact and ability to understand and forgive. Accordingly, tolerance is defined as the respect and the recognition of equality, diversity and multidimensionality of human culture, norms and beliefs and the refusal of domination and violence, as well as the readiness to accept others as they are and interact with them on the basis of consent. In our opinion, we must be clear about the content guidelines of an interreligious dialogue. One of most important conditions should be the desire to understand the others there and to find a mutual point between different opinions. An open dialogue reveals the true point of view and motives of the other side, and on this basis it is possible to start a profitable dialogue. All this is impossible without a deep respect for the other side, a delicate relationship with the particularity of other points of view and with the spiritual heritage of every faith.
President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev in his speech at the second Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in 2006 formulated the principles of understanding which were to be the basis of the dialogue between religions and civilizations: “First of all, it is non-judgmental and refuses to support stereotypes that have been created centuries ago… Secondly, there must be a conscientious refusal to interfere in other people’s sacred spheres. What is sacred for one, cannot be the subject of humour or ridicule of another… Thirdly, it is a joint response of world and traditional religions to new, unconventional threats. If in the world of politics such unconventional threats are linked to terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and trans-border crimes, they trigger the appearance of a much more fundamental treat in the spiritual world. This means a break with basic spiritual traditions.”
I think if the world community follows these principles, it will be possible to eliminate conflicts, such as those associated with the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, or blasphemous acts of certain leaders in Christian churches.
This year, Astana will host the Fifth Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions on June 10–11. Its agenda will include the most acute problems of today’s world, which is once again balancing on the edge of global war and the conflict of civilisations. Kazakhstan gathers spiritual leaders who will discuss a wide range of cultural, spiritual and moral, socio-political and religious issues. I would like to express my confidence that the forum participants will make every effort to overcome the differences and obstacles, both fundamental and related to basic misunderstanding and existing stereotypes.
The author is a candidate of philosophical sciences and a theologian.