- 1 Preamble: The Theory Behind My Going to Iran
- 2 The Conference Organization and Attendees
- 3 The Political and Religious Context for the Conference
- 4 Interreligious Relations Are Important to Iranian Leaders
- 5 My Impressions from the Event and Two Days of Visiting Afterward
- 6 Now Some Brief Random Observations
- 7 Conclusion
- 8 Appendix I
- 9 Appendix II
- 10 Related Posts:
It is customary for politicians in the USA to end important speeches with a public prayer: “May God bless America.” It attempts to unite the people in support of a leader’s program by signaling a majority consensus of the need for divine assistance to promote liberty and justice for all in a flourishing social order that does not perish from the earth. America is an exceptional place because it has not trashed its ideal of responsible freedom for all people even though it had to be chastened to repent of sins of theft of land from Indians and life from slaves. Americans uniquely have come over time to feel the vital importance of continuous contestation of fundamental religious beliefs and moral values without the majority imposing its belief system by violence or legal coercion (in most cases at least).
Americans, to continue their positive influence, now need to find the faith and courage to publicly ask God to bless The Islamic Republic of Iran and all the peoples in the Holy Land and Everyone Everywhere else too. A god that only blesses America is a deity too small for anyone to seriously worship these days. And we know it in our hearts. We need a strong defense program and a thriving economy and a rebirth of courage to use moral leadership in a cynical world that reduces all actions to acquisition of material power. So we have come to remember (9/11 helped) the third leg of social/political power is collective idealism—the purpose for which we desire to live as a society beyond being free, secure and wealthy.
We have been fearing security threats and economic duress so much that we easily lose sight of our long-term purpose that will last beyond our individual lives. In our right minds and hearts we desire to create a legacy to leave for our families and future generations. What is that legacy? The 21st century presses us to expand its scope beyond our retirement and beyond our shores without becoming frothy utopian dreamers. Our legacy now includes an intertwining world with porous borders where we can think billions can enjoy with us responsible liberty and equal legal justice, and the pursuit of happiness albeit defined differently by our rival religious systems. Our legacy will be that billions have begun to try the American Experiment of continually contested values on their own terms in their own cultures. If it works elsewhere, the world will become a place where peace is found in the tension of persuasive promotion of rival ideals, in trusting co-resistance and friendly collaboration.
So what does this have to do with religious diplomacy in Iran? Today it is clear who has the military and economic power. What is unclear is the status of the third element of power: the power collective moral purpose usually provided by religion. There is no idealistic Superpower on the planet today although the USA probably held something like that position in the minds and hearts of billions for many decades. The formula for influence lacks the third element everywhere and so all nations are forced to spend on military might or economic bribery to try to get their way. And that will eventually impoverish those who try to sustain power on those coercive terms.
Speak softly and carry a big stick is a policy that needs some corrective rephrasing: Speak and listen honestly and carry four big sticks—1) a diversified, hard-working, well-educated workforce, 2) an equally fair legal and economic system that people trust, 3) a courageous military that includes all economic classes, and 4) a collective ideal purpose that includes the well-being of opponents as well as friends who hold different ideals.
To sustain influential power without depleting resources T.R.’s formula requires a new emphasis on honest listening and on the fourth stick, a collective ideal purpose that unifies a diverse society. Today we recognize there are real conflicts over ideal purposes and correct ways of life that require a new way of engaging differences that are irresolvable by compromise of material interests. This new way is religious diplomacy that sustains the contest over ideals in a mode of continual contestation that requires no final human resolution. It demonstrates mutual honor between adversaries and allows trust and even friendship between religious rivals that over time cease to see each other as demented, duped, or demonic enemies.
Nothing in this report is meant to be an apology for any wrongdoing in Iran or any other place. This is a report of my experience and I hope readers will find it useful in formulating opinions.
The Conference Organization and Attendees
This Iranian conference, called by the Iranian government sponsored agency, The Organization of Culture and Islamic Relation and The Center for Interreligious Dialogue was an opening for religious diplomacy that succeeded in building some initial trust and good will between religious leaders from various faith traditions.
