MOSCOW – Arbat Street has always been compared to Oxford Street in London, or 5th Avenue in Manhattan, or Istiklal Street in Istanbul. These streets are well known for their shopping malls, amusement centers, and their beggars. While walking along Arbat Street, I saw a wonderful rainbow. As the rain, the symbol of mercy, was falling, it collided with the sunbeams in the sky of Moscow. It was as if the seven colors had combined to crown the sky. While everyone was trying to immortalize this moment with their cameras, my mind was already busy with this question: “Will the different colors of the world be able to gather and produce such a picture in the international meeting that starts tomorrow?”
We didn’t have long to wait. The next morning the opening ceremony of the conference entitled “From Terrorism to Universal Ethics: Religions and Peace” in Moscow, staged by Dialogue Eurasia Platform of the Journalists and Writers Foundation and the Russian Institute of Oriental Studies, reflected the same colorful picture of the rainbow the day before. Turkish folk music singer Mahsun Kirmizigul performed the song “The Song of Religions” and 48 children in groups of eight, all dressed in white, came onto the stage with scarves of different colors that represent richness of diversity. Following this colorful performance, 14 spiritual leaders and ecclesiastics took their respective seats: Mark Yegoryevskiy, the representer of Alexi II, the Patriarch of the Russian-Orthodox Church; Emmanuel Adamakis, Metropolitan of France; Priest Sahak Mashalyan, the representative of the Turkish Armenian Patriarch; the assistant of Ravil Gaynutdin (the mufti of the Muslims in Russia); Prof. Mustafa Cagrici, the mufti of Istanbul; Ishak Haleva, the Chief Rabbi of Turkish Jews; Syrian Ancient Community Metropolitan Yusuf Cetin; Yusuf Sag, Vice Patriarch of the Syriac Catholic Community; Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, from India, the founder of The Art of Living Foundation; Byung Do Min, Buddhist Priest from South Korea; Tizen Giok Sang, the Buddhist priest, the representative of the Dalai Lama; Bingkil Irawan, the representative of the Confucius Community of Indonesia; Jadi Nugroho Damaris, the leader of the Protestant Community in Indonesia. Some of them prayed according to their own beliefs and some of them shared their ideas. Then they all planted a “Tree of Love” in a glass sphere that had a world map drawn on. The sphere was filled with earth that had been taken from different parts of the world, and then the children carried water in their hands in order to show everyone how difficult it is to help an olive tree to grow, the symbol of peace.
It was not surprising to see the use of such symbols in order to relay impressive messages at the beginning of the ceremony; interestingly, the four fundamental concepts (terrorism, universal ethics, religion, and peace) that are usually defined differently and toward which different approaches are generally adopted were all discussed under the same heading. What is more, the conference was held in the city of Moscow; a city that was the capital of a country where it used to be imposed that “religion is the opium of the masses.” This meeting was held near the Duma, the sub-parliament of the Russian Parliament, and about 100 yards from Red Square.
In addition to the role the city played in the past and the significance of the subject, the hall where the conference was held was also important. The sessions were held in a conference hall called the Kalani Zal; formerly this had been where important decisions had been made and where the funeral of Stalin, a leader who had put religious groups under great pressure, was conducted 52 years ago. In this hall, adorned with dozens of chandeliers, large and small, the participants expressed their pleasure in being there, as well as stressing the need for perpetual peace in the world. The fact that the writer Chingiz Aytmatov expressed his feelings in the following way indicates the importance of the meeting: “This symposium stems from a need. We have organized it so that we can strive to form common values; this is what life forces us to do. Why does terror exist with the technology that we have developed? Why are people still killing each other? For what reason has terrorism been identified with Islam? We have all just celebrated the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. While its sorrow is still fresh in our heart, why is terrorism still on the agenda? We are here to answer these questions. In the past we used to gather in this hall for important occasions. Now it is good that we are here for different goals.”
