Press Release

Freedom to Believe: Pathway to Sustainable, Equitable Societies

Freedom to Believe: Pathway to Sustainable, Equitable Societies

5 March 2014: Seminar Report


In collaboration with the Global Foundation for Civilizational Harmony (GFCH), the Office of Public Affairs (OPA) organized a half-day seminar on Freedom to Believe on 5 March 2014 at Bahá'í House in New Delhi, India. The objective of the seminar was to raise awareness of the imperative need to respect the fundamental freedom to believe towards nurturing the roots of just and equitable societies. The seminar was attended by 50 participants. It was decided during the seminar that a publication based on the recommendations of the 8 invited speakers would be persued.


After a brief welcome to the seminar by OPA and GFCH, Professor Shiv Visvanathan from OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat, provided an introductory talk outlining the importance of the Right to Diversity as a foundational concept for the discourse on freedom to believe. According to Prof. Visvanathan, “Diversity is embedded in freedom to believe.” The right to “differences” is a belief that respects those who are different from you. Prof. Visvanathan provided a framework for how concepts such as liberalism, secularism and tolerance are too limiting to provide for an adequate conceptualization of diversity. “What we need,” he noted, “is the reconceptualization of all these concepts.” In other words, we need “a different idea of difference.” This reconceptualization cannot begin and end with policy or legal discussions, but requires an “ethics” of a different set of concepts which demand collective rethinking of the concept of diversity.


Professor Akhtarul Wasey from Jamia Milia Islamia University in New Delhi also reiterated the importance of going beyond tolerance towards respect of religious diversity. “I do not want tolerance,” he said, “We must respect others to believe differently.” Prof. Wasey mentioned that a civilized society is one in which women and minorities are treated with decency, justice, equity and equality in all policies and legal frameworks. He also called for a collective effort to devise a program to work against the “evils” of illiteracy, disease and hunger – which impact all communities in India.


Father Shaji Matthew, leader of the Indian Orthodox Community (Syrian Orthodox Church), quoted the Bible (Genesis 4:9): “Where is your brother?” He repeated Prof. Wasey's sentiments that “tolerance” is not enough to live in a pluralistic and interdependent society. Such a society demands that we look at each other as one family – regardless of religion.


Journalist, Mr. Priyadarshi Dutta, took a historic view of discrimination and co-existence in

India and focused on the “native sense of tolerance in India.” He distinguished between western and eastern theology and stated that although concepts can differ between religions, the essence of revelation is unity of consciousness. Mr. Dutta was also keen in discussing his negative viewpoints on forced conversion and its impact on the Hindu majority in India.


Dr. Merajj Hussain, who called himself a “student,” said, “I'm a Muslim, but not an extremist.” He provided an overview of the systems of science and religion as two knowledge paradigms that provide a lens to understanding reality. Thus, a “student of religion” knows that at the heart of learning to understand reality is the freedom to investigate reality. This requires openness to diverse ways of thinking.


Mrs. Farida Vahedi, Director of OPA, provided a summary of the persecution of the Bahá'ís in Iran as a case study of the denial of freedom to believe. Incidentally, 5 March 2014 marks the anniversary of the martyrdom of her father, Mr Nosratullah Sobhani, who was executed in 1985 for his beliefs. “The situation of the Bahá'ís in Iran is not a conflict situation between Islam and the Bahá'í Faith.” noted Mrs. Vahedi, “it is a violation of the right to believe in a religion of your own choosing and to practice it.”


Renowned journalist, Mr. George Verghese, reiterated the opening remarks of Prof. Visvanathan by noting that freedom to believe is a fundamental right that is founded on respecting others' right to belief. “There is no reason to shed blood,” noted Mr. Verghese. Either communicate to resolve your differences or accept the differences and move on. In a world characterized by mutuality and interdependence, the freedom to believe requires an open mind. “We will overcome,” he noted, “these dark days will fade away.” Mr. Verghese also discussed the freedom of expression as being tied to freedom to believe, but notes that there is “accountability” in freedom of expression. He concluded by noting that the concept of “minority” is “not a numerical concept, it is an attitude.”


Rabi Ezekiel Malekar, Head of the Jewish Community of Delhi confirmed the sentiment that “tolerance” is outdated. What we need is “acceptance.” Rabi Malekar lamented the fact that religion is being used “only in emergencies” in this day and age. Humanity is in dire need of the spiritual education that religion provides; however, religion “should never be used for violence or power.” Rabi Malekar asked whether the discourse on freedom to believe should instead focus on freedom “from” discrimination.


The speakers were followed by a series of questions and answers which highlighted the importance of changing mindsets and attitudes so that freedom to believe provides the enabling environment for the right to diversity to flourish.


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