The Shi’ite leaders that spoke and listened were cordial to all participants. These Iranian leaders included Dr. Mohammad Bagher Korramshad, Dr. Hojjatolislam Qomi, Dr. Mohammad Reza Dehshiri, Dr. Mostafa Boroujerdi, Dr. Hojjatolislam Mirlohi, Dr. Seyyed Abolhasan Navvab, Dr. Hamid Reza Ayatollahi, Dr. Molavi Eshaq Madani, Dr. Younos Nourbakhash, Dr. Mobed Pedram Soroushpour, Dr. Abdolhosein Khoropanah, Dr. Ali Akbar Velayati, and His excellency Ayatollah Taskhiri.
From the USA Dr. Bawa Jain, Dr. Charles Randall Paul, and Dr. Kurt Anders Richardson attended. From Canada Dr. Harry Huebner attended. From Thailand Dr. Pra Maha Plat Viriya and Dr. Sheikh Sharif attended. From Ethiopia Dr. Stalir G. Sellasi and Stalin Gebreselassie attended. From South Korea Dr. Ven Myojang, from the Vatican Monsignor Francois Bousquet, from Greece Dr. Ignatious Stavropoulos, from Germany Dr. Sudesh Kumari and Madame Didi Sudesh, from Lebenon Dr. Ountwan Mirshad Dawo attended. My formal remarks to the group are found in Appendix I at the end of this report.
The title of the conference was “International Conference on Religious and Contemporary Awakening.” It was a platform for discussion about religious factors involved in 21st century changes in various cultures. The Iranian hypothesis: The Arab Spring was a spiritual continuation of the Iranian Revolution. The American populist movements were expressions of spiritual rejection of materialism. A new spiritual awakening is coming into the world. How can religious leaders guide people to join it effectively for the betterment of all nations?
This issue was discussed by various speakers from different religious perspectives. The overall hypothesis was left open. However, a general summary statement was suggested by the Iranian hosts for all to approve. It included a call for a follow up conference. Some approved this and others declined, not having authority from their religious leaders. See Appendix II to this report for the rough draft statement that is not final and should not be circulated.
The Political and Religious Context for the Conference
International relations blend religion and politics in many ways. So, before reporting on my religious diplomatic trip to Iran, I share these remarks from M. Javad Zarif that summarize what I see as the joint political position of Iran and the USA at present. Mutual mistrust is so deep that neither side seems able to say anything that is taken as truthful by the other.
“The interests of Iran and the United States, as well as security and stability in the Persian Gulf region, have long been hostage to an outdated paradigm sustained by mutual mistrust and heavy historical baggage, and nurtured with fact or fiction generated by those benefiting from confrontation and war.
Iran has a national security interest in restoring regional stability and preserving and strengthening disarmament and non-proliferation. But, preventing the manufactured “Iran threat” from becoming the next global nightmare requires a drastic change in the U.S. approach—an approach that until now has impeded a genuine search for alternatives.”
[My emphasis underlined]
M. Javad Zarif
Islamic Republic of Iran
International Journal of International Affairs
Excerpt from Summer 2007 issue
The full article is execeptionally candid and comprehensive. See http://www.zarif.net/Articles/Columbia%20JIA.pdf
As context for the religious aspect of the conflict between Iran and the USA, this excerpt from a recent article in Foreign Policy describes accurately the attitudes I discovered in Iran albeit clearly from a critical American standpoint. We are in a religious/moral war to be won by the society that best resists the spiritual contamination of the other; wherein conversion by the sword or the bomb is a non-starter—for either side. (The issue of justice for refugees in the Holy Land and security for the inhabitants of Israel is the immediate cause that might provoke war. However, even without that issue, Iran and the USA would be at odds given the petrol-link to our national economic and security that an unstable Middle East presents.)
“[Today] the Iranian regime once again is faced with a crisis, this time of an external variety. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatens war in between meals, the Pentagon plays war games and policy planners huddle in the White House asking: Is the Iranian regime rational or irrational? Can diplomatic negotiations prevent Iran from obtaining a bomb, or is an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities inevitable?
Many Iran watchers assert that to persuade Tehran not to pursue a nuclear weapon, Washington must reassure Khamenei that the United States merely seeks a change in Iranian behavior, not a change of the Iranian regime.
What they fail to consider is Khamenei’s deep-seated conviction that U.S. designs to overthrow the Islamic Republic hinge not on military invasion but on cultural and political subversion intended to foment a ‘velvet’ revolution from within. Consider this revealing address on Iranian state TV in 2005:
‘More than Iran’s enemies need artillery, guns, and so forth, they need to spread cultural values that lead to moral corruption.… I recently read in the news that a senior official in an important American political center said: ‘Instead of bombs, send them miniskirts.’ He is right. If they arouse sexual desires in any given country, if they spread unrestrained mixing of men and women, and if they lead youth to behavior to which they are naturally inclined by instincts, there will no longer be any need for artillery and guns against that nation.’
