More than a century before religious extremists brought down New York's Twin Towers, the opening act of a new era of terror, a visionary Hindu leader spoke these words to the first ever Parliament of the World's Religions on September 11, 1893: "Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood ... "
"I fervently hope," Swami Vivekananda went on to say, "that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal."
Tragically, Swami Vivekananda's hope has proved illusory. Sectarian and religiously motivated violence has continued to plague the earth to this day. The bombing of a church in Alexandria, Egypt and the assassination in Pakistan of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer are but two recent high-profile examples.
However, a recent initiative by Jordan's King Abdullah II once more raises the banner for cooperation among people of different faith traditions, for a global effort to defuse the powder keg of religious division. On October 20, 2010, the United Nations General Assembly, "recognizing that the moral imperatives of all religions, convictions and beliefs call for peace, tolerance and mutual understanding," unanimously passed a resolution introduced by King Abdullah to recognize the first week of February each year as World Interfaith Harmony Week.
Why, you might ask, given the lessons of history, should we expect such a week to be any more successful in launching a new era of cooperation than was the 1893 Parliament of the World's Religions?
First, it's important to recognize that for all the highly publicized violence that has flowed from religious extremism of late, an extraordinary amount of good has come from the work of people following the moral imperatives of their faiths. Under the shared adage, "Do unto others ... ," religious groups around the world form an enormous delivery system for humanitarian services, providing food, clothing, shelter, health care and more; and despite the association of Madrasas with religious extremism, there is a vast network of religiously-based schools that provide children both the academic and moral foundation to contribute positively to their communities.
Faith leaders from diverse traditions are also offering growing leadership in the environmental movement, helping awaken humanity to the dire crisis the earth is facing. Tying care for the environment to the teachings of their traditions, they are encouraging their followers adopt more sustainable practices in their daily lives and promoting greater environmental awareness at the local, national and global levels.
All of these positive realities are being played out against the backdrop of an international interfaith movement that, while still in its infancy, has grown dramatically since 1893. The challenging but essential work of building bridges across faiths is being carried out ever more effectively through international interfaith organizations like URI (United Religions Initiative), Religions for Peace and the Council for the Parliament of the World's Religions; through interfaith desks within the leadership structure of major faith organizations; and through grassroots interfaith efforts around the world. At the same time, the importance of interfaith and intercultural cooperation to peace and economic development is being increasingly recognized by governments and international institutions and organizations. A recent meeting of Iraqi religious and parliamentary leaders in Denmark to address a spike in violence against Christians is one of a growing number of harbingers that high-level religious leaders are taking seriously their responsibility to work across religious divides.
The UN's establishment of the largely symbolic World Interfaith Harmony Week serves to lift up what is already under way, spurring ever higher and broader engagement in the work of interfaith cooperation, "based on love of God and love of one's neighbour or on love of the good and love of one's neighbour." And it is engagement--locally, regionally and globally--that ultimately holds the best promise for loosening the deadly grip of religious fanaticism and enabling us to turn our attention to the urgent human and environmental needs that hold relevance for all of humanity.