Interfaith Dialogue can Help Build Peace

Photo: George Gallagher via Flickr

Interfaith dialogue is a necessary aid in conflicts involving religion.

Some years ago, many Western social scientists were claiming that religion was a dying phenomenon. Such assertions were part of an arrogant assumption that the entire world would soon come to resemble the north-western corner of Europe. In Eastern Europe, which lay under the yoke of Communism, atheistic faith prevailed. And no doubt many people believed that atheism would continue to prevail after the Communist system was abolished.

After the fall of Communism, however, atheistic was to a large extent replaced by religious faith. Putin, a former KGB officer, became a churchgoer – and allied himself with authoritarian church leaders. In the Caucasus, atheistic oppression was replaced by an explosion of violence justified on the basis of religious and nationalist beliefs. In the Middle East, and far into Asia, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism are being used to justify violence and the oppression of people with different views – regardless of whether they are adherents of the oppressor’s own or a different religion.

Twenty years ago, the American social scientist Samuel Huntington predicted that the conflicts of the future would be between what he called “civilizations”. According to Huntington, there were seven different civilizations, all with religious roots. In general, Huntington was mistaken. “Civilization” is a very diffuse concept. Even more importantly, most violent conflicts take place within so-called “civilizations”.

Many more lives are lost in internal conflicts in Muslim countries than in conflicts between “Islam and the West”. The inflamed and globally significant conflict between Israel and Palestine has important religious elements. It is also about occupation and territory. But it is not a conflict between civilizations.

Religion is a common feature of many current conflicts. Religion may contribute to intensifying a conflict, and is used to justify conflicts. Despite this, we often hear Western politicians and social scientists say that a particular conflict is not really about religion, but about economic and political factors. This is a simplification.

When a conflict becomes violent, this is usually because many different circumstances coincide. When seeking to justify violence, some people cite religion, some cite nationalism, some cite economic factors, and the majority cite the lack of any alternative. In any event, it is unacceptably paternalistic to claim that a conflict is really about something other than what the parties themselves allege. Anyone who wants to help resolve a conflict needs to consider all the factors involved.

National and ethnic identity are very often linked to religion. In Europe, this is familiar from the conflict in Northern Ireland. Religion is also one factor in the tensions between Western Europe and the Orthodox part of Eastern Europe. A century ago, differences in Christian beliefs were cited to justify the war between Protestant Germany, Roman Catholic France and Orthodox Russia, as Philip Jenkins writes in his book on the subject called The Great and Holy War. The entry of the Protestant United Kingdom and Muslim Turkey into the war, on the French and German sides respectively, however, made it more difficult to explain the conflict as based on differences in Christian beliefs.

Addressing the religious aspects of complex conflicts can enhance the likelihood of successful results. Politicians negotiate and sign peace agreements, but religious leaders can contribute to the process through dialogue and collaboration regarding those aspects of the conflict that are religious in nature.

For example:

  • Territory. Among many people and in many religions, there is a close connection between territory, nationality and religious beliefs. Israel was founded precisely on the basis of such a connection. There is a similar connection between Russia and Russian Orthodox beliefs. In Saudi Arabia, there is no official place for any religion other than Islam. According to Hamas in Gaza, because the whole of Palestine was formerly under Muslim rule, in principle it is still Muslim territory. Following this line of reasoning, there are Muslim theologists who think that Islam has a right to Andalusia in Spain. Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka think and act in relation to Christians, Muslims and Tamil Hindus in accordance with the same reasoning.
  • Holy sites. The Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem (referred to by Israel as the Temple Mount) is the most potent symbol of the conflict between Israel and Palestine. The Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron is another, similar point of conflict. Both Jews and Muslims have historical links with the site. The Kosovo Plain and Pančić’s Peak are a conflict point between Kosovans and Serbs. The mountain is a national and religious symbol for Serbs.
  • Access to and use of holy sites. Thousands of Christians in Gaza and the West Bank apply each year for permits to participate in the Easter services at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Israel grants a number of permits each year, but many people will never get to visit the church. During each Ramadan, which this year began on 5–6 June, all the Muslims in the area want to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Israel’s policy in this regard has varied. In some years it has granted entry to everyone from the West Bank; in other years it has imposed an age threshold for men (only allowing access to men aged over 45 or over 50); and in some years only a few people have been admitted through the checkpoints.
  • Attitude towards other religions. All religions have views about their own adherents and their beliefs, as well as about adherents of other religions and their beliefs. Such views vary even within religions. These views are promulgated through religious education and school textbooks. In conflict situations, teaching materials may either omit information about other parties to the conflict and their religious beliefs, or describe them negatively.
  • Collaborative projects. To the extent that religious leaders associated with the parties to a conflict manage to engage in collaborative projects and be seen together, they help to eliminate religion as a factor contributing to the tension between the parties. Collaborative projects could include joint training for young religious leaders, shared support for changes in religious education, or a commitment to address a challenge outside the field of conflict.

Certain preconditions must exist if religious leaders are to contribute to resolving a violent conflict:

  • They must respect and acknowledge each other’s beliefs and religion. This does not mean that they must deny the validity of their own religious beliefs. But a willingness to listen to others’ beliefs can make religion in itself a common ground for further conversation and negotiation.
  • They must be able to rise above their own national, ethnic and cultural identities. This will enable them to see that their own beliefs are formed by ethnic and cultural factors. This makes it possible for them to understand the other party’s complex identity. In this way religious, cultural and national identities are no longer absolutes.
  • They must distance themselves from claims that anyone has exclusive access to God. A good friend of mine, an Iranian ayatollah, once said that if we believe everyone who claims to be speaking on behalf of God, we have many different gods. This was a solid piece of criticism of Iranian society, but also a caution to everyone who uses god to justify their own use of violence.
  • They must be leading authorities in the use of holy texts. All holy texts contain justifications for violence and the use of weapons. Other passages within the same texts, however, also propound good reasons for peace and respect for the value of every human being. Religious leaders have a special responsibility to seek out and emphasize precisely these passages.
  • They must avoid denigrating other people’s rights to visit holy sites, or other people’s rights to reside in a particular country.
  • They have a responsibility to identify the religious elements in a conflict and to attempt to distinguish them from other elements.
  • They must be religious and theological leaders. Theology is about the relationship between the earthly and the divine, but nonetheless it is earthly activity that can help everyone, including politicians, to resolve conflicts, rather than intensifying them.

Interfaith dialogue is necessary in conflicts involving religion. It will never replace political negotiations, but can make a constructive contribution when it is used in conjunction with such negotiations.

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