The recent events of global importance are evidence of increasing religiosity in international affairs. Religion has become a decisive force in the contemporary world and it is crucial that it be a force for good – for conflict resolution, not conflict creation.
Unfortunately, religion, which is a source of moral and spiritual satisfaction, is demonstrated as a source of tension and conflict due to increasing terrorism on the name of religion. Religion is part of the solution but unfortunately portrayed as the source of the problem.
In the current international scenario, religion has returned counterintuitively against all expectations in many parts of the world as a powerful, even shaping, force. The presence of effective religious forces is particularly felt in acute conflict zones, such as Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Kashmir, Iraq, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, the Northern Ireland, the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia.
It has been said that in the Balkans, among Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs and Muslims, all three speak the same language and share the same race; the only thing that divides them is religion. In the understanding of present global conflicts, religion is often considered the fault line along which the sides divide. The reason for this is very simple. Whereas the twentieth century was dominated by the politics of ideology, the twenty-first century will be dominated by the politics of identity. The turn of politics from ideology to identity brought religion to the centre stage of the majority of dimensions of the modern world.
Multi-religious and ethnic conflicts and tensions created a situation that is helping the extremists and exclusivists in every society to use a “them and us” mentality for hijacking religion and killing innocent people in its name. Their actions cannot be justified or legitimised by any theology, but the causes and consequences of their actions will have everything to do with how and where religions will be going in the twenty-first century. What September 11 illustrated was the ability of a few determined individuals to pull their entire civilisation, whether it agrees or does not agree with their thinking or actions, into a confrontation with other civilisations.
It is to be noted here that extremism is not limited to any particular religion, race or region. In fact ideological extremism is present everywhere. Some theorists made unexpected contributions to the discussion of religions by underlining the role of religion in contemporary society. This is simply a modern version of the old theory of despotism, and again, unfortunately, it is a fallacy to which some fanatical religions subscribe. So the real dichotomy is not among religions, but between extremists and exclusivists on the one hand and inclusivists and pluralists on the other.
Due to this primordial position of religions, Professor Hans Küng has rightly observed, “No peace among the nations without peace among the religions. No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions. No dialogue between the religions without investigation of the foundation of the religions.”
There are serious efforts at the global level, perhaps for the first time on this scale and frequency, of influential individuals advocating mutual understanding among world religions. In these global efforts, the most effective and serious consideration to world religions was given by Nursultan Nazarbayev, the founding President of the Republic of Kazakhstan.
After independence in the formative period of the republic, he realised that sustainable economic development is dependent on peace and peace is not possible without bringing world religions closer and bridging the gap among their followers. For this great task President Nazarbayev invited leaders of world and traditional religions to Astana in 2003. The first Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions was held on Sept. 23-24, 2003in Astana. Leaders and eminent representatives of religions as well as honourable guests from 13 countries of Europe, Asia and Africa participated in the forum. It was decided in this first congress that a permanent secretariat of the Congress of World and Traditional Religions, comprised of representatives of leaders and eminent personalities of religions, should be established to promote the following goals and objectives:
- promoting global dialogue among religions and cultures.
- deepening and strengthening mutual understanding and respect among differentreligious communities.
- development of the culture of tolerance and mutual respect as opposed to the ideology of hatred and extremism.
- cooperation and interaction with all international organisations and structures that pursue the goals of promoting dialogue among religions, cultures and civilisations.
To achieve these goals and objectives the secretariat has organised up to now four congresses.
The second Congress was held on Sept.12-13, 2006 in Astana on the theme of “Religion, Society and International Security.” This congress was held at the Palace of Peace and Harmony, a state-of-the-art venue purposely built as the forum’s permanent home. The second congress, which brought together 43 delegations from 20 countries of Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, adopted “The Principles of Inter-religious Dialogue.” On the basis of the recommendations, the second congress established the International Centre for Cultures and Religions was established.
On the theme of “The Role of Religious Leaders in Building a World of Tolerance, Mutual Respect and Cooperation,”the third Congress was held on July 1-2, 2009 in Astana. During that congress,President Nazarbayev proposed creation of aCouncil of Religious Leaders that would coordinate the activities of the congress and engage in interaction and cooperation with other forums and international organisations that pursue the goals of promoting dialogue among cultures and religions.
The fourth Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions was held onMay 30-31, 2012inAstana under the theme“Peace and Harmony as the Choice of Mankind.” The Council of Religious Leaders – which brings together leaders and eminent representatives of world and traditional religions, was set up in this congress. The members of the council have founded an alley called Rukhani jarasym (Spiritual harmony) in the capital city of Kazakhstan.
All the initiatives of the Republic of Kazakhstan are contributing to bridging the gap among the followers of world religions. It has not only created an instructional framework for peace among world religions but also engaged religious leaders from all over the world representing all major religions in this great task. The substantive achievement of the secretariat is mutual respect and friendly relationships among the representatives of the world religions. The achievements of the pioneering work of the Republic of Kazakhstan are contributing in changing the differences into diversities.
The themes and sub-themes that have been adopted in the four congresses and various meetings of the secretariat of the Congress of World and Traditional Religions affirm that the present developments in science and technology require parallel progress in the relationship of followers of various religious and cultural traditions. The time has affirmed the continuous need for joint efforts by all major civilisations to promote a culture of dialogue on the basis of difference, diversity, plurality tolerance, mutual respect, freedom of expression and sincere readiness at the grassroots level. Agreement on the agenda on the basis of common interests like spiritual satisfaction, trans-cultural norms, justice and submission to the creatures of the universe will lead dialogue to succeed.
The dialogue is the only hope for saving the world from the clash of civilisations; otherwise, worldwide conflicts and violence will continue taking religious dimension after feeding from misconceptions, misunderstandings and misrepresentations. The confidence of human beings on the movement of dialogue will push us ahead and we will be able to talk on other matters that are important to all nations, such as ecology, holy places, medical ethics, food technology, etc. Worldwide efforts against hunger, disease and natural disasters can be unified only after a better understanding, harmony and peace among faiths through dialogue.
The author is Professor, Faculty of Shariah and Law, International Islamic University, Islamabad.