Portrait of Religions for Peace General Secretary Azza Karam

Issue I: Trans­forming Tomorrow

I-4 | Azza Karam: “Working with religious actors makes sense”

"Working with religious actors makes sense"

Azza Karam

Learn why Prof. Azza Karam thinks that it is inevitable for the UN to work with religious leaders and movements. And find out what challenges Azza Karam identifies for women, if they pursue religious leaderships. The general secretary of Religions for Peace also tells us, what goals the assembly in Lindau has.

An Interview by Alexander Görlach 10|28|2020

Görlach: The United Nations is engaging with religious leaders in the world. Why particularly religion as a part of civil society?

Karam: Your question has the answer within it. The UN is engaging with Religious actors, in part, because they are civil society actors. The UN has been engaging with global civil society very intentionally and systematically, across all its areas of work – peace and security, human rights and sustainable development –, at least since the 1970s. The UN Charter itself was developed with input from civil society members.

The question should be: Why did it take so long – from the UN’s founding till at least 2000 and even afterwards – for the UN to be more actively engaging with religious civic actors. The answers to that question, Alexander, I have written about extensively. Feel free to quote the result of 30 years of work noted below in “the short answer”, which is that the UN – and frequently, governments, and increasingly businesses and other NGOs – engage with religious actors, for six main reasons:

First. As social and cultural gatekeepers in all societies, any transformation in behaviours and attitudes – in example in social and cultural norms – needs the religious leaders and institutions to speak from their respective pulpits, and advocate for those changes. Only then are the changes required – for instance around how to stay safe and healthy during this pandemic – possible to realize. Apart from Western Europe, the rest of the world has maintained faith as a central part of how peoples think, believe and behave. For too long, the UN system has operated, and still does, with a western European mindset. Thus it marginalized – or simply was blind to – the roles and impact of religious influences. Notabene: It took a serious jolt to UN headquarters in New York on September 11, 2001, for the largely westernized leadership of the UN to begin to ask some serious questions about religion.

Second. As the largest, oldest and most far reaching social service providers: Serving people’s needs in health, education, nutrition, sanitation, environmental conservation, etc. Where are the oldest hospitals, hospices and clinics? In churches and mosques and temples. The oldest schools? In churches and mosques and synagogues and temples. And so on.

Third. As the first responders in humanitarian crisis – at least four out of the top ten global humanitarian NGOs are religiously inspired. Religious cites are often the first ‘go-to’ spaces in natural or man-made humanitarian crisis – for instance at armed conflicts.

Fourth. As heavily vested actors in and with politicians, politics and political leaders: Religious leaders – and some movements and entire religious infrastructure – today are partners in actions and “spiritual advisors”. And inciters of political actions, alongside political parties and some politicians.

Fifth. As the most creatively self-resourced institutions in the world. Their networks of volunteers, that are human resources, as well as fund-raising capacities, that are financial resources, far outweigh any other secular NGO counterpart – with the exception of corporations. Think about charitable donations and givings in Christian, Buddhist, Hindu contexts, think about the Islamic Zakat and Islamic financing institutions, as well as the Vatican Bank, etc. In short, whether it is for social, cultural, developmental, humanitarian, financial and political purposes, working with religious actors makes ‘sense’.

And Sixth. Last but by no means least: If religions are identified as the source of terrorism, violence or extremism, and if religious reasons are given as reasons to either ignore international human rights norms and laws or to violate any of them, then how can religious actors NOT be engaged? If some of those realms are the cause or source of harm and pain, how can we not seek to find the remedies within them?

„It is only when we engage in conversation, discussions, debates and actual partnerships to serve together, that we establish a more knowledgeable, inclusive and effective mutual capacitation which ensures all human rights are protected. ”

Azza Karam

Görlach: In many parts of the world religion still laid out the rules of everyday live, not all of them in accordance with human rights the UN stands for. Why engaging with religious leaders regardless?

Karam: In fact, that is precisely why the engagement with the realms of religion  – which are far bigger, wider and more diverse than ANY other realm of human existence – has to be considered, cautious, principled and systematic. It should never be what we are observing today inside and outside of the UN: a fashion, a photo-opportunity, a means to an end. My advocacy has always been thus:

Secular institutions must work with religious actors who see eye-to-eye on the values and intersections of/with human rights. All human rights as we know it, are derived from the values common to all religious traditions. Those religious actors who see and struggle for human rights – and I am convinced those are the majority even if they do not self-identify as such – are also the ones who can articulate those rights, and advocate for them, most efficiently and effectively among all communities, since they are seen spoken of, and served, as part of religious values and commitments.

