by Dr. Luis Ritto*
“There is only one religion, though there are a hundred versions of it” – George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950).
“By the study of different religions we find that in essence they are one” – Swami Vivekananda (Indian Hindu Monk, 1863-1902).
Continuing our series about diplomatic matters, today I am going to write about religion and how it influences diplomacy and relations between nations. Religion has helped since the beginning of times to shape the culture and civilisation of the world and therefore it cannot be ignored in our globalised multi-faith and multi-cultural world, especially when countries design their foreign policies and diplomatic strategies. And internally, religion needs to be used in a growing way by states to promote peace and tolerance within countries and between people of different religious beliefs.
For a long time, especially in our Western societies, which are secular and temporal, thinkers thought that religion would either disappear or become progressively attenuated with the progress of science and the expansion of human rights and other humanist policies. Therefore, religion was not taken as seriously as it should have been and was not a priority in terms of international relations. Reality has proved them wrong! Not only religion remains strongly vibrant and socially salient in our Western societies, but also it is strongly growing in several other parts of the world, as the different United Nations (UN) reports have shown. Reports that show too that more than 85% of the world’s population claim to belong to a religion or to a faith group (1).
When the “Twin Towers” in New York were attacked and destroyed on 11 September 2001, the Western nations awoke to the importance of religion and to the need to understand religious practices worldwide and to give religion a priority in their relations with third countries. Later, when the “Arab Spring” started in December 2010 in the North African countries, taking many Western countries by surprise, more calls were made to governments to include religion in their foreign policies strategies and programmes. This has led, for example, the Unites States government to include religion in its foreign diplomatic actions. Not only US diplomats have been receiving training on this subject in recent times, but also under the current Secretary of State John Kerry, an “Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives” was established in August 2013, which is charged with giving guidance to the State Department in integrating religious variables into the overall American diplomatic effort. Besides, the idea is also to use religious values to bridge differences between countries and to counter religious extremism in conflict-prone regions of the world. Gradually, Foreign Ministries of other Western countries are following suit with the aim to open dialogue with religious leaders in conflicted areas of the world, calling for increased diplomatic and religious cooperation to support mutual peace and respect of basic human rights within and among religions.
Religious diplomacy is therefore important, it is, in fact, a vital necessity, on which in large measure, the future of humanity depends. Religious leaders are often held as trusted people by their communities, therefore they can be the right voices to be used in the call for tolerance and reconciliation and to promote mutual respect and religious freedom. As Dr. Bawa Jain, the Secretary General of the World Council of Religious Leaders recently said (July 2014), “Religious diplomacy is the missing dimension of statecraft; there is an urgent need to engage religious leaders in diplomacy, especially when religion is perceived to be the problem” (2). Therefore, it is clear that it is commonly acknowledged today that faith-based diplomacy can be a useful tool of foreign policy for nations (as it is unquestionably a soft power instrument). In addition, the current regionalisation of politics and the growing politicisation of religion in the world mean that increasingly religion plays a role in diplomacy both as an opportunity for engagement and as a motivation inspiring actors. From a diplomatic perspective therefore, addressing the issues of justice, religious freedom, human rights and tolerance for all has become critical for the work of diplomats.
Before we go further on this matter, there is the need at this point for us to open a parenthesis, in order to talk more in detail about religion and how important it is in terms of the number of faithful (or adherents).
It is not easy to define religion. In reality, academics never agreed on a definition of religion and, what is worst, do not agree on the different definitions of it that exist! For a long time, religion was defined as a belief in God or in a supernatural power or powers considered to be divine and to have control of human destiny. However, in Asia religion does not generally assume the existence of Gods and rather base their teachings on moral codes, which govern the conduct of human affairs. This is the case of Confucianism and Buddhism, for example. For this reason, the definition of religion has been broadened by the World Council of Religions to include “the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices” (3). We particularly like this definition because it is more inclusive and does not leave out any communities of faith and their followers.
In addition, religion is divided into a number of faith groups and traditions. According to a study published in 2012 by the “Pew Research Center of Washington”, there is not one religion but several organised religions in the world which comply with the definitions given above, the main ones being the following (by number of members): Christianity (2.2 billion members or around 32% of the world’s population); Islam (1.6 billion followers or 23% of the world’s population); Hinduism (1 billion members or 15% of the world’s population); Buddhism (nearly 500 million adherents or 7% of the world’s population); and 14 million Jews (or 0.2% of the world’s population). In addition, more than 400 million people (6% of the world’s population) practice various folk or traditional religions, including African traditional religions, Chinese folk religions, Native American religions and Australian aboriginal religions. And an estimated 58 million people—slightly less than 1% of the global population— belong to other religions, including Jainism, Sikhism, Shintoism, Taoism, Baha’i faith, Tenrikyo, Wicca and Zoroastrianism, to mention a few.
