The UN’s World Interfaith Harmony Week, coinciding as it did with the birthday of the Prophet Muhammed, is perhaps not coincidental. The impetus behind the resolution launching the activity came from the Muslim countries in the Middle East where some leaders, notably King Abdullah of Jordan, were very concerned that extremists had seized the religious agendae and were bent on using religion as a force for conflict rather than peace.
The resolution explicitly mentions the Tripartite Forum on Interfaith Cooperation for Peace, and the initiative “A Common Word”. The former is a five year old initiative that included the members of the UN General Assembly, religious bodies and NGO’s, while the latter is an initiative of Muslim scholars who have been pursuing better interfaith understanding through dialogue with Christian churches. Islam regards Christians and Jews as ‘people of the Book’ since they regard the Bible (‘The Book’) as the common source for their beliefs.
The UN resolution, “Encourages all States to support, on a voluntary basis, the spread of the message of interfaith harmony and goodwill in the world’s churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and other places of worship during that week, based on love of God and love of one’s neighbour or on love of the good and love of one’s neighbour, each according to their own religious traditions or convictions.” The phrase “Love of God and Love of the Neighbour” is a foundational one of the ‘Common Word’ group.
What is significant about the resolution is that the exhortation seems to go beyond the usual calls for ‘religious tolerance’ that had characterised previous similar initiatives. Representatives of religions and traditions not of ‘the Book’ had objected to what they defined as the ‘condescending premises’ of the term ‘tolerance’. They claimed it assumed ‘forbearance’ or ‘putting up’ with something you still believe is wrong. They had demanded ‘mutual acceptance’ of each other’s paths.
‘Love of one’s neighbour, each according to their own religious traditions or convictions’ would seem to call for acceptance and love for those that have convictions of the existence of ‘no gods’ much less the ‘many gods’. This had been the bugbear of previous efforts at religious harmony. We believe that this ‘mutual acceptance’ is a very historic milestone in the slow evolution of world religious harmony and the leaders of Guyana must be commended for being in the forefront of this initiative. Guyana was one of only twenty-nine signatories of the resolution.
The leaders of the various religions in our country must also be commended. While the various foundational religious texts all emphasise peace, we must concede that individual representatives of the religions have often interpreted them otherwise. Jordan’s King Abdullah emphasised this point when he proposed the idea to the General Assembly on Sept. 23, 2010: “It is … essential to resist forces of division that spread misunderstanding and mistrust, especially among peoples of different religions. The fact is, humanity everywhere is bound together, not only by mutual interests, but by shared commandments to love God and neighbour, to love the good and neighbour.”
The warning of Jordan’s Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal, of ‘A Common Word’, just before the UN vote on the resolution in 2010 bears repetition; “Yet the forces inciting interreligious tensions (notable among them being religious fundamentalists of various kinds) are better organised, more experienced, better coordinated, more motivated and more ruthless. They have more stratagems, more institutes, more money, more power and garner more publicity such that they by far outweigh all the positive work done by the various interfaith initiatives. The sad proof of this is that religious tensions are on the rise, not on the decline.”
As President Ramotar pointed out at the launch of our commemoration of ‘World Interfaith Harmony Week’, Guyana has been a beacon of religious harmony for many years. While because of our history that harmony might have been founded on the notion of ‘religious tolerance’, we can be at the forefront of the new aspiration that calls for ‘harmony’ based on ‘mutual acceptance’.