Five years after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, a McGill professor is hoping that he can help the religions of the world address and challenge the negative perceptions that have sprung up following the fall of the World Trade Center.
This week, Montreal’s Palais de CongrÃ¨s will play host to World Religions after September 11: A Global Conference. The conference aims to show that religion can be a force for good and is being organized in part by Professor Arvin Sharma of McGill’s Religious Studies department. The conference will include plenary sessions, lectures, workshops, panels, worship services, discussions, art performances, meditations, symposia, cultural evenings and other activities including religious observances from many of the world’s faiths.
A draft of the World Religions’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights will be unveiled and opened to public discussion and debate. According to Sharma, the document that will be adopted by representatives of the world’s religions will give a religious imperative for the respect of human rights.
“If we release such a document, it shows that separate religions can work together,” he said.
The declaration is somewhat similar to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the world’s nation-states in the 1948 UN General Assembly following the atrocities of World War II.
“Feeling has grown after September 11th that world religion has acquired a negative association, mostly with violence and discord,” Sharma said. “What is unfortunate is that the current perception has been one-sided.”
The congress hopes to open debate about the changing role of religion in a world that has been transformed since the attacks five years ago.
In an open letter, the congress argues that “the religions of the world need to respond in a comprehensive way to the challenges posed by the events of September 11, 2001.
“The conference is designed in part to facilitate that response. However, Sharma warns, “we have to be honest, religion is not without its blemishes. It has the potency of both positive and negative dimensions.”
Seven-hundred delegates from 86 nations will attend the congress, representing many faiths from around the world. 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner for Human Rights Shirin Ebadi and writers Karen Armstrong and Seyyed Hossein Nasr will also be in attendance.
Dr. Sharma acknowledges the difficulty of changing deeply ingrained perceptions but insists that if anything, McGill students have an upper hand in this process.
“The answer is diversity,” Sharma said. “Diversity of religion and also a diversity of looking at religion. We have students, sociologists, philosophers, theologians and psychologists, all of whom can widen one’s options of perspectives.”
Rebecca Lo, U1 Nursing, agrees that there has been a change in the world’s view of religion.
“There’s more awareness of differences between different cultures since 9/11,” she said. “Our fundamental beliefs are not similar. Because of the tragic event, people think more about the challenges of getting along with others.”
Management student Michael Pirl is more skeptical. “The declaration of human rights should remain political,” Pirl said. “This conference might not be very useful because people will still make an unconscious connection between Muslims and 9/11.”
Sharma, however, believes that the conference will be beneficial to religious communities all over the world.
“The more you are exposed to pluralism,” he said, “the less you are afraid of it.”
More information about the conference is available online at http://www.worldsreligionsafter911.com.