When men and women of God gather, one might expect them to speak to each other. A Buddhist monk might break bread with an English vicar and discuss the problems of pastoral administration; or perhaps an imam might share with a Shinto priest the frustrations of the religious life. Some problems you would assume all religions have in common: tolerance by governments, the mundane matters of maintaining houses of worship, training clerics andobserving religious holidays.
Not so. I can report from the world’s leading assembly of traditional religions, which took place in Astana, Kazakhstan, at the end of last month, ecumenical discussion can be strained.
The great men, and a few women, who provide for the spiritual well-being of about 5 billion of the world’s people did not overtly seek out each other to discuss scripture, monotheism as opposed polytheism, the nature of heaven or hell, reincarnation or the heavenly order. In the lunches and dinners of this conclave, the turbans mostly did not mix with cassocks, yarmulkes with the headscarves. In the social events, each religious group sought out its own.
The enterprising government of President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan hosts a tri-annual conference of the world’s traditional religions – no sects, cults, or relatively new religions are invited. Fundamentalists, whether Christian, Hindu or Muslim, also were notspecifically invited.
But some of the views expressed were pretty fundamental across the board. The line between orthodoxy and fundamentalism can be hazy. You could argue that orthodoxy is the dimension that kept the leaders of so much religion to their separate groupings during the conference's social occasions.
Dialogue — the purpose of the conference as explained by the government – was reserved for the formal sessions, held in two palatial conference centers in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan.
The declared purpose of the assembly is to seek harmony and understanding through dialogue. That dialogue grew heated – particularly between Muslims and Christians in the West – at a newly added session on the role of women in religion and society. One Saudi Arabian participant commented at that session that Islam puts women on pedestals, while the West puts them onbillboards half-naked.
Much of the back-and-forth in the argument over women was conducted by men, causing the Anglican Bishop of Bradford Nick Baines to suggest it might be a good idea to let women speak for themselves.
At the session on women, Kristiane Backer, a convert to Islam and former MTV host, who lives in the London neighborhood of Chelsea, defended the treatment of women in Islam and protested the bigotry of the English.
In the end, many delegates agreed that culture as well as religion affected attitudes to women. Daisy Khan, a Muslim from New York, was a uniting influence. She was able to find common ground on social needs in both developed and developing nations among all religions.
Kazakhstan itself is a particularly well suited to such a conference. After the years of enforced atheism during the 70 years of Soviet domination, it is vibrantly secular, with Muslims enjoying a majority. Kazakhstan's Chief Rabbi Yeshayah Elazar Cohen, who emigrated from Jerusalem, told me: “Every day I thank God that I’m living in Kazakhstan.” For emphasis he repeated this several times. I spoke with the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Astana, Tomash Bernard Peta, a Pole, who was also enthusiastic about religious tolerance in Kazakhstan.
So many people in such flamboyant religious dress, from Buddhist monks in saffron robes to Catholic archbishops in crimson skull caps to shiny black-helmeted Zoroastrians, gave the proceedings a surreal tinge – dress emphasizing difference rather than unity.
They at least got the measure of one another – many religions with many views of God and of man. I rather wanted to hear more about their visions of the deity or deities and less about the social divisions embraced by religions.
Incidentally, Astana boasts some of the most beautiful and stylish women to be found on the streets of any capital city. The ultra-orthodox of several religions may have had to avert their eyes during their comings and goings. — For the Hearst-NewYork Times Syndicate
Is it the felt revolution or the fur revolution? Or is it a revolution at all? (In Kazakhstan, nomads still use felt to build their tents, called yurts, and to wear a fur coat in Astana, the modern capital, is not a luxury because temperatures can plummet to -40 C in winter.)
But political change – slow, to be sure – is taking place in Kazakhstan: a vast oil-rich and landlocked country in Central Asia, which gained its independence in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. The Russians had both tried to colonize (22.8 percent of the population is Russian) and use Kazakhstan as a dumping place for prisoners, for nuclear facilities and for some of the worst environmental experiments, particularly dooming the Aral Sea by reversing the rivers that once fed it.
In mid-January, Kazakhs went to the polls for an election that could be the beginning – just the glimmering of a beginning — of a new era of democracy in Central Asia. In itself, this election was a small affair and was criticized as such by observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Myself and a colleague were invited as journalistic observers. We stayed in Astana and observed voting in just two locales, which were orderly and had a movie-set feel to them. We even got to watch President Nursultan Nazarbayev enter the voting booth, exit it and drop his ballot into a transparent box.
Fur-wearing voters drop their ballots into a box at the National Academic Library polling station in Astana. Photo: Linda Gasparello
The OSCE observers were critical of the way the government determined which parties could participate. They were also critical of the high polling numbers provided by the government, which claimed 80.7 percent support for Nur Otan, the party of the president, a former Soviet official who moved quickly from communism to capitalism but hesitatingly to democracy.
Yet in his 20 years of near absolute power, Nazarbayev has been popular. He has had the unique good fortune of being able to deliver above the expectations of his people.
Nazarbayev has been skillful in positioning Kazakhstan as a friend to everyone. By doing so, he has cultivated comity with his some of his irascible neighbors, including Russia, China, Iran, as well as the less-friendly other “stans” that border his sprawling, underpopulated country (about 16.5 million people).
He also has fostered good relations with ethnic minorities, including Uzbeks, Ukrainians, Uighurs, and many more. Likewise, with 40 religious groups: Kazakhstan is a predominantly Muslim country (70 percent, 26 percent Christian) with a secular tradition. Muslim women do not cover their heads; men are clean-shaven; the call to prayer does not ring out over Astana; and minority religions are permitted, including Buddhism and Judaism.
Cleverly, Nazarbayev has also given his people a shiny bauble to be dazzled by: Astana. In a little more than eight years, this architectural extravaganza has risen on the Central Asian steppe. Astana is spectacular and incorporates a kind of World's Fair-meets-The Emerald City architecture: There is a building that looks like giant golden egg in a white-branched nest, one that opens like a flower's petals, and one that looks like a yurt. The best architects in the world, like Britain's Norman Foster, have been invited to play – and they have let loose.
Palace of Peace and Harmony in Astana Photo: Linda Gasparello
But Nazarbayev's days as the Wizard of Oz may be drawing to a close, and the tentative nod to democracy may be an acknowledgment of that. He is 71.
A new generation of ambitious, gifted and well-educated men and women now walks the streets of the capital; young people who wonder about the paternalism, want to play on a world stage, and do not remember the bad old days of Soviet domination. They worry about the pipelines that take Kazakh oil in many directions – at present, mostly into Russia and China. Especially, they worry what will happen when their president passes from the scene.
After the disappointment of the Arab Spring, dare the world hope for a democratic birth on the Central Asian steppe? I think so. – For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate