A Conversation with Prof. Fadi Daou

With: Fadi Daou Berkley Center Profile

January 25, 2022

Background: A thread running through Professor Fadi Daou’s current and previous assignments is interreligious dialogue and action. The co-founder and former CEO of Adyan, a Lebanese nonprofit dedicated to managing diversity, promoting solidarity, and safeguarding human dignity, Dr. Daou is the co-editor (with Fabio Petito and Michael Driessen) of the 2021 publication Human Fraternity and Inclusive Citizenship: Interreligious Engagement in the Mediterranean. On January 25, 2022 he spoke with Katherine Marshall by Zoom as part of the Berkley Center’s Culture of Encounter and the Global Agenda project. The conversation focused on the linked challenges of human fraternity and inclusive citizenship.

How do you see the path of the culture of encounter? How have you been involved in the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” and exchange? And how do you see that evolving? 

I wasn’t involved in its preparation phase and its development. That was a very restricted process, limited to just four people who were working on the document and project. But I have been involved from the launching and beyond. It is, definitely, a historic document for two reasons. One of them, of course, is the leadership that is behind it. We have two key religious leaders at the top level, in addition of course to the support and capacity of the UAE, making from it a global reality. On the other hand, I think it is a historic document for its content. The document’s content was not just a reformulation of previous declarations and documents. It went well beyond. 

One important innovation is in theological affirmations which created controversy, within the Catholic Church, as well as in the framework of the Islamic scholarship community. Another important innovation is the fact of so clearly bringing the engagement to the concept of social friendship and peacebuilding. Before this document, the religious engagement was more often in the framework of development organizations or institutions or some key faith-based organizations. But from the religious perspective, its theoretical and practical endorsement were still very limited. Until this document, the classical form of interreligious dialogue was dominant on the religious side, which I think is different from the concept and reality of engagement. It was couched much more as an intellectual exchange, think tank-type relations, with less engagement with the world’s global challenges and global affairs. 

This document however stated the will of the religious leadership to be part of the global challenges. I consider this shift as an evolution towards religious, social, and global responsibility. Of course, it benefited from what Pope Francis had already initiated in engaging the faith narrative with the current world challenges, like his pioneer encyclical on environment Laudato Si

So you have distinguished two sides: the theological and the practical. Can you give me a couple of examples? 

On the theological level, one example is that it created some debate among the Catholic scholars about religious pluralism. The text positioned itself in a very clear way. It says that it is a reflection of God’s will that we have many religions and that God wants these religions to collaborate. This represents on the Catholic side an unprecedented affirmation signed by a pope about religious pluralism, while the topic is still in reflection and discussion within Christian, especially Catholic, theological institutions and scholars. On the Islamic side, the strong shift is more about religious freedom, since the text mentions it in a very progressive way, and hence indicating through the endorsement of the grand imam of Al Azhar that Islam supports this version. These are the two challenging points, and hopefully breakthroughs theologically speaking, from the Christian and Muslim sides. 

Even if you go back to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the statements there on freedom of religion, there were eight abstentions in Geneva in 1948, including around the religious freedom issues. And some of the questions around conversion and so forth. 

Yes, especially about the right for mixed marriages and conversions. 

So you think that the intent of the document is to open up some of those discussions?

I do believe so, yes.

What about the more practical, the engagement side. What is the intent, but also what might be the paths forward?

The intent is beautiful. The text starts with a very beautiful preamble, speaking in the name of God, but at the same time the name of the poor and all those who are affected by different problems, including the women who strive. The text is impressive and its intent is to adopt the cry and the strife of all who are suffering today in the world. This is, I find, very strong emotionally. These two men, two leaders, position themselves in full solidarity, speaking on behalf of all these categories beyond their followers, is highly meaningful. After the preamble, where are named all of those categories of people striving for justice and a better life, the text then engages, urges other categories of people to collaborate together to answer these challenges. This is also very interesting, because the text engages all categories of people starting with politicians and ending with people working in arts, media, and education. The two authors name almost all the key social categories of people who are called to be partners in this process. I think this is very strong and new, since the two top religious leaders situate themselves in partnership and solidarity with those who are seeking and working for justice in this back and forth process. The tone of the text is not magisterial; neither is  teaching from a chair, telling people what they have to do. The tone is more humble, with a collaborative tone, expressing a solidarity with those who are suffering but also looking for partnership and collaboration with those who can contribute in changing the reality. We are not used to this type of tone with religious leaders and their attitudes and discourse. 

In practical terms, there are so many problems in the world with hunger, pandemic, violence, conflict. Is there an intent to translate this into practice, or is it more about speaking to the world and letting people take their paths?

