Religions for Peace made history with its new leader. Then came historical challenges.
(RNS) – In August 2019, Azza Karam became the first woman and the first Muslim to be appointed Secretary General of Religions for Peace, replacing William Vendley, who had led the international interfaith organization and worked for peace in Africa and Asia for more than half of the group’s 49-year history.
His historic appointment would not be a topic of conversation for long. Within months of taking office, the world was in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic and the staggering death toll and global recession it sparked. This year, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has caused political chaos there, with repercussions around the world.
Karam spoke with Eric J. Lyman of Religion News Service at the first Religions for Peace conference held at least partially in person since the 2019 edition to which she was appointed.
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The former Senior Advisor to the European Union and the United Nations spoke about how her childhood in Egypt had prepared her for her role and how religious leaders can grapple with hot topics like peace in Afghanistan and reluctance to coronavirus vaccine.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Have you had time to reflect on the importance of being the first woman and the first Muslim to lead Religions for Peace?
I thought about it, even if it’s because it would be impossible for me not to see a lot of things from a woman’s point of view, with a woman’s sensitivity. I also think there are things I could do as a Muslim. In my acceptance speech I asked Muslim leaders to join religions for peace and there was an immediate positive reaction and many came on board as members of the World Council, our board of directors.
I don’t serve as a woman or a Muslim, but there has been a remarkable flow of goodwill and a willingness to work together, be they Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, Buddhists, Jews or Hindus.
What prepared you in your past for this role with Religions for Peace? Or do we just run and learn as we go?
As an Egyptian Muslim woman who grew up in a very conservative family, I would feel that whatever I did was not good enough. It meant I had to work harder, longer, more. Social conditions have helped me put myself in a place where, yes, you have to get started. If you don’t, you’ll fall prone.
I also feel that my personal history has made me a little more sensitive to the struggles of those who cannot express their thoughts or who are not allowed to express themselves freely – men or women, or people of different kinds. races, denominations, social classes. I think there is an extra layer of sensitivity precisely because things haven’t gotten easy for me. This means that I am naturally on the lookout for those who might be in the same boat.
You must have felt tested over the past two years, with the pandemic and all its impacts, so what happened in Afghanistan?
As a person who is constantly wondering and seeking, it helps develop a certain sense – not so much of fatalism, but of preparation, of understanding that things are going to be hard before they get easier. One of the things that I have learned in my life, and I am now in my mid-fifties, is that there is joy in service. This belief in service is a great source of encouragement and energy that I sometimes draw on.
Religions for Peace is based in New York, you are from Egypt and your academic work is in the Netherlands. Where do you consider yourself to be at home?
It’s a good question. Right now, and for several years, I would say my home is in the United States, specifically New York.
The biggest news this year could be the Taliban takeover after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. What is the role of religious leaders there?
We live in a time when religion, religious leaders, religious ideologies play an important political, social, cultural and even economic role. I’m not just talking about spiritual space here. I speak very concretely, of the political and financial space. In Afghanistan, you have to understand how complicated the situation is. We must remember that not every religious leader in Afghanistan is part of the Taliban. There are chiefs and communities of religious minorities. We need to examine all this rich tapestry of the religious context in Afghanistan.
At a minimum, Afghanistan requires us to discern the different roles, responsibilities and religious influences. We can no longer speak of “religion” in the singular. We must be more demanding vis-à-vis society, politics and the different religions that coexist.
Some evangelical churches in the United States are calling on their congregations to avoid coronavirus vaccines. What is the best way to deal with this problem?
There are many religions and many, many religious people. The number of people in these groups who speak out against scientific evidence is relatively small. If we look at the large group of religious institutions, be they Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, etc., we realize that a large majority are actually calling for a scientific perspective regarding vaccines. It is widely believed that taking vaccines is in fact almost a religious obligation. We just have to keep defending.