Faith is seen as a cause of turmoil and exclusion, yet it can be used as an antidote.
In his book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari laments that traditional religion is the “handmaid of modern nationalism.” It divides humanity into different camps, he says, and there is not much hope of religions offering solutions to global problems. This might be a hugely pessimistic attitude to consider, but as the UN’s World Interfaith Harmony Week takes places from February 1 to 7, these sentiments are not in isolation and should be disregarded at one’s own peril.
Originally conceived in 2010 as a chance for the global community to promote harmony between all people and to establish dialogue amongst different faiths and religions, it has long disappeared from the world’s agenda. Only the “converted” go about celebrating interfaith week with platitudes and statements. However, the mere fact that it hardly registers on anyone’s radar is testimony to not only the impact that the week has, but to a greater affliction affecting the faith community worldwide akin to what Harari alludes to in his writing.
Today, there is a loss of trust and hope in institutionalized religion providing some respite to tensions in global politics. At a time when there is a need to unite to address international problems, faith is plagued by local challenges creating a crisis of values, morals and, ultimately, interfaith engagement.
These challenges arise as we are increasingly living in an age of disruption that affects the way we communicate, do business, and how we relate to each other. Thanks in part to globalization, we are now experiencing the disruption of the social fabric that helps individuals define themselves and assess their social roles.
In one sense, that doesn’t seem to be such a bad thing because we have seen the upending of traditional structures of authority, the relocation of centers of power and the emergence of a flood of perspectives on how life should be lived. Yet primarily because of these disruptions that have unanchored lives and challenged traditional structures and networks, we see a backlash of increased racism and xenophobia amidst a wave of nationalism incapable of dealing with globalization. In addition, we see a growing globalization of fragility that is creating new forms of vulnerability for communities.
With migration, climate change and mental health all being seen as top priorities for 2019, the battlefield for tackling vulnerability is not defined by geography. It is on our streets, in our hospitals, in our schools and in our places of worship. In 2019, vulnerability will be easily defined as the rise of pandemics, along with greater disparities between rich and poor, men and women, rural and urban communities, and even this generation and the next.
Our search for a social identity has become a paradox remaining fluid in the midst of the increasing mobility of people, as well as the ease of global communications that make it possible for everyone to live everywhere. As a result, huge new multicultural populations are emerging around the world that have mixed identities shaped by multiple competing factors.
The loss of the moral compass from those in charge is compounded by a general loss of authority as it is no longer clear who is in charge. With the loss of authority comes a threat of security, compounded by the challenge on national unity by division based on religious, ethnic and tribal identities and new ideologies of nationalism. This is what Harari talks about and precisely what this week should focus on in terms of creating a space for dialogue around interfaith harmony.
Whilst faith is seen as a cause of turmoil and exclusion, it can be used as an antidote. New solutions can be developed to challenge people to create equal opportunities for diverse communities of ethnicities, traditions, cultures and faiths. As sociologist Ali Shariati put it: “Religion is an amazing phenomenon that plays contradictory roles in people’s lives. It can destroy or revitalize, put to sleep or awaken, enslave or emancipate, teach docility or teach revolt.”
Why faith? Why now?
In his talk around the future of education at the World Economic Forum in 2018, Chinese billionaire Jack Ma talked about the need to revisit the teaching of values in the face of increasing automation. This is an inherent USP for religious teachings and institutions to make themselves more relevant again. Religious practices and perspectives continue to be sources of values that nourish ethics of multicultural citizenship, commanding both solidarity and equal respect. Historically, spiritual heritage has often provided humanity with the capacity for personal and social transformation. Simply put, for many people around the world, faith is embedded in cultures, practices, traditions and community values.
Thus today, as we experience dark moments, religion can appear to shine like a beacon of hope and reliability. Hence, interfaith week should once again discuss this idea that religions provide trusted institutions that have their bases of legitimacy in the divine order of the universe and in the societies they have nourished and been nourished by. As a repository of symbols, a system of belief, a convergence of cultural rights, a structure of morality, an institution of power and one that challenges old systems, faith should once again explore how it can offer people a sense of community, a trusted authority and meaning for their lives.
Religious institutions need to become mediums for inclusive engagement, as they offer simple and easy access to communities, as well as a simple language to express the commonalities of existence through the expression of common values, the invoking of social responsibility and working together on issues of social justice and ethics. Thus, rather than just discussing interfaith engagement, we need to speak about action that speaks to a concept of inclusion around religious identity. One that works on the premise of building an understanding of religious pluralism, founded on common features in a language spoken by most people, setting the agenda for creating a new, improved environment.
As religion can cut across class, ethnic, geographic and cultural lines, religious leaders can serve an important — if sometimes informal — representative function. Members of a religious community have an enormous capacity to increase their cultural, social and economic links with one another and with other religious and secular partners in other parts of the world.
Religious identity can thus serve as a powerful bond amid the vicissitudes of globalization, and one reinforced by ethical commitments embedded within a particular tradition. Working on a diverse shared polity of pluralism means you can tap into a hidden channel for creating engagement between people. This can allow us to find new ways to anchor ourselves in a connected world. In the turbulent waters of the global era, religion, which has its basis in the past, can provide solid ground and protection.
World Interfaith Harmony Week offers us an opportunity to do so. We have to address the challenges and the polarization that is tearing apart the fabric of the global community. This will never be easy, but it remains vitally important. Given the uncertainty we face in 2019, there is a greater need for such spaces to pause and reflect on how to create a new environment for the promotion of inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue, as well as understanding and cooperation for peace.
Incidents around the world — whether violence in the Middle East, anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe, the rise of racist nationalism in Asia or xenophobic rhetoric worldwide — emphasize the need to build societies that are shared by everyone. These “shared” societies are uniquely imagined as places where durable peace is maintained through values of compassion and solidarity and by encouraging the promotion of dialogue amongst the different forums available in all cultures.
This is of course the idealistic aspiration behind World Interfaith Harmony Week, but with a realistic recognition that it requires real work from all stakeholders that constitute society as a whole. In other words, it is not the purview or responsibility of one component but rather everyone. There needs to be real and fruitful conversations that involve talking to people and understanding how to address the misperceptions that exist about the “other” within all of us. We need to have honest and open discussions about faith and its role in society and what exists within the faiths of mutual coexistence. This centers around common values that espouse the notion of a shared humanity, social responsibility, social justice and ethics.
In essence, we have to rediscover a spirituality of commonality that will allow us to recognize the common space and substance amongst all doctrines, which will provide the fuel for social change and trigger action for the unity of humanity. This shared language will enable us to develop a set of ideals that continue to stir our collective conscience; a common set of values that bind us together despite our differences; and a running thread of hope that makes this improbable experiment of reconciling and rehabilitation of vulnerable communities possible.
These values and ideals will have to be living, which cannot find expression on paper or monuments or in the annals of history books, but which remain alive in the hearts and minds of people inspiring us to pride, duty and sacrifice. These living values will have to help us build on shared understandings and should be the glue that binds every healthy society together. However, whilst dialogue is a beginning, it is important that engagement goes beyond this. Interfaith — and increasingly intra-faith — dialogue must produce something tangible for communities on the frontline
We are now living at a time where increasingly across the world, political violence flavored by faith, culture and identity is being used to justify positions of power. This often leads to misconceptions and misperceptions about certain faiths and its followers. The tragedy will be if we lose this battle. Faith identities will continue to be part of the picture and faith will be a strong rallying point for global communities. As people of faith and spirituality, we have to retake the reins and change the paradigm.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.