Diplomacy of Spirit in Kazakhstan

This past October in Astana, Kazakhstan, I sat down with Ambassador Bulat Sarsenbayev, the chairman of the board of the Nazarbayev Center for Development of Interfaith and Intercivilization Dialogue, who kindly agreed to take some of my questions.

Bulat Sarsenbayev, the Chairman of the Board of Nazarbayev Center for the Development of Interfaith and Inter-civilization
Dialogue. Photo credit: religions-congress.org

 As a career diplomat with Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sarsenbayev served in a number of sensitive posts, including as Kazakhstan’s Ambassador to India, Iraq, and Lebanon. He brings unique academic, diplomatic, and practical experience to dialogue between religions and civilizations. 

In this chat, Ambassador Sarsenbayev says that genuine dialogue and contact between peoples of different faiths minimizes conflict and instability, enhances national security and redounds to the common good of the states concerned. 

This approach to international relations has been at the core of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy since independence in 1991. As such, he would support a national interest-based approach to diplomacy rooted in realism that would respect the interests of interlocutors. 

VII Congress of the leaders of world and traditional religions. Photo credit: Akorda

He argues that spiritual leaders must be given a meaningful platform as they bring to the negotiating table a moral compass and the indispensable quality of empathy. 

Ambassador Sarsenbayev believes that recognition of the universal dignity of the human person can lead to more cooperative relations between states, peoples, and cultures and is confident the Center for Development of Interfaith and Intercivilization Dialogue can play a key role in realizing this vitally important goal.

The views expressed in this conversation are those of Ambassador Sarsenbayev in his capacity as chairperson of the Center for Development of Interfaith and Intercivilization Dialogue and are not necessarily those of the Government of Kazakhstan. The text has been edited for clarity and precision. 

VII Congress of the leaders of world and traditional religions. Photo credit: Akorda

Piedra: Ambassador Sarsenbayev, thank you for the opportunity to sit down with you and discuss a topic of immense importance – the role that interfaith dialogue plays in building mutual understanding between nations and civilizations. In this connection, Kazakhstan for decades has championed the need for greater discourse and exchange of ideas on the sensitive topic of religion and national identity. 

This commitment to dialogue flows not only from Kazakhstan’s experience as a multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-ethnic society but from your personal experience in searching for ways to reduce tensions in the international community. 

Our conversation today is occasioned because this year marks the 20th anniversary of the Astana-based Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. By all measures, the Congress has helped build mutual understanding between nations, although the depth and extent of problems in the world are legion.  

That having been said, Kazakhstan has regularly drawn some of the most influential religious leaders in the world to Astana, including His Holiness Pope Francis, Sheikh Dr. Ahmed Al Tayyeb, al-Azhar Grand Imam (Egypt), His Beatitude Theophilos III, Patriarch of the Holy City of Jerusalem, and All Palestine and Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, amongst many others. 

Over the past 20 years, Kazakhstan’s managed to maintain a high degree of interest in the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. Many other attempts to do the same have petered out. What makes this biennial Congress in Kazakhstan more than just one more meeting vying for the world’s attention? 

Sarsenbayev:  For one, our record speaks for itself – you just listed some of the most prominent religious leaders in the world who attended our last Congress. The list of key participants continues to grow, and post-Congress activities are expanding. That fact – the repeated attendance of high-level religious leaders – is the best measure of our success. 

At a deeper level, however, Kazakhstan lies smack in the middle of the Eurasian continent, which gives us unprecedented experience with other peoples. There can be no doubt that Kazakhstan has been a center of “socio-ethnic interaction” for centuries – a crossroads if you will – between diverse cultures, languages, faiths, and traditions. 

We believe that a people’s religious and cultural mores, when properly understood and respected, are a source of unity rather than conflict, especially in multi-ethnic and multi-dimensional societies with a sense of the universal dignity of the human person. 

Strife between peoples, I think you would agree, is more often borne from misunderstanding than from outright injustice or some sort of organized malevolence. It is the misunderstanding between peoples that so often underpins conflict: those misunderstandings are what we are most interested in addressing, and that’s why people continue to attend the Astana Congress because we have helped to break down barriers between peoples. This improved dialogue seeps into the world of diplomacy. 

We want to share Kazakhstan’s experience with others – we have something to say. Not to sound trite, but the majority of people who live in Kazakhstan understand that stability (or the lowering of the probability for conflict) is a product of a recognition of the universal dignity of the human person combined with collective patience and understanding towards others, which begins in the home and must reach the highest levels of government. 

Kazakhstan, which is a multi-ethnic society as you rightly point out, has absorbed over the centuries the traditions of different civilizations and religions – this helps remove myopic thinking and fear of others. We strive (the operative word here is that “we strive”) to live in accordance with a spirit of tolerance and openness towards others, which we want to share with others. 

It is an approach that works. Therefore, the principle of “unity in diversity” is fundamental for us and is at the core of the Congress’ message –everyone who is open minded, it seems to me, gets that idea. But we must continue to work towards it. 

