Religions for Peace and their first Muslim secretary
“I cannot recall all their names, but there were many... In the 1970s, in Egypt, I saw friends and colleagues being arrested, one after the other, and then disappear just for expressing what they thought. Those who spoke out in their defense suffered the same fate. The same thing was repeated in other countries in the region, in the storm after the Black September drama. It was then that I realized how human rights were a luxury for most women and men on the planet; and, they still are, as fundamental freedoms are increasingly in the crosshairs everywhere. These freedoms are an endangered species”. It was this awareness, acquired at a very young age that led Azza Karam to engage in the protection of human rights, both as an academic and as a high-level official of various intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations. Born in 1968, her biography led her almost naturally to become involved in Religions for Peace, the international association of representatives of the world’s religions dedicated to the promotion of peace, founded in Kyoto in 1970 and of which she has been general secretary for three years. Born in 1968, Karam is Egyptian by birth and Dutch by citizenship. She is a professor of religious studies and diplomacy, a former UN official, and now lives in New York, United States, where the International Secretariat of Religions for Peace is based.
In addition to her role as General Secretary, she has retained that same, original perspective on the relationship between defending personal dignity and religion. “As an Islamic believer, I have always been interested in understanding how faiths can contribute to creating conditions of respect for human freedom. By collaborating with each other and also working from within, with institutions that, by themselves, are unable to do so”, she explains. It is not surprising, therefore, that this petite woman, with an affable and light tone even when dealing with thorny issues, was appointed as Secretary General of Religions for Peace in August 2019. Using – on this she emphasizes – the spiritual means specific to the different creeds, in a multi-religious perspective. “I first encountered Religions for Peace in 2000 when I was asked to direct a program specifically for women of faith. It was an innovative experiment at the time and I was very impressed because it permitted me to devote myself to women’s issues, which had always been one of my passions, from a religious angle. So I stayed”. Until she was chosen to lead the organization. She is the first woman and the first Muslim to hold that position. “It is a great honor that I, however, view the position from a service perspective. In general, I am wary of abstract definitions. When I am asked - and it happens often - if I am a feminist, I say that I do not waste time defining myself or questioning how others define me. I prefer to focus on the work at hand, of which there is a lot. The only definition I accept is that of a ‘person who serves’. That is what being general secretary means to me”.
The framework of Religions for Peace is complex and articulated. The association is made up of over 900 religious leaders from 90 Countries and religious institutions, representing one billion believers from all over the world. Therefore, this explains why it is also referred to as the UN of religions. Unlike the United Nations, which only governments can be members, Religions for Peace includes, in addition to official representatives, faith communities and creeds without an institutional apparatus too. This means that the movement is includes many young people, and women make up over 40% of the total. In addition to the twofold organizational level, there are three areas of action, which are international, national and regional. Therefore, it is a global space, in fact the only one, in which the leaders of religions truly coexist and work collectively. Together, speaking with one voice, they encourage the international community and the Countries involved to intervene on the crucial issues of our time, from migration to the defense of the environment and the fight against inequality. On the other hand, through the Interfaith Councils that are today present in over ninety Countries, believers carry out their concrete commitment to serve the common good of the society in which they operate. An eloquent example of this action, often conducted on tiptoe, is the common fund created to deal with the Covid emergency; in fact, “Individual religions were the first to engage in the midst of the tragedy that was befalling humanity. At first, however, each tried to act on its own due to a lack of coordination. While doing the possible or the impossible, however, on their own, beyond a certain amount, they could not go. The fund has allowed the different faiths to unite their efforts and move together, in a multi-religious perspective”, underlines the general secretary, supporter of the “dialogue of doing” and the “language of hands”. This approach is in line with her impatience with theoretical statements and abstract categories. “The fact is that Religions for Peace is tremendously concrete. The name itself says it, Religions for Peace, that is, the various religions working together to build peace and fraternity through their spiritual strength”.
The latter here is a fundamental resource for healing the current lacerations. To unhinge the perverse logic of violence at its roots. In concluding, Azza Karam says, “I’ve experienced it personally. It takes a lot of strength to defend human rights. It is not easy to resist threats, direct or indirect. Not only those that come from the security apparatus. The most insidious are the phrases thrown out there by friends and family members, such as: ‘This way you expose those around you’, ‘You don’t care if something happens to your loved ones’ or ‘You are also a woman’... Defending human rights makes one uncomfortable. For everyone. Even for those who love you. Even for those you’re trying to protect who never fully trust you. You have to take loneliness into account. It’s a lonely job being a lawyer. Faith is a powerful ally”. Yet, often, religions themselves are accused of helping to spread fanaticism and intolerance and, therefore, end up fueling violence instead of combating it. “Unfortunately, we have seen this time and time again. Generally, when a regime calls itself religious, it turns out to be oppressive and tyrannical. We have, therefore, clearly a duty to distinguish faith from the - instrumental - use of it. Any religion, no matter how good and beautiful what it professes, skillfully manipulated, can become a source of hatred. As a Muslim I know this well. Islam is one thing, what is proclaimed by some extremist groups to promote senseless brutality that strikes other Muslims first is another. However, in history, especially in modern and contemporary history, we have also seen the opposite: believers have played an important role in promoting freedom and human rights. I personally believe that the most authentic demonstration of faith is the joint work by women and men of different religions. Whatever steps we take toward each other bring us closer to God. Therefore, my dream for the future of Religions for Peace is that it will always live up to its name. May it know how to be, each day increasingly more, a construction site of peace populated by people of different faiths”.
by Lucia Capuzzi
A Journalist with the Italian national newspaper Avvenire