Religion and government intersect in fireside chat

Dr. Azza Karam is the secretary general of Religions for Peace and a professor at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. She is known as a widely published author and the former convener for the United Nations’ Interagency Task Force on Religion, which she founded.

Karam has taught and lectured at academic institutions around the globe, including West Point. She came to Ramapo’s York Room this past Wednesday to participate in a fireside chat titled “And Justice for All: Religion, Gender & Peace” as part of the Presidential Speaker Series.

“What brought us together quite frankly was the aftermath of 9/11,” said President Cindy Jebb as part of her introduction. Jebb and Karam agreed that West Point’s curriculum lacked classes on terrorism and how any religion can become tied to extremism.

The first discussion question asked Karam to share her journey to this point. Karam recounted one of her “earliest formative experiences.” She grew up in Cairo and, while visiting family in a smaller Egyptian village, witnessed her cousin physically abuse his wife. None of her family members helped. Instead, they brought the imam — a Muslim leader who leads prayers in a mosque — who justified the discipline.

“This is the voice of ultimate authority, the imam, saying ‘This is God. This is what God wants…’ I realized at that moment how powerful the spokesperson for God is.” Jarred by the incident, Karam kept her faith and pursued work at the nexus between governance, power and religion.

Within the past few years, the use of religious dogma has been used by politicians to garner voters’ support. Karam called it a “mutual abuse of power” that brings out the worst in both governments and religious institutions.

“It means all religions equalized. That is secularism when it functions.”

– Dr. Azza Karam

Karam delved further into the separation of church and state during the public Q&A. “Yes it is important to separate… religious interests from political interests… but does that mean that our combined religious values should not be used to hold accountable those who govern us?”

She argued that combined religious values informed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and continue to drive the preservation of civil society. She cited the shared goals of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Rabbi Meir Kahane. “It’s only when religions work together that you have a vibrant civil society.” 

Karam has written over half a dozen books, including “A Woman’s Place: Religions Women as Public Actors.” Photo courtesy of Ramapo College

Karam rebuked claims that a secular body must be entirely nonreligious. “It means all religions equalized. That is secularism when it functions.” Politicians who cherry-pick religious leaders who support their polarizing political ideology violates this principle.

Karam described working with a wide array of religious leaders, from the Vatican to indigenous groups. The most productive collaboration occurs between people who are “vested in working together” and “understand the divine is within every single one of them” regardless of their differences.

Unfortunately, not everyone shares the same determination. “The bigger the religion… the more lethargic the willingness to work together collaboratively with other religions,” Karam said. She sees this in how many male leaders are reluctant to ally themselves with newly-ordained women who are dismantling the traditional power structures.

Effective change depends on cooperation. “It’s not enough to be 30% women in Parliament to change the Parliament. 30% women who work together and form allies? That is enough,” she said.

The final discussion question invited Karam to share how her travels and experiences with other cultures have given her insight into American culture.

“I have an incredible passion about what America stands for and what it is meant to stand for… it is about the struggle that is often necessary… with minimal repression and oppression,” she said.

Historical and ongoing struggles in America often go unacknowledged. “The blood that was spilled here is part of our legacy,” she said. By coming to terms with the pain that has been caused collectively, Americans can make it a strength.

“To deny ourselves the opportunity to live that pain together is to deny ourselves the cure,” Karam said.

Featured photo courtesy of Ramapo College