How Interreligious Collaboration Can Bring Peace: An Interview with Dr. Azza Karam

by Tracy Marshall

Senior Vice President

Posted July 19, 2022

In this month’s At the Helm, our Senior Vice President Tracy Marshall sat down with Dr. Azza Karam, the Secretary General of Religions for Peace. Religions for Peace is an international coalition of representatives from the world’s religions dedicated to promoting peace. Tracy and Azza discussed the global impact of interreligious collaboration, embracing differences, and what it means to lead as a woman.

Tracy: You have had an illustrious career, with roles at the United Nations and various academic institutions across the globe. What compelled you to join Religions for Peace as Secretary General?

Dr. Azza Karam

Dr. Azza Karam

Azza: I actually worked for Religions for Peace earlier in my career. At that time, I was focused on helping coordinate women of faith around the world and providing them with a platform in the organization’s leadership so that they could become co-leaders of an interreligious, social cohesion effort. Because after all, they were the ones doing most of the work anyway!

I left Religions for Peace to join the United Nations, but eventually, I was drawn back to the opportunity to once again serve the whole of multireligious peace. As I see it, Religions for Peace is essentially the United Nations for religious institutions. It’s not about the government, as the UN is – it’s about religious institutions and faith communities from around the world and their leaders who have been selected to represent them. When I saw the chance to serve this expansive community, I seized the opportunity.

Religions for Peace believes that the world’s challenges can benefit from an interfaith, innovative, and inclusive response. Can you talk more about the organization’s mission and how you approach the work?

Religions for Peace is founded on the premise that faith is a very strong motivator. And when I say faith, I don’t just mean religions, I mean the belief that so many of us hold that there is something greater than us. This belief is a powerful motivator, and if we are able to connect through our faiths—if we’re able to find commonality in our spirits, the very fabric of our existence, in our purpose to live—it becomes much harder to divide us. And the goal isn’t just to speak with one another about our faith, but for it to impassion us to work and serve together. We have Interreligious Councils in over 90 countries, all of which are locally based. These Councils are comprised of religious leaders and faith communities who have come together to respond to common needs, whether it be around education, healthcare, a humanitarian crisis, etc. And this isn’t a new idea – religions have been addressing social needs for centuries! They are the original healthcare providers, hospices, schools. It’s an ancient practice. But what is new and necessary is the idea that these religious institutions and faith communities can come together. We need to pool our moral and practical resources to support our communities better. I think of how a single stick can be easily broken, but when you’re part of a bundle of sticks, it’s much harder to break you. So that’s the idea. And it’s an enduring idea – one that predates Religions for Peace and one that will always exist.

What’s amazing is that while the idea is simple, acting on it is also hugely challenging. That’s because every single religion and faith has its own practices. The number of Christian denominations alone is very large. So to try to bring together all the religions and faiths of the world – it’s not easy.

Have you found that there are certain events that have been strong motivators for creating these Interreligious Councils?

Certainly. Humanitarian crises, such as natural disasters, wars, famine, etc., make it imperative to work together. Governments are hardly capable of addressing everyone’s needs during those times, so folks often come together naturally. That has led to the formation of numerous of our Interreligious Councils.

Interestingly—and for me, surprisingly—that wasn’t the case with COVID. I think because it was such a massive, global hardship—it was essentially as if a tsunami had hit everywhere in the world, if you can imagine that—there seemed to be a bit of this primitive instinct to protect one’s own. People looked after their communities as if “It’s me, my church, and I.” That’s what led us to creating a humanitarian fund – to support collaborative efforts around COVID-19 by providing financial support to those who had the will, the vision, and the passion to address the immense needs that the pandemic created and to do so while recognizing the multireligious world we live in. Interestingly, we saw that many of the people who submitted proposals to the fund were women and young people. They were the ones with less of an instinct to preserve the institutions they belonged to and more of an instinct to do anything they could to serve those in need. I think that’s a natural response for women – to want to help as many people as possible. And for young people, they are often the ones to get out there and do something. And then seeing this response from the women and youth, I think encouraged those older, more established religious institutions to say, “Absolutely, we must come together and address the needs of our entire, multireligious community.”

What are the challenges of doing this kind of work?

It’s the sheer numbers of religious communities, the misuse of religion, the stereotypes that exist about religion… All of the above really. I’m also learning that it’s one thing to work at an organization, it’s an entirely different thing to lead it. When you work at an organization, it’s easier to be the “servant of” it. Either you’re not seen or you are just part of the infrastructure. However, when you lead, you become very visible. And I think my leadership is seen as directly challenging the way things are. In a way, religions are the last bastions of patriarchy. And so, to be a leader of an endeavor like this—where my role, essentially, is to ask people to be of good conscience and do the right thing by working together—that can be met with resistance. And mind you, it doesn’t matter whether I’m actively asking people to work together. It’s the mere fact that I sit in this space that means people perceive me as someone who will hold them accountable. And because I am who I am—a woman, Arab, Muslim, Egyptian, North African, the “other” in so many ways—it’s hard for a lot of leaders, both male and female, to embrace me as the head of the organization.

