DAVOS, Switzerland – Only since Sept. 11 has the World Economic Forum invited religious leaders to its annual meeting. At first, the Forum leaders were most concerned with religious conflict as a destabilizing force in the world, in light of the threats of terrorism and religious fundamentalism, and began to convene a dialogue between religious leaders of many faiths. But since then, the discussion has gone much deeper. This year, not only have there been the best discussions yet between the religious leaders – Christian, Muslim, and Jewish – but the faith leaders have fanned out to penetrate many of the other sessions with spiritual, ethical, and moral perspectives on a broad range of economic and political topics. The engagement with both business and political leaders has been substantial – with all parties really listening to one another. For the first time, there was even a plenary on the subject of religion, pluralism, and multiculturalism in the global neighborhood (that session was posted on yesterday’s blog).
But the question that the session’s moderator, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, put to the panelists was still about religious conflict and its political impact. Indeed, that remains the big issue for most of the world. Most of the religious leaders here would be perceived to be in the “moderate” camp, as opposed to those thought to be religious “extremists.” Those two words have been lifted up again and again: How do we separate moderates from extremists? How do we up enhance the voice of the moderates, and how do we replace religious extremists with religious moderates? In a session today, even the meaning of those words were challenged. “Who decides what is moderate? What criteria will religion be judged by?”
But the problem may be the limits of dialogue itself. Today, many of the most publicly visible religious actors and actions in the world (or at least actions done in the name of religion) are of the extremist kind. And all the while, the moderates are dialoguing. As important as that is, dialogue, even good dialogue, will not be enough. It must be said that many of the religious moderates are also deeply involved in social service programs – although usually quietly. And, to be honest, some religious extremists, like Hamas, also do lots of service, often to the poorest in their communities.
What we need is nothing less than a whole new set of religious actors and new religious actions for the world to see – from those called “the moderates.” Specifically, the world needs to see faith leaders and communities from around the globe on the front lines of social movements seeking to change the planet – working on all the big issues that the people at Davos are here discussing, such as climate change, global poverty, pandemic diseases, basic education access (80 million children in the world don’t have it), and, crucially, helping to resolve our most pressing and violent conflicts.
The “religious moderates” must become the most passionate of all for social justice. If we did that, we would accomplish two things at the same time. First, we would provide a clear and compelling alternative to extremist religion. And, second, we would be helping to change the facts on the ground – the oppressive circumstances that often lead to and help recruit for extremist religion.
I just came out of an extraordinary panel on “The Promises to Africa,” with Tony Blair, Bill Gates, Bono, South African President Thabo Mbeki, and other political, business, and civil society leaders from Africa, Germany (the site of the 2007 G-8 Summit), and Japan (the site of the 2008 G-8).
The moderator’s opening comments were these: “I am the moderator, but I hope I am not ‘moderate’ about Africa. I hope, today, that I will be an accelerator, not just a moderator.” After hearing the panel, I was convinced that that’s just what we need – religion that doesn’t just moderate, but rather accelerates the struggle for social justice and peace.