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  • Knox Thames

Combatting Interfaith Amnesia Through Cultural Heritage

Taken from Remarks given at the Abu Dhabi Forum for Peace - November 9, 2022

The world had forgotten how to live together. The seeming resolution of 20th century conflicts provided hope the 21st century would usher in a new era of peace and prosperity. But an amnesia has developed where once neighbors are now enemies. As a result, we fear others instead of making friends.

Current challenges facing the international order span the globe. From Russian aggression in Ukraine, UN documented Chinese persecution of Uyghur Muslims, the return of Taliban misrule in Afghanistan, and others all pose severe challenges to peace and stability. However, we need not lose hope, as our past can point us to a better future. While the picture is bleak, possibilities exist to foster cooperation and understanding. But for reconciliation to come, we must elevate peace over war. We must promote dialogue between peoples and faiths.


Education will be a critical tool in the arsenal to win the current conflict. However, the international community must provide more resources to teach students how to live together in diversity, to see the benefits of pluralism, and respect individual human rights. Sadly, most governments fail to focus on this topic. For instance, the recent UN summit on education convened by Secretary-General Guterres failed to address teaching tolerance. Therefore, there is a need for the United Nations, the United States, the UAE, and others to promote these values through traditional education.


But another education avenue exists. At a time of increasing diversity and intolerance, emphasizing historic pluralism through cultural heritage can overcome the selective amnesia impacting the world and help revive interfaith understanding and brotherhood.


The term "selective amnesia" is drawn from the Marrakesh Declaration, which Sheikh Bin Bayyah sponsored and drafted. The Declaration called upon "the various religious groups bound by the same national fabric to address their mutual state of selective amnesia that blocks memories of centuries of joint and shared living on the same land; we call upon them to rebuild the past by reviving this tradition of conviviality and restoring our shared trust that has been eroded by extremists using acts of terror and aggression."


Looking to our collective histories to rebuild the past and revive a "tradition of conviviality" can help improve our future. For instance, across the Middle East, religious heritage sites carry deep spiritual meaning, often to multiple religious communities. These examples of historic religious diversity demonstrate a history of living together despite profound differences. They go against the narratives of exclusivity posited by ISIS and some governments. While these stories were never perfect, sacred sites provide a natural and indigenous inflection point to educate societies about the benefits of pluralism and respecting the beliefs of others.


As we know, ISIS's genocidal violence was not limited to attacks on people but also on places and objects of religious and cultural significance. ISIS demolished churches and monasteries, Shia and Sunni mosques and shrines, and other religious and historic sites, working to erase the historical landscape.


ISIS was not the first to use cultural destruction to terrorize and erase identities. As Dr. Patty Gerstenblith said, who served as the chair of the State Department's Cultural Property Advisory Committee, "Based on the experiences of the Holocaust during the Second World War and the conflicts in the Balkans in the 1990s, we now understand that destruction of cultural heritage is an element of genocide. Destruction and expropriation of cultural heritage demonstrate genocidal intent and deprive a population of its means of existence and of its identity."


Elsewhere, the Taliban in Afghanistan famously destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas. Governments, too, have razed places of cultural significance to terrorize opponents. For example, China has demolished Tibetan Buddhist sites and erased Uyghur Muslim cultural and religious sites. Russia has bombed Ukrainian Orthodox churches. The loss of these sites has enormous implications for both the targeted communities, whose history is lost, and the world, removing historically significant places.


International human rights standards set a clear benchmark for the treatment of women and men. But unfortunately, many countries disregard these ideals. And while these human rights norms are crucial, they are often viewed as foreign or alien in some contexts. In contrast, focusing on a nation's own history of diversity provides pathways for discussions about tolerance and human dignity. It is an antidote to selective amnesia.


Two experiences have led me to this conclusion. First, when at the State Department, I saw the power of heritage to preserve diversity in 2015 when I visited Alqosh, then the last Christian town on the Ninewa Plains not overrun by ISIS. There Iraq's tiny Jewish remnant would make pilgrimages to the tomb of the Prophet Nahum. The grounds were cared for by a Christian family while protected by Sunni Muslim Kurds. This sacred site brought disparate groups together and became the ultimate counter to ISIS' ideology of hate and extremism. We launched a joint State Department - Smithsonian Institution effort to train Iraqi religious communities on cultural heritage protection after ISIS' devastation.


The second experience comes from the United Arab Emirates. When the UAE launched the Ministry for Tolerance and Coexistence in 2016, it became the first country to elevate the importance of interfaith and interethnic tolerance to a ministerial level. Doing so reflected the beliefs of the country's founder, His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.


Notably, UAE's National Tolerance Program recognizes "archeology and history" as one of the seven pillars of tolerance. The country's rich heritage includes historic Muslim and non-Muslim religious sites such as Al Bidyah Mosque in Fujairah and the ancient Christian monastery on Sir Bani Yas Island. And a second monastery dating back 1,400 years was just discovered on an island off the coast. It sheds new light on the history of early Christianity along the Persian Gulf, and archaeologists have found similar Christian sites in Bahrain, Iran, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia.


But I want to highlight the UAE funding UNESCO work in Iraq to restore Mosul's Al Saa'a Church, Al Tahera Church, Al Nouri Mosque, and the Al-Hadba minaret. Earlier this year, I interviewed Noura Al Kaaba, UAE's Minister of Culture and Youth, about the remarkable effort. She emphasized the interconnectedness of tolerance and heritage, nothing how "divisive forces can be countered through nurturing and channeling stronger forces of coexistence and harmony, and culture has a prominent role to play in this." She is exactly right.


These efforts show promise and demonstrate the role religious heritage can play in promoting a brighter future. Reexamining historic sacred sites to learn about our diverse past can help us prepare for our pluralistic futures. Historic sacred sites remind us about past diversity. In the coming months, I plan on focusing on this unexplored avenue to promote tolerance, combat extremism, instill human rights, and help societies prepare for their pluralistic futures.


In conclusion, while the world may have forgotten how to live together, increasing religious and ethnic diversity forces us to find new ways to promote tolerance and understanding. Otherwise, we will face ongoing human rights violations and rising extremism for decades to come. Our collective histories are not perfect, but they provide lessons to be learned and positive examples to emulate.


Knox Thames formally served in the Obama and Trump administrations as the U.S. State Department Special Advisor for Religious Minorities. Follow him on Twitter @knoxthames.

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