Khamenei’s vast collection of writings and speeches makes clear that the weapons of mass destruction he fears most are cultural — more Kim Kardashian and Lady Gaga than bunker busters and aircraft carriers. In other words, Tehran is threatened not only by what America does, but by what America is: a depraved, postmodern colonial power bent on achieving global cultural hegemony. America’s ‘strategic policy,’ Khamenei has said, ‘is seeking female promiscuity.’
Khamenei’s words capture the paradox and perversion of modern Iran. While dropping bombs on the Iranian regime could likely prolong its shelf-life, a regime that sees women’s hair as an existential threat is already well past its sell-by date.”
[My emphasis underlined]
Karim Sadjadpour, final page excerpt from his piece in Foreign Policy, May 2012 The full article can be found at http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/04/23/the_ayatollah_under_the_bedsheets
Interreligious Relations Are Important to Iranian Leaders
I did not want to be a pawn in a political game that did not meet my goals of building trust and friendship between religious rivals in order to improve in the case relations between my country and Iran. I was pleased to see how the conference was aimed at positioning Iran as a world spiritual leader, a motive I applaud in any group with the chops to boldly say such a thing as “spiritual leadership” even matters anymore.
Participants all “used” each other for good purposes and the good feelings among participants were palpable. We could meet again soon and go much deeper in real conversations instead of speeches with a minimum questions afterward. People were saying what they really believed without fear. In other words, the conference was a successful first step to building some trust that is the only hope for improving relations and avoiding violence between our nations.
The religious leaders with whom we met are well enough connected to the Supreme Leader and other Ayatollahs that the results of our deliberations could go to the top quickly. In Iran the top means the Supreme Leader, not the President. Mr. Ahmadinejad, with whom I met briefly two years ago at a conference we helped sponsor in NYC, is currently a lame duck leader whose party lost heavily in the last parliamentary elections. The Supreme Leader is not altogether loved even by the faithful but there is little chance that he will ever be replaced by vote of the 60 Guardians who have the power to do so. In short, this conference for religious diplomacy was approved by the Supreme Leader and has begun something with potential to influence policy over time. It was not a little interfaith event like we see in the USA on the sidelines of the power structure. That said, the results will only bear fruit if we have follow up events that allow for much more concrete discussions.
My Impressions from the Event and Two Days of Visiting Afterward
I am writing this quickly in outline form with no priority of organization, and rough grammatical syntax. This will read more like Pascal’s Pensees (on a bad day) than Montaigne’s Essays!
I. My wife tells the story of growing in a small town in the 1950’s where her parents constructed a concrete bomb shelter in the basement to prepare for the Russian nuclear attack. I feel like many of my countrymen have a similar feeling about Iranian intentions—or what they would do if they had nukes and long range missiles. After talking with Ayatollahs about this, I am convinced we can take their several fatwahs seriously: The Supreme Leader has ruled that nukes are WMD’s that are immoral weapons since they kill non-combatants. Therefore, Iran will not use nukes, nor likely develop them. They want the ability to do so to prove they are as scientifically advanced as any country. I believe a trust and verify program will eventually be the only way forward for our countries to begin to build trust. They claim they are open to this if they are treated with respect and not contempt as they feel they currently are.
II. The grand conspiracy theory is alive and too well in Iran and in the USA. In Iran it includes the Jewish Illuminati that desires to control the world for money and power and dupes the Christians to support a military complex that brings in billions to Jewish owners. Educated people espouse this. With less than 14 million Jews the entire planet is being controlled. The USA is a hypocritical Christian nation that uses religion to cover its sins of materialism. If the USA had its way it would enslave every country in porn, booze and drug addiction and make the Jewish/Christian coalition extremely wealthy in the process. The US President does not have much power since the Congress is controlled by dupes of this Illuminati group. The support of Israel is to keep a war going to sell arms to everyone and the Christian right is being used in the process.
