The violent attacks in Paris that resulted in seventeen deaths last week and prompted millions to march for unity in the Paris streets are symptomatic of the new type of confrontation that has disrupted lives, politics, and economic systems. Stark differences in religion, culture, and the way we seek to live our lives has caused many around the world to perceive their lives at odds with others, with strict adherence to ideology playing a role for all involved. Fear, pessimism and a lack of trust describe daily interactions in many parts of the world as well as our international politics as well.
When it began 25 years ago today, the Global Forum for Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders in Moscow symbolized the beginning in a new era of openness and optimism as much as it closed a dark period of distrust and disagreement. The Berlin Wall had fallen only two months before, and the Soviet Union and the United States were seeking a way to cooperate after the Cold War. President Gorbachev, leading the opening of the Soviet Union, agreed to host more than one thousand religious and political leaders at the Kremlin for a multi-day dialogue on the pressing global issues of the times. In contrast with today, leaders were seeking new ways forward, making inroads with new conversation rather than closing off avenues of dialogue.
People chose to trust and engage across cultural and political divides. At the Global Forum, more than one thousand religious and political leaders from around the world met as equals and individuals to discuss the great challenges facing all humans. President Gorbachev’s hopeful opening declaration was echoed by all participants including:
- Mr. Javier Perez de Cuellar, Secretary General of the UN,
- Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway,
- Senator Claiborne Pell,
- Senator Albert Gore,
- Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro, Grand Mufti of Syria,
- Immanuel Jakobovits, Chief Rabbi of the UK,
- Dr. Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate,
- Dr. Carl Sagan,
- Rev Theodore Hesburgh and many others.
The substance and tone of conversation changed. Conversation shifted to regional cooperation, disarmament, and the environment. In his keynote speech, President Gorbachev introduced the idea of the International Green Cross and supported a nuclear test ban for its environmental benefits.
Most important, people were willing to take risks to realize a better and more optimistic vision for the world. President Gorbachev was aware of the risks he needed to take to change the course of the Soviet Union. With Perestroika underway, he was willing to overcome the religious taboos of the atheist, Communist state and host a large conference of members of many faiths and politics in the Kremlin. Still, when an emergency Party Meeting came up and coincided with the Global Forum’s closing ceremony – slated for 2 pm on Friday, I was informed the Global Forum’s closing ceremony would have to be canceled.
After backchanneling with Dr. Velikhov, President Gorbachev’s key advisor, we succeeded in convincing President Gorbachev that compromise was possible: the Kremlin could host both meetings that day, but the Forum’s closing ceremony would simply be postponed. When I relayed the good news to our participants, I was quickly surrounded by a number of Jewish participants, all very frustrated. “But Akio,” they said, “You’ve moved the closing ceremony after sunset on Friday. We cannot attend during the Sabbath! You’ve excluded us from the closing ceremony.” It was quite clear that this was an extraordinary circumstance and that the Communist party had made a political compromise to allow us to proceed. So, our Jewish friends sought a new interpretation for the circumstance, forming a minyan and praying to act toward our common goal. The conference finished successfully that evening with all participants in attendance.
This small miracle of overcoming a traditional barrier for the larger good captured the spirit of the Moscow Conference and the optimism we used to begin a new decade of life and a new era of international politics. Only the unity of a minyan could allow the Jewish participants to attend the closing ceremony during the Sabbath, but each man in the minyan had to decide for himself whether to join and pray for that possibility.
Today, I am greatly concerned about the growing territory of the Islamic State composed of the different political and religious ideology groups. They are efficiently recruiting young fighters from many countries through social media, and they are targeting oil-rich Middle East nations, unstable parts of Africa, Pakistan, Afghanistan and China. This is a new type of war between nations and non-nation groups. In particular, Pakistan, with its nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants, is a particularly worrisome target for ISIS. Where is the line between the economic need of a country and the potential risks of terrorist attack to hundreds of nuclear power plants?
We are not prepared to respond to malicious networks on a large scale. We need, much as we had at the Moscow Global Forum, individuals to take risks for a greater good, to seek to transcend historical barriers rather than reinforce them, and ultimately reform and reshape the institutions that guide our lives.
A current example of that phrase and what we seek to highlight here going forward, is from Teju Cole, who this week in the New Yorker challenged the immediate Western reaction to the violence in Paris:
France is in sorrow today, and will be for many weeks to come. We mourn with France. We ought to. But it is also true that violence from “our” side continues unabated. By this time next month, in all likelihood, many more “young men of military age” and many others, neither young nor male, will have been killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere. If past strikes are anything to go by, many of these people will be innocent of wrongdoing. Their deaths will be considered as natural and incontestable as deaths like Menocchio’s, under the Inquisition. Those of us who are writers will not consider our pencils broken by such killings. But that incontestability, that unmournability, just as much as the massacre in Paris, is the clear and present danger to our collective liberté.
As we continue with this blog, we will discuss how to persuade leaders to transcend barriers, what factors and situations foster trust, and the agenda for common political and religious leadership in the 21st century.