In Dhaka on November 27th-28th 2018, Religions for Peace Bangladesh sponsored an international seminar on World Peace through Interfaith and Intrafaith Dialogue in association with Religions for Peace Asia. It was attended by about 140 religious and interfaith leaders together with religious scholars and researchers from Bangladesh and international attendees from Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
As part of the conference over two days, participants were taken to the home of Bangabandhu (friend of Bengal), Sheik Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of the Bangladesh nation in 1971 after India intervened to prevent the further killing of Bangladeshis. The Pakistani Army had massacred over 300,000 Bangladeshis after Pakistan endeavoured to impose the Urdu language amongst other measures. Later, very early on 15th August 1975, in a still murky episode a group of army and other dissenters massacred President Rahman and his whole family in the upstairs section of the house. Two daughters escaped because they were in Germany, and the eldest is now the longstanding Prime Minister.
The president of Religions for Peace Bangladesh, Principal Sukomal Barua, welcomed everyone on behalf of the ‘peace-loving people of Bangladesh’, recalling the history of Religions for Peace since 1970. In his view, the world is under the darkness of sorrow and suffering caused by violence, conflict and brutal fighting. He exhorted multifaith and civil communities to achieve peace in the face of religious extremism, including the establishment of interfaith mechanisms in policy and program. He saw the seminar as ‘a gathering of earnest people with honest aspirations with unmatched capacities to bring intelligence, thoughtfulness, creativity and leadership to bear on complex and difficult challenges.
The chairman of the Parliamentary Caucus on Indigenous Peoples, Mr. Fazle Hossain Badsha, spoke about how religion was being used against people, and some were trying to make Bangladesh even more Muslim than in the past. Fertile dangerous ideas were making progress in this Islamist cause and the attempt was to make Islam the state religion. Bangladesh was a complex country with not only the Sunni/Shia divide but other groups such as the Wahhabis, the Amaddiyahs etc.. The only way forward was to grow in dialogue.
In his address, the leader of the Chinese delegation, Venerable Shi Mingsheng, member of the National People’s Congress of China and Vice-President of the Chinese Buddhist Association, praised Religions for Peace Bangladesh for mounting this symposium. “Peace is the principal aim of our nation. Today we depend on each other and our fates are interlinked. This requires communication and cooperation”. Respect and inclusivism are advocated by all religions and we need many gifts, including careful reasoning and mindfulness, to bring nations emotionally together. He concluded, “I look forward to mutual enlightenment and complete success to this seminar”.
Mr Nobuhiro Masahiro Nemoto, secretary-general of Religions for Peace Asia, gave his heartfelt congratulations to Religions for Peace Bangladesh for this timely and very important seminar. His address focused on borders for “we have created too many borders between ourselves” even though all of us are children of God or the Buddha – there is a regrettable tendency to forget this essential fact. “Syrians, Ethiopians and Brazilians are also our neighbours”. Unfortunately, new borders are being drawn. In Mr Nemoto’s view, our aspiration ought to be to create a common space for humanity, a shared collective identity, this shiny blue globe in space that we call Earth. He emphasized that in overcoming the walls, the barriers and the boundaries, ‘the risk of dialogue’ can change the world. The right way of living is living with diversity, and dialogue overcomes this diversity. “We are never entirely powerless.”
The Moderator of Religions for Peace Asia, Professor Din Syamsuddin from Indonesia, likewise congratulated Religions for Peace Bangladesh for its initiative. He suggested that in the post-Cold War period the world is still striving for peace. No society is any longer monolithic and “dialogue under God is for mutual appreciation and mutual cooperation, built on honesty, commitment and the togetherness of friendship. Finding common ground is a noble undertaking and yet the flow of information is still too much of a monologue”. Alluding to Islamic terrorism, Professor Syamsuddin suggested that part of the problem today was the need for intrafaith dialogue for Islam is about love and mercy. But “let us be optimistic, especially in Asia and its emergence”.
The major address was given by Professor Syed Anwar Husain, Professor of Bangabandhu Studies at the University of Dhaka. Drawing on the thinking of the European philosophers Jeremy Bentham and Immanuel Kant and the Catholic theologian Hans Kung, he described peace in terms of tranquillity acquired, distinguishing between positive and negative peace. He examined the concept of peace from the perspectives of the major religions such as the Hindu concept of peace in terms of the planets and the stars. He related interfaith dialogue to the Islamic principle of ‘know others’, based on mutuality and cooperation. He concluded that religion has become the tool of religious dissension but there was no need to compete for religious superiority, but a need for the acceptance of religious plurality.
