The Hilton Stadtpark hotel, in Vienna, Austria, was buzzing with interfaith dialogue for a full week from November 18. The year-old KAICIID -- King King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interfaith and Intercultural Dialogue - held a global forum, followed immediately by the Global Assembly of Religions for Peace, the ninth in a series of such events over its 43-year history. Each meeting gathered hundreds of people, from far corners of the world, and costs were clearly well in the millions of dollars. Many basked in the chance to meet and hear interesting and sometimes inspiring people and to test out ideas and dreams. Many also wrestled with questions about what could truly be achieved through such gatherings.
The two events were separate and different but nonetheless tightly linked. The financial generosity of Saudi Arabia and specifically King Abdullah made it all possible and the two organizations (KAICIID and RfP) have formed a tight partnership. The theme of "the Other" also linked the two events, albeit in different formulations -- understanding for one, welcoming for the other. Many participants overlapped, from senior religious leaders to participants and speakers. Partnership was a theme throughout, and various organizations, notably the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, were actively engaged. The KAICIID Forum reflected government ties, with the state parties Austria, Spain, Saudi Arabia, and (as observer) the Vatican. Foundations and institutes active in interfaith work also played significant roles. The RfP Assembly, in contrast, focused on "representativity", a freighted word they have coined, of world religions.
So what was accomplished with dozen upon dozen of speeches about peace, love, tolerance, welcome, and faith?
The KAICIID Forum offered a glimpse of what this ambitious and wonderfully well-funded organization sees as its mission. Dialogue and education are the core. Dialogue appears to be conceived largely as a literal bringing together of mainly religious leaders to strengthen their communication, but also engaging scholars in different settings and formulas. KAICIID plans to address theological and practical issues that contribute to tensions with a religious dimension. The education focus, perhaps the core operationally, hints at programs ranging from theological exchange to religious education per se to examinations of curricula, to civic education to early childhood education. The Saudi Education minister asked for KAICIID inputs in reviewing Saudi curricula and would up his speech with an unexpected call for NGOs of the world to unite!
The RfP Assembly had two parts: basic organizational business involves RfP's complex, semi democratic process of selecting officers and setting agendas, while a aeries of plenaries and "commissions" turned around a quest for inspirational themes and messages and, aspirationally, practical paths forward. On the latter, the theme of Welcoming the Other fed discussions of refugees and conflict, environmental destruction, tensions around citizenship, discrimination, rising tensions and intolerance, and, far too much at the margins for my taste, acting on poverty and human development.
Paul Raushenbush put a challenge to me: suggest five reasons why such events matter, in the face of questions about value for money and effort. There's plenty of cynicism around the flood of words extolling the virtues and common bonds of all faiths. So what is the answer? All the global interfaith movements pretty face challenges and including doubts that large global events are the best way to proceed. So here goes.
Networks truly matter. Meeting and interacting with people from such different settings is a golden opportunity and probably the number one benefit that people highlight. Many of those who came to Vienna work in relative isolation so meeting others and establishing links and sharing experience can be immensely reassuring and concretely helpful. As someone observed, humans are sharing animals and the global events are a literal way to build and renew human bonds that can be deepened through subsequent contact.
Learning about different perspectives and picking up drumbeats of emerging issues. To a degree everything was said in differing ways by different people but the nuances can matter. Two examples. Many spoke of a rising tide of religious tension, in many parts of the world, but the explanations of why and how much differed. Is it a product of economic tensions? How linked to climate change? Social media and communications? A host of practical and important questions take shape. And second there are important lessons from hearing the varied ways people see world events and trends. I was taken aback by a deep skepticism about global messages on poverty reduction: government reports about progress were categorically dismissed with the comment that they do not reflect realities on the ground. The communication challenges here are obvious but I sense that the challenge of questioning "accepted" facts and understanding is more important still.
Rhetoric can inspire, stories and experience more so. These events are a far cry from academic meetings, and data is few and far between. It's a different approach, one that looks more to stories and evocative rhetoric. The stories, especially, offer a host of trails to pursue. Some speeches were truly inspirational and set out issues and agendas. And a speech like William Vendley's keynote, linking the interfaith history with its present, and Gunnar Stalsett's, calling for a far more self-critical voice from religious leaders, set a new and pragmatic tone and set out markers for action.
Setting agendas and agreeing on action. The heart of the global gatherings is framing issues and setting agendas. The theme of "The Other" involves many practical and demanding issues, that point to the vital (and most often underappreciates) roles that religious ideas, institutions, and leaders can play. The common effort of RfP, UNICEF and USAID to encourage religious leaders to make saving children's lives a central part of their message is an example, though it did not ring as loudly as it should. Both KAICIID and RfP made significant efforts to bring women into the events (sadly this requires efforts since women are rare among the religious leaders today) but the lack of resonance on many calls for action to ensure true equality between men and women suggests a central agenda in itself. The assumption of male superiority seems to be in the DNA of many leaders.
What happens off stage is at least as important as the formal outcomes. I had some glimpses of a host of backstage activities: one example was efforts to bring together leaders of religious bodies from North and South Korea, in hopes that this could help advance communications among those seeking openings and peace. Another is active work on the Code on Holy Sites. There were many more such activities. This speaks to the virtues of breaking issues down into manageable bites, but also to the virtues of improbable combinations and encounters as an important benefit that comes from bringing people together under a common umbrella.