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Global Ethic and Good Governance a Buddhist – Muslim Dialogue at UNESCO Paris

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UNESCO Headquarters, Paris, 5-7 May 2003

The conference on the Buddhist-Muslim Dialogue was held in Paris from 5 to 7 May 2003, in the framework of UNESCO’s Inter-religious Dialogue Programme (Division of Cultural Policies and Intercultural Dialogue). It was jointly organized by the Museum for World Religions, Global Family for Love and Peace, an NGO accredited to the ECOSOC, and the Elijah School for the Study of World Religions, a UNESCO Chair located in Jerusalem.

UNESCO’s Inter-religious Dialogue Programme is conceived as an essential dimension of Intercultural Dialogue. Since its creation in 1995, UNESCO has brought together personalities from different religions, spiritual traditions and cultures, to encourage fruitful dialogue between them at a global level. Following several meetings, a number of formal declarations were adopted in Barcelona (1994), Rabat I (1995), Malta (1997), Rabat II (1998) and Bishkek (1999), Tashkent (2000) recommending UNESCO to give priority to intercultural and interreligious dialogue in education and training. The objective of such initiatives is to further reciprocal knowledge and mutual understanding and appreciation of shared spiritual and ethical values and to highlight interactions between different religions and spiritual traditions.

The NGO “Global Family for Love and Peace” (GFLP) had already organized conferences for Buddhist-Muslim dialogue in Malaysia, Indonesia and the USA (Columbia University). Topics discussed during previous conferences ranged from doctrinal and theological issues (Columbia University), to the history and state of Buddhist-Muslim relations in Asia (Malaysia) and the challenges of globalization (Indonesia/Malaysia).

The conference held at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, from the 5 to 7 May 2003 was opened by Ms. Milagros del Corral, Director of UNESCO’s Division of Arts and Cultural Enterprise, and Deputy to the Assistant Director-General for Culture; Mr. Ahmad Jalali, President of UNESCO’s General Conference; Ven. Dharma Master Hsin-Tao, founder of the Museum for World Religions and of the GFLP and by Mr. Abdurrahman Wahid, former President of Indonesia. Thirty speakers, mainly from South East Asian countries, took part in the debates which revolved around six themes:

1)The importance of inter-religious dialogue;
2) Reports of previous conferences;
3) Inter-religious coexistence in pluralistic societies;
4) Global ethics and good governance;
5) Religions’ responses to violence – from cause to cure,
6) Inter-religious dialogue and education for peace.

Lively debates followed on the challenges and opportunities posed to both the Buddhist Dharma and Islam in responding to 21st century global issues and the role that the Buddhist-Muslim dialogue could play in this respect. These debates took place in an amicable atmosphere and respectful of each other’s opinion, UNESCO considers itself a Forum where different opinions and visions of the world can be shared or confronted.

1) Importance of inter-religious dialogue

In the opening session and right through the deliberations, all the speakers stressed the importance of inter-religious and intercultural dialogue in promoting peace, mutual understanding and respect. As stated in the UNESCO Declaration on Cultural Diversity, cultural and religious diversity are very enriching for any given society. One has to learn to understand and respect the other with their differences while recognizing that human beings are bound by a common history. In the same way, inter-religious dialogue enables leaders and believers of different religions to realize that other religions are different in certain respects. Each religion has evolved to serve intellectual, social and emotional needs as are relevant to societies in which it developed or spread. But the values promoted by them are very similar as all religions have a role in promoting respect for human dignity and justice.

The role of inter-religious dialogue is threefold: breaking down stereotypes and understanding the other, helping each other to grow and learn to face the world together; and to find common responses to world challenges. One of the speakers stressed that the essence of dialogue was the search for truth in total freedom without predetermining the path this exchange would lead to. The same speaker emphasized the fact that preserving one’s identity and engaging into dialogue were not incompatible, if one conceived his or her identity as an open and evolving reality.

In the light of events such as the destruction of the Buddha statues in Bamiyan (Afghanistan), the terrorist attacks of September 11th and more recently the war in Iraq, inter-religious dialogue and cooperation between religious communities have become imperative to attain peace by viewing and presenting these incidents in a proper perspective. An interfaith dialogue that embraces both the grassroots level and religious leadership may offer solutions to problems where political and diplomatic approaches have failed. Religions have the responsibility and the capacity to fight against ignorance and hatred and seek common solutions despite their differences.

