Author: Dr Josef Boehle
University of Birmingham, UK
The full article can be found here:
In: Pacifica Review: Peace, Security and Global Change, (Volume 14, Number 3, October 2002).
Samuel P. Huntington's article A Clash of Civilizations in 1993 in the journal Foreign Affairs started a vast and controversial discussion about the state of the world, the possible clash of civilisations in the context of globalisation. In 1996 Huntington published a more extended and detailed version of his analysis in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order where he states:
“Blood, language, religion, way of life, were what the Greeks had in common and what distinguished them from the Persians and other non-Greeks. Of all the objective elements which define civilizations, however, the most important usually is religion, as the Athenians emphasized. To a very large degree, the major civilizations in human history have been closely identified with the world’s great religions and people who share ethnicity and language but differ in religion may slaughter each other, as happened in Lebanon, the former Yugoslavia, and the Subcontinent.”
As observed by Huntington and many other scholars, religions play a decisive role in the forming of attitudes of individuals and societies towards the ‘other’.
Unfortunately religions have contributed all too often in human history to the aggravation of conflicts and wars. Throughout history we can observe brutal acts of individuals in the name of religion and violent groups within religious traditions. Furthermore, we have to make distinctions between diverse world religions that have more or less violence in their histories.
At the same time, we must acknowledge the many examples of caring for the ‘other’ which can be found in all religious traditions. To face the destructive and divisive elements of religions and to foster the inspiring and peace-building elements of religions, more strategic and effective ways of dialogue and cooperation among religions themselves and between the world of politics and religions are needed.
In recent years inter-religious efforts have found prominent support among religious leaders, senior politicians; they are increasingly being taken seriously in the academic world.
In 1994, former US President Jimmy Carter, in his foreword to Religion, The Missing Dimension of Statecraft, stressed the importance for such dialogue and cooperation:
“Religious representatives need to exercise their moral authority and mobilize the vast human resources of their communities in the service of peacemaking. The rest of us, in turn, must recognize the growing importance of religious factors for peacemaking and develop ways, both informal and formal, to cooperate with religious leaders and communities in promoting peace with justice.”
In order to avoid major future wars, and being aware of the past terrible history of war and violence of humankind, it is imperative to develop commitments in all areas of life to building peace and to dissolving potential for conflict. It is now imperative to build bridges of inter-cultural and inter-religious understanding, dialogue and cooperation, wherever possible, to overcome the social, economic, cultural and religious dynamics that increase the risk of wars. It is imperative to create cultures of peace and justice. It is vital to create the international structures needed to facilitate and co-ordinate dialogue and co-operative efforts across civilisations, cultures and religions.
Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations, highlighted in 1999 the urgent need for dialogue among civilisations and cultures in order to prevent major conflicts and is very supportive of efforts for inter-cultural and inter-religious peace-building.
In a lecture on the 28 June 1999 in the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford on Dialogue of Civilisations and the Need for a World Ethic Annan commented on Huntington’s prediction of a ‘Clash of Civilisations’:
“All sensible people must wish to avoid such a clash. Certainly most Muslim leaders do. Last September one far sighted leader of a Muslim country, President Mohammed Khatami of Iran, made a memorable speech on the subject to the United Nations General Assembly. He said ‘the Islamic Revolution of the Iranian people … calls for a dialogue among civilisations and cultures instead of a clash between them’. At his suggestion, the assembly has since decided to proclaim the year 2001 as the United Nations Year of Dialogue among Civilisations.”
What future inter-religious efforts should be made to overcome humankind’s terrible history of wars, oppression and discrimination? What changes to the UN System could help to overcome past destructive dynamics?
We need an expanded UN System that is institutionally able to cooperate fully with civil society, business, social, cultural and religious organisations. In addition, we need a new and permanent inter-religious world forum that, whilst co-operating with the UN System, remains independent from it.
A new World Inter-religious Forum, based on an inter-religious network and co-ordinated by a council, could enhance the existing work of inter-religious organisations and support the best insights, aspirations and programmes of the 100-year old international inter-religious movement. Religious traditions, spiritual movements, indigenous groups and inter-religious organisations could find the necessary global organisational structure to foster permanent, effective and sustainable inter-religious dialogue and cooperation, locally rooted and globally connected. ........................................................
