Today, the issue of religious and cultural identity is receiving more attention and is more central to global relations, than ever before. Religion and culture define man and woman, and influence how we interact and relate to one another. Our right to freely choose our religion or belief is clearly stated in the UN Declaration on Civil and Political Rights. Still, the coexistence of diverse religions and cultures at times represents a challenge for societies and nations worldwide.
Religious and cultural identity has always been used to define the different sides in conflict situations. In recent years we have seen how religion has been used to promote and deepen several conflicts, both violent and non-violent. In most cases, the conflicts are really power struggles over political issues, rather than clashes based on religious differences.
However, religion and culture can play quite a different role. Religious and cultural leaders have stood up against wars and the use of violence.
Religious and cultural leaders as well as non-governmental organisations can play important roles in enhancing tolerance and promoting respect for religious and cultural diversity. They can make valuable contributions to peace and justice. In more secular societies there is often a tendency to underestimate this potential. It is therefore encouraging that national governments and the UN, through High-Level Meetings such as this one, seek to involve these communities in order to better understand and deal with the role of religion and culture in national and international politics. We need international arenas such as this forum, where religious, cultural and political leaders can meet and exchange views.
Norway believes in the potential of interreligious and intercultural dialogue. Through dialogue we can enhance mutual understanding and respect for freedom of religion and belief, and for cultural diversity. Dialogue can have a considerable impact. It represents a possibility to seize the middle ground, and to challenge the dominance of the extremes.
When receiving the Path to Peace Foundation award, Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa said; “Promoting a true dialogue among civilizations and religions is perhaps the most important political instrument that we can use to reach out across borders and build bridges of peace and hope”. For the same reason, Norway is initiating, supporting and encouraging dialogue projects in several countries. Through these projects, we work closely with religious leaders in Norway and internationally.
Moreover, we have established a forum in our Ministry of Foreign Affairs where religious leaders, academics and diplomats meet to discuss important issues related to religion and foreign policy. It is a very valuable arena, for the Ministry, the religious communities, the non-governmental organisations and the research institutes alike.
Although dialogue is the most important path to greater tolerance, respect for diversity and common understanding, dialogue is rarely without obstacles. Dialogue may also challenge decision-makers and religious leaders. Respect, acceptance and appreciation of cultures, traditions and religions must be mutual in order for dialogues to take place. Without fundamental respect for differences and recognition of the human dignity of the other, there can be no true dialogue. Basically, this means that we must be willing to both talk and listen. We must acknowledge that our dialogue partner has insights, convictions, values and abilities, that could potentially make us reconsider our positions.
Fundamental respect for diversity is indeed a prerequisite for dialogue. And of course, increased respect for differences may also be a result of dialogue.
It is important to underline that respect for cultural and religious diversity should not be misconstrued as uncritical acceptance of all facets of religion and culture. Both religious and cultural values can be used and misused; they can serve good and bad purposes. There is often a need to identify elements in a dialogue process that could obstruct the promotion of tolerance, understanding and universal respect. It is necessary to balance respect for each other’s viewpoints with an open, and sometimes critical, approach to issues relating to cultural and religion. This is often challenging, and striking the right balance will continue to be essential in dialogue efforts.
Many speak as if there is an ongoing conflict between what is named the “Muslim” and the “Western“ world. Neither do we think there is such a conflict, nor do we think these are the right names to use. The discourse has been polarized and too often dominated by extreme elements. This approach, however, prevents us from engaging in fruitful discussions, making it more difficult to find middle ground. Constructive dialogues must necessarily involve people and communities from different segments of society.
It is also important to keep in mind that dialogue takes time. It takes time to build the necessary knowledge, trust and confidence to change our own perceptions and those of the other party. The time perspective is not always compatible with demand of national and international politics for quick and durable results. Thus, patience and commitment to dialogue are necessary.
Although dialogue as a political response to threats to democracy, peace and stability creates dilemmas and challenges for decision-makers, there is a definite need for interreligious and intercultural dialogue and cooperation between the world’s communities if we are to transform conflict, build peace and ensure respect for basic human rights. It is important that the UN, as the representative of the international community, continues to promote interreligious and intercultural dialogue as an important political mechanism for enhancing mutual understanding and respect for freedom of religion or belief and cultural diversity.