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Religion, Conflict Resolution, and the Role of Leadership


University of Maryland May 7th, 1999
Title: Religion, Conflict Resolution, and the Role of Leadership
By: President Amine Gemayel

President Mote, Dean Goldstein, Judge Nelson, Professor Wilson, Ladies and gentlemen.

It is indeed a great honor to be the guest of the University of Maryland and to be invited to deliver the Baha'i Chair for World Peace Annual Lecture. My relationship with the University of Maryland - which I believe is a key institution for building the kind of leadership the United States and the world will need in the new millennium - goes back to the days when I was President of Lebanon. In the early 1980s the late Professor Edward Azar (Founder and first Director of the Center for International Development and Conflict Management), and Professor Suheil Bushrui (then Chair of the English Department at The American University of Beirut) were among my most respected senior advisers. While working together in the Presidential Palace in Beirut, we had the opportunity to conduct fruitful exchanges on conflict resolution, community building, and inter-faith dialogue.

Since leaving office in 1988, I have been privileged to visit the University of Maryland several times and have maintained close contacts with its distinguished leadership. I have been fortunate to enjoy a warm friendship with President Brit Kirwan, and now I hope that I can develop a very warm relationship with you, President Mote. And I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate you on your recent inauguration as the 27th President of the University.

I am particularly indebted to Dean Irwin Goldstein, an old and good friend, and I am especially delighted to be affiliated with the institutions which operate under his able direction: the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership and the Center for International Development and Conflict Management. I want to thank Dr. Georgia Sorenson and Dr. Nance Lucas of the Academy as well as Dr. Ernest Wilson of CIDCM for their warm and generous hospitality.

I welcome this opportunity to share with this distinguished assembly my thoughts on "Religion, Conflict Resolution, and the Role of Leadership."

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I am delighted to talk about these important, and related, topics. I come from a country where men and women from three great religions - Christians, Muslims, and Jews - coexist in harmony and solidarity. For decades Lebanon offered the Middle East, and the world, a rare example of how people of various faiths and ethnicities can live together, resolve their conflicts peacefully, share similar aspirations, and build a society whose "raison d'être" is liberty and tolerance.

Although Lebanon is now occupied by foreign armies, its national will subordinated, and its cherished ideals eclipsed, the Lebanese people remain committed to the struggle of freeing their country and restoring their cherished traditions. Once Lebanon is reestablished as a haven of peace and freedom, it will certainly resume its mission as an example of dialogue and reconciliation.

In the midst of all the turmoil in today's world, there is a great need for sincere and well-meaning dialogue as well as genuine attempts at cultural, religious, and social reconciliation.

On every continent there are ongoing conflicts or crises simmering just beneath the surface of events. Even within the advanced and affluent industrial nations, there exists a genuine social and moral crisis that is most clearly apparent in a terrifying and senseless cycle of violent rampages. Less well known in the U.S., but no less deadly, are the array of ethnic, civil, and guerrilla wars now raging in my own country, in the Middle East, in Africa, in Asia, and in Latin America. The conditions that prevail in the world today lead many to believe that we cannot overcome our state of conflict. The war in Lebanon, which has fallen into a temporary lull, the genocide in Rwanda, and the Yugoslav conflagration which has now culminated in the exodus of roughly one million people from Kosovo, are stark indicators of a troubled world. The war in Kosovo, - which has rightly attracted so much attention from the international media - requires little comment. It need only be said that this war, the latest in a long succession of Balkan crises, carries the potential to threaten not only regional, but also European and perhaps even global stability.

After the end of the Cold War, a global confrontation between ideological poles that overshadowed many other conflicts and divisions, we thought we were on the verge of a New World Order, and there was much good will and hope for the future. We applauded in 1989 when that ultimate symbol of the Cold War - the Berlin Wall - was symbolically and physically dismantled. Although scholars will endlessly debate who, if anyone "won" the Cold War, it is obvious that the events of 1989 meant the victory of democracy over a totalitarian ideology. It also represented the triumph of the human spirit against all forms of totalitarian dictatorship.

But what came next? After the historic defeat of the Marxist-Leninist secular theology, what paradigm arose to fill the ideological vacuum? From our vantage point on the threshold of a new century and a new millennium, we can state that the fall of Communism rapidly unleashed ethnic passions as they can be observed in Kosovo, and accelerated the global diffusion of the free trade dogma.

After the events of 1989, commentators hailed the birth of a world in which the free market would decide human destiny. Formidable treaties and structures, among them GATT, NAFTA, IMF, World Bank, EU, and G7 and many others, have been established to oversee the global marketplace of this putative new age. To a disturbing degree, such institutions and alignments can now dictate the conditions of the global economic order, and therefore, our fate. Richard Rosecrance, writing in the influential journal Foreign Affairs in 1996, asserted that "the only international civilization worthy of the name is the governing economic culture of the world market." Rosecrance may be correct, but it is equally true that this "economic culture of the world market" is not the remedy to our enduring anxieties and fears.

The revolution of 1989 has imposed definite limits and costs. Let us take Russia as an example. In Russia, the oppressive reign of a Party-State bureaucracy has been replaced, not by a humanistic ideology and an orderly economy, but by a rapacious form of capitalism that can be characterized as "market vandalism." Not so long ago, reformists preached the gospel of economic "shock therapy" to spur the transition from Communism to industrial democracy. A decade later, Russia has experienced an excess of shock, but a deficit of therapy.

The experience of Russia following its entry into the global free trade zone offers a stark example of capitalism run amok. As such, it is an extreme case, but a useful one to ponder. Russia demonstrates how materialistic impulses, when unchecked by deeper values, can lead to a catastrophe for human kind as a whole in economic, political, and social terms.

Market economics, when applied as an ideology bereft of higher principles, ignites greed and conflict. In short, the materialistic dictates of the market, taken alone, cannot inspire people to achieve their better nature, either individually or collectively. A world order centered on the attainment of material measures ultimately leads nowhere. Global materialism without the human, spiritual, and moral aspects is, in fact, nothing more than global nihilism plus the accumulation of wealth. To preserve and celebrate our basic humanity we need dreams, ideas, and above all, higher principles to live by.

The Swiss political scientist Pierre de Senarclens has captured the ambiguity of this moment in history, when we stand mid point on the bridge linking the 20th and 21st centuries. De Senarclens observes: "At present, we are in kind of limbo between the world of yesterday and that of tomorrow, with none of the approximate guidance which the conceptual frameworks inherited from the past used to offer." We will remain in this state of limbo until we identify the kind of transcendental and universal principles that can serve as a solid foundation for globalization. No mere economic order, even a global free market system, will provide solutions to the great dilemmas we face. To be sure, we need the prosperity that healthy economies provide. But more than material wealth, our emerging global society needs a wealth of spirit. Only through universally applicable principles and ideas will we win the support of the peoples of the world for any new system we devise.