The geographical distribution of religious groups varies considerably. Several religious groups are heavily concentrated in the Asia-Pacific region: this includes the great majority of Hindus and Buddhists (more than 95% of the total) and the adherents of folk and tradition religions (like, for example, the Chinese folk religion). To be mentioned also, that the Asia-Pacific region is home to most of the world’s Muslims (62% of the total). About 20% of Muslim people live in the Middle East and North Africa and nearly 16% reside in Sub-Saharan Africa.
In what concerns Christians, they are evenly dispersed: 26% live in Europe, 24% live in Latin America and the Caribbean, 24% reside in Sub-Saharan Africa and 26% live in other parts of the world (Asia and the North American continent) (4).
With so many diverse religious groups, how can countries and their diplomatic agents promote dialogue and understanding between nations and societies with different religious systems and values? It is certainly not easy, it is indeed a sensitive and difficult matter, involving many variable factors, but at a time of growing sectarian violence and extremism, religious tolerance and dialogue needs to be a priority for countries worldwide, otherwise the world faces the prospect of a clash, of a clash of civilisations, as some have call it! Some academics, like for example Professor A. Akinade of the University of Georgetown (USA), even call it “the dialogue of life”, due to its importance for the future of mankind.
The difficulty with this matter comes from the fact that not all religions share the same set of beliefs, but in one form or another, as we have seen by the statistics above, religion is found in all known human societies. On this issue, what can be said is that all religions teach high moral values and promote justice, peace and respect for human dignity; besides, all religions have the five human values, which are truth, right conduct, love, peace and non-violence at their core: and these are exactly the values which sustain the very soul of family, society, nations and the world and can therefore be put to use to build a fruitful dialogue. Dialogue is particularly encouraged with the so-called “Religions of the Book” or “Abrahamic Religions” (Christianity, Islam and Judaism). Islam, for example, has long encouraged dialogue as a mean to reach truth. Muslims have often emphasised that the Quran says that God has created the world into nations and tribes so that humankind can know one another. Similarly, Christianity and Judaism have precepts about human love and peace as well as the acceptance and tolerance of others. The Catholic Church, for instance, has a Council for Interreligious Dialogue, which encourages its faithful “through dialogue and collaboration with the members of other religions to recognise, safeguard and promote spiritual and moral goods, as well as the socio-cultural values they embody” (5). Other Christian denominations claim that all religions are equally true or that one religion can be true for some and another for others. For them, the power of love and truth can help resolve human conflict through the promotion of mutual respect and tolerance.
In this sense, the pragmatic need for better understanding and cooperation among adherents in the world’s two largest communities of faith— Christianity and Islam— is particularly acute. Together Christians and Muslims comprise almost half the world’s population, so the way in which they relate is bound to have profound consequences for both religions and for the world as a whole.
“Civilised people solve their problems through dialogue” – Ferhullah Gülen, a Turkish Muslim scholar and advocate of religious dialogue.
Dialogue is a means of building the openness, understanding and trust needed for people of different cultural and religious backgrounds to live and cooperate with each other, despite their differences. Besides, dialogue can help to clarify issues, to create greater understanding and remove prejudices; the aim is certainly not to reach a common belief, but rather to clarify what each faith community believes, to appreciate each other’s values and to have a better understanding of differences. This mindset is not inconsistent with diplomatic precepts and perspectives.
Dialogue is also important because religion in the past has been a source of conflict and war and nobody wants to see a war of religions taking place in the world of today. In fact, religion can be either a force for peace and reconciliation or a wedge that can divide. Religion through the ages has both unified and divided civilisations, in some cases bringing significant human casualty (in the case of division) and in other cases creating interesting and important cultures (in the case of the latter). In homogeneous societies, religion has served to bridge culture together. In all cases, religion has been a dominant force in the advancement of the human race. Together with the development of agriculture, religion is viewed as possibly the main factor that started civilisation as we know it today. But, it has not stopped it from fuelling bloody conflicts in the past as the Crusades serve as an example or as the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland and the conflict between Hebrews and Muslims show! And instead of diminishing, religious conflicts are on the rise worldwide, as it is the case in the following countries: Burma (Myanmar), Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen. Pew Research tells us that the number of countries with religious-related violence has doubled over the past ten years.
