Pop Quiz: What forum plays host to tens of
thousands of people, has a potential television audience of
hundreds of millions, and has been largely ignored by much of
the world's political intelligentsia? No, it's not the Super
Bowl, it's not Mecca, and it's not a Britney Spears show at the
Superdome. It's the Parliament of the World's Religions. Call it
the religious answer to Davos, this granddaddy of all modern
interfaith forums will be holding its next meeting this summer
in Spain, and it promises to be a massive undertaking by any
standard. For nearly a week, Barcelona will play host to more
than twenty thousand people from just about every walk of life
on God's green earth—spiritual, secular, and otherwise.
And they will address issues that run the gamut from local to
global, from theological to ecological, from the practical and
pragmatic to the sacred and sublime.
Now if the term Parliament of the World's Religions seems
somehow familiar, it might be because of its now-legendary
beginning in 1893 in Chicago, when the great Hindu sage Swami
Vivekananda took the podium and made East-West history with his
stirring address to the assembled religious leaders. Back then,
few had ever seen an Eastern swami, and the sight of this noble
gentleman wrapped in sanyasi robes introduced America
to a notion of interfaith harmony that went well beyond the
Abrahamic religions, and certainly beyond a détente
between Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, and
Baptists. A hundred years later, in 1993, the Parliament was
reborn. It convened once again in Chicago and has since helped
inspire a significant movement toward reconciliation and
dialogue between the jostling faiths of our global village. But
the urgent question facing this movement today is: How, in an
increasingly secular society, can noble interfaith ideals be
translated into real results on the world stage? Do the
religious traditions still have the power to make a significant
impact on the political and cultural agendas of the
international community? It is a question that might sound a
little strange, given that we seem to be hovering on the edge of
a civilizational war over what essentially amounts to a profound
difference in values—values that are, in many respects,
deeply religious. Indeed, how will the Parliament address the
building tensions between Islam and the West that threaten to
undermine the tenuous movements toward solidarity that the world
has achieved in the last quarter-century? Brother Wayne
Teasdale, a lay monk, mystic, and Christian pioneer in the
interfaith movement, spoke to WIE recently and gave us
the lowdown on what will be happening—and more
importantly, what should and could be happening—to address
the current concerns over terrorism, this summer on the east
coast of Spain.
What Is Enlightenment?: What is the focus of the
Parliament of the World's Religions going to be this
Wayne Teasdale: The Parliament is going to be more
activist in its orientation because of the four themes it wants
to investigate: water issues, debt relief, refugees, and the end
of religiously inspired violence. They are planning to look into
these areas with an eye toward really making a contribution.
European television is going to devote two hours a day to
coverage, so there will be an audience of half a billion people
watching. There will also be many other things going
on—dialogues, teachings, a science symposium. I think it
is going to be an historic event.
WIE: We seem to be living in a time when the
influence of the religions in global affairs, at least in the
West, is dramatically waning. Given that reality, what do you
feel the Parliament can do to stay relevant in today's
Teasdale: Well, first of all, it's more than just
the religious traditions. The Assembly, a collection of leaders
that will be gathering at Montserrat Abbey before the main
session of the Parliament, is made up of four hundred members.
And they are not just religious and spiritual leaders. Yes, the
religions are a major part of it, but also included are inspired
mystics, sages, etcetera, as well as people in the media, people
in the corporate world, diplomats, scholars, scientists, and
activists. This is the human community in microcosm—it's
the most diverse group that ever meets on the planet. Quite
frankly, it's more diverse than the United Nations. You never
see the indigenous peoples in the UN. But this is a very diverse
group, and every segment of the world is represented. However,
one thing that I think would make the Parliament have a huge
impact would be to invite some of the Wahhabi mullahs from
Yemen, Somalia, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.
WIE: You're referring to the Saudi Arabian sect
that is spreading a very extremist vision of Islamic life across
the Islamic world. Isn't Al-Qaeda in large part influenced by
Teasdale: Yes. Wahhabism is a very eccentric sect
that began in Saudi Arabia 150 years ago. The thing about the
Wahhabis is that a lot of scholars suggest that they are not
truly Qur'anic. It's more of an Arabian cultural movement, and
it contains many elements that you see accentuated in the
Taliban, because they're inspired by the Wahhabi model. It's
really problematic for Islam, but we have to deal with these
people because these are the spiritual leaders of the
WIE: I would imagine that they would be unlikely
to come to the Parliament.
Teasdale: I think some of them would come. There are some good mullahs among them. It would be an educational opportunity for them. They can be informed by a larger perspective and get an up-close look at the larger reality of the world.
Now, the whole Islamic world is not going to become Wahhabi, but we do need to get a dialogue going and we are simply not going to have a dialogue between the U.S. and Al-Qaeda. But we could have these back-forum dialogues going on between the Wahhabis and members of other traditions. It would be a formative opportunity for the Wahhabis to see that there is another reality on the planet, and that Wahhabism is basically a step back—way back—and not an authentic step back. Wahhabism is a desert phenomenon. It won't survive in the cities; it won't survive in modernity. So you don't destroy it; you reform it, you build on it, you evolve it.
WIE: Has there been any contact at this point?
Teasdale: Some. The Parliament had consultations two summers ago with the World Islamic Council, which is an influential Saudi-based organization. I was able to speak to a couple of leaders there and suggested that it is important for Islam to develop an authoritative body that represents all of Islam, a body that can interpret the Qur'an and take it away from these individual mullahs who just proclaim their own interpretation and then mislead the community. But I actually couldn't see them being part of the Assembly itself. The people who come to the Assembly are already committed to a kind of universal collaboration.
So rather than overwhelm the Wahhabis with dialogue, and with the agenda of the Parliament, it would be best for them to just be able to go there, experience it, and then go back to their communities and process it. If they just had the opportunity to look and to see what's going on, I think it could be very, very useful.