“The 21st century will be religious or it will not be at all”. These words of warning have traditionally been attributed to André Malraux, French writer and Minister of Culture during the latter years of General De Gaulle’s government. But Malraux denies having ever made this statement, at least not in those exact words. In a 1975 interview he insisted that what he had wanted to say is that the cyclical relationship between man and God will produce a “new notion of religion in human thinking” at the beginning of the next century. To make such a statement was extremely bold for that era, given that the most celebrated sociologists and philosophers of the time were at that point prophesying the demise of all religion before the end of the 20th century. As modernity gained ground, it seemed inevitable that religion should lose out.
However, it seems that time has proved Malraux right. From the mid seventies onwards we have witnessed, as French Arabist Gilles Kepel famously put it, “the revenge of God”. Since then, as the Spanish theologian Juan José Tamayo argues, religion has been revived as a social force; has increased in political importance; has regained the popularity it lost in the preceding years; and has become a key element in national and cultural identity, especially in countries where religion has been repressed or defused.
The spectre of fundamentalism seizes the world
But this religious awakening is accompanied by a shadow that is haunting the world during these initial years of the new millennium. This shadow is religious fundamentalism, a term that can be use to describe the sector of a given religion that seeks to impose its beliefs on the entire community in which it is established, using force as and when necessary. Religious fundamentalists consider modernity and modern values (secularism, discussion, the emancipation of women…), as well as other religions, as their enemy, which has often resulted in confrontation, clashes and war.
It seems that this phenomenon of religious wars (which were thought to be confined to the history books) is on the return. Via television and the Internet, it is entering our closely guarded personal space with such a strange, subtle and terrifyingly unconditional aggression that we feel forced into participating by taking a side in this supposedly unavoidable “clash of civilizations”. But is that really the case? Must we resign ourselves to living in a world where “the other” is always our enemy? What role should religion play in the quest for peace today? What should the relationship between religions be?
Again quoting Juan José Tamayo, “religions cannot continue to be sources of conflict with one another nor with society. They must recognise and respect one another, and cultivate dialogue”. Interreligious and intercultural dialogue will be the main target that religions must meet if they want not to paralyse, be ignorant of and destroy one another. This is becoming increasingly important in today’s world, which is characterised by its permeable borders, migration, the Internet, international terrorism and globalisation - forces that contribute to the unequal construction of asymmetrical societies that claim all their members have the capacity to intervene and make a convincing case for the coexistence of individuals, cultures and different religions. Pope John Paul II was fully aware of this on his arrival at the Vatican, in his first encyclical, Redemptor hominis, calling all Christians to partake in interreligious dialogue
Interreligious dialogue is a reality
The First World Congress of Imams and Rabbis for Peace that took place in Brussels from January 3-6 2005, sponsored by the King of Belgium and the King of Morocco in collaboration with the Three Cultures of the Mediterranean Foundation, was an exceptional display of this much-needed interreligious exchange. Having commenced the talks with a look at the numerous things in common shared by Judaism and Islam, the nearly 200 religious authorities that were present agreed – following two days of tense, fruitful, heated and, at times, enjoyable debate – on a common declaration unreservedly condemning all forms of terrorism and violence in the name of religion, on the grounds that they violate “the right to life and dignity given by the Almighty to all human beings. They called for both religions’ leaders to address their communities on a regular basis with preaching and sermons that underline the importance of interreligious dialogue and the respect for human life. The Three Cultures Foundation will be organising a second meeting of rabbis and imams for peace, as it believes religion plays a vital role in the cultural and moral reorganisation we are experiencing and the reassessment of the way we choose to live our lives.