Read how peace practitioners can tap into the potential of religion to transform individuals and communities for the better.
"Religion has to be part of the solution", said former EU High Representative, Federica Mogherini, during her opening keynote speech at the Global Exchange on Religion in Society in September 2019. "But most importantly, I believe in so many places around the world religion is already part of the solution. In all continents, there are people of faith who have chosen the path of respect and coexistence. Not in spite of their faith, but because of their faith". I found these remarks exciting because they uncover the potential role of religion in peacebuilding and nurturing cohesive societies. However, the panel, consisting of prominent peacebuilding practitioners and policymakers, then went on to discuss ways to mitigate the danger of religion as a source for conflict, and the inherent responsibility of religion to "keep itself in check".
In my view, this dialogue reflects how secular societies tend to view religion as a driver of conflict, and therefore relegate it to the private sphere. However, in what ways does this approach prevent us from recognising the potential of religion to transform individuals and communities for the better? What insights can we draw from religion that are useful for our work as peacebuilders?
Peacebuilders and governments have begun to understand that religion and faith can offer meaningful contributions to conflict transformation.
What insights can peacebuilders draw from religion?
Given that 84% of the world’s population identify with a religion, an increasing number of actors – including peacebuilders and governments – have begun to advance the notion that religion and faith can offer meaningful contributions to conflict transformation. Faith-based actors are often seen – in a utilitarian sense – as a means to reach large audiences within a society.
In peace mediation, for example, faith-based actors are ideally placed to act as mediators across all segments of society. This is due to their legitimacy and position of moral authority, as well as the trust their constituents place in them, but also thanks to their insider knowledge of local conflict dynamics. A prominent example from the South African context is Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was able to build bridges across conflicting parties, due to the trust he enjoyed from both sides as a religious leader.
However, beyond inspirational spiritual leadership, we also need to acknowledge that it will not be enough to focus on the engagement of institutionalised religion and charismatic individuals. The aim to achieve sustainable peace requires extending current engagement to include the foundations on which religion can speak. Conflict transformation requires a fundamental shift in attitudes, habits, mindsets and interactions across stakeholders and civil society. How can peacebuilding efforts tap into the potential of religion – which is guided by an acknowledgement of our shared humanity – in its mission to build prosperous and united societies?
How can peacebuilding efforts tap into the potential of religion to build united societies?
While the laws of different religions and faiths differ, their core values and objectives are similar. They all seek to assist people to develop spiritual qualities in order to build united and prosperous societies. One value they share is the belief that every human being has a spiritual nature, which transcends gender, colour, or ethnicity. This notion can help us eradicate prejudices and assumptions of difference that underpin the root causes of conflict. Religion teaches people to act in ways that acknowledge that every human being is created the same way and has an inherent value and dignity. Peace mediation should draw on these teachings, which motivate people to dedicate their lives to the service to others and to sacrifice for the greater good.
Peacebuilders and donors should continue to challenge the long-held assumption of faith-based actors as mere recipients of expertise, capacity-building, and funding and be open to learn from their expertise.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not suggesting we overlook the ways in which religion and faith have been instrumentalised to promote conflict and violence. My concern, however, is that if mainstream peacebuilding approaches continue to operate under the assumption that religion is a threat to peace, its potential to sustainably transform our relationships with one another will be overlooked.
Peacebuilders and donors should continue to challenge the long-held assumption of faith-based actors as mere recipients of expertise, capacity-building, and funding and move towards a reciprocal relationship open to learning from faith-based actors’ expertise. We could start closing research gaps by looking at religion as a source of knowledge that offers insights into human nature and human relationships which can help us better understand transformational processes. Perhaps we can then move towards panel exchanges, where experts reflect on cases in which religious leaders motivated sectors of society to solve a conflict together; or where a faith-based mediator was able to summon conflicting parties to explore solutions based on principles and the common good.
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