I would be hesitant to expect that those two leaders could translate this engagement into practice at the same level as the text. They won’t succeed; they can’t do it like that. What they can do is engage their own institutions and communities working in these different fields to prioritize these causes and develop bilateral and multireligious collaborations, and not only stay in a mono-religious engagement scope. What the declaration is bringing is interesting, but indeed it will be challenging for the identity-based religious engagement. 

The UAE, who were behind the organization of the event, created the Higher Committee for Human Fraternity a few months after the launching of the document. This committee is managed by its secretary-general, Mohamed Mahmoud Abdelsalam, who was the advisor to Grand Imam of Al Azhar Dr. Ahmed Al Tayeb, when the text was prepared and launched. The committee includes members from Al Azhar and the Vatican like Cardinal Miguel Ayuso, who is head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The committee is receiving financial support and resources and equipped with an office in Rome. Its secretary-general is traveling the world, promoting the declaration and building bridges and partnerships with other institutions for its implementation. 

The work is, I believe, still at the preparation phase, building the basis of what this committee could do in the future as practical engagement. This is a good thing, to show that this text is not just words but that concrete support is being given to it. However, as I mentioned, it would be risky to limit the text and the potential of the text to what the High Committee might do in practice. Its potential is much wider, and I hope that it will become a kind of normative and transformative narrative within the Catholic Church and within the Sunni community. 

Two practical questions. You edited a policy report with Fabio Petito and Michael Driessen on the topic of the culture of encounter. How did that come about? 

Let me start with the report, because it is the result of a process. We were speaking about the “Document on Human Fraternity” that was signed in Abu Dhabi. In parallel to this document and even previous to it, in my organization, Adyan Foundation, we launched an international dialogue process engaging faith-based organizations, such as the Muslim World League and the Middle East Council of Churches, and diplomats around the concept of inclusive citizenship. It started in 2018 in collaboration with Wilton Park and the Abu Dhabi Forum for Peace. This process ended in 2021 with the publication of a dialogue report on inclusive citizenship. It is an interesting text that reflects the highest level of consensus that we were able to obtain from all of these organizations together speaking about inclusive citizenship, including the topic of religious freedom. 

This process of dialogue about inclusive citizenship, in parallel with the launching of the human fraternity document, raised the interest about the topics and about their combination. In 2020 the Italian Institute for International Political Studies [ISPI, a think tank that organizes a yearly large event called MED — Mediterranean Dialogues], with collaboration with Adyan, integrated these two topics in its high-level policy dialogue engaging usually most ministers of foreign affairs in the Mediterranean area. 

Therefore, a forum on inclusive citizenship and human fraternity was organized to discuss, from a policy perspective, the combination of these two concepts. It was the first time that ISPI had integrated in their MED dialogues a forum on something that brings religion to its policy dialogues. It was very successful, and among the most followed discussion in the whole MED dialogues. Based on the wide interest and successful policy debate about human fraternity and inclusive citizenship, we decided not only to publish the content of this debate, but enrich it by a long conceptual and contextual introduction, and additional eight papers that we commanded from key international experts in the field. The final result became a reference document in the field. 

I’ve read and found it very interesting. 

I look forward to hearing your feedback and comments, because this was kind of a test to all three of us (the co-editors) to first think together, because each one of us has a different approach and background, trying to put in a summarized way this concept of religious engagement, inclusive citizenship, and human fraternity and bring them together. It wasn’t an easy exercise, but I’m happy with the result, that is an output of a process and not its end. 

In the 2021 edition of MED dialogues, there was another in-person panel in Rome on inclusive citizenship. I am happy that this concept is taking roots in the policy dialogue. It is interesting, not only from the religious perspective. I mean the dialogue on these topics should continue and gradually integrate the political and religious narratives. For example, in our three-year dialogue on inclusive citizenship hosted by Wilton Park, we initially wanted to reach a common charter on the topic; however, we were not able to reach a full level of agreement on the text, because not everybody was ready to adopt the full agenda. Therefore, we kept it as a dialogue report that reflects the process and a kind of consensus around the topic, but the readiness from all to sign it.

The Forum for Peace in Abu Dhabi, that was partner in this process, took advantage from this experience and adopted the concept of inclusive citizenship as the theme of its December 2021 international conference, and launched an Abu Dhabi Declaration of Inclusive Citizenship, which represents another step forward in this continuous process, especially within the international Muslim community. It reflects where the level of consensus might stand on inclusive citizenship. 

That might be clearer in Lebanon than in the Gulf, I imagine.

Yes. We can hope that the Gulf states will move in this direction. Small, however important, steps are being taken. The process may be more visible now in the UAE, using the concept and championing it. For example, they recently issued a new civil law for marriage for the residents in the UAE. Saudi Arabia is also moving, maybe with less visibility, in this direction too. We continue in many ways advocating and pushing for more inclusive approaches with this narrative. 

