Interviewed by Arwa Mahmoud
Published in IslamOnline.net (Dec 11, 2007)
Dr. Hans Küng is one of the few religious scholars whose insight on the role of religious understanding in solving international conflicts has inspired people from different cultures to read and learn more about each others’ histories as well as their own. His latest path-breaking study of Islam, titled Islam: Past, Present, and Future (AUC Press, 2007), stimulates a series of discussions on the essence of religion and the variation of its interpretation paradigms through different historical phases.
A Roman Catholic theologian, Dr. Küng was the first to reject the doctrine of papal infallibility since the 19th century, which resulted in stripping him from his license to teach as a Catholic theologian, but he maintained his priesthood and continued to teach ecumenical theology at the University of Tübingen in Germany.
Dr. Küng proposes the doctrine of the Global Ethic, which is composed of universal ethical standards that can be shared by all faiths as a foundation for better dialogue and peace. It was around his understanding of this form of human unity that I interviewed him on December 3rd, 2007 in the American University in Cairo.
In a lecture you gave in the American University in Cairo on the challenges facing Islam, Christianity, and Judaism in today’s global crisis, you proposed maintaining and preserving the substance of faith as a solution to conflicts. What practical steps do you suggest can help in instilling the notion of the “Global Ethic” in the hearts and minds of ordinary people?
In a world which is more and more pluralist, we need a solution for ethical foundation which can be shared by everybody. We have many cities, especially big cities, where there are considerable minorities of other religions. So very often we have in the school classes children of different religions, and in order to resolve this problem, you cannot impose one religion on all the others. On the other hand, it is also no solution to impose no religion at all. So a global ethic means that despite different faiths, we agree on certain elementary ethical standards, and we should do everything we can to have it in the school program. Very often the older generation is not anymore able to change, but I think that there is a great thirst today among the younger generation for some orientation, and they need an ethical orientation which can be supported by the Islamic faith, the Christian faith, the Jewish faith, and also by the humanists.
How do you think ethics can be positively reinforced in global politics? For example, do you not think that the only solution to conflict can be through the limitation of state authority and further assertion of worldwide civil action, especially that we find a number of religious citizens in Europe and in America who are opposed to the actions of their governments in places like Iraq and Palestine, yet at the same time they are not as assertive as they should be.
It is difficult to give a universal answer to this question. The situation is not everywhere the same. We had, for example, France and Germany opposed to the war in Iraq, so it was not necessary to have a civil action. There are other countries where it would already be helpful if their religious authority would oppose governments who are going for war. This can be – and sometimes it must be – but on the other hand sometimes you need state authority to impose a form of progress, which can be done by legislation and taxes.
Do you think that a complete separation between culture and religion might be necessary to establish a global consensus of human understanding? Is it possible to actually separate culture from faith in order to arrive at a common ground?
I will try to give a differentiated answer. There is no faith without a kind of foundation in culture. Faith does not exist in a vacuum. And, of course, faith is different in Europe and different in Egypt, and within Egypt it is different between the Coptic community and the Muslim community. So it is not “bad” that faith is rooted in culture. It is only bad if you have a negative influence of culture on faith; if, for example, you have old Arab customs which were already before the Prophet Muhammad, influencing the role of women or promoting female genital mutilation.
What were the main challenges you encountered in your practical experience in interfaith dialogue and how do you think these challenges can be reconciled?
My essential proposition is that there is no peace among the nations without peace among the religions; no peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions; no dialogue between the religions without investigation of the foundations of the religions. This is generally received very well. I participated in the UN General Assembly, with a group of eminent persons, and there was no delegation that was for a clash of civilizations; they spoke all out for dialogue. But the main obstacles are ignorance, lack of information, and laziness.
People are not informed. Sometimes even statesmen are absolutely ignorant in their impressions of religions. And then there is of course laziness. They say it is a fine program but they don’t do anything. For instance, our Global Ethic Foundation is a very small but very effective team, but we often meet the answer that it is great what we do, but if we ask for sponsoring we do not receive clear answers.