United Nations’ secular culture stymieing interfaith relations?

Interfaith dialogue at the international level is well-meaning, but it is unclear if it advances its stated goals of reducing tensions and conflicts, writes Jeffrey Haynes (London Metropolitan University) in an issue of The Review of Faith & International Affairs (Fall 2018) devoted to interfaith on the world stage. Indeed, as the editors of the issue remark, while the supposed potential of the interfaith movement has attracted attention at the highest diplomatic levels after 9/11, the effectiveness of interfaith initiatives remains debated. The plethora of “scattered, uncoordinated” interfaith initiatives in recent years does not make it easier to assess if they make a practical difference in building peace, a purpose shared by most of them. Haynes’s own case study examines the involvement in interfaith dialogue of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC), which was created in 2005 and formally established in 2006 under the direct leadership of the UN Secretary-General, with a focus on three faith-based entities with which the UNAOC regularly cooperates: the Committee of Religious NGOs at the UN (CRNGO), Religions for Peace (RfP), and the United Religions Initiative (URI). The vision of the UNAOC was to involve civil society, including faith-based NGOs, in efforts to prevent a “clash of civilizations,” obviously with a focus on relations between the West and the Muslim world.

But the UNAOC has shown reluctance to engage fully with interfaith dialogue, something that Haynes attributes to the UN’s secular culture, with its preponderance of state-based stakeholders and unwillingness to grant religious actors an increased institutional role. The UN and its institutions prefer to work with secular actors. Moreover, diplomats interviewed by Haynes expressed some skepticism about the benefits of interfaith dialogue and pointed to its lack of relevance in not approaching issues crucial to some conflicts (e.g., by focusing on Muslim-Christian relations but not Sunni-Shia intrafaith dialogue). With the UN’s typical focus on “religious leaders” as defined by their official positions, there is little evidence that the UNAOC “has achieved much in relation to civil society,” including faith-based organizations. Still, Haynes sees some potential for the UNAOC to reach some local communities in its cooperation with community-focused initiatives such as the URI. He acknowledges that faith-based actors are not ignored, that UNAOC representatives attend their main events and that these actors get involved in some of the conversations, but notes that “many would claim that they are not taken seriously enough in thinking through solutions” for addressing social and political issues, including violent extremism, notwithstanding the stated intent to involve them. Despite paying lip-service to faith, “the UN remains the global bastion of secular power,” according to Haynes’s assessment.

(The Review of Faith & International Affairs, P.O. Box 12205, Arlington, VA 22219-2205 – www.tandfonline/rfia)