The challenge is that some religious institutions and leaders will make a claim to exceptionalism which is supposed to position them above the responsibilities and obligations enshrined in international human rights laws. This claim to exceptionalism – while understandable because Holy Scriptures long long long predate any and all human rights as articulated today – is, or should be, irrelevant when all of humanity is judged by the same international yardstick, which, in turn, is the foundation for global law and order.

Where and when religious reasons are used to oppress, subordinate, mete out any injustice or violate the dignity of any human being – and their necessary eco-system –, these reasons are not consonant with human rights intentions nor laws. But more than that, I maintain that such reasons are not even consonant with either letter of spirit of religious doctrines themselves. For no religion advocates for the indignity of a fellow human being or for the destruction of the very livelihood of all humankind – our natural ecosphere.

But if we sit and pontificate about this from our high towers in NY, Washington, Geneva, Rome, Vienna, Brussels or Berlin, we get – and indeed already got – nowhere. More dangerously, we leave religious institutions and actors marginalized – and marginalizing. Religious institutions are used to power – political, social and economic – since time immemorial. Believing they can be set aside, or used on a “need to only” basis, bespeaks an attitude of arrogance and ignorance. Instead, the dialogue and praxis of working with religious actors is a sine qua non of human and environmental sustainability.

It is only when we engage in conversation, discussions, debates and actual partnerships to serve together, that we establish a more knowledgeable, inclusive and effective mutual capacitation which ensures all human rights are protected. Working together means we widen the number of like-minded actors towards the common good. Keeping human rights as the focus of principled engagement means we are working towards the same ends. Whether we reach there with religious discourses or secular ones, should not be an issue. By working with religious actors, we widen the circle of mutual understanding of one another’s raison d’etre as well as modes d’emploi. We reach more people in our respective societies, and can then “build better” as we are hearing articulated now.

The above is Religions for Peace’s understanding, which is also the basis of its Strategic Plan, 2020 – 2025, and the methodology of our work.

„I have systematically argued for leadership to be a far more inclusive understanding and application – in all spaces, but especially of religious ones – to be redefined as leadership in service.”

Azza Karam

Görlach: From your experience: what challenges do women still have to meet when they engage in a leadership role in their community?

Karam: The same challenge any woman encounters in professional spaces: that of being heard and respected from precisely where we stand, and as we stand. More detailed:

The challenge of not being seen, nor treated, nor served, any less than our male counterparts – even those who may have served in the same positions. The challenge of our experiences being appreciated in their own right, on the strengths of our own abilities, not as compared to modes and spaces of operation defined by the domination of western, male, uni-religious, uni-cultural views and standards.

The challenge of being valued and respected even as some women challenge and counter the very same norms and practices – and sometimes even the interpretation of beliefs — that “have been around for centuries” and deemed “inarguable”.

The challenge of being understood as different, but no less than. As caring and generous with feelings inspired by faith, but not being seen as any weaker, or in any way less strong or capable, for having and practicing those feelings.

The challenge of redefining power to be a space of nurture of our human diversity – including the diversity of our planetary existence – not the space to stand in judgement on all forms of difference.

Görlach: Have there been positive changes in the recent past towards a higher acceptance of female leadership in religion?

Karam: Depending on what you mean by recent past. There have always been women religious leaders. Where there are faith communities, there are, and have been, women leaders. From where you live, Alexander, does the name Hildegard von Bingen ring any bells? She was one of MANY. I am listening to her compositions now as I write this to you. I have systematically argued for “leadership” to be a far more inclusive understanding and application – in all spaces, but especially of religious ones – to be redefined as leadership in service.

If you speak of official ordination, there are today women Buddhist priests and women Buddhist Ministers, ordained Protestant women clergy today heading major Churches; Reform Jewish traditions have long ordained women as Rabbis and today Conservative Jewish congregations are also beginning to do so; Muslim 3aalimas (learned scholars) and Muslim women jurisprudents pepper more and more of public life as well as Sharia courts. Bahais have always had women leaders of their ‘communities’.

If you speak of religious institutions, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, while Orthodox, has long relied on many women to maintain and uphold the entire infrastructure itself; the Vatican just nominated a woman to serve in one of its most elite circles – de facto as a deputy foreign minister handling the multilateral portfolios –, the World Council of Churches has had a woman Chairing their Board for almost a decade

If you speak of interreligious entities: the Parliament of World Religions in 2018 nominated and has a woman to Chair their Board, and today Religions for Peace has women serving as heads of some of their Interreligous Councils, and now their global movement.

