A road trip of 98 days from London to Singapore by a group of Singaporeans in a convoy of 12 cars organized by the Automobile Association of Singapore was extremely enriching as it took them through places of worship, which included churches, cathedrals, mosques madrasas, Buddhist and Taoist temples, and UNESCO-sponsored religious sites where history of empires and nation building were intertwined with faith and religious beliefs.
At about that time, President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, in collaboration with the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, authored an article titled “Religious Leaders Can Help Bring About World Peace” that was published in the Jerusalem Post on Sept. 14. It was in conjunction with the seventh Congress of Religious Leaders which was held in Kazakhstan the year before. The congress was attended by delegations from 50 countries, including representatives of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Shintoism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, and other religions. There are lessons to be gleaned from this 98-day road journey from the West to the East in relation to President Tokayev’s perspective on the role of religious leaders and world peace.
One, people of whatever faith in the 20 countries and over 70 cities visited during this journey demonstrated a shared social code of goodness and kindness, readily holding conversations whether at petrol stations or rest stops about our voyage. They are curious and chatty, friendly, accommodating, and willing to engage and want to take selfies. It seems like a natural social code, with no barrier towards us as strangers in their land. It is therefore not difficult for religious leaders to encourage their followers to share the message of tolerance and caring; in so doing they are sending the message that it is a Divine God of nations and that the Divine cares for humanity.
Two, as we drove through the primarily Christian countries of the United Kingdom, western and eastern Europe, the Islamic countries of Türkiye, Iran, and Central Asia, the Confucian society of China, and the Buddhist nations of Laos, and Thailand, through Malaysia and ending in multi-religious Singapore, it was clear that most places of worship are located within the melting pot of daily commerce. Mosques and madrasas in Türkiye, Iran, and Central Asia are often next to the main and bustling bazaars; the churches and cathedrals in Belgium, Germany, Austria, and Greece are in the main square surrounded by cafes, shops, and tourists milling in droves; while the Buddhist temples in Thailand are surrounded by busy business activities and shop houses. People seamlessly integrate their livelihoods, lifestyles, and opportunities with their faith. Their customs and cultures driven by religion seem to have a shared moral code, namely personal piety includes pursuing wellbeing and common prosperity.
Three, in many nation-states, there is a strong desire to project harmony not only among believers of the same faith but also the need to have harmony between faiths. In Shiite Iran, the convoy visited two Zoroastrianism sites in Fazd, which were also UNESCO sites; and in Isfahan, we visited the Armenian church and museum with its collection of illustrated gospels and the world’s smallest prayer book. When in Isfahan, there was a religious holiday, the mourning of the death of the Eighth Imam, Ali ibn Musa Ridha. While on television there were religious services with men mourning his death, on the streets we saw a long queue of mostly young people waiting to visit the Armenian Church. In the four Central Asia nations, our local guides took pains to convey the message that their respective countries have Muslim majorities but the governance is secular and welcomes all faiths. In China, the convoy visited the Magao caves in Dunhuang, a UNESCO site that was built in the fourth century by Buddhist monks and holds carvings and valuable records of cultural exchange and Buddhist art. Both Chinese President Xi Jinping and former Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang have visited Magao Caves and China State TV has a documentary on this Thousand Buddha Cave, another name for the Magao Caves.
Fourth, the drive from London to Singapore is a journey in appreciation of the inter-civilizational message of dialogue and trust among people of different nationalities and faiths. In most of the cities, especially in the European cities, migrants from different countries, expressing different faiths play a vital role in the economic wellbeing of their host countries. In Cologne for instance, against the impressive backdrop of the Cologne Catholic Cathedral, which measures 8,000 sqm and has room for more than 20,000 people, the numerous retail outlets, restaurants, cafes, and provision of business dynamism surrounding the Cathedral are largely managed by migrants of different faiths. Thirty-six percent of Cologne’s population are migrants from Türkiye, Italy, Poland, Greece, Bulgaria, Iraq, Syria, Russia, and other countries. Despite polyglots of faiths, these migrants are work-focused and live in harmonious relationships, fulfilling the skills labor shortage of their host countries while through remittances, supporting their families in their home countries.
In this regard, President Tokayev’s comment that it is vital to develop new approaches to strengthening inter-civilizational dialogue and trust is pertinent. Religious leaders should positively influence their faithful followers especially when they are working overseas to avoid tension and polarization in their host countries. They should not only strengthen the faith of their followers but also strengthen their bonds and ties within the foreign communities they live, work, and socialize. In this West to East Drive trip, besides the amazing scenic sights, historical sites, and great national cuisines, we experienced warm hospitality, and a culture of tolerance, mutual respect, and peaceful coexistence throughout the journey.
The author is Basskaran Nair (Singapore), a co-writer of “A Primer of Policy Communication in Kazakhstan” book and former Visiting Professor at Nazarbayev University Graduate School of Public Policy, and Associate Professor (Adjunct) at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.