A diplomacy of the spirit in Kazakhstan


This past October in Astana, Kazakhstan, I sat down with Ambassador Bulat Sarsenbayev, chairman of the board of the N Nazarbayev Center for Development of Interfaith and Intercivilization Dialogue, who kindly agreed to take some of my questions. 

As a career diplomat with Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sarsenbayev served in a number of sensitive posts, including as Kazakhstan’s Ambassador to India, Iraq, and Lebanon. He brings unique academic, diplomatic, and practical experience to dialogue between religions and civilizations.

In this chat, Ambassador Sarsenbayev says that genuine dialogue and contact between peoples of different faiths minimizes conflict and instability, enhances national security and redounds to the common good of the states concerned. 

This approach to international relations has been at the core of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy since independence in 1991. As such, he would support a national interest-based approach to diplomacy rooted in realism that would respect the interests of interlocutors. 

He argues that spiritual leaders must be given a meaningful platform as they bring to the negotiating table a moral compass and the indispensable quality of empathy. 

Ambassador Sarsenbayev believes that recognition of the universal dignity of the human person can lead to more cooperative relations between states, peoples, and cultures and is confident the Center for Development of Interfaith and Intercivilization Dialogue can play a key role in realizing this vitally important goal.

The views expressed in this conversation are those of Ambassador Sarsenbayev in his capacity as chairperson of the Center for Development of Interfaith and Intercivilization Dialogue and are not necessarily those of the Government of Kazakhstan. The text has been edited for clarity and precision. 

Piedra: Ambassador Sarsenbayev, thank you for the opportunity to sit down with you and discuss a topic of immense importance – the role that interfaith dialogue plays in building mutual understanding between nations and civilizations. In this connection, Kazakhstan for decades has championed the need for greater discourse and exchange of ideas on the sensitive topic of religion and national identity. 

This commitment to dialogue flows not only from Kazakhstan’s experience as a multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-ethnic society but from your personal experience in searching for ways to reduce tensions in the international community. 

Our conversation today is occasioned because this year marks the 20th anniversary of the Astana-based Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. By all measures, the Congress has helped build mutual understanding between nations, although the depth and extent of problems in the world are legion.  

That having been said, Kazakhstan has regularly drawn some of the most influential religious leaders in the world to Astana, including His Holiness Pope Francis, Sheikh Dr. Ahmed Al Tayyeb, al-Azhar Grand Imam (Egypt), His Beatitude Theophilos III, Patriarch of the Holy City of Jerusalem, and All Palestine and Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, amongst many others. 

Over the past 20 years, Kazakhstan’s managed to maintain a high degree of interest in the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. Many other attempts to do the same have petered out. What makes this biennial Congress in Kazakhstan more than just one more meeting vying for the world’s attention? 

Sarsenbayev:  For one, our record speaks for itself – you just listed some of the most prominent religious leaders in the world who attended our last Congress. The list of key participants continues to grow, and post-Congress activities are expanding. That fact – the repeated attendance of high-level religious leaders – is the best measure of our success. 

At a deeper level, however, Kazakhstan lies smack in the middle of the Eurasian continent, which gives us unprecedented experience with other peoples. There can be no doubt that Kazakhstan has been a center of “socio-ethnic interaction” for centuries – a crossroads if you will – between diverse cultures, languages, faiths, and traditions. 

We believe that a people’s religious and cultural mores, when properly understood and respected, are a source of unity rather than conflict, especially in multi-ethnic and multi-dimensional societies with a sense of the universal dignity of the human person. 

Strife between peoples, I think you would agree, is more often borne from misunderstanding than from outright injustice or some sort of organized malevolence. It is the misunderstanding between peoples that so often underpins conflict: those misunderstandings are what we are most interested in addressing, and that’s why people continue to attend the Astana Congress because we have helped to break down barriers between peoples. This improved dialogue seeps into the world of diplomacy. 

We want to share Kazakhstan’s experience with others – we have something to say. Not to sound trite, but the majority of people who live in Kazakhstan understand that stability (or the lowering of the probability for conflict) is a product of a recognition of the universal dignity of the human person combined with collective patience and understanding towards others, which begins in the home and must reach the highest levels of government.