Progress has been made in the culture of this Congress – but not enough. These two days have heard calls from many parties for talk to be converted into action at every level. Yet the day ended with a stage-managed concluding ceremony and not one word of discussion about the Final Declaration. Now, the reason behind that is likely to be that the Secretariat (involving representatives of many of the faiths represented here) has worked on it and agreed it, so there is no need to argue about it all over again in a potentially unmanageable plenary session. I’ll come back to this.
This morning there were two concurrent ‘group sessions’, one on ‘Dialogue and Cooperation’ and the other on ‘Moral and Spiritual Values, World Ethics’ (sic). The third, which was a plenary, addressed the theme ‘Solidarity, particularly in the Time of Crises’ (sic). I went to the first session on Dialogue and Cooperation’ and heard the usual list of platitudes. But there was also some serious stuff addressed.
The Spanish Foreign Minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, went straight for critique, asserting that dialogue between religions is only a first step and runs the risk of the people involved having nice conversations and then going home unchanged. As a sponsor of the Alliance of Civilisations initiative (with Turkey), he was keen to illustrate the need for practical and grassroots engagement in a programme to develop an ‘agenda for cultural diversity’. He was impatient with mere talk and said so in unequivocal terms.
Yet this was followed by speakers extolling the predictable virtues of dialogue. It occurred to me that several Muslim speakers wanted to claim Islam as a peaceful religion while ignoring the dark side of the faith. We heard that ‘India is a land of peace’ – on the day the UN is launching an investigation into the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and in which I reminded the assembly of the persecution of Christians in Orissa last year (and ongoing?). I intervened later in the discussion to ask for honesty as a fundamental basis for effective dialogue and to state that dishonesty about bad religion leads us into fantasy and a waste of time and words.
This did not go down well and one or two speakers cited (for example) the Orissa murders as ‘an aberration’ – without declaring when a series of ‘aberrations’ becomes a ‘norm’. Christians cannot be free in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan or Turkey, but this is not acknowledged by those who wish to pretend all is well everywhere. Freedom of religion in certain places might well be a noble aspiration, but it is often spoken of as if it were a reality now and that is simply not the case. (This position was helpfully and strongly reinforced in a later discussion by Jonathan Aitken who is here representing Christian Solidarity Worldwide.)
But this leads me to a probably surprising conclusion. Had I not spent six years involved in this (often frustrating) process, I would not have been able to make this point clearly and unamibguously to this remarkable gathering without being considered rude, destructive or difficult. The value of this Congress is not primarily that it proves its worth in agreed statements, programmes or outcomes, but in (a) successfully bringing a group of difficult people together in one place and (b) creating the space in which relationships can grow to the point of trust allowing for frankness. This achievement should not be minimised and might even make the vast expense and rather controlling political culture justifiable.
Part of the problem with this Congress is that it is founded, driven and serviced by politicians, but for religious leaders who work on the preparatory Secretariat and do all the talking. This produces an inevitable tension that cnanot be easily resolved: the politicians want to deliver a good and efficient event while the religious leaders want to get to grips with argument – which, of course, might get out of hand and prove to be uncontrollable by those who need to deliver a smooth conference.
And although I am a bit sceptical of the content of certain speeches, there are some very good contributions, too. The Orthodox Leonid Kishkovsky (USA) made a disciplined and substantial short speech which should have moved the discussion on – but was followed by further prepared speeches. An American Muslim woman noted the lack of women around the table and called for this to be redressed in future. She was supported later by my Church of England colleague, Dr Jane Clements. Fr Christian Troll made a helpful distinction between the nature and language of religious and political leadership. The speaker who opened his speech with the words, ‘Let me tell you the history of Islam in China’ cheered me up enormously by not doing so and encapsulating it in a mere three or four minutes.
When I emerged from the hall I was confronted by French, German and Austrian television crews wanting interviews. The German began with something like: ‘So, all is well, the sun is shining on us all, there is nothing wrong between religions anywhere and everything in the world is lovely?’ I knocked that one on the head, but it was not hard to understand why this was the message he was hearing from many speakers.
So, what preliminary conclusions do I draw this evening?
1. The Congress has faults in culture and process and this causes some to feel they have been exploited for either (a) boosting Kazakhstan’s domestic and international image or (b) giving credence to the assertion that Islam is always and everywhere tolerant and unproblematic.
2. These faults are openly identified and discussed and will be addressed at the next meeting of the Secretariat, probably in November this year. That these can be openly articulated and not met with mere defensiveness demonstrates great progress in relationships, process/culture and political maturity – especially with the Kazakhs themselves.
3. The fact that this group of big-shot religious leaders come here, sit together (interspersed and not in ‘faith blocs’), speak freely and listen to (often uncomfortable) neighbours is not to be underestimated. There will be those who question why we pitch up to an event such as this – especially when it is such an effort to get here in the first place – on the grounds that some leaders are playing ‘window-dressing games’. My response is to ask if it would be better not to have this context in which hard questions can now be asked and some hard listening be done? Surely it is better that Sheikh Tantawi and Chief Rabbi Amar sit around the same table (when they don’t have to come) and listen to each other, isn’t it? Or would we prefer to keep them apart where lack of relationship/proximity can only lead to enmity, generalised (dehumanising) categorisations of ‘the other’ and lack of public accountability for what they do and do not say?
4. The non-monotheistic faiths must feel a bit put out by the language of ‘creation’ and ‘creator’ – used even by the atheist Nazarbayev in several speeches. They have constantly looked for other language to be used in agreed statements, but the dominant language of this 2009 Congress betrayed assumptions about theism that, were I (for example) a Buddhist, I would find irritating and excluding. I wonder if they will stick with the process despite this.
5. Hospitality is a mark of the generosity of the Kingdom of God and the hospitality of the wonderful Kazakh people is remarkable. Furthermore, this is a country that is young, optimistic and involved in creating its future – a big contrast to the tired cynicism of the west where we just try to patch up our institutions and reinvent ourselves without any new or radical energy to create something new.
6. Relationships are now well established to the point where we can move on to substantial discussion of tough themes such as the persecution of religious minorities. That has got to be better than not having a forum in which such discussion is possible.
Other questions remain and will need to be discussed in due course. But, for now, this Congress has ended with a presidential blessing, wonderful Kazakh music in an outdoor amphitheatre, the release of doves and balloons into the sky and a reception to get us fed before bed. Tomorrow will bring a lie in (at last), lunch with the British Ambassador, an afternoon seeing Astana with friends and an evening meal with Lyazzat and her mother. The plane back to London Heathrow via Istanbul leaves at 2.30am…