________________________ Excerpts from the Concluding Chapter: _________________________________
Towards a World Inter-religious Forum:
Developing an Inter-religious World Body to Cooperate with the UN System
How can we address the age-old conflicts between cultures and religions not only on a personal basis, but also on an international institutional level? How should we develop inter-religious organisations that are locally rooted and have an effective global presence?
For more than 100 years, there have been efforts to create inter-religious dialogue and understanding on an international scale.
Organised international inter-religious activities began with the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago, 1893, followed in 1900 by the founding of the first permanent international inter-religious organisation, today’s International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF). Then came the World Congress of Faiths (WCF) in 1936, the World Fellowship of Religions in 1950 in India, the Temple of Understanding (ToU) in 1960, the World Conference on Religions and Peace (WCRP) in 1970, the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1988 (CPWR), the International Interfaith Centre (IIC) in 1993, the United Religions Initiative (URI) in 1996, the Interfaith Center of New York in 1997, the World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD) in 1998, and the Millennium World Peace Summit in 2000, to name the more prominent or permanent ones. The amount of inter-religious activity at local, national and international levels rapidly increased through the 20th century.
In particular, the International Association for Religious Freedom, the Temple of Understanding, the World Conference on Religions and Peace, the Interfaith Center of New York and the Millennium World Peace Summit have cooperated successfully with the UN System. The IARF, ToU and WCRP have consultative status at the UN.
As soon as the first global organisations emerged in the political field, the League of Nations and the United Nations, some of the pioneers and leaders of the inter-religious movement thought about how to relate to these global political bodies. How to relate to global organisations and the challenges of globalisation is still a key question for today’s international inter-religious movement.
Today there is an emerging movement for global inter-religious understanding and cooperation on the critical issues of our time. To achieve lasting global change, innovative partnerships across traditional boundaries are needed. In this context alliance-building among key partners is crucial to achieve innovative and transformative cooperation on a local and global level: We need alliances among
- religious communities
- transnational civil society (including inter-national inter-religious organisations)
- the UN System and other international agencies.
New structures (networks, fora, councils) are needed to facilitate and sustain such ongoing cooperation. Numerous inter-religious seminars, major conferences and conference series have been held all around the world for over a century. There is still a great need for research into the immense amount of inter-religious activity that has taken place in Asia (especially India and Japan) to produce a fuller historical account of inter-religious developments. In addition to the work of inter-religious organisations the efforts of particular faith communities to open dialogues with other faiths and to change their centuries-old attitudes of exclusion must be recognised.
The existing multitude of different inter-religious initiatives, organisations and programmes brings its own advantages and challenges. The advantage is a diversity of approaches with different priorities and diverse leaderships. Nevertheless, as we rapidly grow towards a more and more interconnected world community, it is necessary to undertake coordinated efforts to effectively address together the great suffering, injustices and inequalities amongst our fellow brothers and sisters. Wars, hunger, poverty, epidemic diseases, environmental destruction and exploitation, widespread lack of education and adequate housing, innumerable forms of human injustice, exploitation and oppression demand of all people of good-will to balance their personal priorities with the necessity to overcome these evils. Only by joining forces, by creating synergies, by sharing new insights and traditional wisdom, coming from a diversity of civilisations and religions can the immense injustices and dangers that threaten our life community on this planet be addressed successfully.
This argument should be even more obvious for inter-religious organisations and religious communities that by nature of their ideals and principles want to serve humanity. If it is the aim of inter-religious organisations and religious communities to work for understanding, peace and justice, to work for dialogue and respect of the ‘other’, then they have to put these ideals into effective practice and seek cooperation with all people of good-will. Otherwise, they will clearly be placing their own priorities above the well-being of humankind. This would be in contradiction to many principles of their own organisations or their respective faith communities.
Therefore, it is high time to overcome age-old divisions and to seek together new forms of effective, just and global cooperation and to establish the necessary structural frameworks, institutions and processes to make such global inter-religious cooperation possible and sustainable.
A multi-centred, permanent World Network, Forum and Council for religious traditions, spiritual movements, indigenous traditions and inter-religious organisations is needed. This is the argument made here. Such a permanent, inter-religious world body, respecting regional and local diversity, would have to be multi-centred and include a diversity of organisational forms. It should be based on a global inter-religious network, with permanent, co-ordinating centres on every continent, with a global inter-religious coordination council, with a general assembly or forum held every two years and regional assemblies in the years between general assemblies. It should include humanitarian, research and media institutions; it would need to be supported by local and national groups and involve committed citizens as well as religious and spiritual leaders.
