Kourosh Ziabari – Iran Review: The First International Conference on World Against Violence and Extremism (held on December 9-10, 2014) was an opportunity for hundreds of public figures, including politicians, diplomats, intellectuals, academicians, religious leaders and thinkers of more than 40 world countries to come to Tehran and discuss one of the most pressing and sensitive issue of the 21st century with each other: terrorism and extremism.
The debate on violence and extremism has become more heated and controversial with the rise of the terrorist cult ISIS, which has established a self-proclaimed Islamic Caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria, and harbors inauspicious plans for dominating larger parts of the Middle East and even Europe. Since this hideous entity renewed its operations in June 2014, 5,500 Iraqi civilians have been killed, the UN reported last year. Appealed by the lucrative offers of ISIS for cooperation, hundreds of young people, especially from the European countries, have joined this terrorist group and are fighting for it stanchly.
The fact that ISIS is presenting itself a religious organization underlines the need for the religious leaders, both from the Islamic community and other religions, to unite and work for raising the public awareness about the irreligious foundations and ideology of ISIS and that it doesn’t have anything to do with Islam. The world has to recognize that none of the Abrahamic religions, including Islam, endorse the killing of innocent people and terrorism is not a religious phenomenon at all.
In order to discuss the role of religion in abating extremism and violence and some recent developments in the course of negotiations between Iran and the United States, Iran Review talked to Bishop John Bryson Chane on the sidelines of the WAVE conference in Tehran. The Right Reverend John Bryson Chane is a bishop in the Episcopal Church. He was the eighth diocesan bishop of Washington. An internationally-recognized peace advocate, Bishop Chane has received numerous important awards, including DC’s Interfaith Bridge Builders Award, the George Washington University’s President’s Medal, the Berea College Founder’s Medal, Search for Common Ground’s Award for Global Peace and Reconciliation, the Rumi Forum’s Global Peace Award, and the Yale Divinity School’s Lux et Veritas Award. He is a prominent figure in interfaith dialog and has traveled to Iran six times and is one of the American citizens who have met Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The following is the text of the interview.
Q: So, what do you think about the consensus emerged between the world nations in the UN General Assembly in endorsing President Rouhani’s initiative for declaring the resolution of a World Against Violence and Extremism?
A: Firstly, I’m delighted that the conference is being held here and I’m delighted that IPIS is sponsoring this and making it possible for the politicians, foreign ministers and also the clergy from literally more than 50 countries – about 58 countries to gather in Tehran. So, it’s really a magnificent opportunity to pull all of these people together at one time; many of them have been working on issues of violence and extremism in their own environments for a long time. But this is the first time when they’ve been really gathering together in this kind of context. I think that President Rouhani, by calling this together and spearheading this, is really making a statement to the larger global community that this [extremism] is a huge problem and it’s not going to get solved overnight and it’s going to take a lot of people to do that. And this interdisciplinary conference is a way of beginning.
Q: What’s your perspective on the role religion can play in moderating the sensitivities of the people and bringing about peace and stability across the world, especially in the turbulent region of the Middle East that is witnessing several conflicts and instances of violence?
A: Well, I’ve always believed that we live in a very unique time. The emerging 21st century is a time when we’re experiencing what I call a journey in postmodernism, and that tends to really focus on issues of technology, scientific achievement, advancement; all those things including communications, communication systems; all those things are very important and they have tended to focus on the individuals. It also means that the world is really becoming a borderless world. In global economy today, when China sneezes, some of us get cold! So we’re really beginning to look at the issue of a borderless and global community. And we can see it here when it comes to refugees; many of these countries that are here are dealing with high levels of refugees who are coming to their countries, crossing borders one way or another, who’re trying to escape either violence or seeking freedom or are looking to find a better life if their economies from their countries has failed and is failing.
So, religion has a unique role to play because as the 21st century emerges, the way of doing diplomacy after the Second World War is the way in which we tended to be exposed to diplomacy in this emerging postmodern time. We have to find new ways to do diplomacy, in my opinion. I’m a religious person, not a diplomat, but I think by that I mean that those who’re engaged in developing foreign policy, including politicians and diplomats, need to really engage with religious leaders, not religious leaders who are going to form policy but they need to gather with religious leaders who represent Abrahimic traditions and others; but right now we’re just focusing on Abrahimic religions specifically with Muslim and Christian because they bring to table a very fair picture of the cultures that they come from, and they also carry with them a combined message of compassion and peace. And they really need to be at the table so that foreign policies that are being developed really take into consideration the fact that religions are bridge-builders.
