Geneva, February 7, 2011
The Permanent Missions of the United States of America and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan jointly sponsored a panel discussion on the occasion of the first World Interfaith Harmony Week, as proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in November 2010.
Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, U.S. Representative to the United Nations Human Rights Council and Ambassador Shehab Madi, Permanent Representative of Jordan to the United Nations welcomed guests from other diplomatic missions, NGOs and civil society representatives to the February 7, 2011 event at the United States Mission.
Four panelists – Rashad Hussain, President Obama’s Special Envoy to the OIC, Father Nabil Haddad, Founder and CEO of the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center, Randa Kuziez, a young interfaith activist from the United States, and Robin Sclafani, Director of CEJI, Jewish Contribution to an Inclusive Europe – led a discussion on how to bridge interreligious divides and promote religious tolerance.
“It is incumbent upon both governments and members of society to model respect, welcome diversity of belief, and build respectful societies based on open dialogue and debate.”
Special Envoy Hussain emphasized that tolerance is essential for religion to thrive and that freedom of religion is central to the ability of people’s to live together. The full text of Special Envoy Hussein’s remarks are below.
For more about the United Nations World Interfaith Harmony initiative, visit the website: http://worldinterfaithharmonyweek.com/
U.S. Special Envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference
I am honored to be here in Geneva to participate in this joint event during the first ever UN World Interfaith Harmony Week. This inaugural celebration is poised to become an annual tradition to mark achievements in peace, understanding, harmony and cooperation for many years to come.
We are all grateful to King Abdullah of Jordan for his tireless efforts towards unity and for reminding us, in his speech to the UN General Assembly last September, that “humanity everywhere is bound together, not only by mutual interests, but by shared commandments to love God and neighbor; to love the good and neighbor.”
I have been working with President Obama’s Administration since he was elected, and while serving in the White House Counsel’s Office, I was appointed by the President to serve as his Special Envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference. My role is to help “deepen and expand” the partnerships that the President set forth when he announced his New Beginning framework for engaging Muslim communities around the world.
This framework is rooted in the President’s recognition that “regardless of race, religion, or station in life, all of us share common aspirations — to live in peace and security; to get an education and to work with dignity; to love our families, our communities, and our God.”
I am a product of the American Muslim community. My family immigrated to the United States in the 1970’s from India. I was born in the United States, and growing up in Texas, I witnessed firsthand how the American Muslim community has grown and prospered over the years.
As the President has noted, “the contributions of Muslims to the United States are too long to catalog because Muslims are so interwoven into the fabric of our communities and our country.” And as he recently said in his State of the Union address, we move forward “with the conviction that American Muslims are a part of our American family.”
The resolution that brings us World Interfaith Harmony Week was adopted unanimously by the UN General Assembly and focuses on a message of inclusion, tolerance, and acceptance. The United States enthusiastically supports this initiative. America is one of the world’s most religiously diverse nations, and our constitutional guarantee of religious freedom has fostered a culture in which all faith communities—from the largest denominations to the smallest local congregations—can openly serve their neighbors.
Current events around the globe demonstrate that King Abdullah’s historic initiative is especially timely and significant. In recent years, many parts of the world have witnessed an increase in religious intolerance. Heinous attacks against Christians in Egypt, Iraq, and Nigeria; anti-Semitic discrimination and attacks in a number of regions, including in the United States; and instances of bigotry directed at Muslims are recent examples of this troubling trend.
As we gather here today, we’re mindful of what we’re seeing in the Middle East, including Egypt, where Christians, Muslims, and others stand together in a determined quest for a better future. As President Obama said, “the future of Egypt will be determined by its people. … [and] The entire world is watching. … In order for Egypt to have a bright future … the only thing that will work is moving an orderly transition process that begins right now, that engages all the parties, that leads to democratic practices, fair and free elections, a representative government that is responsive to the grievances of the Egyptian people.” We pray that the rights and aspirations of the Egyptian people will be realized, and that a better day will dawn over Egypt and all other nations struggling to achieve peace and freedom.
We also gather at a time when the specter of violence conducted in the name of religion continues to be a threat to all people. As extremists distort religion to serve their own violent ends, it is our duty to proclaim that there is no religious faith that accepts the killing of innocent men, women, and children. In Cairo, President Obama emphasized that violent extremism has no place in Islam and is rejected by its holy texts. In doing so, he referenced a famous verse of the Quran, which equates the murder of any innocent person with the killing of all humanity.
In Cairo, the President also emphasized the importance of promoting interfaith engagement. He said that tolerance is essential for religion to thrive and that freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together. Faith-based organizations can be powerful catalysts for development and social action: from rebuilding communities ravished by natural disasters to responding to outbreaks of deadly disease. And while faith-based groups are powerful as singular actors, they can multiply their impact by joining across religious lines: Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and Jews, retaining their individual beliefs but coming together to serve communities around the globe in times of dire need.
The U.S. Government seeks to help create opportunities for this sort of interfaith engagement, and to develop mechanisms to systematically partner with religious organizations abroad. Across all religious traditions, we face tremendous challenges around the globe, some too daunting to fully comprehend: over a million people dead each year from preventable diseases, like malaria; 33 million people wracked by HIV/AIDS; over 140 million orphans worldwide; religious tensions from the Middle East to Europe to the United States; a warming climate and frequent natural disasters, from Haiti to Pakistan and so many points in between. If we are to tackle these challenges, we must somehow find a way to put aside religious difference and work together.
