At the G20, Islamic clerics embrace pluralism
A remarkable transformation has taken place in the Muslim world, a years-long shift towards pluralism and tolerance that belies conventional wisdom about Islam.
Maybe we missed that earlier: a lot happened after all. But last week in Bali, at the G20 Revolutionary Religious Forum, the R20, this transformation took center stage. Not only is this a historic moment in modern Islam, but this moment also helped create the most important interfaith conversation in the world.
By expanding beyond the G7 to the G20 – the world’s 20 largest economies – the developed world has created more space for non-Western populations to enter the space of global governance and bring with them their views and ideas. This extends to India, with the world’s largest Hindu population and a large Muslim minority, as well as three Muslim-majority countries: Turkey, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia.
During a week in Bali, I watched in awe. Three hundred senior leaders from the world’s major religious traditions explored how to integrate religious frameworks into issues of global governance. Whether it was for climate change or civil strife, the discourse was always sophisticated and substantial. Given that this was happening during and during the G20, it’s no exaggeration to say that the R20 could be, in its first year alone, the most important interfaith venue in the world.
It is not just the many people of faith around the world who benefit from having their religious leaders exposed to high-level political conversations that connect the West and other parts of the world. The same can be said for secular leaders enriched by the insights of religious leaders with whom they might otherwise never have interacted – how, after all, can Western leaders meet global challenges without understanding what shapes most global feelings?
What if I told you that’s not the most important thing about the R20?
Indonesia, a secular democracy, is the most populous Muslim country in the world. Saudi Arabia is the historical cradle of Islam; its wealth, the sacred mosques of Mecca and Medina, and the hajj (a pilgrimage which is the fifth pillar of Islam) mean that it has always had an outsized impact, particularly on Muslim-majority countries. While to Western Muslims many of these conversations may not seem so urgent, topical, or even interesting, that hardly means they aren’t hugely important to hundreds of millions of people.
Extremely significant would be an understatement.
A remarkable partnership helped shape the R20, and more specifically this inaugural R20.
The R20 is led by the Indonesian Islamic organization Nahdlatul Ulama, drawing on its shared religious outlook with the Muslim World League, headquartered in Saudi Arabia. Nahdlatul Ulama has tens of millions of Indonesians among its members. The NU has long supported Indonesia’s fundamental secularism and continues to support its relatively recent transition to democracy; it also promotes interfaith collaboration, including with Buddhists and Hindus, and is still strongly critical of extremism.
In turn, the Muslim World League is the largest NGO in the Islamic world.
Based in the historic cradle of the faith, the Muslim World League simultaneously enjoys massive influence, including over 1,000 clergy in dozens of countries. Its secretary general, Abdul-Karim Al-Issa, is a highly regarded Islamic scholar who has visited Auschwitz with Jewish leaders, visited evangelical Christian churches in America and invited Hindu and Buddhist leaders to Riyadh – in a country where there are a few years ago, it was even taboo to celebrate the holidays of other religious traditions.
How far will this partnership go? Opening the R20, UN President Yahya Chalil Stoquf called on religious leaders to work with secular leaders to promote social development, interfaith solidarity and more sustainable economies. Echoing and embodying this spirit, Al-Issa announced that the Muslim World League is establishing a Humanitarian Fund for War Victims, a substantial new initiative that will aim to help civilians, including those in Ukraine. It is exceptional, yes. But that’s not unusual either.
The Muslim World League was the force behind the Makkah Charter. This pioneering treatise, ratified in Islam’s holiest city, signed by over 1,000 Muslim scholars and endorsed by 6,000 other Muslim thinkers and visionaries, presents a stunning ecumenical vision for a moderate, peaceful and plural Islam. (The signatories come from more than 130 countries.) It emphasizes, among other things, Islam’s commitment to the empowerment of women, the preservation of the environment and tolerance for all. religious and sectarian differences.
For those who are not Muslim or invested in the faith, perhaps the initiatives led by the Nahdlatul Ulama and the Muslim World League seem irrelevant – although I find it hard to see how the fastest growing religion fast and the second largest in the world is significant incidental to anyone.
In a few days, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, President Joe Biden and leaders of other powerful nations will meet in Bali. They will have a lot to say to each other, from Ukraine to the climate crisis. But their task will be more difficult because the world has fragmented. The West, too, is in a precarious position, under pressure from without and within.
What happened to enlightened self-interest?
Capitalizing on the emergence of a hugely influential transnational Muslim civil society partnership, strongly supporting global cooperation from the corridors of the G20, seems an urgent thing to do. Right now, after all, the West needs all the friends we can find. Where once we learned from the Muslim world, maybe now we could even learn very important things from the Muslim world. The R20 builds on and embodies developments that date back to the Mecca Charter and beyond.
Should we be so surprised? We have long been tempted to see the Islamic world as incompatible, irrelevant, even incendiary. But all along it has been much more than that: a complex, recently volatile but nonetheless related civilization that shares much in terms of ancestry and has proven, like Western culture, able to stretch across the world.
At a time when our challenges include and are beyond us all, so should our approaches.
Muddassar Ahmed is a Visiting Scholar with the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Leadership Initiatives. He is a former adviser to the British government. Follow him on Twitter: @mmuddassarahmed.