On the American side, the conspiracy looks like this: There are a few Ayatollahs that are in cahoots making billions off of oil revenues while living riotously under cover. They need to have the USA as the Great Satan to keep their countrymen focused on an external enemy since things are not going well at home. If this theory is wrong, then this second theory works: Americans are sure the Iranians are so religiously fanatical that they don’t care at all about dying. They want to be martyrs to go directly to heaven so the rational idea of “mutually assured destruction” does not apply to Iranians. Thus if they get any WMD’s they will use them knowing that retaliation is likely but not caring about their earthly demise. Justice being done against Israel is worth taking down millions in a nuclear exchange.
I met no one in Iran that reflected this thinking; of course, that is proof that the conspiracy is well hidden. In the USA I have found (even among my well educated family members) that people are not ready to believe my view that Iranians are not willing to give all their lives to “justly” nuke Israel. They think I have been hoodwinked by irrational religious fanatics. But if Iranians wanted to martyr themselves they could attack Israel now without nukes. Millions of Iranians spilling their blood over the cause would be glorious and might well take down Israel in the bargain. So why not already do it for heaven’s sake? The only serious counter conspiracy hope is for influential Iranian to build eventual friendships with Israelis and Americans and then apply a trust and verify protocol.
III. The possibility of world-wide justice and peace is based on the belief that God has given a spiritual light to all people innately. This light leads them to naturally believe in God and desire to live morally—without harming others and praying for help to live spiritually not materially only. This divine light leads to joyful full-bodied living, not austere asceticism. Thus all who follow the light are submitting to the will of God. They are muslims even though they know nothing of Mohamed (PBUH).
IV. The Shi’a have the purest form of revelation from God. Their leaders present the Qu’ran and Hadith to all who will listen to bring them even more intense enjoyment of spirituality than they would have from the innate light given to all. The mission of Iran is to demonstrate to the world how spirituality can infuse every aspect of life for the betterment of humanity. The enemy is hypocrisy of religion covering selfish agnostic materialism. America and Saudi Arabia are examples of outwardly religious societies that are inwardly (almost all) materialistic and non-believing hypocrites. [Of course, this critique needs to be turned always on the virtuous scholars and leaders who make it. This is extremely hard to do without losing the moral authority to make the critique—if only the sinless can cast stones at the sinners then no critique of immorality can ever be made by anyone. This is the dilemma at the heart of any theo-democratic order based on imperfectly virtuous judges.]
V. They do not like Huntington’s thesis. They see the world as split between moral and immoral behaviors. It is a clash of life style values within societies not between civilizations. There are people in all civilizations that are spiritually sound and they are at odds with materialists and agnostics in all civilizations. Here is the problem for the religious person in the current conflict: How to engage in the contestation of values effectively without coercion, anger or contempt for the opposition that still has a “spiritual light” that might be open to influence?
VI. The most memorable event was in Qom where the religious leaders live and hold “court” in their colleges. Qom is full of colleges run by various Ayatollahs. We visited a college that specializes in scholarship relating to the Messianic return. We sat in a room to hear a panel behind which hung a banner stating in bold English: “Messianism as a Common Point in Religions.” Shi’a are Messianic much like Adventists in the Christian world. Many expect the world to come to an end soon and the Mahdi (the 12th hidden Iman) will show up and then Jesus will return and the wicked will be destroyed and all the world will be in a brief golden age before the Final Hour of resurrection of the dead and final judgment. The scholars called this story the bright future of the world. There was no irony to this for them. Although there would certainly be violent devastation there was a sense that people could repent if they followed the virtuous leadership that Muslims and other good people were going provide. I did not sense they were looking forward to revenge on the atheistic materialists. They were not like Jonah–ticked off when God was merciful to people doing the best they could. So the bright future was not fated to include only a few saved. God had placed it within reach of all who would follow the inner light and submit humbly to repentance by following good examples of virtuous scholars of the Qu’ran. So I was left to wonder at their optimism. Was it utter naivte or hope in their fellow humans spiritual resilience? These were not Madisonians who believed men were always bound to be sinners more than angels and thus the public needed protection from good leaders who tended to turn bad with power. I am a Madisonian to the bone, but for a moment I hoped I was wrong. I thought what if Plato’s impossible dream of philosopher kings just might play out as a rare new register of Shi’ite virtuous scholar/leaders in the 21st century . . . and then the moment was gone. A great tragedy is likely to unfold for the Shi’a in coming years as they rely on their virtuous leaders. Whether it takes down the leaders who fail or the entire experiment with theo-democracy is yet to be seen. This belief in theodemocracy made me recall the two ways set out during the early American founding: John Winthrop and love of theo-community vs. Roger Williams and love of individual conscience. Roger’s way beat John’s but only after 150 years of competition.
