Al Waref Press Room
By Jenny Young
This Tuesday May 26th marked the first ever panel discussion hosted by Al Waref Institute and Conflict Solutions International (CSI) entitled “Separation of Religion and State: Muslim World and Civil Society.”
The event brought to the forefront many questions in regards to the separation of religion and state in the Middle East and projections for the future. After brief welcomes from Ms. Marah Bukai, founder and president of the al Waref Institute and George d’Angelo, President of Conflict Solutions International the discussion quickly turned to the topics at hand.
The moderator, Ms. Cynthia Louise Butler, is a private practice attorney with twenty years experience in mediation and conflict resolution. She opened the discussion with a brief historical overview of the separation of Church and State in the United States as influenced by the conflicts in Western Europe centuries ago. After the opening remarks, each panelist used their unique expertise to identify potential problems and strengths in the region, with a focus on the relationship between religion and state power, and the steps that may be taken to move towards reform.
The first panelist, international attorney Mr. Elias Aoun, used the model of a “republic” as an ideal, in which the belief in individual rights and common law always remained stronger than governmental law. It was his belief that natural law, that is the principles and values of humanity, must be reinforced rather than contradicted by the government. Viewing the relationship of man to God as superior to the relationship between man and the institutions that have been created, Mr. Aoun made distinction between the values inherent in religious ideals and the sometimes self serving leaders within the institutions of religion. In his projections for the future, Mr. Aoun said “The answer lies in the principles, not in the form” and that common law, the “freedoms from the creator” must always be respected and upheld.
The second panelist, Dr. Katrin Michael, is a specialist in women’s issues with a particular focus on Iraq. Her work with Kurdish Human Rights Watch and her interesting career as an advisor, writer, and activist has helped her to develop her ideas in regard to the role of shariah law and accepted cultural practices that have hindered women’s rights. She explained certain laws and customs that were violent against women and explained that in the future women’s rights must trump custom, culture, and ineffective law. She outlined a 9 step plan for transformation of the society, which included the increased participation of women in government and civil society peace keeping efforts and the respect of all religious traditions and no theocracies that would harm individual rights. Dr. Michael introduced many new elements of culture and society to the discussion, as influenced by the relationship between religion and state.
Mr. Peshwaz Faizulla is a media professional with a concentration in Iraq, having edited widely circulated Iraqi newspapers such as Hawlati. He is currently the editor of the Kurdish language portion of the Atlas Network’s Global Initiative web site (Chiraiazadi.org) and his unique experiences in these capacities have shaped his opinion in regard to religion and state. He opened with a quote on individual rights that proposed no one man could be silenced just as one man cannot silence all of the rest. This idea drew some parallel to Mr. Aoun’s message that majority rule democracy is not the most effective because the majority may not be correct. Mr. Faizulla explained that religion as an institution claims truth, which is the “recipe for totalitarianism and tyranny” and that we must strengthen the resolve of the individual mind.
These brief explorations into the minds of these three individuals, prominent in the fields of law, activism, and media, left the audience with many questions. After receiving a number of ideas and questions from those in attendance, the dynamics of the room shifted from a lecture to a discussion. After the question and answer period, the event concluded—but the ideas that had surfaced remained as the panelists, moderator, and guests moved into a different room for a reception and continued dialogue. At the end of the day, the panelists as well as the many students, professors, civil rights activists, and interested individuals in attendance left with many new ideas to consider.
Hopefully, these new ideas blended to allow all individuals in participation this day to have a more fully developed view of complicated relationship between religion and state in the Middle East, and at the very least to have new questions to ask themselves and others in regard to this important topic.