A World Inter-religious Forum, based on a network and coordinated by a council, could also help a wide diversity of programmes and initiatives to emerge in creative response to today’s great problems and long-term challenges, such as poverty, lack of education, epidemic diseases, war, the environmental crisis, conflict among religions, the root causes of terrorism, unjust economic systems, etc. It would need to be independent but have structural links to the UN System to be globally effective and to be able to facilitate peace-building, dialogue encounters, information exchanges and cooperative activities with the world of politics and economics. One of the most difficult challenges would be the question of representation, as it is not possible to find in the world of religions and spirituality clear criteria for who represents the multitude of religious traditions and spiritual paths. The representation in the forum and council should be based on the participation in a global inter-religious network, with additional places for large and clearly identifiable religious, spiritual or indigenous communities and for outstanding and widely recognised moral and spiritual leaders.
Such a network, forum and council would not be realised within a few years and would not be able to perfectly represent all religious, spiritual and indigenous groups. However, a development in this direction with a critical mass of initial participants could be realised within 5 to 10 years if the will towards global inter-religious cooperation can be further mobilised. To achieve this the support of the major inter-religious organisations, of religious communities and of key religious and spiritual leaders is crucial. …………………………..
No duplicate organisation to the UN is proposed here in my argument, since the world of religious traditions and communities is too different from the world of nations and international law. The proposition here is to create an inter-religious forum and network organisation that can pragmatically serve the common good of humankind in cooperation with the UN System, enhancing the prospects for a more just and peaceful world community.
The nations of the world have made over the last 82 years (first through the League of Nations and now through the United Nations) efforts to move towards a world community, efforts with many setbacks, interrupted by World War II and seriously limited by the Cold War period and today’s major economic differences.
However, even today the United Nations System is seen as rather helpless in the face of global problems and in most cases the political and economic interests of individual nation states determine the decisions or, sometimes, the absence of decisions. In reality we cannot yet speak of a world community, rather of a crises management system trying to address major world problems, most often with too little power and resources, and often too late. Could a renewed United Nations System, which is more democratic in its structures and significantly expanded in order to cooperate with and empower NGOs and civil society organisations, religious communities and movements, be more effective in achieving the stated goal of the United Nations to save ‘succeeding generations from the scourge of war’ and in addressing the great challenges of our time? The answer is a clear yes. No isolated part of the emerging global community can hope to solve today’s global problems on its own. The ethical and spiritual resources of religious and spiritual traditions are needed to address interconnected and global issues like justice, peace and sustainability.
One of the most difficult aspects of a transformation of the United Nations System is to change the organisation from a predominantly government-orientated global institution towards a much more open and inclusive institution. The necessary changes to the legal framework of the United Nations and, possibly, amendments to the UN Charter, clearly pose immense challenges which seem almost impossible to achieve given the strong self-interests of nation states.
Yet, it is an absolute necessity to find an answer to one of the crucial clarification processes of our time: how can we foster and facilitate today, both, through existing and new international organisations and institutions a more peaceful, just, and sustainable future of humankind? Are the existing national, international and global institutions and organisations good enough and up to the challenges of globalisation?
Anybody who looks at today’s state of the world can come to only one conclusion: humanity has failed bitterly in managing its own affairs, in creating institutions that will safeguard a peaceful, just and fulfilling life for the world’s citizens on the local, national and global level.
Global change through creating new international institutions must be accompanied by a substantial change within the UN System. This would create the capacity within the UN System for meaningful institutional cooperation and alliance–building with wider parts of the world community. ………………………………………………
We have touched on diverse issues in the argument presented here: inter-religious cooperation, global change, global governance issues, participation of civil society in the UN System and the creation of new international institutions and frameworks.
Whilst the complex details that are crucial for implementing any institutional change have not been addressed here a vision for facing today’s global crises has been presented.
Religious and spiritual individuals all over the world have together begun to reflect and to act on their global responsibilities, so that we can live in a more peaceful, just and sustainable world community. A better future is achievable by human beings united in their respect for diversity.
School of Philosophy, Theology and Religion
University of Birmingham, UK
 Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, (London: Simon&Schuster Ltd, 1998, Paperback Edition), p.42
 Josef Boehle, Inter-religious Co-operation in a Global Age, (University of Birmingham, UK: PhD Thesis, 2001).
 Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson (eds), Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p.VIII.
 Kofi Annan, Dialogue of Civilisations and the Need for a World Ethic, (Oxford: Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, 1999), pp.12,13.
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