Two challenging points remain in the dialogue: democracy and religious freedom. It is almost impossible to bring up the topic of democracy in some countries, as in the Gulf, in its liberal terms and understanding. It is also difficult to ensure the freedom of religion and belief for everybody, including the freedom of conscience of the local (indigenous) population. These are very big questions, and they will remain so for decades. But small steps are being noticed. 

My approach is not about stigmatizing in the debate a region or a religion. With the freedom of thought and speech essential for a productive dialogue, I also look for having dialogues in context. Therefore, I believe that the inclusive citizenship concept is also needed nowadays in Europe and the West in general. It is not only a concept for the historically diversified societies like Lebanon or Iraq, for example. It is also a concept that should help societies and states to do the transition from a nationalistic-based identity and society to a more inclusive state structure, better adapted to the effects of the migration flux. This is, for example, an extremely important question for France. The country is now in the presidential electoral phase, and the political narrative is completely stuck on the identity level and stigmatizing the whole Muslim community, which is more than 10% of the population. This is a challenging situation on this level, about the recognition and integration of a large part of citizens. The political discourse is still in the denial phase, ignoring that that current French society is multicultural, with divergent consequences in dealing with secularism. I believe inclusive citizenship can help in approaching this problem and dealing with it. 

I think that, globally, we are facing the dilemma between liberal authoritarianism, as in some Middle Eastern countries, and illiberal democracies, as it is happening in some Western countries, with the regression of liberal values. Thus inclusive citizenship is the answer to both situations. 

There are so many declarations that there is talk about a dialogue of declarations, with the Mecca Declaration one. It can be confusing to outsiders. Two other questions. Indonesia is the G20 host this year. The effort is to develop more meaningful ways to have the religious voice represented in the broad global policy discussions.

This would be a good opportunity, especially since Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world and has strong Islamic institutions. I hope that the G20 will offer a framework for diverse and new Muslim voices, and contribute in promoting the citizenship-based narrative within the religious circles. 

You are described as a reverend. I’m not asking about your spiritual state, but what is your organizational religious structure? 

I am Maronite, which is an Eastern Catholic tradition. I was ordained a priest in the church, but my practice and engagement has been more focused on the academic field and the policymaking sphere. 

You recently moved from Beirut to Geneva. What are you hoping to do there, and how might you describe your current life plan?

Good question. Let me draw the big picture very quickly. In the 1990s, I was in France (I am Lebanese and French citizen), where I did my Ph.D. and worked there, primarily in the academic field. I went back to Beirut at the beginning of 2002, where I pursued my academic work. I was an associate professor, teaching, and also at some point I was director of the High Institute of Religious Studies at the Jesuit university in Beirut, St. Joseph University. Then over the following 10 years I co-founded and ran Adyan Foundation, with my time divided between the university and the organization but shifting towards the latter. And for the last two years, I have been working on a transition, to hand over the responsibility of serving as CEO and directing Aydan Foundation. The transition was smoothly and successfully completed, and hence I was ready to move to something else. 

I am still engaged with the organization as a policy advisor but have more time to dedicate to other matters. I took a research contract in Geneva with the university, which offers me the time to reconnect with my research and academic work and at the same time to reflect about and plan the future, looking for other opportunities where I can invest the coming 10 years of my life. 

What directions might those take you?

I am very open to different directions, with my two capacities: the academic one, so I can engage again in the academy, and social entrepreneurship and consultancy. I have worked in the last years as a short-term consultant for some organizations like UNESCO and am very much involved in think tanks and policy debates. I am open to different types of programs, living in Geneva.

And you must be looking with wonder to what is happening in Lebanon. 

Terrible. I am still going fairly often to Lebanon. I keep contacts there because my parents are there and the foundation is based in Beirut. I had public engagements with the situation in Lebanon, and I continue working towards solutions to the very difficult situation. 

How big is Adyan? I have seen people speaking so often, but I don’t know much about the actual organization. 

It grew very fast. We founded the organization in 2006, but until 2010 it was just a volunteering-based organization. In 2010 we started creating the institution and the professional team. When I left last year we had a team of 20 full-time people from five different countries. From the beginning, we started working on not just Lebanon but also the MENA region, also with some programs and partnerships with organizations in Europe. Aydan is not huge, but for the region, it is quite an active organization and seen and recognized as one of the major organizations working on community engagement and peacebuilding from different perspectives. We are opening an office in Iraq because we have lots of programs there. We also have a network of trainers and experts in almost all of the MENA region and some good collaboration with think tanks, mainly in Europe. 

Would you describe it as a think tank?

Part of the work. 

What some call a think and do tank.

Exactly. We have an entity that is fully a think tank, but there are other branches that are on the ground with educational programs, training people on freedom or education. There are some concrete activities. It is indeed a think and do tank, where we don’t only contribute to the thinking, but also to the changemaking on the ground, with creative and multi-stakeholder approaches that bridge between the think and the do.

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