A view of the plenary | Credit: Katsuhiro Asagiri

Countering Religious Hardliners Through Dialogue

TOKYO (IDN) – Religious identity, which in a broader context is perceived as belonging to a certain faith, is a topic of heated debate these days, mainly because a religious sense of belonging is directed toward achieving a certain goal by inflicting harm on others. The ongoing debate has been intensified in recent years with the concept of a clash of civilizations winning support among a group of Western academics and intellectuals.

It has received further impetus with the involvement of Western governments in the process of toppling regimes that the leaders of the Western world termed as “evil empires” – and thus paving the way for a blowback in the form of emergence of various religious-based terrorist groups claiming the righteousness in the name of divinity.

As a result, religion has become an item of sale and journeyman vendors of faith are busy selling the tickets to heaven to confused and puzzled human beings all over the world.

Against this backdrop, healthy academic discussions among people belonging to different religious faiths are increasingly being sidelined, and thus creating a dangerous vacuum that has been easily filled up by zealots from all sides.

This is what lends significance to the latest initiatives taken jointly by the National Center for Peace and Conflict Studies of the University of Otago, New Zealand, and the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research, Honolulu, Hawai’i.

The four-day international conference held in Tokyo in early February attracted leading scholars of three Abrahamic religions as well as Buddhism. It focused on the possibility of engaging positively with the followers of four religions in actions that would lead to mutual understanding and thus harnessing the process of establishment of peace and justice in the world.

Warrior and pacifist tendencies are inherent parts of almost all religious faiths. A delicate balance between the two contradictory trends is essential for avoiding conflict among the believers of different faiths.

However, the current world situation proves beyond doubt that the warrior trend is gaining leverage over the pacifist one – not only in the Middle East where the religious-based division is sharper than in many other parts of the world, but also in other regions that were seen less confrontational until recently.

The conference was composed of two separated plenary and 11 sessions focusing on ways of enhancing the pacifist and non-violent traditions of four major religions of our time that would act as a means of countering the destructive teachings fueling religious intolerance around the world.

While the two plenaries worked as a common basis of broadening the perception of the complicated issue of intra-faith understanding leading to the realization of what has been termed as global citizenship, the individual sessions focused more on specific issues related to the pacifist and militarist trends as well as on ways of nurturing and enhancing the pacifist traditions in all four religions.

In his welcome remarks, Dr. Olivier Urbain, Director of Toda Institute of Global Peace and Policy Research, highlighted the importance of holding periodic dialogues among the followers of different religions and emphasized the need for a return to the original purpose of religion that provides the answer to many of the complexities of the world.

Since the paradoxical role of religion reflected in warrior and pacifist traditions is predominant in almost all of the mainstream religious trends, he stressed the importance of dialogue that can bring out the best of all religious teachings of each other to apply these in transforming the conventional perception that many behold as they see the world through a narrow perception of “my religion is the best”.

The founder of Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research, Daisaku Ikeda, had sent a message to the conference in which he emphasized that the manifold challenges the world is facing today “remind us of the urgency to bring together the call of human conscience and shift the focus of peace studies to transform the current ‘culture of war’ and counter the xenophobia that continues to plague our planet”.

He said that because of this he had found it profoundly meaningful that scholars were joining religious practitioners and leaders representing Abrahamic and Buddhist traditions to discuss the role of religion in ending the vicious cycle of violence and hatred. His message concluded with the hope that “a world in which all may live in peace, in which none are marginalized or ignored and the inalienable dignity of every man, woman and child is allowed to shine – I believe religions will have an increasingly vital role in the building of such a world”.

The keynote speaker, Sihem Bensedrine, President of the Truth and Dignity Commission of Tunisia, spoke about the difficulties in finding a common ground not only among the believers of various religious groups, but also among those belonging to one particular religion but having difference of opinion on a number of important issues. She cited the example of her own country, which, with a population of just 11 million has supplied around 6,000 Islamic State fighters involved in merciless political violence in the name of religion. Religion, she said, is now at the heart of most ruthless violence and barbarism prevailing in the name of Islam.

As President of the Truth and Dignity Commission of Tunisia, Bensedrine had to supervise the difficult task of reconciliation and according to her the biggest challenge that she faces in the process of finding a conciliatory ground is the dismantling of dictatorial organisations that for very long ruled over the society with absolute impunity.

Since transition always provides losers, it is important that those who are on that side also become part of the process; and preservation of national memory is essential to ensure that violence is never repeated, she said. Though essentially different in nature, the Tunisian example of reconciliation however, can serve as an important lesson capable of providing clues of how to narrow the existing gap among the believers of different faiths.

In a panel discussion in the second plenary, representatives of four participating religions outlined the perception of warrior and pacifist traditions in their respective religions and looked at ways of strengthening the pacifist trend as a means of establishing peace on earth. Each religion was represented by two participants coming from different geographic locations and thus ensuring a broader representation of religious thoughts.

Moderated by Kevin Clements, Chair in Peace and Conflict Studies and Director of the National Center for Peace and Conflict Studies of the University of Otago, New Zealand, each participant first expressed his or her view about the issue from religious understanding, which was followed by a lively Q&A.

If the essence of all religions is to ensure a peaceful existence of believers followed by an afterlife of rewards for abiding by the rules, the violent element too has become an essential part of religions for various reasons. Believers of Judaism, for example, had resorted to warrior trend out of the feeling of constant insecurity.

A tiny minority dwelling in a terrible place is what Noam Zion sees as the ultimate reason for the Jewish people to turn warriors. Omar Farouk, on the other hand, considers Jihad as the highest form of pacifism in Islam and some other conference participants, including the keynote speaker, find foreign jihadists joining the ranks of IS fighters no less vulnerable in their adopted societies than the Jewish people of Palestine.

Even some Buddhists are also turning violent in some parts of the world and thus running against the teaching of Buddha.

Amid such contrasting and disturbing development surrounding religions, panelists reminded the audience of the need to intensify the effort for diminishing the warrior tendencies and enhancing the pacifist ones. There was general agreement that this difficult goal can only be achieved through dialogue and debate.

The conference, thus, turned out to be a timely initiative that put into limelight the importance of focusing on global issues discussed through religious positions. However, the organizers as well as participants were well aware of the fact that to make the dialogue and debates more meaningful and comprehensive, it is essential to broaden the scope of participation by including the representation of other religions and non-believers as well; the groups that jointly account for a huge chunk of the global population. [IDN-InDepthNews – 14 February 2016]

IDN is flagship of the International Press Syndicate.

Photo: A view of the plenary | Credit: Katsuhiro Asagiri

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