International Affairs, Peace & Human Security
"Beyond 11 September: Assessing Global Implications"
28 November - 1 December 2001
Annex IV

Challenge to Religions

I have been asked to present a brief paper on the above theme which might act as a discussion "starter". I do so, very conscious of my own inadequacy, but also in the realisation of the huge complexity of the subject.

The fact that the events of 11th September and its aftermath has immediately put religion in the dock is not surprising at all. The instant reaction of most people to the hijacked planes being used as missiles piercing through the twin-towers was, 'Islamic fundamentalists'. And of course, if you were roaming through the bazaars of Peshawar at that time, the cry "we will kill the Infidels" was loud and clear.
Such sentiments are further fuelled when one hears what is purported to have been said by Osama bin Laden :

"Every Muslim, the minute he can start differentiating, carries hate towards Americans, Jews and Christians. This is part of our ideology."
(The Times, London October 19th)
Yet the Western leadership, both political and religious has been in a denial mode, at least in public, about seeing the place of religions in this complex cobweb, (except of course the utterance about 'Crusades' by the President of the most powerfui nation on earth!). The phrase, 'clash of civilisations' has almost been banned in the Western media. No-one can ever dare suggest that religion is the only factor in the present scenario. There are of course, other contributory elements such as political, economic and social order. One can also understand and even appreciate that nuances of western culture do not easily discern their milieus in life through the prism of religions. But on the other hand to pretend and even deny the place of religious potency in human conflicts is being absurdly naive. I think it can be safely assumed that in most people's mind the association of religions with hatred, bigotry and conflict is quite overwhelming, and sadly human history bears testimony to it.

The challenge to religions will therefore have to be that they not only cleanse their bloody past, by promoting peace and harmonious living in our time, but also by actively engaging in issues of advocacy and justice. People of all religions need to accept a common responsibility towards this goal. In my understanding the only way forward towards achieving this, will lie through the mine fields of our age-old traditions and belief systems, which on the one hand have given us identity and vitality, but on the other a sense of separateness and consequent barriers in the human family. We really need a new paradigm; a new way of defining and living our religious lives, which might mean shaking our very foundations. Such an approach would mean that we identify our commonness and thus join our common threads. I think it is only in adopting such an approach that religions would become a force for good and a sign of hope for the whole humanity.

It is in the light of such an understanding and as a practitioner of a faith system, that I offer this discussion starter, knowing full well that it might cause offence to some and confusion for others - but this adventure has to begin.

Our Common Humanity

"All people are members of the same body
Created from one essence
If fate brings suffering to one member
The others cannot stay at rest.
You who remain indifferent to the burden of pain of others
Do not deserve to be called human."
Words of poet Saadi from Shiraz woven in a carpet at the UN Building in New York

Any attempt to talk about our common humanity seems like stating the obvious as we journey through life on this planet earth. But it is in understanding and appreciating its sharedness and to acknowledge that we intrinsically belong one to the other, that our survival depends upon. And yet it seems that the "Cain" in each one of us is never dormant and is always prowling around to devour its fellow humans, especially as demonstrated by the events of 11th September. The religions must endeavour to "tame this beast" and inculcate in us to amicably live with our neighbour. We need to rediscover the value and sanctity of life and also that it is the same, regardless of class, culture or creed.

Any observer of the present situation will easily identify the political and economic factors which continue to define our present world scene. The 'powerful nations' seem to use these tools in a menacing way and often with disdain. The 'poor' nations find themselves helpless under such weight, resulting in resentment and alienation.

It is poignant to note from the pronouncements attributed to Osama bin Laden that he seems to highlight both these aspects in referring to Palestine and Iraq, and also the economic exploitation through globalisation as some of the causes of al-queda's hate and actions. In doing so of course he holds America (and even the West) as the supreme exploiters of these situations.
The sentiments are well expressed in these words of Osama bin Laden:

"The enemy will not forget the days when we were slaves under 'istiaaman' (colonisation). As they have always done, they want to subvert Islam and keep us as slaves. This is a conflict between good and evil."
(The Times London, 15th November2001)

The religions need to help us understand afresh the nature of our common humanity and to take cognisance of where the political and economic systems of our shared humanity exploit and abuse human situations. The religions need to be both the voice of the oppressed and the conscience of the oppressor.


