15 Jan, 2016
The following is the full text of an address by Dr Halit Eren, Director-General, OIC Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture (IRCICA) at the Symposium on “Interfaith Dialogue and Peaceful Coexistence in Multicultural Societies” 11-12 January 2016, Bangkok, Thailand
I am pleased to greet you on behalf of the OIC Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture (IRCICA) and express my gratitude for your participation to the International Symposium on “Interfaith Dialogue and Peaceful Coexistence in Multicultural Societies”. It is a great pleasure to witness the realization of this important event, for which we worked together with the officials of the Devawongse Varopakarn Institute of Foreign Affairs for two years.
There is no doubt that humanity has been making great strides in technological advancement in last centuries. Yet unfortunately, the universal capacity to preserve the common values of humanity has not been equally impressive. Perhaps the intensity of human blood shed as a result of numerous political, ethnic or sectarian conflicts has not been as high as this period in time.
We witnessed different radical movements and schools of thought which tried to eliminate complete communities on the precept of their religious beliefs despite the fact that all religions were aimed at protecting human dignity from cruelty and tyranny. More often than not, religious teachings were distorted and wrongly used to justify physical violence, oppression and intolerance. On the other hand, even the deepest political and ethnic differences were not enough to justify the killing of innocent civilians. Today, we came together in this international symposium to prove that peaceful coexistence is indeed possible in multicultural societies.
I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Thailand and the Devawongse Varopakarn Institute of Foreign Affairs for accepting our offer to organize this international symposium. I would also like to thank H.E. Mr. Virasakdi Futrakul, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs of Thailand for his kind participation in the symposium, and express our sincere thanks to H.E. Dr. Iyad Ameen Madani, Secretary General of OIC who kindly agreed to participate and contribute to this important event despite his tense program in dealing with major problems of the Muslim World. I would like to thank H.E. Tan Sri Dato Sri Dr. Syed Hamid Albar, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Malaysia for his participation. Malaysia has excelled as a country in which various ethnic, religious and cultural groups have been living in peace for a long time. I would also like to thank H.E. Dr. Surin Patsuwan, the former Secretary General of ASEAN and Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Thailand. Finally, I would like to express my thanks to the distinguished academics for their scholarly contributions and the participants for their presence.
IRCICA is the cultural subsidiary of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. As an inter-governmental organization with 57 member states in four continents, IRCICA provides the cultural dimension of international cooperation among its member states. IRCICA has the subject areas of history, art and culture embedded in its institutional mandate. Therefore, it stresses cultural dialogue as an integral part of its diverse activities on the history of civilizations and current work on intercultural relations. IRCICA conducts research, publishing and training programs; organizes congresses, symposia, art and architectural competitions; and manages cultural heritage preservation programs. Specifically, IRCICA organizes a series of regional international congresses on Islamic Civilization.
By so doing, IRCICA promotes academic research on cases of peaceful coexistence between Muslim communities and other faith and cultural communities in diverse regions of the world. The International Calligraphy Competition organized by IRCICA every three years and the International Handicrafts Festival organized every year contribute to efforts of cultural diplomacy through arts. Archival research coordinated by IRCICA on charitable institutions (waqfs) in different geographies demonstrate best practices of charitable activity and peaceful coexistence among different cultural communities throughout history. These and other activities of IRCICA are organized in the form of long-term international projects which embody a general vision of contributing to global multiculturalism.
Therefore, IRCICA activities that focus on various manifestations of cultural encounters between the Muslim world and other faiths and civilizations consistently highlight significant cases of cultural pluralism. This approach has strong roots in the historical experiences of the Muslim world where people from different cultural and religious backgrounds lived in peace and harmony side by side throughout centuries. Cosmopolitan cities such as, Cairo, Istanbul, Baghdad, Al Quds, Cordoba, Damascus, Bukhara and Samarkand excelled for their multicultural and tolerant urban character.
In this context, following our fruitful cooperation with the Devawongse Varopakarn Institute of Foreign Affairs over the course of last two years, this international symposium that brings together leading authorities on interfaith dialogue and peaceful coexistence was realized. We believe that organization of an important event here in Bangkok to explore current issues of peaceful coexistence in multicultural societies is totally appropriate. The outcomes of the symposium will provide us positive experiences and best practices of tolerance, mutual understanding and peaceful coexistence.
Inter-faith dialogue refers to cooperative interaction between members of different religious traditions and faiths in order to find common grounds by concentrating on similarities rather than differences. The first historical contacts between Islam and Buddhism occurred in Central Asia in the mid-seventh century. As Islam reached Central Asia during the reign of the Umayyad dynasty, Muslims realized the existence and importance of Buddhism and this was reflected into the literature.