A Platform geared up
In fact for a long time the DA (Dialogue Eurasia) Platform has been organizing meetings and publishing books in order to try to meet the concerns expressed by Aytmatov. The meeting in Moscow was a part of such efforts, but one detail separated this symposium “From Terrorism to Universal Ethics: Religions and Peace” from the others. In the past, these activities had been limited only to the region of Eurasia and the area of Abrahamic faiths; now they had gone one step beyond. Among the many participants from 38 countries there were Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and Confucians; the geographical boundaries ranged from the United States, Canada, Bulgaria, Georgia, India, South Korea, and Indonesia. Such an expansion to include almost the entire world shows the ground that the DA Platform had covered in a very brief time.
During the meeting people expressed their dissatisfaction with the trend that was now prevalent throughout the world. The deadlock that Western civilization had reached and is now facing was often referred to, as well as the attempts to find a solution to the problems and the expression of the need for alternative approaches. The participants were aware of the problems, but when it came to solutions, the common points made way to different insights and approaches. Ratislav Ribekov, the President of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Oriental Studies, dwelled on the role of religion in this subject, saying, “All the religions must be in the struggle for good and bad; they must join forces.” Prof. Ilber Ortayli, the second-term president of the DA, said “Peace means religion and religion means peace. Each and every religion tries to realize this by striving for peace.” With this sentence, he sent a clear message to those who were trying to make a connection between “terrorism” and “religion.” Anar, the Chairman of the Writers Foundation in Azerbaijan, also spoke on the point made by Ilber Ortayli and he reminded us that all cooperation and reciprocal understanding begin with dialogue. Muhammed Nur Hidayet, the President of the Assembly in Indonesia, emphasized the importance of “being constructive without being destructive,” showing the approach that should be adopted.
The symposium consisted of five sessions. In the first session, “The Obstacles of Global Peace and Critical Views,” Dr. Kamran Mofid from England presented a paper with a heading of “Violence or Dialogue?” Born in Iran, Mofid stated that the world was enraged and displeased and said “Bombs explode everyday. People are killed. That is not the type of world that God wishes for.” A lecturer in economics, Mofid said that he had noticed the close connection between economics and theology, and that economics inseminates people with the idea “You can be happy through consumption”; theology states that the same happiness can be realized with the help of love and compassion. “Money is important. Being rich or trading are also important. But those who deal with money should know that wealth is attained only for a noble goal.”
Mofid also said “We talk continuously about economic growth and prosperity at school, on the street, and on TV. We have focused too much on production and consumption. However, we do not discuss whether economic growth can bring justice. Then why do we produce something? What is our aim? What is more, what is the goal of the journey we call ‘life’?” He stated that the world was in need of a spiritual revolution and we should contemplate the concept of “common benefit.”
The second speech was made by Prof. Hassan Hanafi from the Cairo University. The title of his paper was “Violence and the Factual Analysis of the Violence Thesis Based on the Enlightenment Theory Opposing Violence.” Hanafi said “It is easy to curse terrorism, but it is difficult to reveal its sources. We want to extirpate the source of violence and terror from the world, but it is a hard to admit that we are desperate.” He stated that violence and terror were social facts and that tendency toward violence decreases as people gained their liberty. He said “We often accuse others, saying ‘I’m innocent.’ We even say ‘my violence is good,’ but apart from individual violence, there is also the violence of organized groups and even states.” He stated that terrorism has become a global “phenomenon” and that the mass media has played an essential role in this process. The final speaker of the first session was J. C. Kapur, publisher of The Journal of International Issues and president of the Kapur Surya Foundation in New Delhi. Unfortunately, he was not able to participate in the symposium, so his paper, “Challenges on the Pathways to Peace,” was read by someone else. Kapur stressed that the misconstruction of secularism had caused the erosion of ethical values in society.
The title of the second session, conducted by Prof. Dogu Ergil, was “Religion, Belief and Tradition: the Contribution to Universal Ethics.” In this session, Prof. Dimitri Kitsikis dwelled on the role of religions for the maintenance of peace in a globalizing world. Claiming that nation states are steadily disappearing, Kitsikis said “The European Union is openly directing its efforts, in its integration process, to replace nation states with regions. In time, all nation states will be carved up into regions inside the European Union.” Drawing attention to the process of Turkey’s membership, he stated that some regions were being encouraged toward autonomy in some member countries of the EU: “Turkey should be aware of what is awaiting her when she joins the European Union as a full member.”
