Religious tolerance in an age of extremes – a multilateral approach
The promotion of the paramount moral pillars of religious identity, freedom and respect each for the other remains one of the foremost roles for the United Nations in this troubled contemporary world. The United Nations is often said to be in crisis, but it transpires that there remains a critical political constituency it should continue to serve in order to promote peace and accord between nations. That is as a mediator of disputes relating to identity that, for whatever reason, appear to be on the increase. The foremost of the ambitions of the United Nations Organisation must be to pursue mutual respect by citizens and societies for the precepts of one-another’s faiths.
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By Matthew Parish
There always comes a point at which government must respect the realm of the private and divine. Within any society, people hold divergent personal beliefs that are inevitably different each from the other. Some of these divergences may be the consequence of distinct religious beliefs; some may be the result of different interpretations of a common religious belief; some may be convictions derived not from religion but from other sources. We often refer to such beliefs or convictions as moral, ethical, theological or using other language referring to concepts of profound personal commitment.
Given that such differences are to an extent inevitable within any society, and prevalent in particular within some contemporary multicultural societies, we must ask ourselves to what extent government legitimately regulates activities falling within these private spheres of personal commitment. Another question that arises as a corollary is the extent to which society as a whole ought to promote one set of such private values over the other given that its citizens’ values are different. Should society promote homogenisation, diversity, or something in between?
My view is that societies, both in the laws propagated by their governments and in the values they expound, are duty-bound to respect differences of opinion within private spheres. Different religions may expound distinctive ethical codes. There is no a priori way of resolving moral differences arising from different schemes of religious belief, and nor should there be. Any attempt by one group of people with a set of values to impose those values upon another group is ex hypothesi unlikely to work. The first reason is one of logic: people of different faiths and religious beliefs draw for their inspiration upon distinctive sacred texts and those texts may simply, and entirely legitimately, say different things. While there is a commendable ecumenical approach, which I fully support, in finding common ground between different religious perspectives and fundamental theological commitments between persons of different beliefs, there may also come a point when people of different faiths, and indeed different hues of the same faith, must agree that their values differ. The important point is that this is to the denigration of nobody. Rather, common respect of each for the other is an accolade to all.
The capacity to place value upon and harbour respect for the religious views of others that one may not necessarily share is often described as respect, tolerance or harmony. In the history of human development from barbarism to civilisation, and beyond that to common peace and respect, I believe that propagation of this mode of tolerance between people of different beliefs is a fundamental index of progress. It means that I can acknowledge that your private values may be different from mine. Nevertheless I accept in peace and good faith your benign intentions, and we develop social and political mechanisms for mutual comprehension that enable an environment of tolerance and common respect to flourish. Each side respects, and does not encroach upon, the private values of the other; law and society should corroborate a regime of mutual tolerance. I am sure that these are the sole sustainable premises for any modern society that legitimately wishes to describe itself as multicultural.
In this context, spates of religious fundamentalism – and every religion is capable of generating extremists, something we should never forget – represent a contemporary cancer of our times. The periodic flourishing of religious extremism involves at its heart a spirit of intolerance: the notion that law and social pressure may legitimately be used to impose religious values upon those who do not necessarily share those values. It is unacceptable that Christians persecute Muslims in certain parts of Africa, just as it is unacceptable that Buddhists persecute Muslims in certain parts of Asia. These are acts of discrimination, often rising to the level of violence or even worse, that the civilised world of which we all aspire to be a part must not tolerate. The values of tolerance and mutual respect are surely universal in an ever-more interconnected world. This is a world in which, for reasons of the propagation of technology and the ever-increasing ease of travel, the interaction of different cultures and with them fundamental beliefs become increasingly inevitable. The globe must create political mechanisms to defuse the politics of confrontation between persons of different values and faiths, and that promotes mutual respect that allows a growing global population to live together and amongst one-another in peace.
What does this have to do with multilateralism, that is to say the pursuit of diplomacy through international institutions such as the United Nations? It is my view that the cardinal political tool for promoting the values of tolerance and respect one for the other, that I advocate as essential for harmonious living, are the natural province of international institutions in which values are shared, dialogues between people of different perspectives are pursued, and international norms of tolerance may be advanced. The United Nations was surely conceived as a mechanism to resolve international security policy crises. But that is not the only reason it was created. Equally importantly, it was developed as a forum for dialogue between people of different cultures, political traditions, values and faiths. The greater majority of humanity’s unfortunately recurrent conflicts, in my view, are the result of the failure on the part of political, spiritual and cultural leaders to engage each with the other and to provide leadership upon issues that deserve dialogue. Lest we survey the current state of geopolitics and be inclined to despair too much, we might look back to an earlier generation of leaders with idealistic aspirations rather than those current rare figures that rely upon the dynamics of confrontation to pursue their short-term political goals.
The United Nations has occupied aspirations to serve as an embryonic global government. That may always have been too ambitious, because states are politically too individually self-interested in the goals they pursue. Each wishes inevitably to push beyond certain boundaries, and this renders the project of a common confederalism in large part aspirational – for now. Nevertheless the United Nations can serve as an exponent of a culture of common respect between states that represent or expound different values, and to ease the frictions inevitably arising when states with different values or interests collide. I believe that promotion of the paramount moral pillars of religious identity, freedom and respect each for the other remains one of the foremost roles for the United Nations in this troubled contemporary world. The United Nations is often said to be in crisis, but it transpires that there remains a critical political constituency it should continue to serve in order to promote peace and accord between nations. That is as a mediator of disputes relating to identity that, for whatever reason, appear to be on the increase. The foremost of the ambitions of the United Nations Organisation must be to pursue mutual respect by citizens and societies for the precepts of one-another’s faiths.
Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland and a former UN peacekeeper. He has published two books and over 250 articles on the subject. In 2013 he was elected as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and he has was listed as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland. He is currently a candidate of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for appointment to a position of Under Secretary General of the United Nations with an agenda for institutional reform.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.