COP27: Religious Multilateralism: An Endangered Species in the Age of Triple Planetary Crises

The 7th Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
  • Opinion by Azza Karam (new york)
  • Inter Press Service

The reason? Religions, religious engagement, interfaith, etc., are the flavour of our geopolitical times. For better or worse.

His Holiness Pope Francis and His Eminence the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar were just addressing a major conference in Bahrain on East-West relations, with the King of Bahrain. After also putting in a similar appearance and speaking together with the President of Kazakhstan, in September. Both countries were hosting major international meetings of religious leaders, in the fanciest of hotels, convened from many corners of the world, replete with lavish food banquets and generous hospitality and care for their every need.

I should know, as I am a most grateful recipient, albeit not a religious leader, but an aspiring servant to religious multilateralism. But I run ahead of myself here.

In convening, countries appear to be competing with Saudi Arabia, which hosted such a seminal gathering (in May 2022, bringing together Buddhist and Hindu faith leaders, for the first time, as equals with their Muslim, Christian and Jewish brethren), as well as with the UAE, Qatar, and Oman, who are also hosting international gatherings of religious leaders this very month.

This year alone, there have been over 50 meetings of religious actors, that is more than 2 per month, and this is not a comprehensive tally.

Each of these major and rather expensive conferences, provides a platform not unlike the UN General Assembly, where each leader gets his (for invariably they are mostly men) time to speak, often eloquently, about their own faith tradition.

Each of these speeches regales with how diligent the efforts of faith/community/organisations are, to secure peace and human dignity for all people. As they remind of the spiritual wisdom each faith upholds, they also speak of past and upcoming initiatives, meant to safeguard dignity for all. Sometimes they also remember to speak about the planet and our responsibility to save it.

As someone who spent decades serving at the United Nations and in diverse international academic and development organisations, and now listening to the religious actors speaking, I find myself asking the same question: if each of these governments, and now these religious bodies, are working so hard and serving so amazingly, why is our world the way it is?

Why are so many governments and peoples and communities at war with one another inside and outside nation-state boundaries? Why are we listening to hate speech from every type of mouth and all types of platforms given ample media attention? Why are arms and drugs the biggest industries?

Why are the rich getting richer and the poor poorer while our planet becomes more bare and parched in one part, and flooded to death, in another? Why is violence of all kinds, inside families and within all communities, a pandemic? Why are medicines, and now even values, a commodity to trade power and privilege with?

Why is nuclear war back on the agenda of consciousness and politics? In short, why do we hate/fear one another one another so much, and so deeply?

Because what ails our multilateral system, in spite of the speeches (and efforts) of political leaders (in and out of electoral times for those fortunate enough to have genuine elections of their national leaders), and now also in spite of the speeches and works of religious actors, is fundamentally the same: each to his own. Multilateral - as an adjective defined by the Oxford Dictionary, where “three or more groups, nations, etc. take part”, is an endangered species.

The United Nations, the premier multilateral entity of 193 governments, is struggling to strengthen multilateralism, yet not necessarily by looking internally at its own behemoth infrastructures, or culture. Ever seen an organogramme of the United Nations system? One should. It is a universe of wonder where every human and non-human thought and action appears to have a dedicated office or structure of some sort.

But before we point fingers at the political multilaterals (who are remarkably good at either ignoring faith communities, or using them to the hilt, or both), we need to ask ourselves, how often do we see or hear of “three or more” religious institutions (not of the same faith) working together to actually deliver needs to diverse peoples around the world?

The answer is, that beyond the speeches, the lavish meetings and innumerable projects, multilateral religious collaboration (where money and efforts from many and diverse are pooled to serve, together, the needs of all, regardless of gender, national, ethnic, racial or religious affiliation) remains rare.

Please do not misunderstand: religious institutions are working to serve hundreds of millions of people on every area of need, humanitarian and development – and now also political. Just as Indigenous Peoples are the original carers of all nature, religious leaders and institutions are the original carers for myriad human needs.

There is plenty of evidence about this. HIV and AIDS, Ebola and the Covid pandemic highlighted how critical religiously managed health infrastructure is to communities - rich and poor. A glance at the education sectors, psycho-social care, migrants and displaced peoples, and other humanitarian areas of need, will show clearly that religious institutions still serve many, widely, and in the remotest areas.

So, it is not a dearth of service to humanity that diverse faith actors need to come to terms with. It is the famine of multireligious collaborative services - as in giving and doing together. At Religions for Peace, for over half a century of supporting interreligious platforms serve the common good in over 95 countries, we live the challenges of multi religious collaboration, on peace mediation, food and human security, migration and displacement, education, gender and women’s empowerment, and trying to save together, the world’s remaining rainforests, through, among other efforts, the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative.

We know that even within the realms of religion, the manner of dealing with these challenges tends to mirror prevailing colonial mindsets, with tendencies to give prominence to one religion, insistence on singular branding, and jockeying for more political influence and financial resourcing.

More and more faith leaders – young and older - are (rightfully) expecting financial remuneration for their time and energies spent in international work, thus slowly but surely reversing a trend of volunteerism that used to uniquely characterise religious service and giving.

Just as governments are failing to systematically work together as inhabitants and leaders of one planet, and just as too many civil society groups and corporations compete for branding and ‘market share’, so too, do religious organisations.

Some religious entities are replicating a secular catastrophic practice of seeking to build other/new/different/more ‘specialised’ entities and initiatives, rather than shoulder the heavy cross of seeking to work together in spite of the damning challenges (both puns intended). In so doing, many of these religious actors are effectively dispersing efforts.

One of the many lessons of failed multilateralism is that more, or different, or new and/or specialised, may well be the well-intentioned road to hell.

When it comes to actually investing in one another’s work so that they are speaking as one and serving together, many religious leaders and leaders of religious organisations will smile, say some nice words, and move on to the next sermon/meeting/international conference, or nevertheless doggedly pursue their own special/unique initiative(s).

Such that we have now so many religious initiatives, dominated by one or a bilateral religious partnership, or two and a half (relatively tokenistic representation of another faith), working on the same challenges, facing all of humanity.

What ails multilateralism is not the absence of resources, tools, values, the clarity of the crisis, or even the will and creativity to serve. Multilateralism fails when some want only their values, truths, communities, nations, cultures, security needs, and/or specific institutions, to prevail.

And with the failure of multilateralism is a failure of common humanity, and planetary survival.

Prof. Azza Karam is Secretary General, Religions for Peace

IPS UN Bureau

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