VII. The Shi’a talk as if the West is in irreversible economic decline in the wake of materialistic excess and moral minimalism. There is no leadership in the West worth their attention. The Chinese will rise and be trading partners but will not have the moral center to provide spiritual leadership. Only the Shi’a will have that and draw other spiritually minded people to follow their example without needing to join their religious tradition. They think the Turks have got the wrong formula for spiritual leadership, having sold out to a compromise with secularism. And the Arabs are tyrannical nomad tribes with petrodollars, not leaders.
VIII. Political prisoners are more dangerous to the public welfare than thieves and murderers. They attack the mind and heart of “common people” who are defenseless to counter their clever arguments or half true accusations. They should be kept in jail until they repent of their desire to stir up a peaceful people with erroneous beliefs and ideas. Contamination by a few carriers could infect a whole society with plague. Human rights to criticize their government should be balanced with care for the well being of all. So, when the basic founding beliefs are challenged, this must be done in the presence of scholars who can respond and refute the arguments. Only then is criticism just. Go to the leaders with criticism and they are obligated to respond justly. If they do not, then other means are justified. [Of course, with corrupt leaders a critic might never leave the leaders’ office alive if he or she dared to speak honestly to the leader. This is how the wary opposition suspects things go.]
IX. The man is still the leader in the family, but the first and most valuable human being in a man’s life is his wife, and then his children. He serves them or he is not worthy of their respect as their leader. This looks like a cover for unequal treatment of the lesser sex to outsiders. They—many women and men in Iran–know this and disagree. However, many women and men think this attitude is cultural and not required by their religion, and should change toward more open rolls for women. This is a big underlying issue that is not easily categorized as in the USA with progressive versus conservative politics, or believers vs. secularists. In Iran women want social respect for either the choice to be traditional or non-traditional believers. They see in the West disrespect for traditional believers as an inevitable result of “secular” states that allow freedom of choice. In any case the age for marriage is increasing and the number of children is decreasing making the new Iranian family more like the Western pattern.
X. Vacations are taken usually close to home with family. This is not just an economic matter. Those who do travel outside Iran often return saying, “We saw mountains and beaches and cities that were no more impressive than we have in our beautiful and varied country.” So, less than 10% of the population (a local estimate) has ever ventured to see other parts of the world. This leaves movies and TV as their only window on the world. No wonder they think Americans are materialist agnostic relativists that equate freedom with license.
XI. A local educated 25 year old intellectual told me privately that 95% of Iranians desire the Islamic Republic to succeed; but 85% also think it is flawed in one way of another. He believes there is an open and lively political debate about how to improve things, without any serious thought about replacing their experiment in theo-democracy with a pure secular or pure theocratic government. In a strange sense Iran sees itself like the USA in 1789 trying to create a new form of government that will serve the people best and be an example to all nations. He was happy that Ahmadinejad was out, but regime change was unthinkable to him.
Now Some Brief Random Observations
- The Religious Iranians believe they are the truest believers , although a minority, and they want to be a light to the world, a city on hill, to influence without coercion a) anyone that wants to follow or obey or submit to God (as they sincerely believe God to be), and b) anyone that has lost his or her spiritual way in paths of materialism or atheism.
- They believe that virtuous jurists and scholars will lead the rest of us in preparing the world for the imminent return of the Mahdi and the Prophet Jesus who will bring in a golden age prior to the resurrection of mankind and final judgment.
- Based on the Islamic tradition that relies on careful reading of the primary texts (Qu’ran and Hadith) by wise and experienced scholars of those scriptures, the Shi’ites tend to see themselves as ‘strict constructionists’ that have held firm to the correct view of the text as distinct from Sunni’s who have compromised their interpretations for practical political reasons again and again making for a plethora of Sunni sects. The errors of the early caliphs have been multiplied.
- Taqiyya: dissimulation is restricted to protect life or property threatened by religious persecution, and is not to be used to harm another or merely benefit oneself through lying. One can claim to be other than a Muslim to avoid coercive duress and God will allow it. One can also choose to be a candid martyr with honor.
- Justice does not require a cycle of revenge. It aims for things to be in their right place, in the right way, at the right time. The Muslim is commanded to seek to ‘bring’ justice everywhere possible. Hence the Iranian effort to bring the right order to the Holy Land from their point of view is to seek justice. The means to do so cannot be violent on innocent civilians nor by preemptive strike. Defensive violence is OK in the case of a just cause.
