Georgetown University Georgetown University Logo Berkley Center Berkley Center Logo

The Culture of Encounter and the Challenges of Global Peace and Governance

By: Ismat Jahan

April 4, 2022

The Culture of Encounter and Global Governance

In an increasingly globalized world of today, negotiating coordinated responses to global challenges and promoting collective action calls for a multidimensional approach carried out in good faith. A wide range of actors–nation states, regional and international organizations, most prominently the United Nations, civil societies, and non-state actors, including religious and faith groups–all have a role to play.

At the same time the challenges of inherent inequalities both within and among nations, extreme poverty and hunger, violations of human rights, migration, refugee crises, global warming and climate change, and the fight against terrorism together have added a new dimension to the politics of globalization and the current structure of global governance.

In the collective effort to overcome these global challenges, first and foremost, it is important not to ever stop challenging the existing power imbalances which deepen polarization, undermining national, regional, and international peace and security. The role of geopolitics in shaping global and regional strategy had never ceased; what is now more alarming is that the strategic competition to excel over the “other” in terms of preeminent economic, military, and political strength seems to have gained renewed currency and even a luster in recent times. It is not a cliché to suggest that a new kind of nationalism–call it “ultra-nationalism” and “narrow populism”–is gaining ground in many parts of the world, causing new conflicts to arise or old conflicts to revive. Such a self-serving notion of Us vs. Them is not only dangerous but sets in motion a vicious cycle of hatred, retribution, and counter action! The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is a recent case in point which has exposed the innate fragility of global solidarity–for example through the rise of “vaccine nationalism” which failed in the equitable distribution of vaccines, and through so-called “vaccine diplomacy,” criticized as “geopolitical manoeuvring” that allowed the sending countries to expand their sphere of influence with respect to the recipients.

Building trust and bridging gaps across religions and states by encountering opposing viewpoints in reality is therefore not easy, especially when international relations are guided by realpolitik and not necessarily moral, humanitarian, theological, or ideological considerations.

Interestingly, the positive impact of interreligious and intercultural approaches to dialogue both at societal and global levels is being growingly recognized in the discourses on mediation, conflict resolution, peacemaking, and peacebuilding. Interreligious and intercultural dialogue does not necessarily mean theological discussion, as it entails engagement with various actors–religious and faith-based groups, academia, policymakers, and members of civil society–on issues of common interest. Such dialogues go well beyond the religious sphere.

The UN Alliance of Civilizations and the intergovernmental Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) are among those international actors seeking to enhance harmony and peaceful coexistence among diverse groups in society and the world, largely through interreligious and intercultural dialogues.

Notably, many organizations or entities are founded on a deep religious conviction for peace and rejection of violence at all levels. The social teachings of all religions in essence are guiding principles for peaceful coexistence, urging kindness and respect towards others. The underlying message of all such appeals has been that cultural, ethnic, and religious diversities can coexist in peace and harmony, if we are able to transform prejudices and fear into mutual understanding and respect.

The document "Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together" signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayeb in February 2019 sets out guidelines on advancing a "culture of mutual respect" for forging cooperation on global issues. Also significant is the OIC-initiated UN Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18, commonly known as the Istanbul Process, which seeks an intergovernmental policy framework for preventing and combatting intolerance, discrimination, stigmatization, and incitement to violence and hatred on the ground of religion or belief. These are effective tools for action on the ground. The value of such documents obviously lies in their implementation. In this context, it is important to recognize the significance of education and the critical role of social media in our era for involving youth in addressing intolerance and promoting respect for diverse groups.

In addressing the real challenges in translating advocacy for peaceful coexistence into active efforts at implementation, Pope Francis’ idea of a culture of encounter is perceived to have a potentially strong and distinct spiritual appeal in triggering openness of human minds for the given purpose of building human solidarity. While seemingly rooted in Christian narrative, the idea does call for serious cross-religion reflections. The notion of a culture of encounter may, however, require certain preconditions. The very first step lies in the readiness to engage, a genuine and sincere willingness to face the challenges/differences by encountering them in seeking a mutually beneficial outcome. Secondly, the approach should be based on humility, generosity, and patience–three core components as proposed by Pope Francis. Most importantly, there must be an openness of mind in making compromises for striking the best possible outcome under the given circumstances in the greater interest of all. The main dictum would be: to accept and overcome differences by encountering them. Such an acceptance would entail reaching a common understanding on an acceptable level playing ground or rules of engagement. This may call for a required space to agree to disagree for the sake of mutual respect. As experience has shown, the influence of such encounters in diplomacy or in any negotiations/discourse has often improved the attitude towards the “other” in a significant way by dismantling prejudices, suspicion, and hostility. It is, however, to be noted that the outreach of culture of encounter as a diplomatic tool may not necessarily guarantee a peaceful outcome unless one sees there is gain for both sides.

Such encounters and discourses would need to be structured in a manner that it is not perceived as partial towards the interests of the dominant group or groups. In the final analysis, human encounters which respect the dignity of persons, even those on the opposite side, are important in bringing the desired outcome, an ultimate win-win situation!

As the idea of culture of encounter is being conceptualized and interesting discussions are taking place in determining its practical efficacy in consensus building, it would be important to reflect on its role in the conduct of contemporary diplomatic relations. In this context, teachings on the culture of encounter may be part of diplomatic training courses as an effective tool in the art of negotiation.

To conclude, it would be a gross exaggeration to make sweeping affirmations about the role of religious and faith-based groups in wielding meaningful impact on global governance. A few words must, however, be dedicated to the role of religion in politics. In many ways, it is true that religious groups can play an important role in rejecting pleas to defend religion or tradition as a pretext of conflict and violence against religious minorities. Similarly, the politicization of religion with the rise of ultra or aggressive nationalisms and extreme right-wing populism can also lead to deepening polarization of societies. A clarification between non-state religious actors and state-sponsored religious actors may therefore be necessary. This is especially important at a time when in some parts of the world peaceful coexistence of diverse groups/ethnic and religious minorities is purportedly being threatened by the regime in power through its state-sponsored religious actors. On a note of caution, the practice of state-sponsored political ideology which promotes extremism cloaked in the garb of religion must be encountered in all seriousness. These may otherwise set dangerous precedents having far-reaching consequences beyond national borders, threatening not only peace at the national level, but also regional and global peace and harmony, consequently contributing to violence and conflicts which might have been avoided.