Diplomacy

Religious diplomacy

With the pandemic still hanging over our heads and a looming global recession, there’s a simple question before us: Will the world move forward–or fall back?

If we want freedom to spread, open societies to grow, trade to increase, and economic growth to advance, we must all see these as interconnected. They transcend day-to-day politics and grow instead from older, deeper sources, particularly religion. Not the kind imposed from above, but the kind that grows through and across societies and cultures. For those who understand the value of that kind of faith, what has happened in Bali, Indonesia must be engaged.

There is a remarkable convergence of religious wisdom and perspective in Indonesia this week; all the world needs to pay attention, especially the parts that might have looked down on the so-called Global South.  Recent weeks have seen contentious elections and surprising volatility even in the most stable countries. In Sweden, a nationalist party has surged to the forefront. In the United Kingdom, three Prime Ministers in a matter of months.

Beyond and behind these surprising headlines is a gathering global turbulence.

The institutions that inspired free trade, open borders and remarkable economic growth are deteriorating. We have several choices before us.

We can do nothing, but that would hardly provide us much hope for the future. We would only face greater headwinds and worse outcomes. We can replace those institutions, but there are few if any convincing or compelling ideas about what those substitutes would be. Or we can work to critically examine our institutions, see where their foundations are weakening, and seek out thoughtful ways to replenish and renew them.

In Bali, the R20 is launching to pursue that path of replenishment and renewal. Launching through and alongside the Group of 20 or G20, that body’s Religion Forum (“R20” for short) will mobilize faith leaders to ensure that religion functions as a genuine and dynamic source of peace, progress and prosperity in the 21st century. Among the R20’s goals is “infusing geopolitical and economic power structures with moral and spiritual values.”

One of the world’s senior Islamic scholars, Dr. Abdul Karim Al-Issa, Secretary-General of the Muslim World League, announced on day one of the R20: “Major global challenges today are not merely political or economic … They are moral. And navigating the world out of these crises requires moral leadership. This year, the world’s religious leaders are for the first time part of the G20. It is time we acknowledge that religion must be part of the solution for global crises.”

This is exactly what the G20 needs; even many of its most stable countries are stumbling. Like the United States, some lack shared unifying practices–a monarchy is one example–and so their polarization becomes ever more severe. Could thoughtful, compassionate, and genuine religious traditions, developed over generations to become meaningful pillars of diverse societies, be the answer?

As a member of the nobility of the Royal Sultanate of Sulu, a 600-year-old historical thalassocracy, I have dedicated many years working with traditional Islamic monarchies in Southeast Asia and have a unique viewpoint on why the R20 matters. Considering I was born in the Roman Catholic faith, this might be a rare perspective of course, since many in the West–the historic core of the developed world–know comparatively little about Islam or Southeast Asia.

Let alone Islam in Southeast Asia.

Which is why launching the R20 in Indonesia is massively meaningful. Not only is Indonesia the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, but it is also of course a G20 economy, a secular democracy, and home to the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), a unique organization that represents some 100 million moderate Muslims–a huge portion of Indonesia’s population. Its General Chairman, Mr. Yahya Staquf, is a compelling Muslim thinker and scholar, who has challenged critical misinterpretations of Islam.

In my purview, the NU is a major reason why Indonesia has remained a secular democracy.

To begin this conference in such a dynamic society is incredibly heartening; not only does the Forum gain from the experience of one of the world’s largest Muslim bodies, but that body (the NU) is also closely partnering with the previously mentioned Muslim World League, the world’s largest Islamic non-governmental organization, to build the R20. A wise pairing: NU promotes a pluralistic approach to Islam, with roots in Southeast Asia going back many centuries. That makes the Muslim World League a natural partner and amplifier.

Behind its Secretary-General, Dr. Muhammad bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, the Muslim World League has become a remarkable force for moderation, inter-faith and intra-faith dialogue, and global religious consciousness. The NU and the MWL reach huge numbers of Muslims, the world’s fastest-growing faith community, much of which lives outside the G20. If the principles of an open world order are to survive and expand, they will need to find ways to engage audiences beyond their borders.

To convince them that their values and many of the original sources of the G20’s dynamism are not at odds. That is something NU, the Muslim World League, and the R20 can well do.

To say nothing of their wider reach. In that spirit, in fact, the Muslim World League announced at the R20 “a new humanitarian fund for the victims of war everywhere.” Not only is the fund not directed only to Muslims, but it also reaches beyond Muslim-majority countries more broadly. Dr. Al-Issa emphasized that Ukraine would be a primary area of the fund’s focus. That is sure to encourage other faith leaders in attendance that the R20 is not just an exercise in lofty rhetoric, but active, on-the-ground engagement.

His Holiness Pope Francis has already addressed the R20; he is joined in his participation by other leaders of the Catholic Church, the world’s largest single faith denomination, as well as senior representatives of the Protestant World Evangelical Alliance, representing 600 million believers in over 140 countries. That is not to mention clergy from Buddhist, Sikh, Jewish, as well as other Christian and Muslim traditions. In that spirit, the next G20 (and R20) will take place in India, followed by Brazil; the world’s largest Hindu and Catholic countries, respectively.

India is a place where more conversations about religion, the state and freedom need to happen urgently. About 84% of the world’s population say religion is important, if not very important to them—the future of the world’s freedom and flourishing requires a thoughtful engagement with the thoughtfully religious. Without religious freedom, there cannot be economic freedom. Without economic freedom, we are unlikely to see meaningful, sustainable, long-term human flourishing. And in that aspect, Dr. Al-Issa is right, religion must be part of that process.

Dr Matthew Pajares-Yngson

Datu Matthew Pajares Yngson is the Representative Councillor of the Caribbean ASEAN Council, and Diplomatic Affairs Envoy of the Eastern Caribbean-Southeast Asia Chamber, an organization recognized by the United Nations through the UN-OHRLLS. Datu Yngson holds a Doctorate in Professional Studies in International Relations and Diplomacy, and a Master of Arts in International Relations and Cultural Diplomacy. He is the only Filipino-Dominican alumnus of H.R.H. The Duke of Edinburgh’s Commonwealth Study Conferences since its establishment in 1956. Datu Yngson is also the Royal Ambassador of The 35th Sultan of Sulu and North Borneo and was bestowed the princely title of "Rajah of Tambulian Island" for his humanitarian work in supporting the Tausug people of the Sulu Archipelago.

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