By Baher Kamal*
CAIRO (IDN) - One does need to think back half a century ago, to remember how much harmony and peaceful coexistence reigned in Arab countries between Muslims, Christians and Jewish. Nor does one need to recall how hundreds of Muslims gathered to protect Christians praying in their churches in Egypt during and after the 2011 popular upraising. Or how organised groups of Copts acted as a human shield to save Muslims praying in Cairo's Tahrir Square from extremists' attacks during the successive waves of popular protests. [P] PERSIAN (FARSI) | JAPANESE TEXT VERSION PDF
Coexistence between adepts to the three monotheist religions in the Arab region has always been taken for granted. In Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine or Syria, Iraq and Morocco, no citizen would ever ask another citizen to which religion does he or she belong.
What happened then?
“Politics... always politics”, says Ahmad Aly, an Egyptian young IT engineer who grew up in a family of Muslim believers. “Politicians deliberately created tensions and divisions between Muslims and Copts in Egypt to have a pretext to impose more repression and this way stay eternally in power.”
Languages professor Ramsis Ishaac (62) thinks no different. “We never thought here (in Egypt) of who is Muslim and who Christian. We are all Egyptians. Just to give you an example: I like very much the Muslim traditions during Ramadan (the fasting Muslim month)... my Muslim neighbours usually invite me to share with them their “breakfast.”
Here Aly says that “we (Muslims) also celebrate Christian Easter. I remember that my parents used to hang olive and palm branches in our balcony. And I and my six brothers and sisters used to colour eggs on that occasion. No problem. We are all brothers.”
If you explore the opinion of Muslims and Christians in other Arab countries, you will most certainly find similar reactions.
“This is a problem that the West has created,” says telecommunications expert Hani Youssef. “I do not know why, but it is true that they consider all of us (the Muslims) as if we were all Osama Bin Laden. 99 per cent of us are peaceful people . . . we love peace... we need peace.”
Whatever the roots of the current religious, politically-guided divide are or may be, many religious leaders, and many civil society organisations, have sounded the alarm.
This is the case – among many others – of United Nations bodies like the Paris-based UNESCO and Alliance of Civilisations (AoC) and the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Inter-religious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) in Vienna.
“[...] we are surrounded by a world, ridden with conflict and turmoil. Our vision of a united human family, coexisting peacefully with our differences rather than despite them, is, an ideal concept that is yet to be fully achieved,” said earlier this year Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, the UN High Representative For the Alliance of Civilisations.
“The harsh fact is that turmoil exists in a number of countries around the world. Steps which have been initiated towards peace offer a hope for dialogue in several conflict regions. While the locations differ, there is a common thread connecting them.”
According to Al-Nasser, “Radical notions embodying a distorted perspective of religion often fuel acts of violence. But why? The idea that religion could be used to justify violence is a contradiction in itself.”
The UN High Representative recalled: “The late, former U.S. President John F. Kennedy once declared: ‘Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others’.”
“Whether you follow a certain faith, or are not practising any at all, there is no set of beliefs that endorses violence, destruction and harm. In fact, every major religion and philosophy is based on the idea of doing unto others, as you would have them do to you,” Al-Nasser added.
Promote views that are open-minded
“So what does this mean for us? We must promote views that are open-minded, not restricted. We must reject intolerance and encourage a culture of acceptance and understanding. This can be done through education, communication, and restructured policies. We need to start addressing the issue of extremism as not always a question of religion, but a problem having economic, social, political and humanitarian dimensions.”
These views are shared by other active organisations working for harmony among religions. In fact, the UN Education, Science and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recently took a step further in this direction.
UNESCO's Director-General Irina Bokova, on May 25, 2014 signed with the Secretary General of the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Inter-religious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID), Dr. Faisal Bin Abdulrahman Bin Muaammar, a Memorandum of Understanding reaffirming their “commitment to promoting dialogue among people of different cultures and religions.”
Bokova underscored UNESCO’s leadership of the “UN Decade for the Rapprochement of Cultures (2013-2022)” and the opportunity it provides “to advance new forms of global citizenship based on the sharing of knowledge, respect for human rights, and the promotion of cultural and religious diversity as fundamental principles, to foster social inclusion, the prevention of conflicts and build lasting peace.”
The UNESCO-KAICIID agreement aims at “developing joint programmes and outreach initiatives to strengthen mutual understanding, tolerance, peaceful coexistence, cooperation across and between societies, contributing to a culture of peace respectful of the principles enshrined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity.”
