ASTANA, Kazakhstan — At a time when several countries across the world are plagued with religion-based violence, the emergence of some predominantly Islamic nations raising a voice against such mindless violence is a welcome sign.
While the majority of world leaders from Islamic nations are mutely watching the senseless killing of innocents in the name of religion, Kazakhstan has taken a lead in calling an end to the mass murders of people justified by their religious beliefs.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev highlighted Kazakhstan’s position in this anti-violence movement at the fifth Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in Astana, issuing a call for political leaders all throughout the world to put an end to distrust and sanctions and take greater steps for world peace.
In his opening address to the congress, Nazarbayev proposed a variety of peace initiatives to help increase cooperation among major world powers and to put an end to discord and distrust. The congress resulted in the adoption of a new declaration heavily based on those initiatives.
King Abdullah II of Jordan agreed with this position, saying, “We Muslims are facing a brutal attack by outlaws who distort our faith to try to justify monstrous crimes. Nothing treats our faith with more contempt and nothing hurts the Muslim people more than the actions of these elements.”
Among the calls to action included in the final declaration were a request for world leaders to stop the “growing abyss” of disharmony throughout the world, as well as pleas for world leaders to stop using mutual sanctions. Members of the congress also requested that the United Nations and various other international organizations strive to overcome the divisions between them and to restore peace in accordance with the tenets of international law.
The religious leaders also present at the congress turned their attention toward the media and the way it covers international conflicts. They called for all publishers and media owners to stop using their outlets as tools to incite sectarian and religious divisions, and to take their moral responsibility to spread respect and peace far more seriously. According to the participants of the congress, the media often exacerbates and inflames many issues arising out of international tension, making it more likely for people to take extremist positions.
President Nazarbayev’s role in opening the congress with his address was crucial, and set the tone for the entire meeting. He repeatedly emphasized the importance of open communication, mutual respect, tolerance and cooperation among world leaders.
“In the 21st century, an alternative to dialogue in all fields — political, economic, cultural, spiritual — does not exist,” he said. “Today, humanity has great material, scientific, technical and intellectual capabilities. No progress will be achieved if people do not learn to live in peace and spiritual harmony with each other.”
That theme was also repeated in closing remarks by a major Buddhist leader, Hamba Lama Choyzhilzhavyn Dambazhav, the head of the Dashichoylin Monastery and the Vice President of the World Federation of Buddhists. He expressed his hope in his closing speech that Kazakhstan could become an “example for the whole world” by participating in peaceful, open dialogue with other nations and religions.
One could argue that Kazakhstan is already an example of harmony for the rest of the world to aspire to. Currently the nation has more than 3,000 different places of worship and hosts approximately 500 missionaries from foreign lands. It is a beacon of religious diversity and acceptance, especially in a region where such acceptance can be hard to come by.
The congress also acknowledged that religious acceptance and harmony can only be accomplished through greater political understanding and cooperation. Ayatolla Mohsen Araki, the Head of the World Forum of Islamic Schools of Thought in Iran, said politicians in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and other Middle Eastern nations have a responsibility to make the necessary political changes to allow for peace to begin to settle in. Without a changing political ideology, lasting peace and religious acceptance might not be a particularly realistic goal.
One panel spent some time discussing the way limiting people’s freedom of speech can hamper any progress toward peace. Some leaders remarked that closing off the internet and doing anything else to prohibit people’s freedom of speech only serves to create further tension and hatred, which is a significant barrier to acceptance and harmony.
The congress attendees placed a strong emphasis on prevention of violence. President Nazarbayev said justifications of violence with Islamic beliefs are blasphemous, and that young people being raised in the Muslim faith should be educated with a “spirit of tolerance and respect,” not only about other people, but about other religions as well.
Whether the message of this congress actually reaches the people at the heart of many of these issues remains to be seen. However, it does represent an important step forward in the ongoing quest for peace in the Middle East. With President Nazarbayev’s address and the resulting declaration, Kazakhstan has positioned itself as a leader in the movement for acceptance and tolerance on an international level.Now, it is up to the rest of the nations in the world to follow suit and make the same commitment.
(Justin Salhani, a Washington-based journalist also contributed to the report.)
Harry Nanda is a former Bureau Chief of United Press International in South Asia. He is currently a freelance journalist based in Toronto.