All speakers at the conference agreed that some conflicts which are carried out in the name of religion by misguided fanatics and extremists stem from a misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the sacred texts and are to be condemned. Many other conflicts which are attributed to religious causes in “the journalistic shorthand of media” have in reality arisen due to ethnic, economic, political or social reasons. Caution was strongly recommended when one looks for religious causes of conflicts.

The conference posed a central question: what is the role of religions in preserving the world and providing responses to 21st century issues, at a time when ethics seem to have been sidestepped?

The specificity of Buddhist-Muslim dialogue

Since international inter-religious gatherings between religious leaders have so far been among Muslims, Christians and Jews, a dialogue between Muslims and Buddhists is a new configuration which has yet to be explored. In fact, such a dialogue could break off center-periphery relationship which has prevailed to date in inter-religious dialogue. In the West, one tends to associate the Muslims with the Arab world. However only 10% of the Muslims come from this region and the largest Muslim country is Indonesia, followed by Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Malaysia. In certain parts of Asia, at a local level, Buddhism and Islam have coexisted for centuries. Muslims are a sizeable minority in practically all Buddhist nations while several Muslim-majority nations have significant Buddhist communities. A Buddhist-Muslim dialogue is therefore extremely relevant to the reality of this part of the world.

In times of turmoil in the Muslim world (war in Afghanistan, Iraq, terrorist attacks in Indonesia and Kashmir and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict) it is crucial that initiatives promoting dialogue between Islam and other religious communities take place. High profile meetings between people from all backgrounds and religions whose objective is to promote peace and tolerance, are crucial to counter the mass-media portrayal of conflicts and such theories as the inevitable “clash of civilizations” suggested by Samuel Huntington. Muslims have to learn how to dialogue with each other and with others.

Buddhism is going through a crisis since its teachings and practices seem to offer solutions at a personal level without responding to international issues and questions resulting from structural violence. Buddhists should acknowledge the existence of structural collective violence to find Buddhist responses to it. Comments of one speaker on Buddhist history drew
attention to the importance of assessing as thoroughly as possible the accuracy and objectivity of sources – especially historical documents – before one draws conclusions.

Should we perceive this kind of conference as a new trend aiming to bring different religions together to develop a global perspective towards mankind ?

2) Reports on previous conferences organized by GPLP

The conference at Columbia University focused on theological differences between Buddhists and Muslims. Central to the discussions were the questions of existence and the adoration of multiple divinities in Buddhism which Islam categorically opposes and the question of the revelation of a universal message by the Prophet Mohamed in Islam. Buddhists contest this since they believe that revelation has been a continuous process and was “universal” from the outset. After discussing the Islamic concept of “people of the book” it was agreed that Buddhists, too, were a “people of the Book” since the Dharma is set forth in religious scriptures collectively called the Dharmakaya.

Both the conference in Indonesia and the conference in Malaysia underlined the specificities of Buddhist-Muslim relations in South East Asia. The situation in Malaysia is interesting since both Muslim and Buddhist communities have peacefully coexisted for centuries. The tensions which had arisen from time to time are due to ethnic and not religious differences between Chinese Buddhists and Malaysian Muslims. Conversely, although Indonesia is a country which is overwhelmingly Muslim, its constitution guarantees the freedom to practice other religions. In the region, both religions have ancient ties and have always learnt from each other. In fact, the Islamic way of life in these countries is very different from that of the Arab world. This is due to the fact that they have always been a pluralistic society influenced by many different civilizations. South Eastern Asian societies tend to be extremely tolerant. However, tensions do exist and have increased recently. The “religious” conflicts which exist today, are in fact, deeply rooted in the socio-economic reality of the country itself, and not due to religious reasons. The conferences acknowledged a common history between the different religions and promoted reconciliation between them since it was recognized that peace could only come through national reconciliation and a
shared examination of the past. In fact, both conferences were followed by common activities involving youth organizations which resulted in the world campaign for the protection of sacred sites.

