By Alessandro Lundini
On June 10-11 the Kazakh capital Astana hosted the fifth Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions for the discussion on inter-faith and inter-cultural dialogue and on how to counter the spread of radicalism and terrorism.
The Congress, attended by more than 80 delegations coming from 40 countries, marked another important step in the policy of “dialogue of civilization” promoted by Kazakhstan, which confirmed itself as one of the leading countries in supporting the establishment of peace and accord.
In fact, wanted by the Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Congress held its first summit in 2003 and it represents one instrument of the policy of the dialogue of civilizations implemented by Nazarbayev since Kazakhstan gained independence in 1991. In a country with a heterogeneous ethnic and religious composition (during Soviet period, Kazakhs were minority in their own republic. Now the balance is largely in favor of the Kazakh community) government managed to save political integrity and social balance through the definition of a new national identity, characterized by the building of a secular, moderate and inclusive State in religious and ethnic matters.
In this context, the Congress of Leaders represents the attempt to find a way of international dialogue and, at the same time, to show to the world the model of coexistence realized by the country. The 2015 edition was marked by the advance of the menaces of terrorism and extremism in many areas as well as other political controversies, wars and factors of instability. During the plenary sessions and the panels, religious representatives discussed, along with various political leaders and officials of the main international organizations, about the role of religion in contemporary society, the value of the dialogue and the role of religious leaders in preventing wars and in promoting social harmony. In addition to Nazarbayev, whose remarks opened and concluded the Congress, the Astana summit was attended by the Secretary General of UN Ban Ki Moon, the King of Jordan Abdullah II of Jordan, the Finnish President Sauli Ninistö, OSCE Secretary Genral Lamberto Zannier, Secretary General the Organization of Islamic Cooperation Iyad Amin Madani and others.
The presence of such relevant policy makers signed the ever more important international role achieved by the Congress and Kazakhstan in field of dialogue of civilization. In fact, after 12 years, the Astana summit continues to offer a unique chance to gather religious leaders in order to identify a common platform of values for pacific coexistence, mutual respect and for the individuation of measures against the distortion of religious values that fuel hate and violence. Moreover, the role of religious leaders is increasingly appreciated by policy-makers, in order to prevent international crises.
The speeches were influenced by the geopolitical actuality, especially by the rise of fundamentalist groups – like ISIS and Boko Haram – and the growing tensions in different regions that pose threats to international stability. The participants agreed in identifying religion and their leaders as a source of peace and international security, rejecting the idea of religion as the cause of violence and wars. At the same time, they underlined the necessity of dialogue but also they gave a growing attention to the eradication of the socio-economic roots that cause the diffusion of radical movements.
In the opening speech, Nazarbaev underlined how his country is following the examples of the ancient societies in creating multi-national societies, especially considering that only two decades ago Kazakhstan was under the domination of an atheistic and anti-religious regime. He also condemned those terrorist groups that use the name of God to try to justify their crimes.
Then the Kazakh President proposed at the attention of the participants some ideas for the international security, the contrast to extremism and social development: the necessity to stop all conflicts; the commitment to solve controversies in a political and peaceful manner and to stop the re-emergence of “cold war divisions”; the duty of mass media to avoiding the spread of violence, racism, hate and, at the end, the involvement of states and societies in supporting efforts directed to eradicate hungry, poverty, unemployment and natural disasters.
The Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon, took the floor after Nazarbayev during the plenary session of June 10. He expressed his concern for the spread of radicalism and the actual geopolitical phase, saying: “The global security landscape continues to shift dramatically”. He underlined that religion is not the cause of problems and that religious leaders can play a positive role in promoting harmony, peace and tolerance. At the same, Ban Ki Moon made a call to policy-makers, who “must recognize a powerful truth: the larger the spaces for democracy and fundamental freedoms, the smaller the chances for extremism and violence”.
A strong attack to extremism and fundamentalism was made by King of Jordan Abdullah II, who said that Muslims around the world are under attack by fundamentalist who “distorts our faith to try to justify monstrous crimes”, even if they represent only a little minority of the Islamic community. He talked of the necessity of a new commitment by States and by international community to intervene to eradicate the social-economic conditions that are the cause of the spread of extremism. He also recalled his initiative for the unity and harmony among Muslims, the “Message of Amman”, and stressed the function of religious leaders in “showing the way and turning this world away from the evils of violence and division”.
The Congress in Astana saw the organization of moments of dialogue among religious leaders and associations in the four panels scheduled, where delegates expressed their views and confronted themselves each other. The panel’s topics were related to the role of religious and political leaders, the influence of religion on youth, the relation between religion and politics and the importance of dialogue.
What emerged by the speeches was the importance to strengthen inter-faith dialogue. Almost all the delegation perceived the seriousness of the actual international situation, stressing that dialogue hasn’t to be considered a sort of dangerous “religious syncretism”, but a tool to achieve peace. As Catholic Cardinal Tauran, the President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, pointed out, the threat to dialogue comes from those who are not sure in their faith and identity. Heidi Kieboom, vice president of the Community of Sant’Egidio, approving the initiative of dialogue of civilizations promoted by Kazakhstan, told us that dialogue is necessary “more than ever”.
At the same time, during the proceedings of the Congress, another aspect raised by organizers and delegates was the definition of more “concrete” measures to sustain peace, dialogue and harmony. This aspect was underlined by Nazarbayev in his opening speech, but it was revealed by the discussions in the panels. As confirmed by the former Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, “dialogue is a fundamental condition but, alone, it is not sufficient”. In this regard, the declaration approved at the end of the Congress of the Religious Leaders underlined the importance to strengthen the relationship with UN, to create a better collaboration of the Congress with other international platforms of dialogue and to sustain the organization of the Regional conference on countering violent extremism, a summit to be held in Astana. Moreover, Nazarbayev in his final remarks announced some measures to implement a sort of soft power policy to give ever more publicity to the Congress and to the people actively involved in the promotion of the dialogue of civilization.
The Congress, at its fifth edition, confirmed all its dynamicity and vitality, as shown by the proceedings of the plenary and panel sessions. This year’s edition represented an important step towards the sharing of values of dialogue, tolerance and respect, but also towards the individuation of more concrete measures, in order to implement values and aspirations shared during the Congress. Another significant result was the progress in deepening the relations among the different platforms and associations involved in promoting inter-faith dialogue.
The fifth Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions confirmed the pivotal role achieved by Kazakhstan in the dialogue of civilization. The Central Asian country has successfully implemented a policy of inter-ethnic and inter-religious harmony, which proved to be one of the principal reasons for the great development obtained after the independence. Moreover, Kazakhstan and the city of Astana have achieved an international dimension in the promotion of peace and harmony: as said by Cardinal Tauran, Kazakhstan is an “example” of a society that remains secular yet respects religious differences. Not only: the words of delegates confirmed that Astana is becoming a sort of “international platform for the dialogue”.
In the current geopolitical situation, marked by the rise of terrorist groups and by the spread of distrust and violence, the efforts in order to strengthen the “dialogue of civilizations” made by this Eurasian State must not be underestimated by the international community.
Alessandro Lundini is an associate researcher of IsAG, “Institute of Advanced Studies in Geopolitics and Auxiliary Sciences” of Rome. For IsAG he followed as envoy the work of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, held in Astana on 10-11 June.