Religion & Peacebuilding: Key Debates & Implementation Challenges

The risks of pressure toward extremism

One of the debates on the role of religion in peace and conflict is its actual capacity to intervene in religious conflicts. While some argue that faith-based interventions should be considered when religion is a significant factor in the identity of one or both parties to the conflict, others suggest "that religious actors can be most effective in contributing to a peaceful outcome in conflicts where the real roots are in secular and political problems or where the religious dynamics do not include their own faith tradition."1 In conflicts where dividing lines are based on religion, actors in the conflict use religion as a mask or justification for violence. Similarly, where the dispute is seeped in religious symbolism or language, the challenges to religious-based peacebuilding efforts are intense.

Religious leaders in communities in conflict, even if they want to play a peacebuilding role, often feel great pressure from their own constituencies and are pushed toward extremism rather than inclusiveness. They often find their religious peers unable or simply not ready to commit to the hard work of breaking cycles of violence and finding peaceful alternatives. As Bridget Moix notes, "Indeed, the prospects of peace--particularly in entrenched conflicts with a long history of religious divides--may incite more fear. Since religious peacebuilders will remain part of the communities in which they work whatever the outcome of their efforts, great risk is often attached to involvement in peacebuilding efforts."2 Most analysts argue that this should not undermine the potential for a positive contribution to peacebuilding by religious actors in the very instances where their voices and energies are needed most. They suggest it should help to identify where and how religious actors can make the most of their influence.

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Balancing missionary objectives and peace requisites

Because religious actors have missionary obligations"that is, they are committed to spreading the religion so that more people joint it"a balance needs to be found between this fundamental aspect of their work and their broader contribution to peacebuilding.3

A classic example is when some religious actors are tempted to limit their aid to their sole partisans. Most analysts suggest, however, that almost all faith-based international NGOs "serve people without regard to their religious affiliations and most faith-based NGOs also recruit staff from a variety of religious backgrounds."4 This applies in particular to humanitarian and development assistance.

Another and more critical concern is the engagement of religious actors in the more political dimensions of peacebuilding. Scholar R. Scott Appleby has made a series of recommendations on how to maintain a balance between missionary objectives and peace requisites: "First and foremost, religious authorities"spiritual leaders and 'guides of the faithful,' governing officials of religious bodies or organizations, institutional administrators and the like"must make three significant commitments to religious peacebuilding. First, they must give priority to the religious education and spiritual and moral formation of the largest possible pool of believers in addition to the disciples or novices in their charge; religious peacebuilders, to be effective, must draw on symbols, concepts, values, and norms shared by the wider community. Second, religious authorities must also dedicate precious resources, including the time and energy of many of their most gifted coreligionists, to conferences and dialogues designed to develop culturally nuanced methods of conflict transformation. Finally, religious authorities must agree to collaborate, as necessary, with trainers, educators and facilitators, who come from outside the religious community."5

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The need to respect diverse religious beliefs and spiritual resources

Particularly in countries where the religious dimensions of the conflict have attracted a lot of attention, or where an institutional church is dominant, it may be easy to forget that religious communities are not monoliths. In some parts of the world, such as Latin America and Africa, the rise of new religious groups competing for power, recognition, and resources constitutes a great challenge. Rosalin Hackett argues, "Disestablishing state religions and dismantling the complicities between dominant religions and state power have changed the stakes of coexistence between religious communities. Against the backdrop of the forces of democratization, mediatization, and the global market, religious groups are compelled to justify their existence to the state and consumers alike. These processes are clearly visible in many Latin American countries, where the powerful Roman Catholic Church now has to compete in the marketplace along with burgeoning evangelical groups and indigenous revival movements."6 One of the consequences is that the former dominant group may be less well situated to play a credible role in the peacebuilding process. Efforts to accommodate religious and cultural diversity are particularly important in transitional periods.