3. Inter-religious coexistence in pluralistic societies

Several speakers discussed the problem of religious coexistence in pluralistic societies, and specifically in Europe for both Buddhists and Muslims. In the context of globalization and mass population movements, people from different religions tend to have more contact with each other and to know more about each other. The case of France, as reported, is interesting since it is a secular country where all religions are considered equal and enjoy the same legal status. Furthermore, France is the European country with the largest concentrations of Buddhist, Muslim and Jewish communities. France became a secular country after numerous bloody conflicts which led to a dissociation between religious allegiance – Catholicism in this case – and political allegiance to the State. These two concepts were previously united in the person of the king. The separation of politics from religion is still a reality in France and religion is confined to a private sphere.

This idea has now spread to the European Union where religious freedom is considered to be a basic human right, protected by the European Court for Human Rights. In recent times, the French, like many other westerners, have discovered other forms of spirituality, such as Buddhism and Islam, through contact with immigrants and thanks to mass media information on other parts of the world.

The question remains, what can religions give to secular western societies which have lost touch with their own religion — mainly Christianity. Religion can definitely make an important contribution to ethics and human rights. Furthermore, discovering the spiritual side of life engenders serenity and reciprocal awareness. Religion can also reconcile the human being with its heritage and with its historical memory in an era where the notion of time is ruled by that of the “instantaneous.”

4. Global ethics and good governance

All speakers viewed with great concern the negative consequences of globalization. Globalization gradually induces a standardization of cultures. However it also enables people to contact one another easily and more frequently. We are living in a consumer-dominated capitalist system. One speaker underlined that monetary values seem far more important than the values in respect of human beings. Human beings are perceived almost exclusively as a “homo economicus”. In a material world governed by interest rates and stock markets, people do not take the time to develop their spiritual self. Many speakers spoke of a “chaotic world” lacking order and moral values. One of the speakers stressed that we are not living in an era of globalization but of “westernization.” Exchanges between the North and the South are unequal and create poverty and frustration in the South. In this context, the Muslim-Buddhist dialogue is a South/South dialogue.

It is urgent for religious organizations to get together and introduce an ethical/compassionate perspective to the debate on globalization. All the protagonists agreed that religions have a crucial role to play which has yet to be developed. This does not by any
means imply that religions should be mixed with politics. On the contrary, politics must contain ethical values.

Is there a common ground, in these religions, to create a global ethic for good governance? First of all, good ethics will produce good governance. If politics are based on a sincere respect of basic moral values, the outcome can only be positive. More precisely, the basis for ethics, as expressed by a Buddhist monk, is the preservation and respect for all forms of life. Beyond this basic principle, the Buddha, the son of a king, established a list of qualities which the leader should possess. He should be generous and giving, virtuous, gentle, self-controlled, non-confrontational; he should avoid falsehood and anger, irony or sarcasm. The Buddha also set down seven principles for good rule, the most important being: to meet in harmony, discuss and preserve harmony in spite of different opinions, abide by the rule of law, operate a balance between tradition and modernity, protect the womenfolk, respect elders, safeguard the practice of religion and be open to all religions and spiritual traditions in one’s territory and abroad. The global ethics, as agreed to in Cape Town Parliament of World’s Religions in 1999, enjoin not to kill, steal, engage in sexual misconduct and utter falsehood. If the abuse of liquor and drugs is added to this list, it will be identical with the basic “Five Precepts ” of Buddhism.

Likewise in Islam, there is a clear set of guidelines for good governance in the Qur’an and in Islamic jurisprudence. Indeed, Islam is a religion which contains very precise rules for individuals and for the political and legal system as a whole. A good leader, says the Qur’an,
always puts the interest of the people above his own interest. He consults his people regularly by different means – and in particular by the Council of Consultation (Majliss al Shura).

One speaker stressed that in both religions and many other forms of moral systems, there exists a basic rule. The golden rule of life is: do unto others as you would have others do unto you. This principle could be the basis for a new global governance and one could create a universal declaration on human responsibility. For some speakers, in order for this principle to function on a global level, many things would have to change in particular, existing power structures. This concept cannot function with the existing international system where international law does not seem to apply to the most powerful and where the UN system institutionalizes the inequalities between states. This is exemplified by the Security Council itself. Not only should the world system of Capitalism be reviewed and reformed to serve the humanity as a whole, but individual attitudes should change, and people should learn to share beyond their differences.

