“Coming together to serve everyone better”: a call in time of pandemics for a Dialogue of Love

Interview with Prof. Azza Karam

Professor Azza Karam, Secretary General of Religions for Peace and Professor of Religion and Development at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, is the speaker of this year’s John Paul II Lecture on Interfaith Understanding on November 16, co-sponsored by the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue and The Jewish Theological Seminary’s Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue (more details and registration for the conference here). Prior to the lecture, we met Prof. Karam to discover more about her and about the topic of her speech “A Dialogue of Love: Interreligious Cooperation and Global Well-Being.”

Many people are quite skeptical about the positive role of religions in fostering peace and well-being in the world. What points would you bring to their attention to support your idea of a positive role for multifaith alliances in this regard?

It is clear that religious institutions and actors have a very critical set of roles to play precisely in this moment of pandemics. Religious institutions, actors and leaders are now needed spiritually more than ever because of the spiritual sustenance that people are looking for now due to the rising sense of helplessness.

They are needed also medically because a significant number of our medical facilities around the world are actually run through or by religious institutions and as all the government and private sector run medical health units are on red alert, the religious medical services support public health.

Religions are also needed financially and economically because people are losing their sources of income and are looking for where they can get supplemental income through charity. Religious institutions have traditionally been income providers for so many of those who are struggling and these financial capacities of religious institutions are being put into effect.

Last, but by no means least, religions are needed politically too. We know that there is a tremendous influence for which political institutions look towards the religious actors.

Religions are therefore more systematically necessary than ever, but let us take our reflection one step further. It is not good enough nor helpful to have any single religious entity more powerful in its range of services. It is not about serving to become more powerful as one religion, it is about serving in this moment of dire global need to become more cohesive as a social entity. I do not want to see some Muslims becoming more powerful, nor Jews or Christians. I do not want to see any religious institution becoming more powerful. I want to see them all coming together to serve everybody better.

How do these multi-faith alliances come into being?

You don’t suddenly become partners. You become partners because you have established a legacy of serving together, speaking to one another, being in common service through common discourse. It is because of consultations and conversations happening over decades between religious leaders and institutions – dialogue that some of us may have decried or some could have been disappointed with – that we are now able to build on for how we come together to serve our communities on this multiple set of levels. The interreligious dialogue that has been happening all over the world, in so many places and ways, is now being operationalized hopefully in terms of collective service to communities which is precisely the basic requirement of social cohesion that we need in a time of global pandemic.

You stressed a lot the importance of service and social cohesion. In the title of your November 16 conference we read “Dialogue of Love”. What is the place of love in this reasoning?

What is service if not love? Why would I have to serve if not out of love? Service is a call beyond our professional commitment. I believe that service is the quintessential raison d’être of a religion and that we exist as faithful when we serve. We are people of faith and therefore we serve one another without discriminating. The more we are in love with the divine – in whatever shape and form it is – the more we are in love with one another and we want to serve one another. To show love we serve the people we love. This is why every single religion speaks about the imperative to do something good. I do not see a dividing line between service and love.

What was your entry point and experience in the world of interreligious dialogue?

My very first experience of interreligious dialogue happened at the level of human rights. I was an intern in a human rights organization and the conversation was very heavily legalistic and political. The question was how to serve maximally the human rights of everyone including those who were in jail. In the midst of this conversation that was very secular, we had to confront situations in which those who were detained or missing were actually put into trouble in the first place because of their religious convictions or what they understood to be their religious convictions.

How can you defend the human rights of a person who does actions which are deemed harmful by society and governments but this person believes that he/she is acting out of religious convictions? This actually opened for me the door to a conversation about convictions and faith. This evolved into learning about other people’s beliefs and trying to understand what it is that moves people to behave in certain ways. This is how I got interested in what is the faith pulse inside each of us.

When I came to work for Religions for Peace, I was strongly motivated by wanting to understand how this happens at a global level, how faith moves at the level of institutions and communities. I began to understand some national contexts a little (such as in the Middle East, Europe, Central Asia, and some parts of Africa) but I wanted to see how this was playing out at the global level. This is why I came and joined Religions for Peace in 2000 and that was my first exposure in the formal processes of interfaith collaboration, dialogue in action. This is taking the dialogue a few steps further into how we actually serve.

Interview by Elena Dini, November 2020