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Z. Rizvi: An Interreligious Council Should Be Well-Defined

Paper presented at a Summit of World Leaders, “The World at a Turning Point: A Global Vision of Peace and Good Governance,” Seoul, Korea, August 11-16, 2003.

I believe the concept of an interreligious council is very sound, timely, and useful. I must admit that when I joined the UN, I thought the UN was the voice of the voiceless. It was supposed to provide power to the powerless. In time, I realized that it can also be a tool for the powerful to play power games. I believe that an interreligious council can be a counterbalancing force, giving the United Nations a new dimension that might perhaps bring more sense, more humanity to politicians.

There are several points I would like to make. First, we have to be extremely careful in defining the conceptual framework of the council. It has to be very precise and very clear. For instance, we must make sure that agnostics, atheists and skeptics are not excluded by an interreligious council. There are hundreds of millions of them. The purpose of this council is to bring the human family closer, to make modern people more human; this is the biggest challenge, in my opinion, that we face today. In other words I believe that this council should be a council for humanity and its purpose should be exclusively to promote humanitarian causes, causes that are common to all religions and should be common to all human beings, whether they are religious or not.

Second, I feel that it is of very great importance that an interreligious council is perceived as and proves to be a counterbalancing force of extremism. Today in many parts of the world religion is being used as an excuse for violence and intolerance. What is called “fundamentalism” and “extremism” is now also being called “terrorism.” It should be the contrary. I think that the concept of council will gain very much morally and politically if it is presented as a body intended to end religious extremism. I emphasize that because, having lived almost all my professional life in the UN, I know that very good concepts can become victims of procedures, politics, and controversial games. We must not allow this good concept to be one of those victims.

Another practical challenge is how to bring the desirable closer to the doable. In our individual lives we know that it is not always possible to do what is desirable. What is doable in the UN will have to follow the UN procedures. Many good ideas have been victims of procedures that are used to reach political objectives. Therefore, the idea that an interreligious council should be an organ of the United Nations, which would involve a revision of the Charter, involves an additional challenge that could hurt its chances for adoption. We need to consider what outcome we want from an interreligious council. We must not become victims of semantics.

Sometimes organs are not as powerful as their subsidiary bodies. Sometimes a committee with a powerful idea can have much greater impact than the whole General Assembly. We need to build a consensus around this noble idea of making humanity more human—an idea that is not intended to be made into a tool either of extremists or of non-extremists. And for that we must develop fixed, practical goals and objectives designed to bring this body into being.

Let me say also that the United Nations is not the ultimate organ for making this world different and better to live in. It is one of the organs. Here I want to emphasize a point that is being neglected woefully by the United Nations. Chapters 6 and 7 of the Charter address issues of peace and peacekeeping. However, peace can only be kept once it has been made. Peacemaking is a weak point of the UN. Peace building is another weak point. Peacekeeping is a procedural matter and not do very well.

The individual must come to peace within himself or herself and only then can that individual be at peace with others. But if I say that in the UN, I will not win applause. We are going to bring, therefore, into the United Nations a concept that radically challenges the UN’s conventional wisdom. It is, in fact, not a body of United Nations. It is a body of disunited governments. It is not even an organization, it is a disorganization.

One of the things we are trying to do is to strengthen the organization. We are turning governments into nations, although the concept of nations was never defined. If you know the history, even when the Charter was being written, it started, “We the governments.” Then Eleanor Roosevelt, I believe with Winston Churchill, just cut out “governments” and put “the peoples.” “We the peoples” which means we the nations. “The peoples” were never defined. At the millennium, Kofi Annan issued the Millennium Report and it, too, says “We the Peoples.” But he failed to define “the peoples” again. “The peoples” is not people and that is where the problem is.

We are slaves of governments and governments are about politics, not about humanity, most of the time. Poverty breeds extremism. I think an interreligious council should address its root causes. If poverty can be eradicated, frustration and extremism and fundamentalism and violence could disappear because deprivation produces frustration. The challenge that lies in front of us is how to turn passion into compassion. That is our task. Turn passion into compassion and the Council will work.