It is imperative for religions to attempt to reconcile the material and the spiritual worlds, two spheres which today, oppose one another. Furthermore, to counter the narrow vision of the human being, as an “homo economicus”, religions should encourage the emergence of a “homo spiritualitus”, a man connected to the transcendental. A metaphysical non-aligned movement, should be created where the human being is placed at the center of our concerns.

5. Religions’ responses to violence: from cause to cure

When dealing with the question of violence, both religions seem to be divided more by the approach each adopts or recommends to obtain peace; rather in their commitment to the real objective of peace. From the Buddhist perspective, for the world to be in peace, individuals have to find peace within themselves. Buddhism’s central doctrine is that of non-violence. They believe violence can only engender more violence. “Not by hatred is hatred appeased. It is by non-hatred or love that hatred is appeased,” says the Buddha. Only an inner transformation can succeed in ridding individuals of negative feelings such as anger and desire. The strength of love is stronger than anger and hatred, which are weaknesses of the human being. From the Muslim perspective, there has to be justice in society for peace to prevail in the present world among individuals. Indeed, in the Muslims’ opinion religion should go beyond personal salvation to promote justice. Several Muslim speakers stressed that, on the one hand, Muslims felt frustrated and under attack as a result of superpower domination, inherent or perceived in globalization, and, on the other, repressed by their respective governments. While the Buddhists emphasize the inner world, Muslims look to the public sphere and the outside world. The question which divides them is: does transformation come from the moral enhancement of the individual or from the reform of society?

In regard to the problem of curing a society from its violent past, speakers from South Africa and Bosnia commented on experiences in their respective countries. The experience of South Africa’s Reconciliation Council shows the importance of memory in the resolution of past conflicts. In many cases, communities live side by side for centuries without knowing anything about the other, their respective customs or religions. The experience of Bosnia demonstrated the negative effects of misinformation and propaganda in igniting conflicts between religious communities. The Bosnian speaker also insisted on the fact that, in the case of war, dialogue between different communities was not a choice but a condition for survival. One speaker explained his optimism as based on the remarkable progress Western Europe has made from its violent past of the first half of the twentieth century.

Most speakers mentioned the importance of education and objective information in order to restore lasting peace. The lack of adequate information in regard to world events can prevent people from feeling empathy and understanding other peoples’ worlds. Media nowadays prefer reporting repeatedly the fluctuations of the stock market to portraying the reality of poverty and the urgency of global remedial measures. Violence is often promoted by entertainment media because the producers know that it is easier to attract audiences by stimulating human inner fears than by calling upon their sense of compassion.

6) Inter-religious dialogue and education for peace

Speakers, in general, stressed that an inter-religious dialogue must imperatively include civil society, youth and women. A case was made for including atheists in inter-religious dialogue and educational action as those who are not irreligious among them hold the same humanistic values and commitment. The most difficult thing is to communicate with
people who have different opinions. It would indeed be dangerous to limit the work of inter-religious and intercultural dialogue only to the convinced and the converted. The need is to reach the hitherto unreached.

Education is the principal means to promote peace and tolerance in the long term since ignorance is the basis for conflict and misunderstanding. There are many ways of changing the content of education through schoolbooks, the media and children’s games. It is crucial for these instruments to have an input from different groups, to know what and how the other thinks. This will lead to a real discussion between different groups and the perception of a more objective reality.

Many NGOs currently work to enhance reciprocal knowledge and understanding. One of them present at the conference, works with the second generation of immigrant Muslim youth in France and encourages an approach to Islam based on peace compatible with French citizenship. One of the main ideas of this association is to show that these young Muslims not only share common values but also citizenship with their non-Muslim French counterparts and this does not prevent them from being different in certain respects. Another NGO working on inter-religious dialogue hailed the idea that a proper religious education was automatically an education for peace and said it worked on the manner in which religions were presented in schoolbooks. Germany, it was reported, has done a great deal to promote a complete and open religious education. The aim in this country is to create a two level religious education at the school level:
1. A neutral religious education in school with the input of all the religious communities for all school children.
2. A special religious education with appointed teachers on the specific religion of children’s own community.

