World leaders meeting in Hangzhou, China may be unaware that a few days earlier a shadow group of religious scholars met in Beijing. Their agenda was geared to the G20 and their meeting reflected a determined effort by Chinese scholars and counterparts from across the world to continue a tradition of gathering in parallel with the global encounters of national leaders.
This tradition goes back to 2005. Since then, in successive countries where the G7, G8, and G20 meetings take place, groups have gathered to reflect on religious dimensions of the global issues at hand. The underlying idea is that the faith communities of the globe are a community of shared values with a special responsibility to proclaim and live justice and peace. Since a national group takes the lead, the character and agendas vary year to year, but there are threads of continuity, including in several participants who attend most of the events.
The two day 2016 Forum in Beijing involved a group of Chinese scholars and about 20 international scholars who have, for the most part, shadowed the G20 meetings, with gatherings in Australia in 2014 and Istanbul in 2015. Plans are afoot for Germany in 2017. CASS (the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences) and its religious studies department hosted the event and a large group of Chinese scholars participated. Cole Durham, from Brigham Young Law School, was a leading force in organizing the meeting.
The meeting's title invited a broad, sometimes sweeping discussion: "Dialogue Among Civilizations and Community of Common Destiny for all Mankind." Discussing religious issues is tricky in China, as there are sensitivities at various turns. Indeed, although the desire was to link the Forum to the upcoming G20 meeting, with its broad global agenda, and to the series of "faith" G20 meetings, the word religion was used sparingly and carefully. Harmony and shared values were common themes.
I was struck by a very different tone and content between the meeting last year in Istanbul and the Beijing Forum. The themes in Istanbul mirrored more directly the G20 discussions, notably in efforts to link to issues of economic development and welfare. The framework of the Sustainable Development Goals that the United Nations agreed to formally in 2015 provided a scaffold for much of the discussion, both as a moral call for action and, more specifically, in pointing to goals like decent work. Migration was a theme, acknowledging religious tensions as a factor but also highlighting the positive humanitarian work of so many religiously inspired groups.
Religious freedom was a central topic in Istanbul, though it was not always entirely clear what that meant for action, whether by the governments concerned or by religious leaders and scholars. Human rights were on the agenda, coming from various dimensions. And the discussion of tensions around religion, including the perils of "using" or "instrumentalizing" religion were a recurring topic. The themes of radicalism and violence were present, albeit in a guarded and rather subdued form. The benefits of interfaith cooperation were assumed but also interrogated, at least to a degree. One highlight, for example, was discussion of how "constitutional structures and faith groups can protect societies from violent religion by distinguishing free speech from incitement to immediate violence, and initiating calming responses to de-escalate violent acts."
In Beijing, discussion harked back to the remarkably durable debates that still refer to the arguments that Samuel Huntington advanced in his 1993 article, "Clash of Civilizations?" Are there indeed different "civilizations" whose core values differ in significant ways? Or is political power and influence what counts? How is the role of the nation state changing? Echoing the title, the overall line of argument was that common values trump real divides linked to culture or religion. There were many papers exploring scholarship about religious traditions that have shaped China, touching more on "harmony" than on tensions.
Lively exchanges and some fairly blunt discussions turned about a central topic: Internet and religion. How, some asked, is the Internet really changing transmission and practice of religious beliefs and adherence, and how can and should the negative features of the Internet and the Internet age be governed? How and how far to control is plainly an issue. It was largely in this connection that the issues around radical religion and violence were touched upon.
The "F20" series is among the boldest interfaith efforts today, in its explicit focus on the most global of global agendas, and in its more implicit goal of influencing the world's most powerful leaders. The events to date have had a somewhat tentative, exploratory character, hardly surprising given the vast scope of the challenge. It is a space worth following.