- The Shi’ite tradition is one that honors strong leaders as long as they are wise and just. Term limits for religious leaders who increase in wisdom with age are thus counterproductive. The righteous Imam is the ideal leader, but until he returns, grand ayatollahs will have to do.
- Families eating lunch or dinner together spread on blankets in the parks of Esfahan make me long for my own family to be there at 8:30 PM having dinner and talking together as the sun goes down. Clean streets. Safe streets. Good food. Modern shopping malls. Traffic that seems to run very fast even with congested streets. Esfahan is the star city of Iran 300 miles south of Qom. Lovely people and gorgeous tree-lined streetscape. The Mosque and square were full of life.
- The debate over when and how to have sexual pleasure is active with respect to masturbation because the Qu’ran says to have sex within marriage but does not mention self-pleasuring. And pleasure is lauded by the Qu’ran here and hereafter.
- –Stoning and hand cutting is so rare that they claim it is not an issue. In other words they do not want to deny the tradition but they do want to ignore it. However, there is debate over this issue—restoring it and making it public for deterrent purposes.
- The Iranian flag is green for happiness, white for peace and red for courage. The latter matters a lot. A middle-aged guide told me his mother had sent him to war at age 15 in the Spartan style: come back with your shield or on it. He was injured in a minefield where many of his young colleagues proudly died as human sweepers because they did not have the detecting equipment. We must acknowledge this attitude about showing courage still exists with reference to war or resistance to sanctions.
- Iran will not build a Nuke because it would be unwise policy to have a weapon that they could never use by Islamic law. However, Iran wants to develop technology that is second to none in the 21st century. That means atomic power which includes the science to build a bomb, of course. They are willing to have a trust and verify program as long as it is reciprocal and shows mutual respect between all nations. They do not want to be treated as untrustworthy. They don’t think Israel having nukes helps Israel build trust and peace.
- Some stretching thought exercises: The conspiracy theory can perhaps work against itself like this: Let’s assume Iran is covering the fact that they already have nukes hidden away—but then, that verifies that they have not chosen to use them on anyone. So this verifies that we can trust them going forward. Another: if we or Russia or Israel (!) just gave nukes to Iran today would they accept the delivery? Answer: No! They want the satisfaction of having the brain power capacity to accomplish the practical science themselves.
Long and patient face-to-face diplomacy can make our mutual strangeness seem acceptable and non-threatening. A trust and verify program needs to be in place soon that is mutual and allows Iran to feel like a respected culture, Persia.
The challenge: When the new President of Iran is installed arrange a private meeting with Netanyahu. The question for them both: what would it take to develop mutual trust that they do not desire nor will they act to destroy the other? Can Israel live with Iran affirming that Israel is an “illegal state,” but with an Iranian commitment to support no violent acts against it unless Israel attacks first?
Iran’s biggest challenge is building respect for Arab Sunnis who have enormous wealth and the “wrong” form of Islam. This is much more pressing on their interests than relations with the West. A Sunni-Shi’ite religious dialogue is crucial. There was not one Sunni in the conference. That underscored the Arab/Persian mutual tension that makes them both feel unsafe and indirectly brings them to pounce on Israel as a unifying factor. “We have a common enemy that is more important than our antipathy.”
Conference on Religious Awakening
April 30, Tehran, Iran
Remarks by Charles Randall Paul, Ph.D.
President, Foundation for Religious Diplomacy
Contests of Righteousness Between Religious Rivals: A Meditation on Sura 5:48
A few years ago I visited Yemen where I had the privilege of spending a day in conversation with Hamood Al-Hitar, who was then the Yemeni Minister of Religious Endowment. He was known for his willingness to talk honestly with his religious critics and opponents—as he hoped to have a good influence on anyone who disagreed with him. I asked him how far he could justify this openness in dialogue. For example, was it not a waste of time to engage heretics and apostates in conversation? His response was both shocking and delightful. He asked me if I had read in the Qu’ran where God speaks with Iblis or Satan (Sura 7:12-16). He then smiled broadly and said, “If God can have a conversation with Iblis, we can certainly have conversations with any humans—even heretics and apostates!” The question in our time of interconnected cultures that I raise here is this: since interconnection with other cultures is becoming unavoidable, should we avoid or seek conversations with people who think we are wrong about our deepest beliefs?
