Religious Role at Economic Forum Shows Need for Spirit After Sept. 11

Among the Who’s Who of business and political leaders roaming the halls of this year’s World Economic Forum was an unprecedentedly large contingent of rabbis, priests and imams.

The new members of one of the world’s most elite clubs demonstrate that, especially since Sept. 11, religion increasingly is seen an integral force in economic and political relations.

“What Sept. 11 demonstrated more forcefully than ever is that religion can be terribly abused for violent purposes that can affect us all,” said Rabbi David Rosen, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee and a participant at the economic forum.

“You have to strengthen the moderates who can make religion a constructive force rather than a destructive one,” Rosen said. “You can’t ignore religion in terms of political and social processes.”

In fact, the founder and president of the World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab, was having breakfast with Rabbi Arthur Schneier at his Park East Synagogue in New York when the two jets struck the World Trade Center, Schneier said.

Schneier, who heads the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, a coalition of business and religious leaders in New York, had intended to discuss increasing the participation of religious leaders at the economic forum. After the attack, the notion seemed even more urgent.

With Schneier’s assistance, Schwab decided to commemorate the world disaster by moving his forum — traditionally held in the Swiss ski resort of Davos — to New York City, Schneier said. And he doubled the number of religious leaders to 40, including eight Jews.

While Western nations have distanced religion from public life in recent decades, the forum’s new line is to embrace religion, understand its traditions and glean its wisdom.

As international companies expand their markets and governments and corporations see peace as essential to progress, leaders increasingly are giving religion a role in enhancing international stability.

This year’s five-day forum, which ended Monday, included interfaith dialogue groups and, for the first time, spread the religious leaders out on panels throughout the forum such as migration and citizenship, the Middle East conflict, and cultural diversity.

The religious figures were also slated to discuss the creation of a Religious Leaders Council, a permanent body that will offer its guidance to companies and nations –a matter that was, ultimately, tabled for further discussion.

Yet the trend is not without risk. Much of Jewish success in America has hinged on the separation of church and state enshrined in the Constitution. World history is replete with examples of religiously motivated conflict.

That leads some to ask: Is the new trend opening a Pandora’s box for the Jewish community?

Great Britain’s chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, said the key is to give religion influence, but not allow it to hold power.

“So long as we keep that distinction clear, we will not endanger our liberties,” he said.

Sept. 11 exemplifies how “religious groups seeking power have a devastating effect on the world,” Sacks said. “We have to make sure the lesson is learned without too great a tragedy.”

In any case, the partnership between heads of state and heads of religion and interfaith activity is growing. It reflects a world whose conflicts have shifted from ideological battles to inter-ethnic disputes whose roots often include religion.

With the end of the Cold War, for example, trouble spots have included such religious hot spots as the Balkans, the Middle East, Northern Ireland and East Timor.

The economic forum came on the heels of Pope John Paul II’s interfaith meeting last month in Assisi, Italy, a summit of religious leaders in Alexandria, Egypt, and a recent gathering of religious leaders at the United Nations.

Sacks recalled that Britain’s prime minister, Tony Blair, called the country’s religious leaders to 10 Downing St. after Sept. 11 to help calm the atmosphere in Britain.

Rabbis at the forum said religious leaders sometimes can build trust where politicians can’t. Sacks, who has developed friendships with Muslim leaders in England, described a “common language” among people of faith.

Skeptics, however, note that while Muslim participants at interfaith dialogues indeed criticize violence, they often phrase it in ways that legitimize Arab attacks on Israel.

Israeli pundits, for example, noted that the Muslim clerics who helped draft the pacific statement of January’s Alexandria summit — which called the murder of innocents a desecration of God’s name — still declined to condemn current terror attacks Israel.

In addition, some say the economic forum’s decision to add a religious element to the conference is not entirely altruistic. One religious leader involved described the religious panels as a “fig leaf” for the forum’s capitalist outlook, designed to deflect criticism leveled by the growing anti-globalization movement.

At a YWCA not far from the Waldorf-Astoria, the “Eye on Davos” alternative conference was busy criticizing the forum.

Mark Helm, spokesperson for Friends of the Earth, an environmental advocacy organization and one of the coordinators of the alternative conference, called the forum’s incorporation of religious leaders “questionable.”

“Is it a good start? Sure,” he said. But “there’s nothing to indicate that the incorporation of religious leaders has caused an epiphany for these global polluters.”

Jewish leaders described the interreligious dynamic at the forum as warm and receptive. But Rosen said it’s understandable that some might dismiss it as a symbolic gesture with no real effect.

Because Schwab, the forum’s president, offered them “limited integration” this year as a way to gradually test the arrangement, Rosen said next year will prove whether the forum really intends to fully integrate the religious leaders.

For Sacks, the question is whether “there is a serious commitment on the part of political leaders to establish a permanent group of religious leaders to act as an advisory group” and a “conflict-resolution force in conflict areas throughout the world.”

He said such a group could be led by the outgoing archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, who headed the recent Alexandria summit. Carey would be “ideal,” Sacks said, because of his “distinguished career” of bringing together interfaith leaders from the Middle East.

Rosen takes that goal one step further, hoping that the religious leaders at the forum will also declare their support for the Alexandria statement.

He would like to expand its tenets to a “higher and wider basis” of support, and said an endorsement by the religious leaders at the forum would be “an important contribution to a historic process.”

However, the conference saw neither a formal formation of a religious advisory council to the forum nor a statement of support by the attending religious leaders for the Alexandria statement.

For Schneier, that process already has begun. He brought 60 religious leaders to Ground Zero on Sunday morning for a ceremony of prayer, reflection and candlelighting.

Standing alongside Israel’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi, Yisrael Meir Lau; H.E. Mustafa Ceric, the grand mufti of Bosnia; and Carey, Schneier said, “We must pledge to invoke God’s name for life and not for death, for peace and not for strife, for tolerance and not for oppression.” He referred to the fourth commandment not to take the lord’s name in vain.

Members of each religion recited traditional memorial prayers, and the group concluded by holding hands and chanting “We Shall Overcome.” Schwab and others in the group were in tears.

“The significance of religious leaders being incorporated into a dialogue with political leaders and CEOs is of great value,” Schneier said, “because after Sept. 11, when we talk about re-evaluation of priorities and values, we religious leaders will have the ear of the people.”

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