For instance, Al-Kermani, a Muslim jurist, wrote about the Buddhist traditions in the city of Balkh in today’s Afghanistan, and compared them with Islam. During the Abbassid dynasty, the Caliph Al-Mahdi invited Buddhist scholars to Baghdad to translate some of their books into Arabic. Ibn al-Nadim, who lived in the ninth century, described Buddhist practices and traditions at his time. When Mahmud of Gazni entered into India in the early eleventh century, the historian Al Biruni accompanied his expedition and wrote a book in which he described Buddhist customs. In the fourteenth century, the Mongol ruler Ghazan Khan converted to Islam and commissioned his minister Rashid al-Din al-Hamadhani (1247–1318) to write a Universal History (Jami al-Tawarikh) which included a description of Buddhist beliefs written in cooperation with a Buddhist monk.
On the other hand, there were occasional references to Islam in Buddhist writings which highlighted common points between the two traditions, such as how people bear responsibility for their actions. Between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, the Muslim rulers and residents of India co-existed with Buddhism in South Asia. Meanwhile, Sufi versions of Islam, which were mostly mystical and compatible with the Buddhist tradition became widespread in the region. During the middle of the nineteenth century, Mongolian novelist Injannashi was writing about common features between Islam and Buddhism, such as the common interest in goodness.
Buddhists and Muslims have lived in close proximity for many centuries in India, Central Asia, Thailand and the Malaya Peninsula, extending as far as Indonesia. For careful observers, there are strong commonalities between Buddhism and Islam that can serve as foundations for constructive interfaith dialogue. Both religions have similar perspectives on proper action and the value of inter-faith dialogue that can contribute to greater mutual understanding and respect.
One crucial example is the concept of consequences for one’s right or wrong actions. For Muslims, all humans will be judged for their right or wrong actions after their deaths on the Day of Judgment. It is stated in the Holy Qur’an that, “Whoever does an atom’s weight of good will see it; and whoever does an atom’s weight of evil will see it” (Holy Qur’an 99:7-8). It is also stressed that those who have a higher weight of good deeds will enter eternal Paradise, while those with a higher weight of evil deeds will reside in Hellfire (Holy Qur’an 101:6-11). The desire to reside in Paradise after death motivates Muslims to act virtuously while living on Earth, which is a temporary existence inferior to Paradise.
This belief is very similar to the noble Truths of Buddhism, which state that all life is temporary and contains suffering. For Buddhists, the only way to escape suffering is to achieve nirvana by eliminating one’s personal attachments and following the true path. Both Muslims and Buddhists believe that every action has a consequence, and this understanding encourages the followers of each faith to pursue good deeds.
In addition to comparable attitudes about good deeds, Islam and Buddhism both value interactions with other religions. For example, the Holy Qur’an states, “If Allah (SWT) had so willed, He would have made [mankind] a single religion [or community], but (His plan is) to test you in what He had given you: therefore, strive to race each other in all virtues” (Holy Qur’an 5:48). For many Muslims, this verse implies that Allah (SWT) deliberately created diversity among nations in order to foster righteous action and dialogue across differences. By understanding the religious other, Muslims could be motivated to strive for good deeds and attempt to compete for goodness. Similarly, Buddhists value dialogue with other religions in a pluralistic sense, and believe that there is truth in all paths that relieve human suffering.
Given shifting global balances of power and rising economic importance of South and East Asia, it is becoming necessary to open new channels of interfaith dialogue and cross-cultural understanding between Buddhism and Islam. Both Islam and Buddhism are major religious traditions in the world and they continue to influence cultures on many continents. Inter-faith dialogue between the Muslim and Buddhist communities that focuses on human morality, ethics and common values could be an extraordinary avenue for bilateral exchange.
Therefore, we believe that collaborative events such as this symposium will allow us to initiate a fruitful discussion, exchange of views and best experiences among experts from the Muslim and Buddhist worlds. Suggestions and policy recommendations which emerge out of deliberations could promote an understanding of diversity and pluralism, and contribute to the development of a culture of dialogue. They would also facilitate our common struggle against all forms of extremism.
We believe that conflicts between different cultures and faith communities such as those seen in Myanmar and Southeast Asia predominantly result from ignorance, lack of proper education and misperceptions on others. Therefore, we need to make great efforts to raise the youth and increase tolerance toward other cultures. School curricula from primary education to the university level could be modified to give more emphasis to intercultural dialogue and understanding. This is the main challenge in front of us going to the future.
I would like to thank again to H.E. Dr. Iyad Ameen Madani, Secretary General of OIC, for his support to the initiative, the Government of the Kingdom of Thailand for their generous hospitality, and the staff of IRCICA and Devawongse Varopakarn Institute of Foreign Affairs (DVIFA) for their contributions to the organization of the symposium.