The UN and Religion

R. Scott Appleby

John M. Regan Jr. Director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and Professor of History at University of Notre Dame

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

This was a day devoted by the United Nations to intolerance - to opposing intolerance and promoting tolerance in societies in general and there had been a series of meetings, and this one was on religion, in particular the role of Islam, or the attitudes toward Islam. It was day-long, Kofi Annan opened the session with some remarks and there were a number of distinguished speakers from different religious traditions, some policy experts and some scholars. And they all gave presentations on the barriers to tolerance within their religious traditions. What are the hurdles that need to be overcome and some positive recommendations and steps toward tolerance.

What was striking about that and other such meetings is that the assembly hall was filled with a colorful display of religious traditions in their own distinctive religious garb and hundreds of people in the auditorium who are interested in this, and every one of them was in favor of tolerance. There was no one who was an advocate of intolerance. So the challenge is to reach out to those and somehow engage those who do not tolerate the tolerant and are themselves dedicated to intolerance.

So it was a little bit preaching to the choir. That's a good thing, because the choir needs to get organized and motivated to work together to get this message out to more and more of their congregations, to fellow believers. But the UN and other agencies also have to find ways to build bridges, to moderate and to some degree, radicalize proponents of religious traditions or advocates who find tolerance to be a tactic or somehow even a betrayal of the faith. And that discussion needs to be engaged at a deeper level than it is currently being engaged. The discussion about what constitutes an authentic way forward within Islam and Judaism and Christianity that protects the distinctiveness of these faiths and protects their rights including the right not be proselytized, for example, not to be discriminated against by the government, to have their moral values respected while respecting a plural society.

These are difficult questions and the more discussion, conversation, interaction that we can have with all types of folks in the religious spectrum; the more likely we will be able to move forward. But it does require behind-the-scenes efforts. It requires the kind of very public forum as the UN event was, but it also requires diplomacy and relationship-building and friendship-building behind the scenes. And happily a lot of people are engaged in that as well now.