For his part, KAICIID's Secretary General Bin Muaammar stated: “UNESCO and KAICID are working together to strengthen a culture of dialogue that enables diverse cultures and religions to contribute towards a more peaceful and harmonious inter-religious relationships. This will, in turn, resolve conflict.”
The agreement engages both parties to join forces for four years in order to promote the importance of dialogue in formal and non-formal education, to advance knowledge on intercultural and inter-religious dialogue for peace, to support institutional cooperation through youth-targeted initiatives and to use the media as a tool for fostering dialogue and mutual understanding.
KAICIID was founded in 2013 “to enable, empower and encourage dialogue among followers of different religions and cultures around the world.” Its Founding States (Saudi Arabia, Austria and Spain) constitute the “Council of Parties” responsible for overseeing the work of the Centre; the Holy See is admitted as a Founding Observer to the Centre.
KAICIID's Board of Directors comprises high-level representatives of the major world religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism) and cultures. The Centre is headed by a Secretary General.
Among other activities, it held earlier this year was KAICIID Panel Discussion "Images of Faith: Clash of Perceptions? - When people of faith see their images in the media, do they recognize themselves?" at International Press Institute World Congress. The Public Panel on April 15, 2014 in Cape Town, South Africa, aimed to bring the participants of the International Press Institute World Congress into dialogue on accurate reporting on religious diversity.
The panel followed a day-long working meeting on this topic which highlighted good practice in the field. Journalists, TV producers and senior writers from Liberia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, were key speakers.
Participants focused on inter-religious dialogue, the complicated layers of meaning contained in reporting on religion, the role of religion in various news stories in the Middle East, and the role of the media as a channel for dialogue, and for promoting positive images of religion.
KAICIID's Director of Communications, Peter Kaiser, stressed the importance of press freedom in ensuring quality reporting.
As the starting point in its work towards peace and social cohesion, KAICIID focuses on “The Image of the Other” in education.
SGI and Daisaku Ikeda
In this regard, Daisaku Ikeda, President of Soka Gakkai International (SGI) – a lay Buddhist movement linking more than 12 million people around the world – has been described as “a pioneering champion of dialogue as a means to bridge cultural divides and seek solutions to global issues facing humanity.”
In fact, Ikeda has conducted extensive dialogues, many of which have been published, with leading representatives of the worlds of education, culture, politics, the sciences and the arts.
“Dialogue,” Ikeda asserts, “reaffirms and reinvigorates our shared humanity.”
The SGI leader states: “There is no such thing as a person who is bad from birth; we all have the seeds of goodness within. The work of nurturing these seeds and bringing them to fruition is the purpose of learning and education.”
“Education is not simply the transfer of knowledge, nor simply the development of specific talents. Authentic education is aimed at nurturing the complete personality, including both character and intellect; it is the great enterprise of passing on the fullness of humanity from the past into the future, ensuring its development.”
Meanwhile, SGI groups around the world actively participate in interfaith dialogue and initiatives aimed at building understanding between peoples of different faiths. In addition, SGI is a regular participant in the Parliament of the World's Religions and has also held a series of interfaith symposiums with the European Academy of Sciences and Arts.
Inter-faith organisations active in social issues, education and dialogue are everywhere. One of them, for instance, is the International (Christian) Red Cross and (Muslim) Red Crescent Movement.
Examples of other international organisations are: the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions; the European Council of Religious Leaders; the Institute for Inter-religious Dialogue; the International Council for Inter-Religious Cooperation; the Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace; the United Religions Initiative; the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue; the World Conference of Religions for Peace; the World Congress of Faiths, and the World Council of Churches Team on Interreligious Relations, just to mention some.
Meanwhile, tens of meetings of different religious leaders are held nearly every week in one place or another.
Why then all these efforts have not apparently succeeded so far in achieving their objective of spreading the tolerance and co-existence message?
Retired teacher Mohamed Mostapha (69) tries to answer. “There will be no peace until two critical conditions are met,” he says. “The first one is the power and influence of the military establishments everywhere... They just focus on testing new weapons and military plans... and here religious and culture divide are for the a very fertile field.”
“The second condition is to create a new consciousness both in the Muslim communities and in the Christian Western societies,” he adds. “We (the Muslims) have an historically accumulated rejection of whatever comes from the West... they occupied us, oppressed our people, exploited our resources... Our rejection is due to their domination, not against their religion.”
*Baher Kamal is an Egyptian-born Spanish national with nearly 40 years of professional experience as a journalist. He is Publisher and Director of Human Wrongs Watch, Spain. [IDN-InDepthNews – June 29, 2014]