Mr. Vaseduvan, Director for the Indian Council for Gandhian Studies in Delhi and chair of Religions for Peace India, spoke of Asia as the mainspring of all the world’s great religions, making Asia one in spite of its diversity. The world was moving towards oneness with the growing interdependence of nations as the Vedic sages had envisioned ages ago. He stressed the universality of values, and spoke of the soul (“Atma’ or Consciousness) shared by all. A manifest expression of this is the Eastern way of greeting (joining both palms folded together) which is founded on the principle that one salutes the spark of the divine in the other. He condemned the rigid absolutization and supremacism as the root cause for all religious conflicts.
Mr. Vasudevan stressed “the Middle Way”, meaning moderation and avoidance of extremes, as a positive universal principle. “Everything in nature follows the Middle Path” as seen in the functioning of the human body. Buddha is the clearest exponent of the Middle Way but it can be found in the great thinkers and religious leaders such as Confucius, Jesus and Guru Nanak. In India it was seen in Mahatma Gandhi. The United Nations, despite the need to re-program the organization, is a great example of humanity’s quest for the Middle Way. In making progress towards a peaceful Middle Way, each nation state must have (i) a liberal, secular (non-theocratic) constitution, (ii) popular participatory democracy and democratic institutions (iii) morally trained intelligent leadership (iv) independent-minded religious scholars to revisit and re-interpret sacred texts, wherever necessary and (v) willingness to engage in interfaith and intrafaith dialogue for conflict reduction and conflict resolution.
On the second day, the opening address was given by the executive president of Religions for Peace Bangladesh, Professor Ranajit Kumar Dey, Dean of the Faculty of Business Administration at the BGC Trust University in Chittagong. He began by speaking of the role of religion in providing religious experience, providing peace of mind, promoting social solidarity, conserving the value of life and acting as an agent of social control. But he also warned of the dysfunctions of religion when it retards progress in the name of conservatism, promotes evil practices, creates confusion, contradictions and conflicts, contributes to inequalities and exploitation, preserves superstitious beliefs, wrecks unity, undermines human potentiality, promotes fanaticism, retards scientific achievements and engages in proselytization and competitive expansive practices through powermongering and proclaiming the superiority of one’s own tradition based on a shallow or no knowledge of other religious traditions. He ended by stressing the role of the state inasmuch as the constitution should protect religious freedom, with a complete separation of religion and state, the prohibition of discrimination and criticism of other religions and an independent commission to look at religious policies and practices that cause division and dissension.
Imam Mu Kefa from the Chinese Committee of Religions for Peace said the basis for the seminar was very good as he took a Chinese Muslim perspective. The function of religion is to serve society and the State and to promote harmony and stability. Firstly, it should serve society with charitable activities, including showing respect for the elders. Secondly, it needed, as does Islam, to promote and teach the Middle Way, eschewing Islamism and other extremisms and thirdly, living in harmony with all ethnic minorities, creating unity and tolerance.
Emeritus Professor Desmond Cahill, chair of RfP Australia and deputy moderator of RfP Asia, addressed the issue of religious leadership since religious leaders were now under greater scrutiny and accountability, especially in the context of global cities (10+ million) of which there were ten in Asia out of 21 in the world. They were called to act as bearers and witnesses to their great religious traditions but in today’s world of diversity: to be authentically religious one also had to be interreligious. Religious leaders needed to collaborate with governments in working for peace in their own countries, monitoring and critiquing government actions or lack of action in constructing a civil society. According to the scientifically-based Global Peace Index, the eight pillars of peace are (a) a well-functioning government, (b) a sound business environment, (c) a equitable distribution of resources, (d) an acceptance of the human rights of others, (e) good relationships with neighbouring nations, (f) the free flow of information, (g) high levels of human capital and (h) low levels of corruption.
