Last year I met Dr. Bahman Bakhtiari, an internationally recognized and published expert on Middle-Eastern politics and diplomacy, at a religious conference hosted by Utah Valley University in Orem, UtahMormonism and Islam:  Commonality and Cooperation Between Abrahamic Faiths, brought a number of noteworthy scholars and speakers, including Dr. Stephen Prothero.  Dr. Bakhtiari is remarkable as both an intellectual and a statesman, and through a number of conversations I learned about the depth of his convictions regarding civil discourse and building bridges among people of diverse backgrounds.

Recently, Dr. Bakhtiari founded The International Foundation for Civil Society, and is its Executive Director; words of Mahatma Gandhi, easily one of the twentieth century’s most recognizable peace-makers, inform the Foundation in its mission.  Although very busy with a large number of events scheduled for this year, he was able to take a moment and visit with me about the Foundation and his hopes for its future and its impact around the world.

Why is there a need for this Foundation, and why did you feel you, in particular, needed to put this together?

Everyone is impacted by forces of globalization and change that have now reached across national boundaries, affecting communities and organizations within states, injecting a new energy for civil society forces committed to pluralism and democracy.  The Arab Spring is a case in point.  It was a year ago this past December 2011 that a fruit salesman named Mohammed Bouazizi put himself on fire in Tunisia bringing attention to the rising tide of popular revolutions about to spread from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya to Yemen and Bahrain.

The International Foundation for Civil Society is founded on the recognition that these sweeping changes in the Middle East and North Africa is a reflection of the demands of the young generation for improvement in their conditions and reversal of decades of authoritarianism.  The Founders of the foundation felt that the struggle involves deeper yearnings and desire for values that underpin a vibrant civil society, and these values need to be encouraged and supported.  We are particularly interested in how religion can become a positive force for pluralism and tolerance, and how can we cultivate tolerance, citizenship and pluralism through education?  We are also interested in studies that look into the role of digital technology, social media and internet, and how we can assess their impact toward positive results for engagement and dialogue.

How long has it take to assemble the Foundation, and when was its first official day?

Discussions started in early 2010; we have held meetings with colleagues and supporters and were able to get a small donation, and have been building on this since then.  The Foundation is still evolving, and we have a diverse group of community leaders and businessmen.  Our hope is to finalize a first-rate Board of Advisers by May 2012.

What do you hope the Foundation will accomplish, and in what areas of the world are you primarily focusing your attention?

Our regional focus is on Middle East and North Africa.  We are focusing on five programs:

1.  Water & Civil Society:  Common Interests, Common Experiences

2.  Public Health & Civil Society

3.  Language & Civil Society

4.  Sports & Civil Society

5.  Technology & Civil Society

We are looking into publishing short monographs on Islamic Concept of Civility & Citizenship, Christian Concept of Civility & Citizenship, and Judaic Concept of Civility & Citizenship.  We are also launching a Friendship Cup 2012 in June, bringing Middle Eastern teams for competition in Utah.

How do the words of Gandhi mesh with the words of the Qur’an, and how is this a metaphor for the purposes of the Foundation?

Our ultimate objective in this foundation is to create the conditions that would eliminate what Mahatma Gandhi called the seven deadly sins of society:

1.  Commerce without morality

2.  Politics without principles

3.  Wealth without work

4.  Pleasure without conscience

5.  Knowledge without character

6.  Science without humanity

7.  Worship without sacrifice

All faiths and cultures share the core values of integrity, tolerance, kindness, service, generosity, loyalty, and moral courage.  Muslims are no different than Christians or Jews.  They follow the above principles of Gandhi within their culture and religious experience.  For example, a Quranic verse states the following:  “We are brothers and sisters from the same parents.  God made us into different races and cultures to recognize each other, not to fight each other, to benefit from this plurality in this life.  In this life God ordered us not to exalt ourselves, not to use the religion as a means of living and power.”  [Qur’an 49:13]

Have you seen the Foundation already making an impact?

We have reached out successfully to several similar organizations and foundations, and are currently working on initiating joint projects.  We have supported a couple of community projects including a conference on civil society 10 years after September 11th, and plan to do another one in April 2012.

And finally, about which Foundation events this year are you particularly excited?

I am excited about our 2012 Friendship Cup; we hope to build the foundation for greater dialogue with Middle Eastern civil societies.  As you may know, for the first time a Middle Eastern country has been chosen to host the World Cup in 2022.  The country of Qatar will host this major international soccer event.  We plan to have informal forums on dialogue and tolerance, providing opportunities for greater understanding between the Muslim and western worlds.

My hope is that Dr. Bakhtiari and his fellows will succeed in their mission to help build a world where morality is resident in commerce, principles are inseparable from politics, work gives birth to wealth, conscience dictates pleasure, character informs knowledge, humanity directs science, and worship is sanctified through sacrifice.