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FAITH IN ACTION
By Katherine Marshall
Vienna has a lovely tradition: once each year the Vienna Philharmonic plays at Schonbrun, the grand palace complex that was a model for Versailles. It’s a free outdoor concert and everyone comes. On June 4, Daniel Barenboim conducted and over 120,000 people, including Austria’s president, reveled in beautiful music and fireworks.
Barenboim was exuberant and delivered three encores: a polka, a polka, and a tango. Thrilled by Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo a few hours earlier, he quoted a sentence from it: “This cycle of suspicion and discord must end”.
The crowd cheered. This in the very heart of “Old Europe” where, to put it mildly, skepticism about America has reigned. Barenboim and the crowd exalted in a hope that the blistering tensions among peoples, cultures, and religions that have caused such suffering , just maybe can be addressed. It was yet more evidence that Obama’s magnificent Cairo speech hit a sweet spot.
Vienna has a proud heritage of mingling cultures and religions. It is no stranger to tensions: two Sikh factions clashed there recently, leaving one cleric dead, and sparking riots among Sikhs in India. So the Viennese response to Obama’s Cairo speech demonstrated again Obama’s capacity to evoke the kind of electric excitement that so many remember from John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech so long ago.
Meanwhile, across town, the business of the moment was a colloquium on religion and development organized by Princeton University’s Liechtenstein institute. Scholars and students, statesmen and NGO leaders, thinkers and actors, young and old, talked about identity and conflict, peace and tension, visions for the future, crises of the present. And there too, Obama’s insights and challenges stirred the debate.
The nagging question (a persistent theme in these columns) was: what does religion have to do with it? And the clear answer was: it’s important, probably more than ever, but it’s very complicated. President Obama showed a sophisticated appreciation that incorporated religion into the broader social, political, and cultural context. And, through his seventh agenda point, he made clear that without development, without education, health and jobs, there is no hope and there can be no peace.
The colloquium labored to take a next step, starting with the challenge of breaking down perceived walls between secular and religious, between “people of faith” and people presumed to be without. Lebanese intellectual Ghassan Salamé, for example, challenged every phrase used to discuss religion: Religion, he said, is a faith, an institution, a language, and a market, with endless variants in each category. He deplored the fact that religion is frequently ignored in international affairs, but warned that as diplomats bring it into the mix, they should not expect it to solve everything.
Salamé called for dialogue not as mere words but as a struggle. The meaning of dialogue–and Obama’s speech is a prime example–is an articulation of values and a search for understanding. Above all it entails a struggle against self, because it implies a willingness to change and be changed. “Words alone cannot meet the needs of our peoples,” said Obama, but using words well is a way to start to address the challenge to “end the painful cycle of suspicion and discord”.
Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and a senior advisor for the World Bank.
By Katherine Marshall |
June 8, 2009; 12:00 AM ET
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