Professor Cahill added that religious leaders, as part of this commitment, needed to work for social cohesion and stability as well as interreligious harmony, built upon the five dimensions of (i) creating a sense of belonging (ii) ensuring social justice and equity (iii) encouraging social and political participation, especially by minority groups (iv) bringing about acceptance of newcomers and minorities and (v) forging a sense of worth in all people, especially vulnerable people such as women and children. Leaders also had a responsibility to educate their own religious community in all these matters as well as about the danger and damage caused by racism, discrimination and social neglect. He concluded, “Contrary to secularized Europe, Asia in all its diversity has an essentially religious and spiritual vision which is built around rational, creative and constructive dialogue which leads to progress, reconciliation and understanding”. Associate Professor Tapan De Rozario of the University of Dhaka reinforced these same points in outlining the steps for dialogue for religious leaders, especially in contributing to post-conflict peace building, “religious leaders can shepherd the mourning, apology, repentance and forgiveness processes that must occur before true resolution and peace are possible”.
Mr Mohammed Yasin from the Dhaka Baha’i community stressed that there cannot be a difference in the fundamentals of the religious traditions because “all the Messengers of God are like spiritual sun, who appeared in this world to guide us towards a better life both materially and spiritually”. Subodh Chandra Das focused on the inner meaning of globalization derived from Sikhism for “we are all sons of the same Father; Thou are my great Lord!” Shouvik Barua, former president of the youth wing of RfP Bangladesh framed his remarks around selfishness which had become almost the norm. It was contrary to our interdependence and the richness of our diversity and resilience.
The Rohingya Issue
Much attention was given to the issue of the Rohingya refugee movement into Bangladesh. Several Bangladeshi speakers led by the secretary-general of Religions for Peace, Dr Abu Bakar, who is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chittagong, spoke of the situation in the Rakhine State and across the border with Bangladesh. Local conflict had been generated because the Rohingyas now outnumbered the local population. Another issue was ecological because the cutting of timber for the camps and for campfires was creating the danger of landslides. Other emerging problems were drug trafficking (especially yaba or the madness drug) in association with local illegal traders and the trafficking of women within and beyond Bangladesh. Dr Bakar focused on the ‘golden opportunity that has been created “for Islamic fundamentalism and the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Association (ARSA) which with its IS network was planning to train 10,000 cadres to pursue terrorist activities in South East Asian countries”.
RfP International with RfP Chittagong had implemented a number of projects, distributing mosquito nets, rice (12 tonnes) and household materials at the end of 2017 and early in 2018 after the strengthening of the Bangladeshi chapter. Mr U Myint Swe, President of Religions for Peace Myanmar, spoke openly of the situation in his country. He drew attention not only to the Rakhine State situation but also to the equally serious situation in the mainly Christian Kachin State where the Kachin Independence Army was in serious conflict with the Myanmar military who were being supported by China, presumably because access to the Indian Ocean through Myanmar was crucial to its Belt and Road Initiative. He related how in May 2018 a RfP delegation has visited Myanmar including to the refugee camps led by Bishop Stalsett of Norway and Rev. Sugino, Deputy Secretary-General of Religions for Peace International. They had met in Nay Pyi Taw with State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi with other attendees being Cardinal Bo, Archbishop of Yangon, Al Haj U Aye Lwin, head of the Islamic Centre in Yangon and the foundation President of RfP Myanmar, as well as U Myint Swe himself. A follow-up meeting had occurred in October involving the Myanmar government, the military, parliamentarians from both sides, UN agencies, ASEAN, ICRC, national and international NGOs and other religious leaders and experts in order to hammer out a way forward. For the refugees to return, trust was of the utmost importance, especially trust in the Myanmar army, which through bitter experience had been lacking in the past.
In conclusion, Religions for Peace Myanmar needs to be commended for holding this conference as it brought together key religious leaders and academics from across the country to link with a selection of RfP Asia leaders and other experts. It was a rich exchange of ideas that did not skirt around the problems of religiously inspired terrorism and the Rohingya refugee issue. It was an example of dialogue in action. On November 13th, 2018, in the Washington National Cathedral, one of the world’s foremost Muslims gave a special address. King Abdullah II of Jordan had just been presented with the prestigious Templeton Prize for outstanding services to religion. He said that as Muslims
“we are working on every continent to defend Islam against the malignant sub-minority who abuse our religion. And we do this not to please our friends, not to please the world, but to please God. And as long as there is life in our bodies and faith in our hearts, we will continue to do so … … The great commandments to love God and to love our neighbour are found again and again in Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other faiths around the world. It is a profound message, calling every one of us to look beyond ourselves. And this outward insight is the source and hope of all co-existence”.