Parliament of the Worldʹs Religions

Good people of the world, unite!

In early November, Toronto hosted one of the most vibrant and exciting events ever held under the banner of religion: "The Parliament of the World’s Religions”. Stefan Weidner went to hear the debate

Although little is known about it in Europe, the parliament can demonstrate a 125-year history: it first took place in 1893 on the side-lines of the World Expo in Chicago. For the first time in modern history, representatives of all the world’s major religions gathered to debate questions concerning faith.

The meeting marked the beginning of the rising popularity of Asian religions in the West. In particular Hindu and Zen-Buddhist representatives made their presence felt. Only Islam missed out, as the Sultan in Istanbul held a sceptical view of the project and prohibited official Muslim scholars from taking part. He suspected that the project was a concealed attempt at Christian missionary work.

Missionising off the agenda

But those times are past. Since it was revived in 1993 – by among others the German theologian Hans Kueng – Islam is not the only religion to boast a healthy contingent of representatives in the parliament, which meets every three to four years in changing locations. Also, missionary work is no longer on anyone’s agenda. Instead, the parliament is absolutely resolute in its focus on contemporary political issues, leaving no doubt as to its progressive approach.

Miguel de la Torre, former Director of the American Academy of Religion and Professor of Social Ethics in Denver, was not afraid to describe any religion that justifies oppression and violence as "satanic". He spoke of how as a young man, he excused the police officers who stopped him because he was a Latino to search his car for cocaine. Wasn’t it a good thing that they were taking steps to combat the drugs trade? This is what he told himself, in any case.

If self-colonisation results in you perceiving yourself through the eyes of the oppressor, it is better to seek an alternative worldview, regardless of the opinions of others, he said. Only through resistance can you protect your dignity, your humanity and discover your faith.

Religious inclusion was also on the agenda for children attending this yearʹs Parliament of the Worldʹs Religions in Toronto (photo: Stefan Weidner)
For a lived dialogue of religions: since it was revived in 1993 – by among others the German theologian Hans Kueng – Islam is not the only religion to boast a healthy contingent of representatives in the parliament, which meets every three to four years in changing locations

If he hadn’t added the word "faith", we might have imagined ourselves to be at a conference for the global environmentalist movement, rather than a meeting of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. When it came to criticising backward-looking patriarchal tendencies within religions there was no holding back.

It should however be noted: no-one was pointing fingers at others; the criticism was also always part self-criticism. For Islam, this task was significantly undertaken by two remarkable women: Sakena Yacoobi from Afghanistan, active in the area of women’s education since 1995, and Ingrid Mattson, the long-serving President of the Islamic Society of North America.

Campaign against child marriage

Yacoobi described how she had had to pull out all the stops to return to her family a girl who had been married off to a much older wealthy landowner. This man entrenched himself behind religion: Muhammad sanctioned this.

As a result of Yacoobi’s involvement, people began talking about the case and questioning whether such ancient religious permission should really still apply. Concerned about damage to his reputation, the landowner backed down. Other speakers pointed out that education is the best means to challenge the practice of child marriage – regardless of whether in the Indian or Islamic context.

Current refugee crises were also a major talking point. The fact that many of the speakers themselves had fled their home nations to come to Canada, often from the Islamic world, gave these debates even greater credibility: for example the Baha’is from Iran, escaping persecution after the Iranian Revolution; and the Yazidis from Iraq fleeing IS – a group that has by no means been conquered on all fronts. There were bitter complaints from the spiritual leader of the Druze community in Israel, Sheikh Mowafak Tarif, about the silence of the international public over the murder and abduction of several Druze in southern Syria by IS as recently as late October.

Art installation at the Parliament of the Worldʹs Religions (photo: Stefan Weidner)
Not genocide – "gender-cide": an art installation at the event presented the murderous truth: baby socks and baby shoes, made in the affected countries and hung on strings, formed a depressing labyrinth through which visitors walked. One pair of shoes represented ten thousand lost girls

The biggest cause of death is however not a genocide, but "gender-cide": the murder of people because of their gender. The victims are practically all girls and women. Every year, there are more than three million women fewer than the biological norm dictates. They are either aborted, die during childbirth, or for other reasons of severe disadvantagement.

An installation at the parliament manifested the murder: baby socks and baby shoes, made in the affected countries and hung on strings, formed a depressing labyrinth through which visitors walked. One pair of shoes represented ten thousand lost girls

Concern for the environment is religious

But the biggest issue was climate change. You don’t need to be religious to put that subject on the political agenda. It is obvious that concern for the climate and the environment is also a matter for religions. On the frontline:  indigenous communities, for example the Yanomami Indians in Brazil. Or Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq, elder and shaman from Greenland, who sees the ice melting away before his very eyes. One suspects that the secularised perception of nature as nothing more than object has much to learn from indigenous religions on this point.

But the ′high religions′ also now concern themselves with the environment. Pomnyun Sunim, Zen-Buddhist from South Korea, founded the environmental movement EcoBuddha. Pope Francis, present in the form of his environmental representative, followed with the encyclical "Laudato Si" in the year 2015. Ingrid Mattson is able to quote from the Koran. God intended man to be governor of the Earth. Therefore, he must protect it.

On the subject of climate change, progressive, alternative movements (of which the Parliament of the World’s Religions is one) have found their Archimedean point. It is hoped that from this vantage point, the global dominance of capitalism can be broken up.

This is a major concern shared by religions and non-religious people alike. In this context, calls for the absolute separation of religion and politics could begin to look reactionary: namely as an attempt to prevent the religions from taking a stand against unbridled liberalism – and for the environment.

Discourse perhaps too well-mannered

It is more difficult to imagine the compatibility of gender equality and religion working as smoothly as that of religion and the battle for the environment. It worked in Toronto, admittedly because conservative and fundamentalist groups were not in attendance. Neither Iranian scholars nor Saudi Salafists, Christian fundamentalists and ultraorthodox Jews were present.

This ′parliament′ does not have an official, institutional character. It is a gathering of people with similar concerns. But anyone believing his faith represents an exclusive claim to truth would have felt out of place in Toronto. The fact that religions no longer perceive themselves to be in competition with each other is huge progress. Nevertheless, the conference would have benefitted from a certain degree of discord.

"Interfaith" is the word often cited to describe the search for commonalities. In Toronto, often referred to as the world’s most multicultural city, it was impossible to determine the "us" and "them". White Canadians turned out to be Baha’is, the Buddhists came from Australia, a delegate from China made the case for a spiritual humanism. A Palestinian woman sang in English to Arab rhythms, while American musicians intoned Persian poetry by Rumi and the Portuguese dancer Carolina Fonseca performed a feminine take on the whirling Mevlevi dervish ritual.

If these cheerful and progressive religious representatives succeed in taking their enthusiasm and political engagement out onto the streets, religion could soon play a completely new role, even in the secularised West.

Stefan Weidner

© Qantara.de 2018

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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