URI MENA Regional Coordinator participated in the International Conference on Cohesive Societies (ICCS)-Singapore, from 19-22 June 2019

I was honored to represent URI in the International Conference on Cohesive Societies (ICCS) last month. The conference brought together around 700 Leaders and experts across academia, government, religious organizations and civic society from almost 40 countries to tackle challenges facing social cohesion and to strengthen inter-religious and inter-cultural understanding globally. The conference comes at time we need dialogue and collaboration, as greater interconnectedness makes societies more vulnerable to misinformation and extremist views. Her Excellency Halimah Yacob, President of the Republic of Singapore, delivered the Opening and His Majesty (HM) King Abdullah II of Jordan delivered the Keynote Address. HM King Abdullah, as a global leader in interfaith harmony, highlighted how Islam denounces terrorism. He spoke about his global peace initiatives including the Amman Message, the Common Word Initiative, and the UN World Interfaith Harmony Week.

In general, ICCS addressed the challenges to social cohesion, including growing intolerance and the influence of extremist views, and ways to effectively address them, such as through open dialogue and mutual learning. Moreover, ICCS emphasized the importance of the rehabilitation and reintegration of radicalized people into society. It built bridges and explored practical solutions to drive global collective action across societies drawing on the diverse expertise of an excellent line-up of speakers.

One of the major takeaways is the idea of turning hate to love presented by Mr. Christian Picciolini, former white supremacist turned peace advocate, co-founder of Life After Hate, and founder of the Free Radicals Project. He said, “Nobody was born to hate! They learnt that hate. And if we can learn to hate, then we can learn to love.”

Another takeaway is the notion that dialogue is the prerequisite of building social cohesion, as highlighted by several speakers. We all know the importance of dialogue; however, we tend to keep it among those who are interested, which significantly limits its impact. The world is more and more interconnected but it does not mean that individuals and societies really live together. Hence, it has become more crucial than ever to promote and disseminate values, attitudes and behaviors conducive to dialogue through discussion forums, courses, capacity-building and publications to enable people to venture across boundaries of religions, cultures and social classes. People need safe places where they can meet to share narratives and perspectives, discover their common values and be at ease with their differences.

Moreover, I was inspired by the talk of Karen Armstrong, best-selling British author on comparative religion and founder of the Charter for Compassion. She talked about religion and identity at the Plenary on Faith. She said, “All our religious traditions are like fingers pointing to the moon; very so often we focus on the fingers and forget about the moon.”

The conference provided a unique opportunity for networking, and I managed to introduce URI to dozens of global interfaith leaders. They were amazed to learn about URI and its extraordinary work across the globe.

The conference comprised three plenary sessions, six breakout sessions and a half – day community experience:

1. Plenary sessions:
– Plenary 1 What We Believe (Faith)
– Plenary 2 Who We Are (Identity)
– How We Come Together (Cohesion)
2. Breakout sessions:
– Faith – Inter-religious Dialogue and Community Building
– Faith – Faith and Technology
– Identity – Social Media and Community Discourse
– Identity – Overcoming Hate
– Cohesion – Building Bridges: Global Peacebuilding Efforts
– Cohesion – Community Initiatives towards Social Cohesion
3. Half day Community Experience

We Explored the heritage trail of different places of worship on Telok Ayer Street (a 350m-long street stretches between Boon Tat Street and Cecil Street). He went on a walking tour of five places of worship along the street, and met leaders of the church, temples, mosque and shrine that have been there for more than a century. The street is truly Singapore’s representative street of religious harmony. I was amazed to learn the story of Thian Hock Keng whose name means “palace of heavenly happiness”, built in the early 1820s as a small temple located at the seaside of Telok Ayer Basin. It was said that not a single nail was used in the construction of this temple. The temple was built for the worship of Mazu (“Ma Cho Po”), a Chinese sea goddess, then another Buddhist shrine was added at the back dedicated to Guanyin, the Mahayana Buddhist bodhisattva of mercy.

The community experience also provided a unique opportunity to discover the diverse religious communities and local culture in Singapore. In addition to religious places, we visited the following places:
– The Bicentennial Experience. A multimedia sensory experience that brings us back in time to witness key moments in Singapore’s transformation from as far back as 1299.
– Museum Gallery Tour. Explore connections between the diverse heritage cultures of Singapore, their interconnections, and connections with the world.
– Harmony in Diversity Gallery. The Gallery aims to promote an appreciation of Singapore’s rich religious diversity. It demonstrates the religious harmony in Singapore fostering a spirit of give and take, mutual respect and understanding, necessary to nurture and strengthen the religious peace and harmony in Singapore.

Singapore is a rare example of a multi-racial, multi-lingual and multi-religious society where people live harmoniously together.

Speakers included:
– Dr Paul Hedges Associate Professor, Interreligious Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies
– Ms Karen Armstrong OBE; FRSL Historian of World Religion
– Dr Shashi Jayakumar (Host) Head, Centre of Excellence for National Security and Executive Coordinator, Future Issues and Technology, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies
– Bishop Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot President, Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue
– Dr Veena Howard Associate Professor, Asian Religious Traditions and Coordinator of Peace and Conflict Studies Program, California State University, Fresno
– Dr Nazirudin Mohd Nasir Deputy Mufti, Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS)
– Venerable Guo Huei Abbot-President, Dharma Drum Mountain
– Lord John Alderdice House of Lords, UK
– Mr Christian Picciolini Founder, Free Radicals Project
– Dr Azza Karam Senior Advisor on Culture, United Nations Population Fund and Coordinator, UN Inter-Agency Task Force on Religion and Development
– Professor Chaiwat Satha-Anand Professor of Political Science, Thammasat University and Founder, Thai Peace Information Centre
– Professor Lai Pan Chiu Interim Dean and Professor of Religious Studies, Faculty of Arts, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
– Dr Ali Al Nuaimi Chairman, The World Council of Muslim Communities
– Dr Anna Halafoff Research Associate of the UNESCO Chair of Interreligious and Intercultural Relations – Asia Pacific
– Bishop Emeritus Dr Wee Boon Hup Member, Presidential Council for Religious Harmony, Singapore
– Dr Dicky Sofjan Core Doctoral Faculty. Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies, Universitas Gadjah Mada
– Dr Patrice Brodeur Associate Professor, Institute of Religious Studies, University of Montreal and Senior Advisor- (KAICIID)
– Dr Kumar Ramakrishna Head, Policy Studies and Head, National Security Studies Programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies
– Pastor Tan Seow How Senior Pastor, Heart of God Church
– Dr Mohamed bin Ali Assistant Professor, Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies
– Mr Christian Picciolini Founder, Free Radicals Project