Bridging the Religious Divide

High-Level Expert Group Meeting

8 May 2013

Kingdom of Bahrain

Chaired by George Vassiliou

Since its inception, The InterAction Council has made “The Religious Divide” a core area of its interest. The Council has rallied the attention of experts to this challenge and promotes the idea that world religions share a common ethical base. However, perceived religious conflicts continue to be exploited for political purposes throughout the world.

To better understand the sources of these conflicts and to provide recommendations, The InterAction Council convened a High Level Expert Meeting focusing on “Bridging the Religious Divide” in Manama, Bahrain. The session was chaired by former Cypriot President, George Vassiliou.

Presently in Syria, unprecedented sectarian violence has produced misery, suffering, and bloodshed. The last two years have given rise to fears of a prolonged war, which if it continues, may cause Syria to disintegrate. Disintegration leads to ethnic cleansing and an even greater humanitarian crisis for millions who have become refugees.

But there are some hopeful signs. On May 8th, U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, jointly pledged to convene an international conference that will help guide Syria through political transition and put an end to the civil war. To do the opposite and provide support to the belligerents would lengthen the conflict and prolong the suffering.

The situation in Syria reflects the many strains of sectarian conflict entrenched in the Middle East. Excessive and fanatical devotion to the doctrines of a religion, sect, or group threatens peace and order both within and between states. Presently, well-funded propagandists broadcast messages of hate all over the world. Others have founded schools that distort religious messages to stoke hatred in the hearts of the susceptible.

In every part of the world, religious differences have been exploited in order to justify actions leading to conflict. For those who intend to temper the effect of conflicts, it is important to understand a supposedly religious conflict’s true nature:

  • First, there are expressions of religious conflicts that do not arise from religious disputes. They are rather expressions of tribalism in which groups take up the mantle of a religion or a sect to give validity to their movement.
  • Second, nationalism often masquerades as a religious conflict. To view the Israeli – Palestinian conflict as a religious dispute would be an obvious error.
  • Third, within religions, there are those who seek to adopt or craft a set of religious doctrines to gain advantage over competing sects. As an example, Salafist leaders undermine their more moderate Muslim rivals.

If all the current stalemates in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were to be resolved, it would not necessarily end sectarian conflict in the Middle East. However, since the on-going dispute creates opportunities for actors to exploit the conflict and to draw followers to their cause or perspective, then resolving the Israeli- Palestinian conflict would deprive those seeking to exploit one less tool with which to stoke the flames.

The effects of misunderstanding can be mitigated through dialogue. Presently, the Quartet (The United Nations, The European Union, the United States, and Russia) are mediating the peace process in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but are prohibited from speaking directly with Hamas. Tony Blair, the Quartet’s official envoy, should speak to Hamas. Pre-conditions such as this will limit the success of this negotiation.

Governments are chosen by citizens and are dependent on their decisions. Accordingly, citizens have a responsibility to recognize the consequences of their choices and have the responsibility to build a culture based on tolerance. Achieving this is impossible within an environment where ignorance is encouraged and extremism is rewarded. Interfaith dialogue is an important first step and it is the task of education to explain its importance to leaders and citizens alike. Secularism is not in conflict with religious views as it recognizes the right of the citizens to choose their religion. 

The High-Level Expert Group meeting proposes that the Plenary of the InterAction Council approves the following:  

Recommendations concerning the conflict in Syria:

  1. Encourage Russia and the United States in their efforts to convene an international conference aimed at ending the civil war in Syria and guiding the nation through political transition.
  2. The international community must prevent the disintegration of Syria through the achievement of a political solution.
  3. States should increase funding to UNHCR to improve the conditions for the refugees displaced throughout the region.

Recommendations for The Quartet:

  1. The Quartet should amend its conditions and open dialogue with Hamas by    authorizing Tony Blair to speak directly with members of Hamas.
  2. The Quartet should develop and articulate clear strategies and principles for interaction with the Middle East. Presently, a muddled strategy or no strategy at all creates confusion around intentions.

Recommendations intended to promote tolerance, to change attitudes, and to improve the education of citizens:

  1. Encourage pre-conference exploratory dialogues among rivals and adversaries.  Ensure these dialogues to be off the record and outside of public view.=
  2. Encourage dialogue between the leaders of different faiths. It is important to stress the common ethical base of all world religions (do unto others as you would have done unto you) so that what unites members of different faiths becomes more important than what divides them.  
  3. Promote the notion of tolerance among religious leaders and their schools.  Continuously make the case that strong beliefs are compatible with strong tolerance for alternative views. At the same time, identify schools that are spreading messages of intolerance.
  4. Unfortunately today, extremism of all kinds is available online. UNESCO should take the lead in preparing an education series promoting the common ethical base of all world religions and leverage existing online media (e.g. YouTube or iTunes).
  5. Draw attention to and denounce media and funding sources that are spreading messages of hate. Citizens are free to listen, read, or view the media of their choice, but they also have the right to know when they are being manipulated. 
  6. The InterAction Council initiative of a Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities should be passed by the UN General Assembly as a complementary and supporting addition to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The interfaith dialogue of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia should equally command wide support.