I am speaking today from my perspective as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly called Mormons because of The Book of Mormon a holy scripture that Mormons believe came from God like the Bible and the Qu’ran. (Parenthetically, a large section of the Book of Mormon has been translated into Farsi in recent years.) There are other scriptures too that Mormons believe God has revealed to modern prophets. With their belief in modern prophetic additions to ancient scriptures, Mormons are usually considered unorthodox by those who believe God has spoken all that is needed in times past. However, this openness to receive more from God includes an important belief that makes religious dialogue very congenial to Mormons. They affirm that God inspires prophets or wise sages outside their tradition. In this respect, today I will employ an inspired scripture that is probably more vital to our day and time than when it was first spoken. I am speaking of Sura 5:48 in the Qu’ran.
Before proceeding I acknowledge that the Mormon belief in continuous revelation of new scripture through modern day prophets is often theologically offensive to many of my Jewish, Christian, and Muslim brothers and sisters. My belief calls into question their belief that God has sufficiently spoken to humanity all that is needed in the past. They think claims about new revelations and prophets at best distract us from the essential truth that has been revealed and at worst seduce us to believe in falsehoods that endanger our souls. I suppose most here today might agree to some extent with this criticism. It is for this reason that I am most honored to be invited to this conversation. I presume that any criticism you offer me is given in good faith as you see it for my benefit. From my point of view, I honor anyone that sincerely cares for divine truth and for the wellbeing of souls who hold false beliefs. Each of you have allowed me to voice ideas that at times might be critical of your sacred beliefs. In this act of hospitality I feel the love of those who have invited me into this dialogue, and I sense their confidence that the truth of God will prevail over any human heresy—mine, if it be such, included.
I like to think that millions of angels in heaven gather together regularly to watch their favorite contest on earth. Surprising to humans, the angels are not watching grand battles between good and evil. They find those events boring—they always repeat the same old sins and the ending is known in advance. The angelic version of the World Cup is not a soccer match. It is the ongoing religious contest between the better and the best. A hint of the heavenly interest in this contest is disclosed in verse 48 of Sura 5, The Banquet Table. Heaven is enthralled with the human contest over finding and doing the most righteousness in the world.
The contest is especially exciting because the human participants must all play partially blindfolded! With their limited vision they usually think the goal of the contest is to show how their religions produce more righteousness in society by teaching truer doctrines and that lead to better behavior. While these events are interesting to the angels, they really have their eyes on the epicenter of contest: the way the various rivals treat each other. The angels know humans can never understand the doctrines of God perfectly and they know too that humans are not capable of solving all the social problems in the world. They know that what humans can do is love and forgive each other as they attempt—always imperfectly—to deal justly and honorably with each other.
As I have grown older I am persuaded that God most closely observes the way we each treat those who disagree with us about our religion. While our social, political or economic adversaries also make for interesting tests of love and integrity, our religious rivals—those who call into question what we most highly value—provide the most powerful test of the human soul. In short God is not very interested in the battle between good and evil—Zoroaster might actually agree with this—as He is in the contest between better and the best.
This is supported by the holy scriptures of the three Abrahamic traditions. God created irreducible differences so humanity would be forced to ask (and disagree about) what is MOST beautiful, MOST true, MOST good. God created Eve and Adam as different persons. God blessed humanity by changing all their languages at the tower of Babel, causing them to disperse from a single culture and religion into many all over the world. God inspired Jesus to say (in Matthew 10) ‘Think not that I come to bring peace. I come to bring a sword that sets parents against their children—the Kingdom of God is most important and this announcement will offend many.’ [My paraphrase]
No scripture is more important than Sura 5:48 on this subject because it states clearly that God intentionally created cultural and religious differences for the benefit of humanity to create a contest of righteousness between religious rivals. God promises to announce at the End Time the answer to doctrinal conflicts between religions, but until that time God desires men and women to engage in a contest over which religious group can be the most loving and honest while promoting the conflicting truths they fervently believe. This is an astounding claim that the entire world needs to understand.