Esteem for diversity is also key to respecting local resources and belief systems. Scholar Elham Atashi asserts that international approaches often neglect the spiritual make-up and needs of local populations. David Smock writes, "Foreign approaches can be most helpful by strengthening indigenous processes of reconciliation and forgiveness. . . . Faith-based NGOs can work collaboratively with local religious groups to promote reconciliation, respecting local faith traditions and empowering local groups. By scrupulously avoiding any hint of religious superiority, faith-based NGOs can help repair broken relationships using culturally appropriate processes. Local norms, cultures, and religions need to be seen not as problems but as possible solutions to conflicts and as means toward reconciliation."7 Most analysts and practitioners alike emphasize the importance of outsiders integrating religious exhortation and local custom into their programs. Even transferring local methodologies to another location may be useful.8 Faith-based NGOs note that their role is more readily accepted by local populations because they respect and support their own cultures and solutions.9

Interreligious solidarity among distinguished leaders and grassroots activists is particularly important. Yehezkel Landau notes, "To succeed, each group needs the other, and from time to time they should come together to discuss how their efforts can reinforce one another."10 Understandably, local religious leaders may fear that their traditions will be disdained. Smock asserts, "If they are assured that their traditions will be respected and made safe, they do not feel threatened and are open to transforming negative stereotypes of others."11

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The challenges and limits specifically associated with interfaith dialogue

The actual impact of interfaith dialogue is among the most debated topics. Issues raised during a debate organized by the United States Institute of Peace and specifically addressed to Canon Charles Gibbs, executive director of United Religious Initiatives (URI), revealed some of the key issues:
  • The danger of pushing people to see all religions as the same;
  • Concern that the URI approach may engender fear among those who want to affirm the particularity of their faith, who fear syncretism, and who do not see common ground with other faiths;
  • Opposition of those convinced that they hear a divine call to proselytize and who are more concerned about spreading their faith than about solving some shared economic or political problem; and
  • The danger of emphasizing dialogue at the expense of the justice issues that sometimes divide faith groups and breed distrust.12
Another common set of critiques regarding interfaith dialogues is their limitation "if they are arranged as debates or simply as opportunities for conversion. Constructive dialogues are those that signal intent to listen and become venues for mutual respect and problem-solving. They should move away from defining or debating religious convictions and move towards shared and practical responses to legitimate, identifiable needs (super-ordinate goals), such as humanitarian assistance."13 In other words, the religious argument they build has to be in support of a peacebuilding agenda, otherwise their impact will be, at best, limited.14

Conversely, interfaith and reconciliation workshops may be useless if imbalances of power and structural injustices persist, as examples from the Middle East often show.15 As a consequence, many recommend having modest expectations of such programs. Indeed, "improving relations among significant segments of religious communities in conflict is [a] worthwhile goal even if it does not end violent conflict."16

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The importance of complementing faith-based initiatives with other peacebuilding efforts

Most analysts recommend having modest expectations of the impact of religious or faith-based peacebuilding initiatives. As for any aspect of peacebuilding, a myriad of programs and a holistic approach are required to support processes that are complex. Identically, there is no guarantee of dramatic impact, and relying only on interfaith dialogues or rituals, for instance, may not be sufficient to adequately address the different peacebuilding issues. Religious and faith-based processes are not magic bullets.17 They are, however, meant to complement other peacebuilding tools and processes, and are very important as such. As religion is an important part of peoples lives, it is important not to ignore it.

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The ambiguity of the relations to the political sphere

Religious actors have all kinds of interactions with local political entrepreneurs. In wartime, they may be their direct or indirect allies or opponents. They usually are subject to all sorts of manipulation and often are implicated (however inadvertently) in the conflict. In peacebuilding processes, they sometimes clearly substitute their role and appear at the forefront of the political scene. Their activism, however well intentioned, may create division in their own religious community, as it is generally perceived as politically aligned.18 Depending on the context and the local history of the relationships between religion and the state, this can durably influence the capacity of religious actors to continue to fulfill their functions.19 Whereas some observers are mainly concerned with the maintenance of religious actors' "neutrality" as a condition of maintaining these actors' credibility and capacity to influence a peace process, others note that if "neutrality" is to be defined by silence or passivity, "a neutral religious community is malleable to whoever dominates society."20 Instead, they suggest an "engaged neutrality" that includes taking stands on public ethics, while remaining actively nonviolent, nonpartisan, fair, and righteous. When 'neutrality' is defined this way, a non-partisan monk-hood could conceivably become a force toward sustainable peace and justice.21

