Regional conference highlights need to promote religious pluralism

By Nohad Topalian in Beirut

Policymakers, experts, academics and religious scholars gathered in Beirut on September 8th to discuss religious freedom. [Photo courtesy of the Adyan Foundation]

Policymakers, experts, academics and religious scholars gathered in Beirut on September 8th to discuss religious freedom. [Photo courtesy of the Adyan Foundation]

Policymakers, experts and religious scholars from across the region met in Beirut earlier this month to work on a white paper that highlights the role of citizenship in preserving social and religious pluralism in the face of extremism.

A September 8th meeting of the Adyan Foundation’s Institute of Citizenship and Diversity Management brought together 23 policymakers, experts, academics and religious scholars from countries including Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Tunisia.

Participants discussed the role of citizenship in preserving freedoms and religious pluralism and highlighted the need to clarify a religious discourse in mosques and churches that rejects the pronouncement of others as "takfiri".

The meeting, titled "Religious Freedom and Inclusive Citizenship in the Arab World", sought to develop a common language between religious, civil and political thought and to formulate a joint paper that can be used to create a road map for preserving diversity in the face of extremism.

"There is a need for addressing the topics of religious freedom and freedom of conscience from the human rights, philosophical and religious perspectives and the development of a common language and common thinking methodology to counter the spread of extremist and obscurantist ideas," said foundation director Nayla Tabbara.

The need has emerged "at a time marked by the widespread violation of group and individual freedoms and rights to the extent of slavery and genocide," she told Al-Mashareq.

The spread of the extremist ideology espoused by groups such as the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) is threatening people's ability to understand human rights and the right to be different, she said.

Building on positive values

Participants affirmed the importance of building on the region's human rights, religious and philosophical heritage regarding religious freedom, and on previous policies and initiatives on the subject, Tabbara said.

Participants also "stressed the need for work towards the crystallisation of a common language that results from dialogue between religious thought and civil and human rights thought", she said.

"We will produce a white paper on religious freedom and citizenship that fosters diversity in the Arab world, to launch a common language that serves as the basis on which we will build," Tabbara said.

This will be done through public awareness and religious education, she explained, and through human rights work on policies and the activation of laws that guarantee the freedom of belief.

"The starting point for the common language and joint paper is citizenship that fosters diversity as an essential and sole framework capable of accommodating everyone equally and valuing diversity in the face of extremism," she said.

Countering hate speech

Hate speech must be countered on multiple levels, said Ziad al-Sayegh, a co-ordinator at the Institute of Citizenship and Diversity Management's citizenship project.

This includes the constructive criticism of religious texts that have been manipulated to accuse others of being unbelievers and apostates "to the point of eliminating them", he told Al-Mashareq.

The religious discourse also needs to be updated, he said, to emphasise elements that acknowledge and respect diversity and affirm "the value of humans and their dignity and freedom, regardless of their religious affiliation".

Additionally, he said, education must stress equality in citizenship and promote the understanding that differences are a source of cultural richness; while legislation must be adopted that protects religious freedom and guarantees respect for diversity.

In order to counter the ideology propagated by extremist groups, he said, policymakers must sign and implement international conventions, treaties and agreements on freedom of religion and citizenship that foster diversity.

They also must update constitutions and laws opposing hate speech, and build a coherent democratic framework that affirms the participation of minorities in decision-making, he said.

Safeguarding religious freedom

In turn, al-Sayegh added, religious leaders must highlight "spiritual and human values that support religious freedom and recognise diversity".

"Citizenship equalizes all citizens of all faiths and beliefs and safeguards individual and public freedoms, particularly religious freedom," said Islamic-Christian National Dialogue Committee member Mohammed al-Sammak, who serves as an adviser to Lebanon's Grand Mufti.

This alone is capable of "saving the peoples of the Arab world from the clutches of sedition and will enable them to play their role in advancing human civilisation towards peace, progress and prosperity", he told Al-Mashareq.

"Religious freedom falls under a series of principles, at the forefront of which are the preservation of human dignity regardless of religion, and freedom of belief, which also is enshrined in the Qur'anic verse ‘there is no coercion in religion’," he said, stressing that "Islamic principles reject extremism".

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