Against the background of international challenges and threats undermining peace in many parts of the world, the Center has become a focal point for religious leaders to promote inter-civilizational dialogue. I believe that without dialogue, “family feuds,” so to speak, between peoples, nations, and civilizations can turn into raging conflicts that lead to dislocation, suffering and death. We’d like to think that our efforts over the past years have contributed to the minimization of such conflicts. 

It is for this reason that Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the President of Kazakhstan, has repeated incessantly that “Today, as never before, it is vital to put to good use the peacemaking potential of religions, to unite the efforts of spiritual authorities in search of long-term stability.”

We feel that it’s critically important for spiritual leaders to weigh in and demonstrate through their example that dialogue and respect towards others must play a larger role in international relations. Spiritual leaders, who truly represent a culture of peace, are powerful voices in today’s world. Those voices, we are confident, lead to a higher chance for peaceful coexistence amongst cultures and religions.

Piedra: That makes theoretical sense, namely that understanding, and dialogue must be promoted, but what do you propose for building trust and reconciliation beyond nice words, speeches, and symposia? 

Sarsenbayev: That is a good question. We agree that it’s critical to get beyond, as you say, “nice words, speeches and symposia.” Memories of injustices, real or perceived, are difficult to address. Reconciliation is even harder. There is no easy answer to your question, but we must keep trying to forgive and forget – so to speak.

How can we move forward? In today’s diplomatic circles, let me note that President Tokayev has said that there is an urgent need to amplify the voices of Middle Powers and developing countries – an aspect of this is giving a voice to faith leaders at all levels and across continents. 

In fact, this past Oct. 11, at the 21st meeting of the Secretariat of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in Astana, the President of Kazakhstan emphasized: “To overcome the fundamental challenges facing humanity, it is important to develop a new international security system. To that end, we need to unite global efforts advocating for peace and stability. In this sense, spiritual leaders can play a major role.” Our task is to bring that challenge to life. 

Following this meeting, the participants adopted a communique in which they supported the idea of creating a new global movement for peace in order to build a solid system of international security. In other words, we need to search for alternatives to the application of force in the resolution of conflicts. Clearly, these matters take time, but we will continue to work on them. 

This logic demands that spiritual leaders be given a platform at the same table as political leaders and diplomats for without their participation, discussions tend to be highjacked by power brokers. I hope I answered your question. 

Piedra: What do you mean by “discussions tend to be highjacked by power brokers”? 

Sarsenbayev: Well, I think you know what I mean. Just take a look around the world and you will notice that the attempt to resolve problems and disagreements tends to be dominated by those who use force at the slightest perceived provocation – diplomacy ironically seems to be ineffective. In the height of emotions, unethical or disproportionate means are often used to solve problems. This should not be the case. Violence becomes commonplace. 

And to make matters worse, religion is often distorted and politicized – such politicization must be avoided. Everyone wants peace and stability – but violence is not a good option to solve differences, especially when the fundamental dignity of the human person is ignored. There is no need to say anything else – it is obvious. 

Piedra: President Tokayev has entrusted you with considerable responsibility. Are there other branches of government (besides the executive branch) which support you and your team at the Center? In other words, I presume you are not a one-man band, so to speak. 

Sarsenbayev: The Congress Secretariat, which I referred to earlier, is chaired by the Chairperson of the Senate of the Parliament of the Republic of Kazakhstan – Maulen Ashimbayev. 

He has made it clear that he is committed to bringing together religious and faith leaders representing Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Taoism, Shintoism, Hinduism, Baha’i and other believers. Working together with him and other members of parliament, our task of inviting religious leaders, political figures, and representatives of international organizations to participate in these efforts is facilitated. 

We also work closely with our Embassies overseas – a matter I understand well because of my lifelong experience in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But I must say – we can always use more resources. 

At this point, I must say that my objective is not to promote any religion or belief – a point I must regularly drive home. While we have multiple objectives, please permit me to highlight several of critical importance: 

● In our effort to deepen the dialogue between representatives of different cultures and religions, we involve representatives of secular and religious media, youth associations, and academia. Communication is a key aspect of our job. 

● We aim to develop a culture of tolerance as a result of a proper (un-distorted and de-politicized) understanding of religion, which serves as a counterbalance to ideologies of hatred, confrontation, and extremism. 

● Through our work and actions, we counter the commonly accepted assumption that religion is the principal cause of the “clash of civilizations.” It is rather the politicization of religion and the manipulation of theology – a turning away from the reality of human dignity – that complicates matters and creates incendiary situations. 

We must continue to get these messages across to as many people as possible, recognizing that communication is an art and changing hearts and minds is no easy task. But our work is worth the effort.

Piedra: Can you elaborate on the term “clash of civilizations”, which is on your website? As is well-known, Samuel Huntington, an American political scientist, popularized the term in his book by the same name in 1996. Be that as it may, to most observers, the term “clash of civilizations” means that a people’s cultural and religious identities are and have been the primary sources of conflict and war. 