Roger Williams in 1640 in the early American colonies is a great example of how this Sura passage has been effectively applied. He was an adamant missionary for his form of Christian faith. He would criticize anyone’s religion openly and fairly as he believed it was his duty to speak the truth; however, he also stood adamantly for any of his religious critics to freely and openly criticize him. He established the first government in Rhode Island that was based on complete religious freedom to practice and preach and criticize and change according to the integrity of the human soul. He believed in the contest of righteousness, but he saw that any real test of the human heart must not be coerced by outside force. Again the Qu’ran stands tall in this matter by saying more clearly than other religious texts, “there shall be no compulsion in religion.”
Today we need to follow the example of Roger Williams in this new awakening. We need to awake to the real contest that is interesting to God in which we all have our part as contestants. We need to stand for the honest rivalry over the truth by righteously treating our opponents as intelligent and good-hearted people who desire to help us see the light even as we do the same in reverse. This of course has political and social applications as well as religious, but I will not pursue those here.
I pray a blessing on all of us as we try to do the best we can in this wonderful and difficult world that God has designed for our long-term learning and happiness.
Summary Statement of the International Conference on Religions and Contemporary Awakening
The social movements arising from the quest for justice, economic development and political fairness for all in a number of countries of the world reflect a fundamental disillusionment with various materialistic schools of thought—socialistic or capitalistic ideologies–that have failed to satisfy their wants and needs. Therefore, it is not surprising that human societies are entering a new phase that is characterized by a renewed quest for economic, political and religious systems that will promote their prosperity, peace and happiness.
Even though religion has always played a decisive role in creating awareness and awakening in various societies, human beings have often been deprived of the great privilege and possibility of living in societies where spirituality provides a foundation for ethics and cultural excellence due to the marginalization of religion in the past few centuries. However, the emergence of awakening movements – the most outstanding aspects of which include the quest for democracy, justice, human dignity and assurance of God-given freedoms for all – in the second decade of the third millennium has come to throw light on the role and importance of religions in orienting and providing high purpose to human life. In many places people are becoming more aware that spirituality and religion can provide the most effective ethical guidance and personal hope needed for human societies to flourish amid life’s continuous challenges.
So, it is incumbent upon all religious leaders and thinkers to define and negotiate the status and significance of religion in their societies—based on their various religious beliefs—and to devise non-coercive means that would make it possible for their highest religious teachings to influence society and support the social movements that arise out of the quest for justice and dignity. In this process the participation of all religious and spiritual devotees—even those who disagree with our beliefs—should be honored in the search for common ethical standards and social purposes that do not require compromise of anyone’s spiritual integrity.
Keeping in view the importance of the above-mentioned, a group of religious leaders and thinkers came together on the invitation of the Center for Interreligious Dialogue of the Organization of Culture and Islamic Relations in Tehran on April 30 and May 1, 2012 to probe into the role of religions in the contemporary wave of awakening, discover the responsibilities of the religious leaders at this juncture of human history and find the ways and means of fulfilling these responsibilities.
The participants of the International Conference on Religions and Contemporary Awakening, while recognizing the awareness movements in different parts of the world, emphasized the following ideas:
- The noble objectives of contemporary awakening movements such as justice, flourishing human dignity and relief from suffering, are in alignment with the teachings of religions.
- The contemporary wave of awakening calls on religious leaders, thinkers and devotees in various societies to be actively involved in guiding these developments to employ the highest of religious and spiritual values and practices in our private and public lives.
- The participants of the Conference call on all religious leaders of the world to exert—based on their social, religious and spiritual responsibility—every possible effort to lead these movements towards creating religious awakening and spiritual growth in the masses by keeping in view the highest teachings of each religion.
- It is incumbent on the religious leaders and thinkers to play an effective role without coercion or hypocrisy in guiding the contemporary wave of awakening which provides an opportunity for religious and spiritual teachings to influence the very fabric of human social life. The participants believe this wave of awakening should be influenced in a way that reflects the reason for which the divine prophets and sages were sent to guide humanity toward spiritual awareness and freedom from sinfulness, pride, anger, greed, lust, envy oppression, corruption, discrimination as well as ensuring eternal salvation and felicity.
- While proposing the establishment of the Secretariat of Religions and Contemporary Awakening in Tehran we the participants of the Conference call on this Secretariat to make the necessary arrangements for organizing a summit of leaders and thinkers of different religions in due time. The objective of the proposed summit would be to determine, propose and approve of the various means and ways through which religious leaders, thinkers and activists can play a constructive and effective role in influencing the increasing wave of contemporary awakening to reflect the highest teachings of each religion that benefit all humanity.
Tehran, May 2, 2012