And quite honestly, it’s not just religious leaders who struggle to come to terms with my role. It’s also my peers and my staff. I pick up on the fact that they are wondering, “Why should you be the boss? Why are you the one to play this role?” I think it’s something a lot of women CEOs face. All I can do is continue to serve and show my dedication – and do it as who I am, all the “others” put together.

People can feel divided by religion and many other aspects of identity – ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, belief system, etc. How do we overcome this?

I think that misperceptions are always going to be part of our lives. I also think that diversity is meant to be our key challenge in life. We are not meant to be the same, to live in our enclaves, to speak the same language, and to look alike. Coming together, and forming alliances through that diversity, can be challenging and it’s also an incredibly empowering thing. Faith is one of those things that adds to that empowerment. Having a shared faith in faith itself and a willingness to serve together as faith-inspired folks—albeit very different faiths—to me, it’s the most beautiful thing. It might sound mushy, but I think that act is the spirit that moves. It moves mountains, it really does.

We are created diverse in order to love one another – to love precisely that which is different from oneself. Religions for Peace will always be committed to this. And even if it’s challenging, we see that it continues to happen worldwide.

In an interview with Deutsche Welle, you spoke about how more people turned to religion during the pandemic. Can you share more about why that is and how it has impacted society?

The lockdowns that were imposed around the world during the pandemic created a remarkable sense of isolation. We suffered loneliness hugely. People of faith struggled with not being able to go to church or synagogue or the mosque. And even nonreligious people, who found themselves alone within four walls, felt that same despair. It tends to make you question your very existence: What am I doing here? What is this all for? I think it was one of the moments where faith in general becomes very important. You realize the pandemic isn’t something you alone can stop, but it’s also not something that the most powerful government or military can stop. So many of us tended to go back to that which is original – our faith in something bigger and more powerful than us – and more powerful than COVID.

We are currently partnering with Religions for Peace to recruit a Director of Resource Development. What is the significance of this position?

It’s hugely significant! In the creation of the humanitarian fund, we realized that to truly enable people to work together, they need resources. Whether it’s to buy equipment, build a house, print materials, or even purchase simple tools, our Interreligious Councils need help. And this is the case not just in less developed countries, where some of our Councils are operating on literal pennies a month. It’s an issue in more developed countries, too. During COVID, we realized there are internet infrastructure issues right here in the US! So to address any of these issues, you need resources.

Interestingly, each religious community on its own is very rich. But when it comes to religious community members who are willing to stick their necks out, come together, and work across religions, there is very little money for that. Even the biggest governments don’t provide financial support for that kind of work. Churches don’t give money to each other and certainly not to other religious organizations; mosques and Islamic establishments won’t give to other religious organizations; and on it goes. So, ironically, we’re in a place where there are a lot of individual pools of resources, but the collective pool has very little, indeed. And we’re not interested in growing each of those pools into lakes. Instead, we want to create an amazing, abundant fountain that can support everyone. That’s why we need a Director of Resource Development.

What’s on the horizon for Religions for Peace?

We will always be striving to ensure that our Interreligious Councils are well-resourced, supported, and better capacitated to be financially accountable and actionable entities. That is a lifelong process.

We are also focused on bringing more attention to the full range of religious leaders and their messages. When Pope Francis speaks, you will read about it in major publications like the New York Times. What I’m struggling to do is get those same publications to recognize that there are dozens of religious leaders who are spreading similar messages and doing incredible work together. For some reason, our media doesn’t seem to think that’s important. To be clear, I’m so glad that they recognize Pope Francis. I pray for the day that they recognize the rest of the leaders, too. And when we’re able to change that perspective, it will become much easier to spread peace, to create and disseminate knowledge, and to call on the great wisdom of diverse religious leaders in solving global challenges. I want our world leaders to consult not just the pope, but an imam, a rabbi, and so on. Together, they can hold each other accountable.

What advice would you share for others who are seeking to unite communities and effect change?

Two phenomena are happening at the same time. Either we are ignoring religion altogether or we are identifying individual religious actors as the most important. And both are actually problematic.

You cannot ignore the role of religion in public life. People’s faiths matter. You cannot say to them, “Please keep your religion to yourself, if you don’t mind.” That’s not to say that religion should be part of public decision-making – that’s not what I mean. What I mean is it’s important to respect the role that religions play. And part of showing respect is engaging with religious leaders as a matter of norm. I believe our secular civil rights leaders of today have an obligation to consult with the religious civil rights leaders too. It’s a much more powerful movement when they come together.

So again, it’s critical that we do not place emphasis on a particular religion, but rather hold religious leaders accountable to working together for the human rights of all. It’s okay that we’re different. Difference is good! But when we come together in our diversity, we will learn to be civil with one another. I believe this country is suffering a crisis of civility in this moment. We need to be able to have a conversation and debate, while always granting equal importance to each perspective. If we are able to say, at the minimum, “I do not agree with you, but I love the human being within you.” – that would be a really big thing right now for this country – and for the whole world, actually.

Every month, Development Guild leadership spends time with leaders from across the nonprofit sector to hear their perspectives, what’s on their minds today, and what they believe the future holds. Read more At the Helm interviews.