There is no doubt therefore that something needs to be done in order to stop such conflicts from spreading further. Government leaders and diplomats need to stand up and speak out against violence and intimidation carried out in the name of religion.
Sociologists divide society into the ones that are rooted in traditional and religious values and the ones that are focused on secular values. If a society is rooted in religious values, it is normally focused more on spiritual things such as love, truth, goodness and righteousness. If the society’s cultural values are focused on secular values, then it is more focused on material things and individual rights (mainly within the context of democratic and pluralistic societies, where there is a separation of church and state and where there is gender equality and people are equal before the law). Religious freedom, which is enshrined in the UN Charter of Human Rights, is said to promote stability and freedom. In certain religions, especially in Islam and Christianity, fundamentalism has emerged as a response to modernity that promotes more conservative, less flexible and more exclusive readings of the faith. And which in turn has lead to important economic disparities between countries and people. This trend is having important effects on international relations as it impacts on the internal stability of nations and in their relationships with one another.
This matter is therefore not easy because it goes beyond religion to include also political, economic and social problems, as the uprisings of the recent past in North Africa and the Middle East have shown. In those regions, there is hardly any democracy and, what is worst, poverty is widespread, countries are under-developed with people having not seen over the past 100 years any substantial improvement in their social and economic conditions, in spite of the fact that many countries are endowed with important mineral resources (oil and gas in particular). The frustration of the population of those regions arises therefore from the failure to see their native lands meet the requirements of modernity of the West in terms of politics, arts and sciences. This frustration or grievances, as President Barack Obama called them in a recent speech at the United Nations in New York (6), need also to be taken into account in the future dialogue with the leaders and people of non-Western countries. Irving Babbitt, a humanist and Harvard academic says in the introduction of his book “Democracy and Leadership” that economic problems generally run into political problems, political problems in turn run into philosophical problems and the philosophical problems themselves run almost indissolubly into religious problems (7).
In fact, much of what is at stake with the problems of religion in the world of today melts down to two concepts of society and civilisation that are opposed. In Europe and in a long process which started in the 16th century, the continent went through the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation and then the Enlightenment in a series of movements which brought with them the modernisation of the West and its acceptance of values like freedom, individual rights, gender equality and democracy. The realms of faith and politics were separated and religions become a matter of personal belief, not a political system.
This spirit of modernism changed the face of the world we live in. It has led to the development of science and technology and to enormous economic and social progress. In the field of law, the Reformation and Enlightenment made the West gain important victories: indeed, it is due to these movements that we owe such principles as equality before the law and the separation of powers (legislative, executive and judicial), the abolition of torture and the humanisation of penal law. Also, the modern Constitutional state was born during this period, which binds the power of rulers to the law and protects citizens from government despotism.
Turning to other parts of the world and to Muslim countries in particular (which are the ones going currently through times of important turmoil) what we see is that they did not went through the same religious process as the Europeans and in reality we notice that Islam to this day opposes to modernise itself and to accept Western values like religious freedom, secular democratic governments, individual rights, and the separation of faith from the state. In fact, they have failed to maintain the dynamism of Islam and its civilisational values (which were of great importance during several centuries after the establishment of the first Islam State in 622: during the so-called Islamic Golden Age). Consequently, for many Muslim leaders and scholars, their countries must have a Sharia-based legal system, Islam is a political system opposed to democracy, and they view Islam ideologically (as Islamism) and believe that it is a totalitarian value-system. Worst, they consider the West (which does not share these ideas) as their enemy, as a heretic or apostate region.
In other words, the Muslim world, although near Europe, views itself as a civilisation distinct and separate from the West. This cannot be ignored in the dialogue with Muslim countries as they read differently the meaning and lessons of history.
“There will be no peace among nations without peace among religions. There will be no peace among religions without dialogue among religions” – Dr. Hans Küng, Professor of Ecumenical Theology and President of the Foundation for a Global Ethic World.
