Reps from eighty countries met at the UN last week to discuss religious tolerance at a conference sponsored by Saudi Arabia. Now I’m sure many will immediately claim there is no small measure of hypocrisy when a Wahabi Islamic regime that outlaws all other forms of religion in its country convenes a conference on religious tolerance. For their part, however, many of the speakers from Islamic countries decried the hypocrisy of Western nations preaching individual freedom of religion while promoting stereotypes and intolerant attitudes toward Islam.
I often wonder if our respective cries of hypocrisy really only mask our inability to break free of our own inbred biases. It’s just so complicated. As a Westerner, I make no apologies in my advocacy for individual civil and human rights – but I will also admit that I will too often stand in judgment of other cultures before trying to understand their cultural viewpoints and their profound frustrations with the prejudices of the West.
That’s why, though I’m sure many will be cynical about such a conference, I am heartened that it happened at all and I truly hope it will lead to yet more dialogue. And I am particularly heartened that Israeli President Shimon Peres, a participant in the conference (and whose remarks apparently were quite warmly received), commented afterward that the event was “unprecedented,” adding that it would have been impossible just a decade ago:
“What we are witnessing today is a new beginning,” Peres said at a press conference. “What was today demonstrated was the will. We now have to work for the way.”