This article is part of a distinguished partnership series between the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs and the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs.
The Hilton Stadtpark hotel in Vienna, Austria, was buzzing with interfaith dialogue during the week of November 18. The year-old King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interfaith and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) held a global forum, followed immediately by the Global Assembly of Religions for Peace (RFP). Each meeting gathered hundreds of people, from far corners of the world, and costs were well in the millions of dollars. The central themes for both meetings focused on “the other” and included topics like identity, discrimination, treatment of minorities, communal relations and tensions, refugee issues, and the plight of the stateless.
Many who participated in these events basked in the chance to meet and hear interesting and inspiring people and to test out ideas and dreams. There was a feast of formal presentations, many opportunities to engage in informal dialogue, and an exploration of tough issues, including religious education and how best to include women and young people in the efforts of religious communities.
Many others, however, wrestled with questions about what could truly be achieved through such gatherings. They are expensive and demanding to organize, and the topics covered, especially in plenary sessions, tended to be quite broad. Above all, in a world where results and metrics are the terms of the day, the impact and benefits of global interfaith movements are singularly difficult to measure.
The skeptics notwithstanding, these events clearly matter. Global interfaith events have an undoubted place in helping to address the complex issues around religious roles in global politics and in global human development. They play a crucial role both by setting or refining agendas and by fostering interpersonal connections. Below are five key reasons for why global interfaith movements matter for international politics:
1. Networking. Networks matter. Meeting and interacting with people from different backgrounds is a golden opportunity and probably the most important benefit of these events. Sharing histories and experiences can be immensely reassuring and concretely helpful for those who address the wide range of topics linked to religion in their individual settings. Because many of those who came to Vienna work in relative isolation, meeting others and elaborating on ideas or experiences is a blessing.
2. Dialogue and Information Sharing. Dialogue at these events includes the literal bringing together of religious leaders to talk and share stories about important issues. It also involves the engagement of scholars from different fields in an arena designed to foster the nurturing or exploration of new ideas. This dialogue often seeks to address worldly issues with religious dynamics as part of efforts to contribute to global peace (climate change is an important example). Important lessons can be learned from hearing the varied ways people see world events and trends. I was taken aback by a deep skepticism throughout the Vienna events about global messages on poverty reduction; government reports about progress were categorically dismissed with the comment that they do not reflect realities on the ground. The questioning of "accepted" facts and understandings is an important benefit, however discomfiting.
3. Education. Both global events in Vienna focused on the important priority of education. Discussions focused on topics like theological exchanges, formal and informal education about the basic tenets of major religious traditions in the hope of enhancing “religious literacy,” education curricula, and civic education approaches. These topics are integral to the interfaith movement, reflecting a philosophy that knowledge is the best path to understanding and respect. While global interreligious events are ultimately a far cry from academic meetings in style, the intellectual menu is demanding and rich. They represent a different approach, one that looks essentially to stories and evocative rhetoric. This was readily visible in the keynote addresses at the Vienna events. William Vendley's speech linked the history of the interfaith movement with its present; Gunnar Stalsett's called courageously for a far more self-critical voice from religious leaders. The inherent nature of global interfaith events therefore helps set a pragmatic tone and outline goals for action.
4. Identifying Emerging Issues. Global interfaith forums can point towards emerging issues or slants on known problems. Examples include the full range of development issues (such as inequality, gender roles, and health challenges), climate change, and social media and new communications. The challenging of accepted “facts” at global interfaith events is an alert for “experts” to question matters that they have taken for granted and to seek out the distinctive knowledge that can be drawn from religious communities and their experiences.
5. Agenda-Setting. The heart of these global gatherings is framing issues and setting agendas. Voices of religious leaders can help set markers for future action where it is most needed. This agenda-setting aspect of interfaith movements allows religious ideas, institutions, and leaders to state their concern about certain policy issues and work toward a better tomorrow. Perhaps most important, when these meetings strike a chord that combines inspiration and realism they can highlight the vital (and often underappreciated) roles that religious ideas, institutions, and leaders can play in global affairs.
Religious ideas, institutions, and leaders are vital actors in global affairs today, but their distinctive insights are often underappreciated by policymakers and scholars alike. In the various settings where global issues are discussed (the United Nations, regional fora, and the G8 and G20), religious voices and perspectives are strikingly absent. Religious leaders would argue that, as a result, a host of practical, ethical, and spiritual perspectives are missing in discussions about today’s global policy concerns. Events that bring together large and diverse groups of religious leaders and experts from different world religions and regions thus meet an important need for international politics. They can help to highlight the inputs, worries, agendas, tensions, and prophetic insights of this group of global actors.