„We have no choice but to convene across sectors, discourses and narratives, using whatever means available for us to do so.”

Azza Karam

Görlach: What is one of the most striking examples for the impact this leadership has provided for a given community?

Karam: In 1996, I managed an international programme researching the impact women legislators have had on Parliaments around the world. The learning from those secular legislative spaces is or was telling, also for the corporate world (businesses), as well as multilateral (intergovernmental) and governmental institutions. I have since found, studying this in religious spaces in 2000, that: Including women – including women’s experiences – added insight into each and every issue. If each man experiences the same situation differently, and each experience is valuable learning to understand situations, then the same logic applies to one woman and then to many women. These insights – and diversity of experiential or lived realities and professional worldviews – translate into how the institutions deliberate, and what they deliver.

From my research, I can share that where women are in positions of leadership inside Churches, for instance, these institutions transition (in relative terms), towards the following – in parts but also sometimes simultaneously: more active listening (openness) to congregants, more inclusive decision-making processes, more diversity in staffing and working teams, and more social service programming or delivery. Conversely, these same institutions come in for more public scrutiny and heavier doses of criticism. The standards for women’s leadership are almost always higher or more stringent, than those set for men.

Görlach: Not only the dominion of religion is one that struggles with gender equality. How can the work of Religions for Peace inspire other branches of the UN to become more inclusive?

Karam: The UN senior most leadership today, has achieved gender parity – 50-50. That is more than the European Union by the way. One cannot say the same of any religious institution. Religions for Peace, based on a unique process of including over 200 religious leaders, provided for the first time in religious and interreligious history, an inclusive strategic planning process, for the whole movement, which specifically lists “gender equality” as a priority.

In working with, for, and about gender equality as a destination, as well as a means towards realizing global commitments made by 193 governments (SDGs/Agenda 2030), Religions for Peace is illustrating, very concretely, to the entire United Nations communities or universe of galaxies, that religious actors and institutions are committed, capable, deliverers and champions of women’s empowerment and of gender equality. Actions speak louder than words. Now UN staff, UN leadership and UN missions all know that religious actors include women leaders of multi-religious work around the world.

Görlach: What is your hope for this year’s gathering on Lake Bodensee for Religions for Peace?

Karam: Our world suffers the simultaneous and loud volumes, of discourses of hate, exclusion, marginalization, and violence. At best, confrontations and polarization, in all spheres, are today’s normal. The global Pandemic of Covid has significantly reduced our ability to physically congregate, and in some cases, this can add to a tendency to be less transparent and perhaps even less consultative in decision-making.

Our dependency on technology, while offering some counters to the above, also renders us more vulnerable to our information being taken without our consent, and less protected from harmful trends in cyber spaces. Our prevalent narratives – political, socio-cultural, historical, financial, and religious – utterly miss the art of diplomacy. And if the above trends continue, our ability to co-exist as planet and peoples will be – even more – harmed. We have no choice but to convene across sectors, discourses and narratives, using whatever means available for us to do so.

In the last 10th Assembly of Religions for Peace which Ring for Peace, and the Government of Germany, enabled and co-hosted, a woman was elected leader of the Religions for Peace worldwide movement.  This election was possible thanks to existing women leaders in the movement as well as male leaders who are committed, brave and visionary. Because of this election, a virtuous cycle began: that of recognition of the feminine, thus honoring of the whole of the human (including the other half – male or masculine); openness to transformation; willingness to be self-reflexive and inclusive; all of this so as to grow stronger in our faithful collaborations, in service to one another and our planet, based on the strengths of our diversities.

In this Assembly, one year later, women – and men – will come together to assess, to learn more about, and to strengthen the virtuous circles. Not in conceptual or theoretical ways, but based on concrete experiences of leadership and service in the very same areas of life our SDGs spell out: peace building, inclusive leadership, education, environment, and humanitarianism. We intend to begin the process of redefining diplomacy with the power of religions and the leadership of women and men together. May the Almighty and Divine help us create the ripples of faithful and nurturing and diverse leadership in service to all, barring none.

Azza Karam

Short Biography

Prof. Dr. Azza Karam serves as the Secretary General of Religions for Peace – the largest multi-religious leadership platform with 90 national and 6 regional Interreligious Councils. She also holds a Professorship of Religion and Development at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, in The Netherlands – of which she is a citizen.


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Learn why Prof. Azza Karam thinks that it is inevitable for the UN to work with religious leaders and movements. And find out what challenges Azza Karam identifies for women, if they pursue religious leaderships.

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