World Public Forum -- Dialogue of Civilizations
Over 200 religious leaders, academics, economists, scientists and politicians have come together in Paris, meeting at the UNESCO head quarters. I was invited to speak on the role of religious leaders as they bring together people who have different narratives. My presentation follows:
How Religious Leaders Can Deepen Dialogue Between Two Narratives
Mr. Chairman, I was one of 13 US Christian leaders who visited the Islamic Republic of Iran three weeks ago. We spent 5 days in Tehran and one in the sacred city of Qom. We met Ayatollahs, academics, political leaders, former president Khatami and President Ahmadinejad. We did a dialogue of civilizations! My comments today are a reflection on that process.
The Mennonite Church in the United States with their distinguished history of working for religious liberty and building infra-structures for peace has been in Iran now for 17 years. They first went there in 1990 following the devastating earthquake. As they continued their work in partnership with the Iranian Red Crescent Society they began to build strong relationships with government and civil society leaders. As the confrontational rhetoric between Washington and Tehran began to intensity, those relationships provided an opportunity for a first meeting between 45 US Christian leaders and with President Ahmadinejad when he came to address the UN General Assembly in New York. Since that hour and quarter long meeting was not nearly enough to answer all the questions we had, the president invited us to Tehran. That second meeting in Tehran was the first time in 28 years that a US delegation met with an Iranian president in Iran.
There was a time when such a meeting of religious leaders or citizens would have brought instant condemnation from the highest levels of the US government for interfering in foreign policy. We did get some criticism, but several US congresspersons and Senators welcomed our initiative. Many have begun to recognize the value of citizen diplomacy.
Indeed it was a former US State Department official and career Foreign Service Officer, Joseph Montville who back in 1980, first legitimized the idea of Track II diplomacy. His proposal was a ground breaking reassessment of diplomatic endeavors which in part addresses the perceptions adversaries have of each other. Policy statements by presidents and other government officials are frequently hamstrung, limited by formalities and complex posturing, he said. For example, a Track I diplomat “cannot risk the chance that adversaries will misperceive reasonableness as a sign of weakness.” Track II, on the other hand, is “an unofficial, informal interaction between members of adversary groups or nations that aims to develop strategies, influence public opinion, and organize human and material resources in ways that might help resolve their conflict.” Since then we’ve learned a lot about Track II diplomacy. Indeed this conference itself can be called an exercise in Track II where influential elites, many of whom are non-governmental actors, come together not only to build critical relationships, but to think together about creative alternatives to what Track I is able to produce.
Sometimes we expect that our Track II work can actually lead to quick Track I results. Indeed, there are rare exceptions: the back channel talks that led to Oslo Accords and the Alexandria Declaration crafted by panels of religious leaders, academics and political elites are prime examples. In the late 1970s a Middle East policy document crafted by a similar group for the National Council of Churches USA provided a framework for the Camp David accords. But those are exceptions. Since Track II participants are usually not authorized by their governments – that’s why they are track II – there is no guarantee that their governments will listen to their findings. If we go into Track II dialogues expecting such outcomes, we are likely to be disappointed and perceive our dialogue to be a failure.
The successes of Track II often occur when participants are changed in the encounter. Their getting to know each other leads to the breaking down of psychological barriers and stereotypes. It humanizes the enemy, provides an opportunity to demythologize the narratives about the past and evaluate the others’ threat-perceptions. Indeed, facing your adversary across the table at lunch rather than at the formal negotiation table, personalizes the conflict even more and helps the parties recognize that the so-called “enemy” shares many of the same fears and constraints, and similarly experiences human pain and suffering.
Our primary task, the US religious delegation felt, was to cut through the confrontational rhetoric coming out of both Washington and Tehran, deepen the dialogue and create a safe space in which each can listen and begin to grasp the other’s expressions of pain which are embedded in tightly held narratives. We sought the partnership of religious leaders in Iran, so that together we will “stand in the gap” between those narratives, on behalf of our peoples.
When US Americans think about Iran the first images that come to mind are those from the 1979 US embassy hostage crisis. Those images flashed before us on our television screens every night for some 444 days. We did not take kindly to Ayatollah Khomeni who called America “the great Satan” and we looked upon their religious fervor with fear and disdain. Most Americans have had an adversarial relationship with Iran ever since.
When Iranians think about the United States, the first images that come to their mind are from 1953, when the CIA collaborating with the British intelligence overthrew Iran’s first democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. In his stead, they placed the Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Iranians recall how this US backed dictator oppressed them for 25 years, until in a popular rebellion inspired by religious fervor; the people overthrew the Shah and instituted an Islamic Republic.
How do you negotiate between such competing narratives? This is where skills of interfaith dialogue can play a helpful role, for in interfaith dialogue we are constantly confronted not only with competing narratives, but also with competing truth claims and alternative centers of power and life’s allegiance. It is a complex negotiation. Religious identity is invariably entangled in a complex dynamics of culture, politics and ethnicity. Sometimes religious groups are perceived to reflect the ideology of a particular state. The American military and economic involvement in the Middle East is perceived by some to be a Christian intrusion into the heart of the Muslim world. Threats by the Iranian president against Israel are seen as a Muslim war against Jews. And Jews as a religious people are intricately involved with the modern state of Israel. Events such as the war in Iraq, the Israel-Hezbollah war, the cartoon controversy and the comments by the Pope have created an added level of complexity.