In the summer of 1993 Samuel P. Huntington, an American academic and political scientist, published in the “Journal of Foreign Affairs” of the US a paper called “The Clash of Civilizations” (which was later published in a book) in which he developed the theory that the future sources of conflict will be mainly based on people’s cultural and religious identities. For him, the fundamental source of conflict will not be primarily ideological and economic, but cultural and religious. And he ends: “The clash of civilisations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilisations will be the battle lines of the future” (8).
The world, and the West in particular, was therefore warned 21 years ago to what was in the making and to the rising problems between the West and the people of other civilisations, based on different religious concepts and values. It is for that reason difficult to understand why Western nations took nearly two decades to put in place a true (religious) diplomatic policy to deal with those problems.
The reasons are nevertheless various. After 1989, the countries of the West saw the end of the Cold War as the end of history and the universal victory of liberal democracy throughout the world. For them it was the end of a period of diverging ideologies and they were convinced consequently that the rest of the world would from them onwards gradually adopt their values, consistent with the idea of progress in history. The prevailing views were that the ideals defining the West were universal and, notwithstanding the differences among cultures, the world was headed towards globalisation and a system based on capitalism and freedom. The leaders of the West turned inward to their national affairs and paid no attention to the return of Russia as a global power, to the rise of China and India as emerging powers, to the disintegration of Yugoslavia based on ethnic and religious identities and to the serious economic and social problems of Arab countries (which has lead to the rise of sectarian violence in them as we know it today). The result is that the West, with the US at its head, is now paying dearly for these failings!
Although late in relation to what it should have been the case, inter-faith dialogue and diplomacy must become a priority and work rapidly towards a better future of mankind. Diplomats must reflect on the two distinct civilisational orders that the world has. The issue of religion and its relation to democracy must be the central theme of this work. Conflicts, fuelled by religion, need to be constructively addressed. Together with other instruments of international power, religious diplomacy must show in priority (for example) the compatibility of Islam with democracy namely by assisting Arab and other Muslim countries face the challenge of finding democracy while preserving their traditional faith; and they must help the West to preserve democracy by rediscovering faith. Of all the major religions of the world, Islam is the one which never went through a process of reform and modernisation. It is therefore of no surprise to nobody the struggles that Islam is currently facing. Islam is trying to find its place in the modern liberal world of today! And clashes and tensions, especially if they are not violent, can be creative and bring improvements. Naturally, there will always be differences between people on this world, let it be religion, culture, politics, sports or language, but if we all have to live on the same soil of this earth of ours, breath the same air and live under the same sun, we all need to show tolerance and conciliation to one another.
We live in a world with a great number and diversity of religions, many of which have important similarities and even accept the same God. A world where no violence in the name of divinity should consequently take place. Therefore, a central objective of religious diplomacy should be not to promote one religion as being the true faith while the others are false, but its common goal should be to create a peaceful and prosperous civilisation based on respect, religious freedom and mutual understanding. This involves learning about and respecting diversity by appreciating the uniqueness of others.
It is also of no surprise to nobody that the people who live in democratic and developed nations rarely encounter hard power. One of the objectives of civilisation is precisely to transform hard power into soft power by changing anarchy into order, force into law and power into legitimate authority. These are the goals for which democracy and political order are established. They are also the goals of diplomacy; and diplomacy should therefore be given the opportunity using its soft power tools to promote dialogue and understanding among the different world religions. Otherwise, there will be no peace in the world, as many before me have said!
*About the author:
Dr. Luis Ritto is the former EU Ambassador to the Holy See and the Order of Malta and former EU Permanent Representative to the United Nations Organisations, ISPD Emeritus Professor and expert on diplomacy, diplomatic protocol and world affairs.
(1). World Statistics Pocketbook (UN Data, N.Y., 2014 Edition).
(2). Retrieved from Public Diplomacy & Diplomatic Academy (www.dub121.mail.live.com).
(3). In: www.dictionary.reference.com/religion.
(4). The Global Religious Landscape (Pew Research Center, Washington, 2012).
(5). Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue (in:www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/interelg).
(6). Speech of President Barack Obama in New York on 24 September 2014 (retrieved from: www.obama-address-un).
(7). I. Babbitt, “Democracy and Leadership” (Liberty Classics Reprint, Indianapolis, USA, 1979).
(8). Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations” (Simon & Schuster, N.Y., 1996).
Dr. Luis Ritto
Former EU Ambassador to the Holy See and the Order of Malta and former EU Permanent Representative to the United Nations Organisations.
ISPD Emeritus Professor and expert on diplomacy, diplomatic protocol and world affairs.
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