We Can Prevent the Bankruptcy of the Sacred – Dare we Try?

Religious leaders. Credit: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas
  • Opinion by Azza Karam (new york)
  • Inter Press Service
  • Professor Azza Karam is Secretary General, Religions for Peace

All of which are besieged by the combined pandemics of institutional and systemic failures, increasing violence, global warming which has already led to the deaths of species and humans, and of course, Covid-19 and the utter shame of only the rich getting vaccinated.

And the results of this High Level Political Forum?

Not the dramatic changes that our planetary existence cries for. Not even the radical introspection about each of the governance and civic responsibilities attested to by various human rights and humanitarian catastrophes in almost every corner of the world. In fact, the HLPF, like so many other summits and consultations between and among governments, has ended with more of the same.

But who am I to challenge or hold accountable? What have I done to try to make an iota of difference?

I ask myself that as a human being, as a citizen, as a woman, as a person of faith, as many other things. But most importantly, as the person elected to serve the world’s largest multi-faith leadership and grassroots organization. I ask as a person who has devoted over 30 years of studying and working in and on the intersections of religion with international development, democratization, governance and human rights.

Remember when good governance and democratization were such buzz words? Remember when human rights was not just what the United States tried to claim was critical to its foreign policy, while it was aiding and abetting the same regimes and groups that abused them liberally, and fighting for the triumph of liberalism against communism (which was not supposed to care much for any of those ideals)?

Remember when NGOs sprouted left, right and center, ostensibly committed to realizing good governance, human rights and the attainment of democracy, so that proposals to international development and foreign policy donor entities were replete with “building” and “strengthening civil society”?

And remember the days when “truth and reconciliation” were what the South African bloodless transition from apartheid to democracy, represented (as opposed to the painful turmoil we see in the same country and in most countries around the world)?

Remember those days?

Can we claim, with a straight face – let alone with any data to back this up – that we now have a world where human rights, democracy and good governance reign supreme – or even reign at all in most parts of the world?

If we can claim that, the entire Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agenda, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) before them, and countless Treatise, Conventions, Agreements, Resolutions, not to mention NGOs, academic centers and disciplines, policy think tanks, evidence gatherers and reams of research, etc., might have been a bit unnecessary - to say the least?

Unless of course, we would maintain that democracy and good governance were not meant to ensure a world where every single form of inequality and inequity, where war and violence, where epidemics and a pandemic - run rampant?

Over the last decade in particular, we started to hear more about the importance of religion, engaging with religious leaders, and the value-added of faith-based work and organisations in terms of community reach, moral standing, trust building, conflict mediation and peacemaking, social service provision (such as healthcare, education, nutrition), and humanitarian relief.

Since the pandemic we are now hearing how houses of worship, and the large public health infrastructure, are so critical to the Covid response, and to vaccine uptake (or lack thereof). Multiple global, regional and national initiatives, in and around the United Nations, regional intergovernmental organizations and bodies, governments, networks, projects, academic degrees, and NGOs, are now sprouting in all corners of the world, all professing to do with religion or faith or interfaith.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, democracy, good governance and human rights almost became a commercial business, with donors competing to fund initiatives and to create their own.

Recipient NGOs and projects - some of them developing in record time with support from governments with a dubious record of democracy and respect for human rights - competed to seek funding from governmental, intergovernmental and non-governmental sources.

Millions of dollars were given, and spent. Duplication of efforts - with each claiming to be unique - became the norm. A new global NGO elite emerged, who grew used to meeting each other in different conferences in different locations, racking up airline miles as they globe trotted from one end of the world to the other, offering their wisdom, sharing their ‘lessons learned’, showcasing their initiatives and their respective ‘approaches’ as well as their ideologies.

Members of this democracy and human rights’ community lamented the lack of political will to recognize their unique and necessary value-added, the increasing normalcy of abuse of democracy, the lack of ‘proper’ policies leading to a furthering of authoritarianism and intra-state conflicts, and usually passionately decrying the lack of resources to help their work.

Some of these civil society initiatives competed viciously, sometimes beneath a thin veneer of collaboration and partnership, and even actively undermined one another. Some of these actors compiled and decried human rights abuses in regimes and countries, when they themselves struggled with similar abuses in their own organisations, institutions and networks.

Many demanded accountability, when they themselves were among the least accountable. Few, if any, gave of their own resources to support one another’s initiatives, even when they worked for the same purposes, in the same communities, with the same people. It was each to - usually - his own.

The need for the visibility of the respective organisation or network or initiative, became more important and defining, than the absolute necessity of the collective struggle for democracy and human rights.

Does it sound familiar? It should.

Because faith-based and faith inspired actors, or religion, in various guises, is en vogue today, in the same way that democracy, good governance and human rights, were in the 1990s. And what is happening in the realms of religion, religious engagement, faith-based activity (whatever the nomenclature is), is eerily similar to the above scenarios.

And the catastrophe is that this continues to happen in the midst of a global pandemic which should be dramatically transforming our every thought and action.

In today’s geopolitical reality where authoritarianism and insecurity rules amidst a collapsing planetary infrastructure, the business of human rights and good governance is clearly teetering on bankruptcy. Religions, and faiths, are the sacred realms for most of the world’s populations. None of us can afford the bankruptcy of the sacred.

If Covid is not pushing us to take a deep dive into overcoming every single excuse which prevents us from working together, regardless of the differences between and among our faiths or organisations or races or genders, to serve all, together, then we are looking straight into the abyss of that particular hell – which we are contributing to creating.

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© Inter Press Service (2021) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service