Yet, among the religious leaders of Iran, we found ready partners. Ayatollah Mohammadi Araqi, the president of the Organization for Culture and Islamic Relations, who I have come to know before through interfaith dialogue events, carries significant clout within that power structure. A moderate leader who is sincerely committed to dialogue, Araqi spoke passionately about how dialogue should lead to action towards peace. Ayatollah Taskhiri, the president of the World Forum on the Proximity of Islamic Schools of Thought, expressed views so liberal minded that it surprised many of us. Speaking of the role of women in Iranian society, for instance, he said he waited for the day when a woman would be a Grand Ayatollah. I asked him what he is doing to make that dream a reality. He replied that since some 65% of students in Tehran University were women, the next generation will see women in leadership as never before. Some meetings were difficult. I think particularly of one in Qom, where the meeting’s agenda was so crafted as to give them an opportunity to tell us off, rather than engage in a dialogue.
Meetings with religious leaders were our priority. We met with the Armenian Orthodox Archbishop of Tehran and the leaders of the Armenian Evangelical Church. We tried to meet the Jewish Member of Parliament but couldn’t only because of scheduling problems. But, since the media has focused mostly on the meeting with Ahmadinejad, I will reflect on that meeting.
First it is important to say that there is something very unique about the political structure of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The president does not have nearly as much power as the American president does in the US, although it is widely misperceived in the US that this is so. In matters pertaining to military actions, foreign policy and nuclear issues, authority lies with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei. In addition, those who run for President or for membership in parliament must receive prior approval from him. We did not get to meet with the Supreme Leader apparently because our delegation didn’t have the highest level religious leaders – but interestingly we were high powered enough to meet with the president!
Mr. Ahmadinejad comes across as a religious man. He based his remarks on Qur’anic scripture and seems to acquiesce to the authority of religious leaders. I will remark on two of the several questions we asked: on the question of uranium enrichment leading to the possibility of developing nuclear weapons, and on the Holocaust conference and his remarks on Israel.
First on the nuclear issue, president Ahmadinejad insisted that Iran has never been interested in building nuclear weapons and that he does not intend to build them now. “We are against war and the production of WMDs, chemical, biological and atomic bombs” he said. “This is what our religion tells us. Iran is a religious government.” He reminded us that the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei has issued a fatwa (religious edict) stating that manufacture or use of nuclear weapons goes against Islamic teaching. Iran’s uranium enrichment program is strictly for energy purposes he said, and is needed for Iran’s 20 year long economic development plan. “As a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran has every right to develop nuclear energy under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA),” he said. It is also true,” he continued, “that today, nuclear weapons are not effective. Nuclear weapons did not help the Soviet Union to survive. They could not help Mr. Bush in his war with Iraq,” he said.
Second, I raised the question of the Holocaust and Israel. I asserted that his views, rhetoric and actions at the very least, undercut our attempts to build relationships between the people of the United States and Iran. Ahmadinejad reiterated his view of the Israel/Palestine issue and the Holocaust as we have heard it before from him. He does not deny the reality of the Holocaust, he said, but believes that its disastrous effects are exaggerated to provide legitimacy for the state of Israel. He also reminded us that the way he seeks to resolve the question of Palestinians is by holding a plebiscite of all the people who live in the area.
In my follow up I remarked that this proposal is a non-starter, since it would indeed be a way to wipe Israel off the map. He indicated that he would be open to other political solutions but was firmly against any military options. I summarized the churches’ positions on Israel/Palestine, emphasizing our commitment for justice for Palestinians and peace and security for Israel. I pointedly disagreed with him on the Holocaust conference, asserting that this horrendous event in human history has been the subject of significant study. “Israel is a reality; it’s not going away” I insisted, “If we are to take you seriously, you must begin to deal with that reality.” “You are entitled to your opinion,” he said to me tersely, and with that, we closed the subject. I did not expect a Track II initiative to lead to immediate Track I results.
While there was much to disagree with, the meeting with the president provided us with three encouraging items: a clear declaration that Iran does not intend to acquire nuclear weapons; a statement that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be resolved militarily, but only by political means and a willingness to talk with US government officials if there is good will.
I reiterate, that while the meeting with the president was the most high profile meeting we had, the meetings with religious leaders were, in the long run, far more significant. Interfaith Dialogue has provided these leaders —from both countries—the skills to navigate through the competing narratives each side brings to the table. Committed to working towards such a goal, the delegation called upon both the US and Iranian governments to immediately engage in direct, face-to-face talks, cease using language that defines the other using “enemy” images, and promote more people- to- people exchanges including religious leaders, members of parliament/congress and civil society.
Perhaps most significantly, the delegation discovered on the streets of Tehran ordinary, normal human beings, who like us, live ordinary, normal lives. They are mothers, fathers and children all created in the image of God. They, like us, desire peace. We also met many religious leaders, who, like us, are willing to stand in the gap. Therein lies our hope for the success of our Track II diplomacy.