Unique Gathering at United Nations Asks, ‘Are You A Responsible Leader?’
Bawa Jain sounded as if he had still not quite come back down to Earth.
A week removed from co-hosting the inaugural Responsible Leaders Summit at the United Nations in New York, the indefatigable secretary general of the World Council of Religious Leaders, admitted he couldn’t have been happier about how the gathering went down.
“From economics to environmentalism to the basics of religious coexistence, we are seeing the virtues of responsible leadership under assault,” Jain said as he settled in for an extended conversation with The Well News.
“There is a gap in global leadership that we must work to fill,” he said. “And from that perspective, the summit was very inspiring as it brought together leaders from all walks of life to have meaningful discussions about improving our world.”
The summit, held on May 1, was an initiative of the Centre for Responsible Leadership, an organization founded by Jain in cooperation with Mohammad Abdulkarim Al-Issa, the secretary general of the Mecca-based Muslim World League.
The Davos-style event brought together more than 100 thought leaders from the worlds of international politics, business and religion, and asked them to deliberate on such weighty subjects as restoring civility to public discourse; addressing economic inequality; safeguarding the planet; uniting the faithful; and ensuring gender equality.
Among the participants in specific pants was Ambassador Nancy Brinker; former Senator Joseph Lieberman; Adam Sharp, president and CEO of the National Academy Of Television Arts & Sciences; Franz Paasche, senior vice president of corporate affairs at PayPal; Publicis Groupe Chairman Maurice Lévy; FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel; Jimmie Briggs, a member of the New York City Commission on Gender Equity; and women’s rights advocate Cecile Richards, the former president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
The master of ceremonies for the event was David Gregory, former moderator of NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“We invited people to participate in panels because of the positions they have taken on these issues in the past,” Jain said.
“Our goal, to put it simply, is to mobilize some of the most powerful voices who can exert influence on behalf of the collective interest of the majority rather than the few who are somehow always projected to the front.”
Asked how the summit came about, Jain, 63, described as the culmination of a journey that began in his native India and with aid of his spiritual mentor, Sushil Kumar.
As a child, Kumar was deeply affected by the violence between Hindus and Muslims that accompanied the granting of independence to India and Pakistan half a century ago. Later, as a monk in the Jain faith, he dedicated the rest of his life to promoting dialogue among religious groups.
Kumar emigrated to the United States in 1975, and six years later, established a Jain temple on the former site of a Jewish summer camp in Blairstown, New Jersey. Jain, who refers to Kumar as his “guru,” was then running a construction company in India, and readily agreed to supply skilled craftsmen for the project.
Soon, Jain joined his mentor in the U.S. and became a citizen. Just before Kumar died in 1994, he asked Jain to continue his interfaith efforts, which by then included working with the United Nations.
“As a result of my guru, I’ve been involved, in and around the UN community for over 30 years now,” Jain said. “I’ve learned much from the UN, including, sometimes, just how dysfunctional it can be.
“At the same time, I also saw first-hand the potential of the institution. It’s the only one we have to work on global issues in a neutral way,” he said.
Among the high points of Jain’s involvement with the UN was his running its Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders in 2000. But working with the organization also gave him his first inkling that something was going wrong in the way world leaders were communicating.
Jain said he can clearly remember President George W. Bush speaking to the UN General Assembly in the early 2000s, this during the era of his ‘Axis of Evil,’ remarks, and former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responding by hurling a number of accusation at the Bush administration, including that it routinely committed human rights violations.
“I sat down with Ahmadinejad and asked, ‘how can you come to an international house of diplomacy and say these kinds of things?'”
“I tell you this to illustrate how I’ve always been challenging people who make these statements,” Jain said. “That day I told Ahmadinejad that the rhetoric he was employing wasn’t helping the situation.”
But Jain said his disappointment in what he saw as a growing lack of civil discourse turned to shock after the election of President Barack Obama. “I recall one of the first statements made by Senator Mitch McConnell was that his only purpose from that point forward was to see Obama defeated at every step.
“I said, ‘My God, this is the leader of the U.S. Senate?’ ‘And this is what he’s saying?’ “This is his agenda?’ “And how in any way is this in the interest of the American people?” Jain remembered.
“This partisanship has only increased, rapidly, since the election of President Trump,” he continued. “Today I travel the world and the first question I’m asked is, ‘What’s going on in your country?'”
“The Congress and the Senate are absolutely dysfunctional right now,” Jain said. “I am convinced of this. We’ve seen examples of it repeatedly. Personal interests trump the national interest and the collective interest of the American people and indeed, the globe.
McConnell’s reaction to President Obama’s election inspired Jain to begin giving talks on responsible leadership. This led to his meeting Al-Issa and ultimately, they agreed to do the Responsible Leadership Summit together.
But can it really make a difference, Jain was asked.
“I am a dreamer,” he said after a pause seasoned with a slight chuckle. “I would not be doing what I am doing if I was not a dreamer.
“But I do realize the challenges,” he said. “My motivation is to work with those people who we have disagreements with. It wouldn’t help anything to only reach out to those who agree with me. We choose, purposely, to bring out those controversial issues and the divides.
“My great hope for the summit is that if we convince the influencers and they in turn mobilize others, our message will get into the ears of the Mitch McConnells and the Donald Trumps,” Jain said. “How much they will listen, I do not know … but I do know that if enough people start to talk on the subject of civility in our public life, and the need to get back to it, they can have an effect on the electorate, and the people running in next year’s elections.”
“You know we think of leaders being at the front of crowd, but oftentimes, once a message is loud enough, leaders follow the opinion of the masses,” he said.
Asked what else he’d like to see come out of the summit, Jain said “Oh, I have a whole list of things, both short and long term goals.”
“Organizationally, we’re now gathering feedback from all the people who were there,” he said. “We want to create a small steering committee and task forces for each of the areas we had panels for at the summit. We also want to create an advisory board of people of influence who have the ear of our leaders … because I have a firm conviction that if you can make an impact in the USA, the world will follow. So my focus is on seeing what we can do here.”
“The other thing I hope is that we can inspire our leaders to ask themselves a few simple questions,” Jain said. “These questions are, ‘Do you make decisions based on the present or the future?’ ‘Do you make decisions based on conviction or convenience?’ and, ‘Are these decisions constructive or destructive?’
“And what I’d say to our elected officials is, you ask those questions of yourself. We are not here to judge you, name you or shame you,” he continued. “But we do want these questions to become part of your DNA.
“In the end, that’s the thing that’s going to change how we conduct ourselves in public discourse … but each of us holding ourselves to a higher standard and not just think about our own personal interest in anything that we do,” Jain said.
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