No peace project can continue without religion
Presenting a paper with the title “The Importance of Interreligious Dialogue in the Middle East Peace,” Rabbi David Rosen from Israel talked about the misuse and exploitation of religion. Stating that religion adds meaning and goals to our lives, he said “Religion surely brings identity to a person. Who am I? What is my aim? Of course the answers to these questions disclose our psycho-moral values.” He also commented on the reflection of religion and the identity relationship in the Israeli-Palestine conflict in the Middle East: “The Israeli-Palestine conflict is in fact a regional problem. This is a conflict over land. This can be solved by a regional concession, namely the giving of some land. Of course, this should be done with the affirmation of both parties. Unfortunately, this has not yet been realized. This regional conflict has turned into a religious conflict. Now a party is using religion to try to remove the other, while the other side is trying to defend itself in the same way. A conflict for land can be solved by means of land concessions.” Stressing that the components of religion and identity have become intertwined, Rosen thinks that we should make religion a part of the solution. If we exclude religion, it could hang over our heads. No peace project can be lasting without benefiting from religion.
Submitting a paper with the title of 'Can Sufism be a Base for a Universal Ethics?' Prof. Kenan Gursoy put the same emphasis on this matter: 'Those who have tried to exclude religion are now unsuccessful. Today we have to discuss the problems without avoiding religion. If religion becomes the means of domination instead of bringing an inner peace, then we must evaluate it in the name of humanity and ethics. Modernity has become ethics of division and there is no space for differences there. In this part of the symposium, Associate Prof. Irina Kudrasava of the Foreign Relations Institute of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Russia made a speech that gave some important clues about Moscow"s perspective on world politics, and particularly on terrorism. Having stated that after the collapse of the Soviet Union there had been a process of globalization and that the liberal model was in effect all over the world, Kudrasava thought that globalization had introduced serious problems in terms of economy and humanity in the Islamic geography. Therefore, many Muslims believe that Christians and Jews were waging a war against Muslims. On the contrary, there is no such thing; this is merely the result of political injustice. Expressing that globalization made human beings Western and that the West is viewing the rise of Islam as being 'aggressive and dogmatic,' Irina Kudrasava went on to say that, 'Islam is perceived as a phenomenon that must be kept under control. Therefore the West behaves like a policeman and keeps Islam within limits.'
According to Kudrasava, globalization had made countries dependant on each other. 'Today there are 15-20 million Muslims in Europe. These are not only the emigrants coming from outside of Europe, but also Europeans that have accepted Islam. The priority of the first emigrants was economic independence. Religion and culture became more important for the children of the first emigrants. There are foundations, mosques, houses of culture, and publications that belong to the Muslims in Europe now. In short, there has been an Islamic revolution in Europe.' Evaluating the end of the second session, Dogu Ergil said that, 'Humans are like a family. Individuals are responsible to one another in matters of independence, prosperity, and security. This leads to an insight of morality. Almost everybody answers the question of 'Can religion form such a common ethical insight?' by saying that it is possible. Religions must be part of the solution, not the problem. Therefore, religions must establish dialogue with each other in the name of compromise.' On the second day of the symposium, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, from India, was the chairman of the session. Abd al-Wahid Pallavicini, the President CO.RE.IS. Italiana, was unable to participate in the symposium for the first speech. Prof. Ahmed Abdulveli Vincenzo, from Napoli Frederico II University read Pallavicini"s paper, 'What is European Islam?' on his behalf. Stating that in terms of sociology the existence of a large number of Muslims is being perceived as if there were many forms of Islam, Vincenzo went on to say that Islam was a universal religion and addresses everyone. Believing that concepts like fundamentalism, civilization, and tolerance have been misunderstood, he said 'Fundamentalism was born in a Baptist Church in the US. It made religious concepts political. Fundamentalism does not exist in Islam. It is an ideology. The civilization philosophy of Islam can only be explained in terms that we call umran, which means 'the existence of God in society.'