Q: Violence is being practiced in Iraq and Syria in the name of religion. A terrorist group called the Islamic State is killing hundreds of people. Do you think that it is really the ideology of Islam to preach violence and extremism? Why is this group trying to present itself as a religious group and as an Islamic organization?
A: First of all, ISIS is not a religious group; they are terrorists and that’s what they need to be labeled at. They’re not representatives of Islam; Islam is a religion of peace just as Christianity is. And why they use religion is that it gives them a leg up on public relations and that also builds on the way in which the West too often sees Islam which is they don’t really know what it is about.
Q: Since we are short of time, let’s also touch upon the recent developments in the course of Iran-U.S. relations. You surely admit that there have been misunderstandings between Iran and the United States for the past three decades. The United States accuses Iran of sponsoring terrorism and Iranians are angry at the policies adopted by the White House towards their country, the shooting down of the Iranian passenger airplane in 1988 and many other events. How is it possible to eliminate these misunderstandings and move toward reconciliation?
A: Well, you know what? There have been enough fingers pointed at enough eyes and, you know, there is enough people who’re going blind. And we are at a point in the history of the world, not just this part of the world, where there’s a blame game and going back over the painfulness of old history; I mean, I could even go back and say, I have lived with the people who were held hostage in your country during the revolution and they would come to me and say, you have to tell the Iranians how horrible that was, and that they have to apologize.
Well, you want to know something? The bottom line is as painful as that was. That was another time; that was another place; that was part of a country’s revolution and that revolution has been undertaken and you have a new nation. So, I had a conversation with a Rabbi when I was in Rome, talking about how horrible people were to Israel and so on and so forth. And I said you want to know something; too many people have died; Palestinians, Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Too many people have died. If you want to keep people on the threshold of being killed everyday and tortured and be experiencing violence, then all we have to do is continuing to talk about old news and what we’ve done to one another in the past. We have got to get over that. It’s not a matter of deflecting and saying that it didn’t happen; it happened. Everybody has wounds; right now, what’s in play here is extremely serious; extremely serious for the integrity of Iran, for its future, for the future of Iraq, Syria in particular, future of Lebanon in particular, future of Palestine in particular and the future of Israel in particular and our future, my future in the United States. I don’t want my grandchildren that I love very much to grow up in a world where people hate one another because of how they speak, because of how they think, because of how they worship.
Q: And my final question, is a political question but I don’t want you to give a political response actually. Well, you know, the negotiations between Iran and the six world powers over the nuclear program has got a little bit erosive. Iran is trying to make concessions, the United States and the six world powers are trying to make concessions, too, but at some points there seems to be pauses and disagreements, and the negotiations sometimes come to a deadlock. How is it possible for the two sides to reach an understanding and finally strike a deal forever?
A: I have to tell you that you have a wonderful representative at the table, who is Foreign Minister Zarif; you really do. And, I would say that the P5+1, along with the folks that we all know are involved in that, also have very good people at the table. I understand that there’s always a public pronouncement and a private pronouncement. I’ve lived in a country where public policy tends to be generated but what’s not said is what’s really happening. I have a great hope that there will be a decision made that will be supportive both to Iran and the United States. But you need to understand this and I leave you with this thought because it’s true. I had spent some time with your ambassador in Washington, Sadegh Kharazi, a wonderful guy. And we sat down one day and we’d been talking about the leader’s Fatwa. And I said, do you realize that what the Leader has said is exactly what the Anglican Communion, its bishops, the Anglican Communion, the Episcopal church in the United States have said? It’s exactly what the conference of Catholic Bishops have said. I have those documents; these are resolutions that were passed by these Ecclesiastical bodies in the United States. Every major Ecclesiastical body in the United States has passed a resolution that really parallels with what the Leader has stated.
Q: The Fatwa you mean; so it’s an important statement!
A: Absolutely! And so what we have tried to say to our politicians is that you need to understand. You’re not theologians and we’re not diplomats. You need to understand what the theological component is of this agreement. And the theological component is that people of faith condemn the development and use of nuclear weapons. And I would say this. As a country, we used the nuclear weapon; we used several nuclear weapons; and as Japan never forgets, those of us who were very young at the time a little bit have never forgotten that. It was painful; it’s painful. So, I have a great hope; I really do. I base that on Foreign Minister Zarif. But I also base that on the fact that there are people of goodwill around the table, you know. And it’s also a matter of developing trust; trust and then everything else would fall at the place. And that’s happening. And our job is to go back to the United States and talk to our people, and the folks that we serve, and also if we have the opportunity to speak directly to people in our government which we do on occasions and say “Hey folks! Here’s the deal, seize the opportunity.” This time, it’s going to be an awfully hard time.
This interview was originally published on Iran Review.