Scholar Daniel Philpott prefers to emphasize the challenge of "complicity." He refers not only to the complicity of modern theologians in the cultures of nationalism (for instance, with the Nazi regime) but also to the fact that religious peacebuilders involved in high-level peacebuilding efforts can end up "befriending" or "accompanying" leaders who have a great deal of blood on their hands. They do so with the intention of leading them toward peace. Philpott asks the question, "When does having the courage to reach out to leaders of this sort become being co-opted or complicit?"22 It is a very important issue that has received all too little attention in the field at large. Philpott also argues that the religious actors who are most effective as peacebuilders are those who maintain independence from regimes and often those who are or were part of efforts to overthrow dictators. He suggests that their doctrines, or political theology, matter, as well.23

In all cases, it is important for peacebuilders to take into consideration the politics and grassroots power of religion, even when conflicts are not centered on religious animosities and even when the religious establishment is weak. It is also important not to romanticize the role of religious actors and not to forget their multiple and often ambiguous relationships to the political sphere.

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The importance of evaluating and accumulating knowledge

A widespread perception has emerged that faith-based actors may be "less result-oriented than secular peace-builders, [by argument] that they tend to focus more than secular peace-builders on long-term peace-building efforts, with the possible disadvantage that they focus more on establishing long-term relationships than on the shorter-term results/outcomes of these relationships in terms of peacebuilding." Another perception is that "some . . . ecumenical peace-building organizations appear to lack the capacity to operate as professionally as their secular counterparts."24 In that respect, one key recommendation made by scholars and practitioners alike is to improve not only the training of religious actors but also their evaluation mechanisms, "so that lessons, good and bad, can be learned for future applications."25 Over time, the knowledge accumulated through these types of evaluations will expand the collective understanding of the actual and potential roles of religious dialogue and religions at large in peacebuilding,26 something that remains underdeveloped so far.27

1. Bridget Moix, The Muslim-Christian Dialogue Forum: Mission Statement, "Peace is Divine, Preach It" (Kaduna, Nigeria).
2. Ibid.
3. We thank Daniel Philpott for his recommendation to rephrase a challenge that is sometimes referred to as "proselytism," an expression that may be misleading as the dilemma does not refer only to abusive and manipulative methods of missionary work but also to a necessary balance to be kept between this missionary work and the broader contribution to peace. Personal correspondence (November 14, 2008).
4. Smock, Faith-Based NGOs and International Peacebuilding, 2.
5. Appleby, The Ambivalence of the Sacred, 285.
6.Rosalind I.J. Hackett, "Rethinking the Role of Religion in Changing Public Spheres: Some Comparative Perspectives," in Brigham Young University Law Review (2005): 8.
7. Smock, Faith-Based NGOs and International Peacebuilding, 7.
8. Smock, Religious Contributions to Peacemaking.
9. Diklitch and Price, "The Mennonite Central Committee."
10. Landau, Healing the Holy Land, 47.
11. Smock, Faith-Based NGOs and International Peacebuilding, 3.
12. Ibid.
13. Peacebuild, Emerging Issues: Religion, Violent Conflict and Peacebuilding (Ottawa: Peacebuild), 7.
14. Appleby, The Ambivalence of the Sacred, 283.
15. Smock, Faith-Based NGOs and International Peacebuilding.
16. Smock, Religious Contributions to Peacemaking, 35.
17. See, for instance, the analysis by Lisa Schirch, Ritual and Symbol in Peacebuilding.
18. Harold Coward and Gordon S. Smith, eds., Religion and Peacebuilding (New York: State University of New York Press, 2003).
19. Pouligny, Peace Operations Seen from Below, 81-86.
20. Coward and Smith eds., Religion and Peacebuilding, 205.
21. Ibid., 205.
22. Philpott, "Religion, Reconciliation, and Transitional Justice" and personal correspondence, 14 November 2008.
23. Philpott, "What Religion Brings," 93-110.
24. Bouta, Kadayifci-Orellana, and Abu-Nimer, Faith-Based Peace-Building,39-40.
25. Garfinkel, What Works? Evaluating Interfaith Dialogue Programs, 2.
26. Ibid.
27. For an evaluation of the role of religion and religious actors in transitional justice, see, Philpott, "What Religion Brings," 93-110.

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