OIC Young Leaders Summit

Arsalan Suleman
Acting U.S. Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation 
Istanbul, Turkey
April 12, 2016

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentleman, Assalamualaikum.

On behalf of the United States government, I would like to thank the OIC Youth Forum for Dialogue and Cooperation for inviting me to speak here today on the very important theme of Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue. I would also like to congratulate the OIC and the Youth Forum for hosting this first ever OIC Young Leaders Summit, and more importantly to congratulate the young leaders for your inspiring example.

This Young Leaders Summit is critical for the OIC. Never before in the course of human history have there been so many young people: there are approximately 1.8 billion people between the ages of 15 and 24. Over half of the overall population of OIC member countries is under the age of 24. While there are huge challenges with such a burgeoning youth population, there is also unprecedented potential for economic and social progress if governments take the right steps to empower the youth. It is you, the young men and women in societies around the world, who bring fresh energy, new perspectives, and innovative ideas to address some of the world’s most pressing challenges. It is you who will quite literally define our common future.

As our global population has expanded to new records, technology has brought the people of the world ever closer together. We live in an interconnected world that brings us into contact with people from a variety of different cultural, religious, and nonreligious backgrounds. This can be both challenging and inspiring. On one hand, there are those who react to this diversity with exclusion and intolerance, which can lead to discrimination and even violence. More often, however, people find commonalities rather than differences. They are using their interconnectedness to question previously held misconceptions about “the other;” to form new, more inclusive communities (either online or face-to-face); and to enrich debate on what it means to be a global citizen.

That is the challenge that we all face today – to ensure that acceptance and pluralism win out over exclusion and intolerance. In my work and travels as the Acting Special Envoy to the OIC, I have had the privilege of meeting inspiring young leaders such as yourselves who recognize the critical role of pluralism and diversity in our world today, and the importance of interreligious and intercultural dialogue and engagement. Based on those interactions I want to share a few observations and recommendations with you today.

First, interreligious and intercultural cultural dialogue is a lived reality – it is not something confined only to religious or community leaders, it is something that we all engage in. We live in a multicultural and multireligious world, and through our daily interactions and relationships we engage in this broader dialogue. This kind of dialogue is not about just exchanging words; it is about joint action and collaboration.

There are some who talk about a dialogue among civilizations – as if ancient Egyptians are to speak with the Aztecs, or the ancient Chinese are to have philosophical debates with the ancient Greeks and Romans. The era of history in which we could talk about separate civilizations is long, long gone. The reality is that we live together in one global civilization, one with numerous cultures, ethnicities and languages, all linked and interconnected.

Second, the world is ultimately what we make of it. Our understanding of the world is shaped by the social environment that we live in. It is through the evolution of our relationships, values, and narratives that the character of societies truly changes. In other words, if people embrace intolerance and exclusion, if they accept that there are intractable differences between East and West or North and South, then they will likely create communities plagued by mistrust, discrimination, and marginalization. For example, if we keep having all male panels at conferences like this, we will continue to fail at fully integrating women and providing them with equal opportunities to contribute to society. On the other hand, if people embrace pluralism and diversity, if they reject the false constructs premised on monolithic essentialism, then they will allow for the creation of diverse communities where differences enrich society at large.

The most difficult barriers to overcome are often the ones in our own minds. That is why the construct of a dialogue among civilizations is so problematic – it is premised on the false notion that we have, in today’s world, separate and distinct, monolithic civilizations. That frame of mind reifies the false divides between East and West, North and South, Islam and the West, immigrant and non-immigrant; and we must reject it. We must embrace the challenge to recognize and honor our common humanity and address global and local challenges together, from climate change to poverty and hunger.

Third, you carry the responsibility of shaping the future of your communities and countries. To effect social change, you must play an active role in society. Civic engagement – whether through NGOs, political or advocacy groups, neighborhood associations, or religious communities – is vital in this enterprise. In fact, young leaders – both men and women – are usually at the forefront of various efforts to effect social change, including service, philanthropic, and charitable efforts.

Fourth, you need to engage your government officials and representatives to make sure that they are meeting your aspirations. It is vital for policymakers and stakeholders to engage young men and women seeking to make positive contributions in the world – in whatever communities they belong to – and it is imperative that youth-led organizations and young leaders establish themselves as sustainable and reliable partners. Don’t passively expect governments – at the local or national levels – to be adept at anticipating or providing for your needs. Engage with government officials so that they hear from you directly, particularly if government policies are inhibiting effective interreligious and intercultural dialogue.

There are many ways in which government policy and actions can hinder effective dialogue, and we see this in many countries across the globe, including OIC member countries:

  • Limits on freedom of expression, like through blasphemy and defamation laws, can stifle the free and open exchange of ideas and allow repression of religious minorities and political opposition groups;
  • Violations of the freedom of religion or belief can restrict the ability of individuals to freely and fully practicing their religion and engage with others on that basis;
  • Bigotry expressed by government officials can poison the social atmosphere and lead to marginalization;
  • Discriminatory policies can exacerbate societal divisions;
  • Restrictions on civil society can inhibit collaboration and dialogue.

Governments must create an open and enabling environment for interfaith and intercultural dialogue and collaboration to be fully effective. To that end, it is vital that governments ensure that they are meeting their obligations and commitments to promote and protect universal human rights so that there is an atmosphere conducive to such dialogue. Your role as young leaders is to participate in civil society to exercise your human rights, and to hold your government officials accountable in meeting those obligations and commitments.

In addition to ensuring that governments are doing no harm, you should also encourage government officials to take positive measures to help create a conductive environment for effective dialogue. Such actions include actively promoting and facilitating interfaith dialogue, conducting education campaigns about pluralism and inclusion, effectively enforcing anti-discrimination laws, ensuring that all members of society are guaranteed equal rights, and engaging with youth and members of religious communities.

Fifth, you should continue to engage with international organizations like the OIC to help shape the work of these institutions. The OIC and the OIC Youth Forum are both supportive of interreligious and intercultural dialogue. With your active engagement, these institutions could do even more to help build open, enabling environments for such dialogue within OIC member states and internationally.

For example, the OIC is the main sponsor of UN Human Rights Council resolution 16/18, which deals with combating intolerance, discrimination, and violence on the basis of religion or belief. That resolution provides a roadmap of actions for governments that includes fostering interfaith dialogue. Despite the Istanbul Process series of experts meetings that have been held annually for the last five years to promote implementation of that resolution, many OIC states have not taken concrete actions to implement the steps called for in that resolution, and they have not even contributed to UN reporting on the issue either. Your engagement in the implementation process of Resolution 16/18 can help produce more tangible, constructive outcomes.

In closing, the United States places heavy emphasis on the value of engaging young people and diverse communities in interreligious and intercultural dialogue and cooperative initiatives. The U.S. State Department’s Office for Global Youth Issues is actively involved in this work and helps the U.S. Government better engage young people internationally. And the Secretary of State’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs, where I am based, supports the work of U.S. embassies and consulates to engage religious actors and advance pluralism.

Embracing the challenge of the lived reality of interreligious and intercultural dialogue is critical to building diverse, pluralistic societies that are secure, dynamic, and prosperous. The world of our future is what you will make of it – I hope you accept that not just as your responsibility, but also as a compelling opportunity. Thank you.