When political and civic leaders seek to engage religious figures to come together to promote human dignity across sectarian lines and contribute to stability in the region, they have overwhelmingly responded with alacrity. The Amman declaration of July 2005 initiated by His Majesty King Abdullah II Ibn Al Hussein of Jordan, when 200 of the world’s leading Islamic scholars from 50 countries were convened at an international Islamic conference, is an impressive case in point.
However, all too often political and business leaders in our region think that it is best to have as little to do with religious leaders as possible and perhaps even with religion itself.
Two main factors are at work. One is that often such leaders represent a more secular world outlook, and are often even quite ignorant about religion. But more importantly, they see how religion is often terribly abused, and think that in order to prevent extreme religious elements from torpedoing their interests, it is better to have little to do with religion. Of course, I understand their fears. When we see how religion is exploited by extremist interests, there is good reason to be wary of the abuse of religion.
However, if one does not want religion to be part of the problem, the answer is not to ignore it. If doing so, one stifles the voice of responsible religious authority and plays into the hands of the extremists, as it will be their voice alone that will be heard as the voice of religion, leading thousands astray.
If one does not want religion to be part of the problem, it must be part of the solution. All our Abrahamic religions teach the principles of the sanctity of human life and dignity. All of them seek the welfare and flourishing of society. They all affirm the obligation to promote justice and peace, and to avoid needless bloodshed. It is essential that the voices of religious leaders and representatives articulating the most sublime values are heard and are seen to be the mainstream authentic voice of our religious traditions.
However, this will happen only when political, civic and business leaders recognize that they must engage with religious communities and their leadership as allies, and not see them as threats. The latter approach will not serve their long-term interests, and will convince religious communities that those political and commercial goals are not in their interest. When these are expressed in an overwhelmingly secular manner, many religionists conclude that these interests must be inimical to theirs, and that the world is painted in simplistic Manichean colours of black and white – the good versus the bad; the godly versus the godless.
Above all, it is those with the political and economic power who need to understand the importance of a constructive dialogue with religion, and of the necessity of involving religious leaders and representatives in initiatives to promote the values of human dignity, of providing a decent income for families, of good citizenship, and of transparency and accountability. When these forces come together in seeking the welfare of society, then one will have the most powerful alliance against extremism and fascism that threaten stability everywhere.
Author: David Rosen, Rabbi and International Director, Interreligious Affairs, American Jewish Committee (AJC), Israel, and is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Role of Faith
Image: A minaret is seen between 2 crosses in Beirut REUTERS/Eric Gaillard