Themes: Our Creativy Diversity
A new global ethics
A commitment to pluralism
Challenges of a media-rich world
recasting cultural policies
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Report of the discussion on
A New Global Ethics

In the chair: Flora Lewis, journalist/columnist with the International Herald Tribune

Other members of the panel were: real audio fileRiffat Hassan, professor of religious studies at the University of Louisville in the United States and Hans Küng, director of the Institut für Ökumenische Forschung der Universität Tübingen in Germany.

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Flora Lewis opened the discussion with a question to Hassan and Küng: 'Both of you have stated that religion and culture are important sources for norms and values. History shows, however, that culture and religion have all too often been used to justify hatred and destruction and that by giving priority to religion you may end up perpetuating concepts of enmity. How can you make sure that emphasizing religion will lead to ethical harmony and not to human suffering?

November 8, 1996: A new global ethics:
Introduction (Flora Lewis)
Hans Kung
Riffat Hassan
Discussion panel
pijltje.gif (179 bytes) A commitment to pluralism
pijltje.gif (179 bytes) Challenges of a media-rich world
pijltje.gif (895 bytes) General Introduction

Küng: The history of every religion has its lighter and darker pages. We should not emphasize the abuse of religion but only draw on the positive and constructive aspects.

Hassan: Lewis is right. Religion is often misused and women in particular are its victims. But it can also be a powerful positive force. As for Islam, my view is that the Qur'an is the Word of God and that its essence is justice. I believe that justice is at the heart of all religions.

Audience: There definitely are religions that don't have any dark pages. Not the large monotheistic religions but the smaller shamanistic ones, for instance. Perhaps we can look to them for a solution.

Küng: It is true that the prophetic religions in particular have been destructive, but there are also problems with Hinduism - just look at the situation in India and Sri Lanka. There is no such thing as an 'innocent' religion.

Audience: How do you define religion? Do we mean the institutions or the beliefs? What is your position with regard to the humanists? At the UN the Vatican is the only religion that has any influence and, as far as women's liberation is concerned, it is quite a negative one.

Küng: I prefer to see religion mainly as an ethical tradition. In our Declaration of Religions we do not make any pronouncements about euthanasia, abortion or homosexuality. At this moment no consensus on these subjects is possible. Not even within one religion, let alone one that would be acceptable to all.

Audience: Hassan argues for a slow evolution in the direction of something like a global ethics. She also has her doubts about the declaration of human rights. But surely this declaration is still very important, because time is short and there is a great need for guidelines.

Doesn't Küng think that it is time Europeans and Americans acknowledged their Islamic roots?

Hassan: I have no difficulties with Küng's attempts to define a global ethics nor with the declaration of rights. But how can you apply them in practice? Are they guidelines or absolute values? The problem I have with the Declaration of Human Rights is that in everyday life it is practically a dead letter. This declaration is not relevant. But intellectuals don't worry about what happens in practice.

Küng: I don't agree with you. Take the Ten Commandments. The younger generation is not brought up to know them. They have never heard the precept, 'Thou shalt not kill'. This has consequences. It is very important that there are such ethical precepts. In the Middle Ages Islam had more influence than Christianity. But in modern times Islam has more problems. In general the principle is valid that the more we learn about each other the better.

real audio file
Allister Sparks

Allister Sparks: The question for Hassan is whether she is an advocate of a global ethics or not? You say that the Qur'an is a Magna Carta of human rights. Implicitly however you are saying that if we all accept the Qur'an then the problem is solved. But doesn't that amount to the very imperialism that you yourself condemn?

I also want to know what the God of Islam is. There are so many interpretations of the Qur'an, just as there are of the other religions. It's true that the Declaration of Human Rights is based on Western values, but the independent states also voted for it. That surely means it is a good start?

Hassan: Let me answer you by asking you another question: what do we need a global ethics for? In the USA there is no religious education in public schools. But recently people seem to be changing their minds about that. That's because religion is again being seen as an important means of instilling norms and values that have apparently been lost. If the aim of a global ethics is to restore a system of values of this sort, then I don't have any problem with it.

One major reason why the Declaration of Human Rights is ignored is because it is not grounded in reality or in the lives of the majority of the peoples of the world. I do not find it helpful when I travel through the Muslim world talking to the average Muslim woman. They have three characteristics: they are poor, they are illiterate and they live in a village. A large number of the over 500 million Muslim women in the world share these characteristics.

Riffat Hassan

For me the framework of the Qur'an is universal. It is not a matter of dogmas but principles. I will simply say that it is wiser to try and appeal to a great mass of people in the name of the Qur'an than in the name of the Declaration of Human Rights. Within Islam God is something like a policeman. And there is also a more progressive and open approach. For me Islam is essentially progressive. I think that it is sad then that so much attention in the West is paid to the conservative forces. But we, the progressive forces, will win.

Küng: I would like to stress just how valuable the declaration of rights is. Where would someone like Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma be without it? And she isn't a Western woman. She argues for her case by referring to the Buddha. At the same time we must not start looking for a uniform culture. It is also a good thing to stress the importance of your own tradition.

Audience: Mrs Hassan, you talk about the internal debate going on in Islam. But what do we stand to gain by that? How far is women's emancipation an internal issue and not one projected on Islam from outside?

Hassan: I always say that I'm on the right track and that makes me an orthodox Moslem. As far as I am concerned every dialogue is an open one. The Qur'an is the highest authority, but it's not a closed book. As long as you don't treat it as a book of fairy stories. Moslems take the Qur'an seriously.

Audience: In many Western countries people have ceased to believe in religion, but we are seeing a revival of interest in spirituality. My problem with this discussion is that it deals with religion and not with ethics. Aren't there any other ways of arriving at a global ethics than through religion?

Lewis: You're quite right; there must soon be room for non-believers. It's precisely for this reason that an ethics of this kind is so important, so that non-believers can relate to it too.

Küng: It doesn't make any difference how you arrive at this global ethics, whether via philosophy, Christianity, Islam or some other route.

Hassan: I'd be happy to go along with that. Only I must stress that the most important thing is implementing it. And that's why we need to acknowledge the significance of the internal dialogue. This dialogue is essential to help women in the Islamic world to realize that the Islam that has been their oppressor can also serve as a means for women to achieve progress.

Küng: I want to point out that an incredible revolution in awareness is going on at present. If you compare the situation of thirty years ago with that of now, everyone - at any rate in this room - has a totally different idea about matters such as armaments, ecology and relations between men and women. There is reason for hope.

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