Our Common God

"We have One God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all"
St Paul in Ephesians Ch 4 v 6
This could be a very simple truth as experienced in the lives of people, and yet, what appears to be so transparently obvious has always caused us humans confusion and misunderstanding, often leading to strife and conflict. The fact is that we receive our knowledge of God in our own milieus, and we try to live out our relationship with and through Him in our own givenness. Thus He becomes a personal God, whom we almost claim to be exclusive to us, a kind of jealous possession. So it is in sharing Him out and proclaiming Him as a special offering that misunderstandings and conflicts emanate, because we often create Him in our own images.

For centuries we have known adherents of different religions claiming to go out to wars 'in defence of their god'. At times it has seemed as if even these different gods were at war with each other. The idea that we could be sharing one and the same God has often appeared abhorrent to some and confusing to most. A recent Church Times article in England, printed three quite irenic reflections on Islam today, written by three well respected British Muslim scholars. It received the following letter from one of its clergy readers. "I was ashamed to see what purports to be a Christian paper spreading Muslim propaganda. Your articles on the Muslim faith contain a very serious error. The Muslims do not worship the same "God" that Christians do. We worship "God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit" whereas the Muslims deny that Jesus is God. Their concept of Allah is based on the ideas of one man, whereas the Christian faith is based on the historical facts of the life of Jesus" (Letters, Church Times 19th October 2001). One has a lot of sympathy for such a View because the way in which this clergyman understands his belief system has to incorporate and acknowledge Jesus as an integral part of being the God. On the other hand, how could we equally limit God to our understanding only. God, if He is God, has to be bigger than human definitions. The only thing we can claim about God is what we experience of Him through our own finite understanding. It can be safely assumed that different religious traditions may be looking at different facets of the divine, but it certainly is the one and the same diamond. We all therefore have our own glimpse of God. For me, of course, Christ is the prism through which I look at and approach this God, yet even as I do so, I can and must acknowledge something of the light that streams from other facets (to continue the diamond metaphor).

With respect to those who hold different views to this, I do say that to deny the commonality of God is ultimately to deny God Himself.


Our Common Values

"Western civilisation has become utterly decadent"
"These rogue states are barbaric and primitive "
Street Voices
The way we live out our faith, humanity and other moral principles, combine together to give us our value systems. It seems when we talk about any kind of synchronisation of these systems there is often a strong resistance. Somehow people find themselves very vulnerable in exposing themselves to something which is outside their experience. Such a tension has become abundantly clear during recent times with our communication facilities and the notion of a global village. lt seems both sides accuse the other of demeaning human society.

These values seem to cover all aspects of our lives, both individually and corporately. They are reflected in spheres of lifestyle, environment, human rights and justice issues. However the tensions arise, for example, in the way Eastern cultures (especially Islamic) perceive the Western attitudes to human sexuality and family issues. The obverse is that the Westerners often accuse the Eastern cultures of primitiveness and crudeness, especially on issues of women and general oppression in their societies. Similar tensions can also be seen in attitudes towards the environment and economic situations. But perhaps one of the most emotional tensions is the claim that Western culture operates under a secular gospel, which is constantly invading the particularities of other cultures.

So the issue before us is whether we, in spite of our differences, etc, could still find a convergence point which we could use as a vehicle to meet our common challenges. We could share together the values which would enhance humanity and bring peace and justice into all situations. We need an appreciation that we have a common goal and that by sharing our value systems we might reach our Omega point, a "Global Ethic".


Our Common Mission!

In the light of all this can we ever have a concensus on a common mission for our common God and to our common humanity? Or would there inevitably be a clash of purpose and a clash of interest? Is there a realistic hope that in view of our common understanding of God and our desire to be of service to humanity, we can move forward in spite of our differences? or is this an anathema?

The challenge for such a common mission would have to be to face the issues which arise out of our common humanity and common values.

Our Common Charter!

Some years ago I proposed this at an International Conference. I reproduce it here especially in view of our current global situation and the role that religions can play in influencing it and through a process of reconciliation which hopefully could lead to the healing of nations:


Rt Revd Mano Rumalshah
General Secretary USPG
November 2001

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© copyright 2000 World Council of Churches. Remarks to: webeditor