The R20’s first meet clearly had all the markers of starting a much-needed global discourse.
Bali, Indonesia: Can religion be used as a solution for global problems? Should religious leaders be part of the discourse when world leaders get together for a G20 meet to seek solutions for the economic fallout from the coronavirus and tensions from the Ukraine-Russia war? Held in Bali on the eve of the G20 summit of world leaders, the Religions 20 (R20) forum saw over 160 interfaith leaders speak on the importance of nurturing religion as a source of global solutions. The first of its kind, the R20 conference was organised by the Indonesia-based Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Saudi Arabia-based Muslim World League (MWL). As Holland Taylor, CEO, Centre for Shared Civilizational Values told the media: “The R20 was established by Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim organisation in partnership with the Muslim World League based in (the land of) Makkah-Madina to give a voice to religious leaders in order to help ensure that religion functions as a source of genuine and dynamic solutions rather than problems.” Since Indonesia was the host for this year’s G20 summit, the local government gave its full support to the R20 initiative, with President Joko Widodo giving the inauguration address. At the end of the meet, the baton was passed on to India as we are the next hosts for the G20. The optics of the baton passing from a Muslim majority country to a Hindu majority one (and later this will go to Brazil, which has a Christian majority as the host country for the 2024 G20 meet) sent its own message of diversity.
The Indian delegation consisted of RSS leader Ram Madhav, Swami Govind Dev Giri Maharaj of the Ram Janmabhoomi Trust, Swami Mitrananda, author Swapan Dasgupta, Haji Syed Salman Chisty, representatives from the Sri Sri Ravi Shankar foundation and so on. As Ram Madhav pointed out, “Global issues like health, economy, climate and technology, besides issues like war, hatred and disharmony have, for a long time, been considered the concern of the political leadership. That religious and cultural leaders too can play a complementary role has not been fully appreciated. Politicians, technocrats and professionals are the new popes and power; economy and technology have become demigods. It is in this context that the R20’s initiative to bring religious and cultural leaderships into active discourse acquires significance.”
What gives the R20 credibility was not just the quality of the discourse, but also the credentials of the organisers. With over 95 million followers, the NU is the largest Muslim organisation in the world, and has earned the reputation of being a progressive, liberalist, Islamic socio-religious movement under the leadership of Yahya Cholil Staquf. The MWL too, under its current head, Mohammad bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa, is talking about spreading moderation, and replacing conspiracy theories against the West with a much more humanitarian version of the Islamic worldview. Al-Issa’s efforts are in tandem with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s move to usher in reforms with his Vision 2030 that seeks to replace extremist and radical Islam with a much more moderate one. As Mhd Al-Issa stated at the R20 Summit: “Many of the world’s tragedies have been allegedly blamed on religions, which is a transgression against religious teachings that call for peace.” He went on to talk of the “wrongful assumption that religious identity is incompatible, completely or partially with the national identity, especially in reference to religious minorities.” Mhd Al Issa attributed some of these wrongful assumptions to the fact that “when our world grows apart this creates a vacuum where negative ideas and interpretations prevail.” This is the fatal gap that the R20 is trying to bridge, by providing a common platform for spiritual leaders of all faiths to use their influence and following for humanitarian ends. As Ram Madhav pointed out, “The NU has been working towards rejecting radicalism and exclusivism. It rejects concepts like Kafir and insists on putting the love of country ahead of love of religion.”
Speaking at the summit, HE Shaykh Dr Shawki Ibrahim Abdel-Karim Alam, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, urged the R20 participants to help reform religious discourse “which had been polluted by extremists”. As he added, “religious discrimination has to be eliminated and replaced by a culture of acceptance of the “other” and “their beliefs”. The need to rescue the tenets of Islam from the hands of terrorist outfits found common cause with most speakers, who spoke about the need for moderation, tolerance and acceptance.
As Wahab Alshehri, Under Secretary General, Muslim World League told ANI, “people criticise religion and don’t see religious leaders as part of the solution, sometimes they see them as troublemakers. We agree there are some people who don’t represent their religion in a good way. But what we are trying to do with the conference is to show that there are religious leaders who are moderates and can be part of the solution.”
The presence of right wing Hindu leaders from India, as also religious heads from other faiths took this conversation out from an Islamic bubble and gave it a much wider outreach, as was the intention behind the R20 conference. For instance, when it was his turn to speak, His Grace, Archbishop Henry Ndukuba, Primate of the Anglican Church of Nigeria with 25 million regular worshippers brought up the attacks by Islamist extremists from Boko Haram, ISIL, Al Qaeda and the radical militants of Fulani Herdsmen. He observed that Nigeria was now one of the “most dangerous places on earth to be a Christian”. He urged the R20 to help address, and where possible stop such outrages and hoped that the Indonesian model of pluralism and religious tolerance be propagated on the world stage. This was just one of the challenges ahead that were highlighted at the conference.
The R20’s first meet clearly had all the markers of starting a much-needed global discourse. Bhavya Sri, Founder, Religious World and Member, International Association of Religious Journalists, summed it up by pointing out “Religious diplomacy is shaping up. We have seen the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Kazakhstan holding mega interfaith events initiated by their ruling establishments. The R20 has created a new chapter for open dialogue with the organisers showcasing the moderate face of Islam as well as how inter-religious values can be used to tackle global challenges.”
The first step was taken in Bali. The baton is now in India’s hand and this could be a great opportunity to showcase both our achievements as a Hindu majority country as well as our commitment to diversity and plurality.