This is happening across the globe already, and governments have a role in bringing people of different faiths together to address common challenges. I am pleased that the United States government is encouraging faith-based partnerships for the common good. We are identifying ways in which government’s partnerships with faith-based actors successfully alleviate pain and suffering across the globe, so that we can build on these models in the future.
Last year I joined eight influential American-Muslim leaders and the U.S. Special Envoy for Anti-Semitism, Hannah Rosenthal, at an interfaith gathering at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, where the Muslim leaders condemned anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. And last year the White House created an interagency working group on Religion & Global Affairs which aims to coordinate and enhance U.S. engagement with religious actors as we work together on shared goals around the world. With the help of this working group, the U.S. has co-sponsored interfaith collaboration conferences in Indonesia, Bangladesh, and at the Vatican. The conference in Indonesia led to the formation of the country’s first National Inter-religious Council—a body that observed World Interfaith Harmony Week with a massive rally in celebration of religious pluralism in Jakarta just a few days ago.
We continue to actively promote tolerance and interfaith collaboration. Several U.S. embassies and missions have responded to the Cairo vision by sponsoring major conferences focused on practical cooperation among religious communities and civil society actors.
For example, in January 2010, the United States co-sponsored a regional interfaith conference with Indonesia. The event focused on building collaborative communities through interfaith action and led to ongoing partnership between Indonesian and American religious leaders.
In March 2010 Embassy Dhaka hosted a regional conference on “The Role of Religious and Community Leaders in Advancing Development in Asia.” Over 60 leading religious and community leaders, political actors, development practitioners, and their counterparts from 14 Asian countries attended the conference, where they shared their experiences with other leaders from the region on issues related to promoting interfaith dialogue and service, interfaith partnerships, and supporting non-traditional actors.
In October 2010, Embassy Vatican partnered with the Pontifical Gregorian University to co-sponsor an Abrahamic conference on “Building Bridges of Hope: Success Stories and Strategies for Inter-faith Action.”
And more recently, in November, the White House brought together a wide spectrum of civil society leaders for a consultation on faith, health, and development.
Our support of World Interfaith Harmony Week and our participation in this event is another example of the Obama Administration’s commitment to catalyzing meaningful multi-religious dialogue and cooperation.
We are attempting to stimulate such dialogue and cooperation within the UN setting as well, including efforts to counter intolerance. We are pleased to have joined the UN Alliance of Civilizations. I attended the 2010 Alliance of Civilizations conference in Rio de Janeiro where I highlighted our Administration’s commitment to tolerance and understanding.
While there are many positive approaches to countering intolerance, restricting freedom of expression actually undermines freedom of religion, and that is why we have opposed and will continue strongly to oppose efforts to restrict expression in the name of protecting religion. As I have discussed in the context of the OIC’s resolution on Defamation of Religion, restrictions on expression tend to raise the profile of hateful speech, as we have seen with attempts to ban the Danish cartoons and the Satanic Verses. They can also be used to target religious minorities, whose beliefs may be labeled as defamatory. Even when such restrictions are implemented, in the age of the Internet they are often difficult to enforce. And those that oppose their enforcement can become targets of violence, as was painfully demonstrated by the deplorable assassination of Governor Salmaan Taseer in Pakistan.
Arriving at a widely-supported approach to these delicate issues that touch on religious sensibilities and fundamental values of freedom of expression is a challenging process. Forging common ground will require give-and-take over time and a genuine willingness on all sides to understand one another’s concerns. It will require not merely finding new approaches to UN and UNHRC resolutions, but also in forging joint new approaches and shared ways of thinking. While we are bound to encounter misunderstandings about our respective faiths, we should use those as an opportunity to counter those narratives. This is why the U.S. continues to advocate for open discussions about religion and belief.
Through our engagement with the UN Human Rights Council, we have worked to uphold the very rights necessary for interfaith dialogue–freedoms of religion, expression, and assembly. As President Obama has stated, “Governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful, and secure.” We have pursued discussions that would help address all forms of religious intolerance and discrimination, while also protecting freedoms of expression and religion. This helps set the stage for interfaith harmony.
Interfaith harmony hinges upon mutual understanding and the open exchange of ideas. The more we can talk with one another constructively about our religions, the more common ground we uncover, and the more we understand that Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and all others are truly religions of peace and compassion. In this context, we welcome OIC Secretary General Ihsanoglu’s call, made here in Geneva last year, for eight specific actions to address religious discrimination and violence. An approach of this nature can make a real and positive contribution and could help forge the common ground that is key to interfaith harmony.
We are making steady progress toward realizing the President’s vision, both in the United States and abroad. And we see the power of interfaith harmony even as we face difficult challenges and times of crisis. In Egypt, after the recent horrific attacks on the Coptic community, Egyptian Muslims attended Church with their Christian neighbors in an act of solidarity. And Egyptian Christians stood guard during the recent protests to protect their Muslim friends while they prayed. Yesterday, Muslims in Tahrir Square formed a ring around Christians to protect them during Sunday mass. We have heard Coptic Christians and Muslims praying together and clasping hands in unity, holding symbols of their faith, chanting “Muslim, Christian, we’re all Egyptian!”
As an international community, a goal we should set for ourselves is to echo that inclusive spirit. That shared humanity is the basis for modern human rights law, but it is also one of the central motivating ideas of religious faith. As the President said after the tragic events in Tuscon, Arizona last month, “the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.” One of these forces is faith, and this week is a reminder of what can be achieved when people of all backgrounds join together. As people all around the world commemorate Interfaith Harmony Week, I hope we can continue its momentum throughout the entire year. I look forward to further collaboration as we move forward. Thank you. And peace be unto you all.