It has been argued that conflicts arise not between states but between cultures and religions, the assumption being, of course, that secular states behave rationally while religious attitudes lead to irrational behavior. Anyway, can you give us your thoughts on the term “clash of civilizations?” 

Sarsenbayev: We must be optimists and believe that through education and common sense and a solid grounding on the meaning of a human person, it is possible to bring out the best in people. Those who use religion as an instrument of politics or as a means to gain power or destabilize a neighbor or competitor must be challenged. 

Our approach is to work with people – to clarify, to explain, to promote a culture of understanding based on the universal principle of the dignity of each person – which I have already mentioned. It is important to understand that religion should never be “weaponized,” i.e., never used to achieve political ends through violence. 

When that is done, the exercise of one’s fundamental right of religious freedom – when “weaponized” – can become an excuse for imposing one’s will on another. At the end of the day, we can minimize “the clash of civilizations” when we understand that religion, when properly understood, is a force for good and not a force for evil. 

Piedra: What is your vision going forward? And I’d like to understand a term that you have used in the past – “spiritual diplomacy.” What do you mean by that, and how does that fit into the vision of the Congress?

Sarsenbayev: Let me answer the second part of the question first. Spiritual Diplomacy is “deeper” than “traditional” diplomacy if you will. It is mostly concerned with the “inner forum” of the human person. Let me explain. 

According to most scholars, diplomacy is the art and the means by which states conduct their international affairs in order to safeguard their interests – usually defined as material goods rather than spiritual goods – against competitors and enemies. Diplomacy then promotes a nation’s political, economic, military, and cultural interaction (often, unfortunately, by the use of force). 

Spiritual diplomacy introduces the deeper aspects of the human person – the inner spiritual forum – which include concepts such as the common good rather than the pursuit of individual interests and the maximization of benefits at the expense of others. In other words, ideas such as faith-based diplomacy nurture and establish relationships that stem from the common yearnings of all persons. 

This approach encourages common prayer and communication on themes in the interest of peace and stability. With spiritual diplomacy, of course, there is always an element of “give and take” but the idea of winners and losers in a material world is discouraged because such an approach leads to confrontation. So, I believe that “spiritual diplomacy,” which is apolitical and non-ideological, must take a more prominent role in international relations.

With respect to our vision, I encourage you to read the 2023-2033 Development Concept of the Congress, which was recently approved. I remind you that the XXII meeting of the Congress Secretariat will take place in autumn 2024 in Astana. Between now and then, the Secretariat will appoint “Goodwill Ambassadors” whose mission will be to further the objectives of the Congress from the moment of their enactment until 2033. 

Concerning the principal objectives of the Congress Secretariat, and at the risk of sounding a bit repetitive, I’d like to highlight the following: 

1. To promote fundamental spiritual and moral values which are universal and more than cultural mores. Such spiritual and moral values represent a solid foundation upon which is built rational human behavior and respect.
2. To bring together leaders of world and traditional religions to help put an end to some of the discord and conflict in the world such as poverty, inequality, environmental crises, discrimination, pandemics, extremism, terrorism, etc.
3. To help resolve conflicts with an appeal to the sanctity of life and respect towards others; promote reconciliation and compromise.
4. To protect and preserve symbols and objects of historical and cultural heritage that pertain to world and traditional religions.

As you can see, we are excited about prospects moving forward. We will focus in a particular way on programming for young religious leaders. Moreover, there will be interaction between religious and non-religious people from differing faiths, worldviews, and denominations. 

The meaning of terms such as “extremism,” “extremist ideology,” “compromise,” the “common good,” for example, will be reviewed in the context of traditional secular philosophical and theological scholarship from various religions and worldviews. 

Piedra: Before closing out this most interesting conversation, can you elaborate on your next steps moving forward? Earlier you mentioned that you are optimistic and hopeful that the Congress will have an even greater impact across the globe at this time of grave danger. 

Sarsenbayev: We have a road map. I have already mentioned that the upcoming XXII meeting of the Congress Secretariat will take place in autumn 2024 in Astana. We will invite not only spiritual leaders but leaders of countries and international organizations. 

In the meantime, we plan to have a series of activities both in Kazakhstan and abroad – we’ll keep you posted. These will include online/offline international meetings, round tables, conferences, sermons, lectures, exhibitions, seminars, etc. We will focus on the idea of spiritual diplomacy and unity which I mentioned earlier. 

We will create means for strengthening partnerships and carrying out programming that will affect the thinking of the international community at the United Nations, the European Union and elsewhere.  

We believe that world religious leaders need to make an even more significant contribution to world peace, and, for this to happen effectively, they must be given a voice at the table of international relations. Religious leaders can contribute to the cessation of wars and conflicts by spreading a culture of dialogue and mutual respect.  

The author is Javier M. Piedra, a financial consultant, specialist in international development and former deputy assistant administrator for South and Central Asia at USAID.

The article was originally published in Asia Times. 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of The Astana Times. 

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