woensdag, juli 7, 2021

Our human rights are enshrined within our faith – a dialogue with professor Azza Karam, Secretary-General to Religions for Peace

‘Our human rights are foundational for our faith systems. They come from the faith and they are necessary for the faiths’, professor Azza Karam declared during the 2020 Four Freedoms Awards (FFA) ceremony.

Karam holds a professorship in Religion and Sustainable Development at the Free University of Amsterdam. She is also the Secretary­-General of Religions for Peace (RfP), a global movement dedicated to promoting peace by bringing together representatives from the world’s religions. In 2020, the Roosevelt Foundation recognized the movement’s valuable work by awarding them the Freedom of Worship Award, which Karam accepted on behalf of RfP. On 28th April 2021, Initiatives of Change (IofC) coordinated via Zoom a dialogue with Karam as part of the IofC project ‘Faith in Human Rights’ (FiHR). Willem Jansen, IofC program coordinator, spoke to Karam about the fruitful connection between faith and human rights.

Statistics Netherlands has observed a steady decline in religious participation in the Netherlands. At the same time, the discussion about religion and human rights remains particularly lively. Criticism directed at institutionalized religion is part of this discussion. Islam critics, for example, argue that Islamic law is at odds with the Western conception of justice and equality. By extension, they argue that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with the concept of human rights. In times of increasing secularization, the link between faith and human rights may seem far-fetched. What do faith and human rights have in common?

Everything, according to Karam. However, these rights are not enforced through doctrine, but through the way in which we choose to enact our faith. ‘How we live refines, defines or defiles our faith’, she says. We must therefore not generalize faith. Instead, we should instead ask ourselves: what are our common values? And: how are these values enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UHDR)? The latter cannot exist without the former.’ According to Karam, these values are universal and timeless. ‘Churches and institutions come and go, but these values remain’, she says. ‘They remain because they come from the faith, not in spite of it. It is nonsense to claim that these values are incompatible with faith. If I am Muslim, I have to believe in human rights because my faith says I cannot live without them.’

Karam repeats the importance of behavior and responsibility when asked whether religion is a barrier to gender equality. ‘There are no rights without responsibilities’, she says, echoing previous FiHR speaker Matthew Neuhaus. ‘Some issues, such as gender equality, should be addressed in interreligious and intra-religious discussions. In other words, we should hold each other accountable, but we should also talk amongst ourselves about these issues. Solutions should be proposed from the inside as well as the outside.’ She adds, ‘Unfortunately,  not all our internal conflicts can be resolved. But there is still reason for optimism. I believe there is a purpose to the diversity of creation. We are meant to learn from this diversity and difference in opinion.’

Thus, Karam considers human rights and faith as wholly compatible. Injustices, she stresses time and time again, do not stem from faith itself, but from the way in which we embody our faith. However, the fight against politicized and organized human rights violations, such as the global proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, requires a broader focus. As former Dutch diplomat Edy Korthals Altes suggests, the dangers the world faces today do not only threaten our hard-fought liberties, but also our very existence. Korthals Altes declares, ‘The most important right is the right to live. This right is in danger. We must therefore work towards a new concept of peace. Religion has a role to play in this renewed understanding of peace.’

Karam agrees with this statement. She argues that this concept should include interreligious collaboration, also drawing a parallel to the current Covid-19 pandemic. ‘The Covid-19 disaster highlights stark realities’, she says. ‘On the one hand, we see a positive side to humanity. There is innovation and creation, and people are willing to help each other. However, we also see institutions and governments prioritizing their own interests, especially when it comes to providing aid and resources. Religious institutions are separately saving lives at the frontline, but they fail to come together as a unity to support each other. This is also an epidemic: one of a lack of empathy.’ When Korthals Altes brings up the possibility of a nuclear Holocaust, Karam adds, ‘Anger, hatred, discrimination, and a lack of solidarity: these are our biggest threats. A nuclear Holocaust would only be the result.’

Of course, a possible nuclear war is not the only existential threat we are facing. Climate change, too, could threaten the very existence of humanity. Religion, Karam suggests, provides insights that could safeguard the right to a healthy and safe environment for current and future generations. ‘In indigenous religions, the Earth was considered sacred’, Karam points out. ‘This idea exists in every single religion. My environment is my responsibility because it is God’s gift. Future generations share this responsibility as well.’

One participant turns to the issue of religion and politics, asking Karam how we should deal with religious parties abusing their authority for political gain. Karam, who worked with the UN for many years, reveals that she left the UN for RfP so that she could address this very question. ‘After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, I realized that religion had become the new space for political contention, the new ideology to legitimize political action. This happens all the time. Religious discourse becomes an instrument of political interest, and faith becomes subject to those who wish to use it for personal and political gain. This has nothing to do with faith, but everything with politics.’

Thus, according to Karam the foundation for human rights is found in faith. Faith also dictates the responsibilities that come with human rights. ‘Rights come with duties’, Karam says. ‘These are enshrined within our faith.’ But how should we then deal with parties who fail to take on their responsibilities, or worse, actively engage in human rights violations?  In answer to this question, Karam again points to the value of and strength in diversity, but she also stresses that we should strive for unity within this diversity. ‘The world of politics is poor in ideas’, she says. ‘But the world of faith is rich enough to encompass all. Imagine the world RfP is working towards. Imagine all people of faith working together to serve all, barring none. Imagine that we, as a unity, work to hold those in power accountable. Not one institution, or party, or government would be able to overcome that power. That’s the divine’, she concludes. ‘The divine is justice, and the divine is mercy.’

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