Some German schools have even introduced meditation and yoga to counter violence. At the university level, chairs in religious studies from several universities have come together to work out a methodology on how to understand religion. Religious education is also present in programs, in extended education, and in activities of NGOs created for this purpose. In these places, religious leaders can exchange ideas and examine their texts in the light of other traditions.


Dialogue is crucial to learn about ourselves and one another and also to grow together. It must include people who are not yet convinced of the importance of compassion, tolerance and mutual understanding among communities. Particularly targeted are those who prefer to use violence to impose their points of view.

Globalization should not be considered only from a negative standpoint, since it has enabled people from different religions and cultures to come together, in order to work towards common goals for the reduction of poverty, the promotion of education etc.. One of the most challenging ideas which resulted from the conference is that Buddhist and Muslim communities could contribute to world peace by combining the profound teachings and practices relating to the spiritual transformation of the individual, central to Buddhism, with community sharing and societal concern, central to Islam.

Annex 1: List of participants :

Mr. Ahmet Alibasic, Faculty of Islamic Studies, Sarajevo
Prof. Jean Baubérot, E.P.H.E., Vème Section (Paris)
Prof. Ghaleb Bencheikh, Physicist, Vice-President of the “Conférence Mondiale des Religions pour la Paix ”
Prof. David Chappell, Buddhist Studies, University of Hawaii
Ms Milagros Del Corral, Director, Division of Arts and Cultural Enterprise and Deputy to the Assistant Director-General for Culture, UNESCO
Ven. T. Dhammaratana, Vice-President, The World Fellowship of Buddhism
Prof. Eric Geoffroy, Arabic and Islamic Studies, Université Marc
Bloch, Strasbourg
Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein, Coordinator, UNESCO Chair, The Elijah School for the Study of Wisdom in World Religions
Mr. Simon Guerrand Hermès, Director, Hermès, USA, religions specialist
Dr. Rosa Guerreiro, Program Specialist for Inter-religious Dialogue
Program, UNESCO
Dr. Ananda Guruge, Dean, Academic Affairs, Director International Academy of Buddhism of Hsi Lai University, Los Angeles County, USA (Rapporteur General)
Dr. Chirzin Habib, President, Islamic Millenium Forum for Peace and Dialogue
Ven. Dharma Master Hsin-Tao, Founder, Museum of World Religions, and President, Global Family for Love and Peace (GFLP)
Mr. Ahmed Jalali, President of the General conference of UNESCO
Mr. Mohammed Kagee, Founder of the Capetown Interfaith Initiative
Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, President, International Movement for a Just World
Dr. Hocine Raïs, spokesmen for Dr. Dalil Boubakeur, Rector, Muslim Institute of the Paris Mosque
Dr. Maria Reis Habito, International Program Director, Museum of World Religions
Ven. Dagpo Rinpoche, Former Professor at INALCO, School for Oriental Studies, Paris
Ms. Jacqueline Rougé, Honorary President, World Conference of Religions for Peace
Dr. Wolfgang Schmidt, Director, Worldwide Ecumenical Partnership
Dr. Sulak Sivaraksa, Thai Social Critic, winner of the Right Livelihood Award
Mr. Marc Cheb Sun, Vice President, Terres d’Europe
Mr. Mohammed Taleb, President, Université Transdisciplinaire Arabe
Lama Denys Teundroup, Université Dharma Orient-Occident
Prof. Michael Von Brueck, Prof. of Religious Studies, University of Munich
Dr. Abdurrahman Wahid, Former President of Indonesia

Annex 2: Secretariat
Dr. Ananda Guruge, Dean, Academic Affairs, Director International Academy of Buddhism of Hsi Lai University, Los Angeles County, USA (Rapporteur General)
Mrs Rosa Guerreiro, Program Specialist for Inter-religious Dialogue Program, Division of Cultural Policies and Intercultural Dialogue, UNESCO
Mrs Maria Isabel Rohmer, Secretary, Division of Cultural Policies and Intercultural Dialogue, UNESCO
Mr Reynaldo Harguinteguy, Media and Technical assistance, Division of Cultural Policies and Intercultural Dialogue, UNESCO
Ms Alice Charbonneau Bloomfield, Intern, Program for Inter-religious Dialogue


Written by Habib Chirzin

November 24, 2008 at 8:48 am

Posted in 1

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