Umran is a concept that shows that human beings are equal and a concept which has a universal quality.' Stating that dialogue is one of the key concepts between Muslims and Western Europe, Vincenzo said, 'The religion that is the majority religion in a region must approach other minority religions with tolerance. Freedom of religion in Europe does not necessarily mean that all religions in Europe have the same conditions; Islamic groups are not treated with equality to other Christian groups. For a multi-cultural Europe, it is essential that we get in touch with those Islamic groups that are on this continent and that the Muslims tell the Europeans about the universality and encompassing nature of Islam.' Presenting a paper under the title of 'Synagogue, People, and Ethics' Zinoviy Kogan, Chief Rabbi of Russia, stated that Russia is a country where celestial religions have existed for a long time, that an interreligious platform has been founded in the structure of the Russian Federation, and that they amicably live with the Muslims of Russia. 'Ministers should attach importance to dialogue instead of highlighting the areas of dispute. Stalin tried to eradicate the Jews and other people who belonged to other religions. We got rid of him; we saw him off 50 years ago in this hall.'
In the second session of the second day, individual and civil society dynamics and universal ethics were discussed. Chingiz Aytmatov was the chairman of this session and Prof. Memetsho Illolov expressed that peace was being maintained in the Eurasia region and that there was dialogue among both political figures and non-governmental organizations. Then, presenting a paper under the heading of 'Democracy and the Human Rights Problem in the Traditions of Western and Islamic Law,' Prof. Leonid Sukiyanen, one of the most eminent experts of Islamic Law in Russia, stated that the Islamic world and other religions have some serious problems when it comes to understanding each other. According to Sukiyanen, human rights and democracy today are explained in terms of liberal concepts. Therefore, Western countries tell Islamic countries that 'If you want democracy, betray your Islamic principles.' Extremist Muslims appear under the flag of Islam and claim that there is no common point between them, the West, and democratic values. On the contrary, Islamic principles have arguments that support dialogue among civilizations.
A discussion of the legal system
After this evaluation, Sukiyanen went on to say that, 'Politics should support the democrats, not the extremists.' He also mentioned different cultural structures and problems, reminding us that in some countries some rights have only recently been given to women. Saying that 'There may be some kind of compromise between West and Islam on some common points, like human rights,' Sukiyanen suggested that within the scope of Dialogue Eurasia, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish jurists could meet and discuss their own law systems. In his paper, 'The Role of the Civil Society in Preventing International Terrorism' Alexander Dichek, the President of the Ukraine Anti-Terror Center, said that modern terrorism had become a social fact that had reached very dangerous dimensions. Stating that it is not possible to eradicate terrorism through sheer force, he said 'We do not divide civilization into West-East or Islam-Christianity.' According to Dichek, terrorism has demanding economic and human resources conditions. Therefore, in order to struggle with the fact that 'systematic terrorism' has a huge structure, it is inevitable that a new national security architecture be founded. The last speech in the same session belonged to Ali BulaÃ§, the columnist from the daily newspaper Zaman. Dividing the world into two categories, as 'the region of crisis' and 'the region of potential crisis,' BulaÃ§ said that the main question we should be asking must be, 'Can we solve these conflicts with the accumulation of knowledge and experience we have?' Claiming that what we have learned in the 200 years since the Enlightenment had not been enough to find a solution to the existing problems, Ali Bulaç went on to say that people are seeking solutions outside of the West. He also stated that the Madina Agreement was a good reference for the solution of the problems of the world. In the last session of the symposium, named 'Applicable and Sustainable Peace Projects,' Prof. HervÃ© Legrand, Sergey Lazarev and Rabbi Brad Hirschfield presented their papers. Finally, Dr. Gunduz Aktan, former Turkish ambassador to the Geneva office of the UN made the conclusive remarks about the event. In brief, 'religion and religious arguments' were the basic ingredients of the two-day symposium.
This report was originally published in Aksiyon, issue # 549, Istanbul, and we thank Kemal Budak for its translation into English.