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So You Want to Be an Interfaith Peacebuilder?

By Mohammed Abu-Nimer


Peacebuilding is an umbrella term used to capture a wide range of conflict resolution methods (negotiation, mediation, arbitration, problem solving, and so on) along with methods such as nonviolence resistance strategies and reconciliation and dialogue processes. The field of peacebuilding has seen significant growth in recent years. However, the lack of systematic and institutional linkages among the various arenas in this emerging field has been a factor that has reduced its capacity to influence policy makers and have a greater impact in conflict areas.

Within this rapidly growing field of scholarship and practice the sub-field of interfaith peacebuilding has emerged.

Examining the current reality of our world, one cannot deny that inter- and intra-faith peacebuilding is urgently needed, a practice to be integrated with other efforts to provide relief and development all over the globe.

Twenty journalists are trained in interfaith human rights at a workshop in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka – Photo:  Search for Common Ground

Twenty journalists are trained in interfaith human rights at a workshop in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka – Photo: Search for Common Ground

The primary challenge comes from religious institutions which continue to teach exclusivity and just war theory to their followers. Justifying violence and religious privilege for one group over another continues to be the norm for far too many religious institutions. For interfaith peacebuilding to be effective in our global and local cultures, it must challenge these institutional practices. That said, a universe of opportunities for interfaith relationship among peacebuilding communities is emerging.

For instance, one critical need is for religious leaders to step to the forefront of peacebuilding efforts in both violent and nonviolent areas of conflict. Their voices are sorely lacking in the peacebuilding arena, while religious and sectarian identities are being manipulated on a daily basis to justify horrible acts of terror, the indiscriminate killing of civilians, as well as the displacement and targeting of religious minorities.

As a field, interfaith peacebuilding is in direneed of identifying and disseminating effective and successful models of intervention and bringing them to the forefront of international, regional, and community public diplomacy. The work has begun, with many exemplars to lift up. They include the efforts of Imam Ashafa and Pastor Wuye from Kaduna, Nigeria; interfaith peacebuilding in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka; the interfaith Mindanao Peace Weavers in the Philippines; Christian and Muslim religious leaders at the Forum for Intercultural Dialogue (FID) in Egypt; and many more.

What It Takes

However, leaders need to know that faith and concern are not enough to build peace. For religious leaders to assume leadership roles in peacebuilding, a basic, foundational understanding (knowledge) and a number of practices (skills) have to be developed.

To start with, integrating a basic knowledge of other faiths should be a priority in every seminary, every religious educational institution. Clergy and faith leaders need to be exposed to other faith groups’ beliefs as early as possible. Without a basic knowledge of other traditions, ignorance and religiocentric and ethnocentric views will persist among followers and their leaders.

Learning about other faith traditions is not enough, though. Relationships are needed. A second step which interfaith peacebuilders have to take more seriously entails ensuring safe virtual and physical spaces to meet and establish sustained interreligious relationships.

Launching initiatives and implementing concrete actions involving members of other faith groups is another important step in interfaith peacebuilding. Collaboration can enhance and cement the relationships necessary for the process of peacebuilding.

Understanding the Conflict, Understanding the Culture

When systematically combining knowledge, skills, and action in interfaith peacebuilding, religious actors must take into consideration the power dynamics in any conflicted situation. Understanding the power imbalances and historic injustices that affect conflict relationships is essential for every clergy, religious leader, or person of faith engaged in peacebuilding. Ignoring these dynamics risks perpetuating the status quo and can serve to reinforce a dominant power’s control of systems and structures that produce and generate the conflict.

Peacebuilders such as the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King Jr., Abdul Ghaffar Khan, and others have found through their own faith the guiding principles or the moral compass to understand human conflicts and advocate for justice and nonviolence. Thus, there is no doubt that each faith can offer its followers similar guiding frameworks and moral values. The field of interfaith peacebuilding has to formulate these frameworks and offer them as an integral part of the leadership development and clergy basic education and training.

We can no longer deny that religious identity matters in politics in the majority of the world, especially in the Global South. Ignoring or negating the need to involve faith and religious identity (actors, symbols, rituals, values, spaces, and more) in resolving social and political conflicts is just another step in imposing one formula (political culture) on all humans, regardless of their faith or culture.

We know that such approaches are not effective and do not last. Our efforts today therefore should be focused on how best to ensure that formal and informal religious institutions are capable of guiding their clergy and followers in embracing their interfaith peacebuilding agencies and initiatives.

In addition, policy makers need to discover ways to consult with and integrate input from religious agencies and faith-based organizations as they develop policies. International government agencies have ignored religious agencies’ role in peacebuilding. Bridging this disconnect between policy and religion is a pressing need for interfaith peacebuilding as a field and for politicians around the world.

Mohammad Abu-Nimer addressing the KAICIID Global Forum in Vienna last month. – Photo: Bud Heckman

Mohammad Abu-Nimer addressing the KAICIID Global Forum in Vienna last month. – Photo: Bud Heckman

To be sure, ending the destructive ways religious identities are being manipulated by politicians and religious leaders cannot happen without well-designed and comprehensive strategies of interfaith peacebuilding. There are signs of hope. Recently a new initiative by governments of Austria, Saudi Arabia, and Spain launched the first international and intergovernmental organization for intercultural and interreligiousdialogue. KAICIID (King Abdullah International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue) is aimed at providing a dialogical space to bridge the gap between religious and political leaders.

Responding to Global Tragedy

Finally, a significant challenge to interfaith peacebuilding as a field is its capacity to generate not only awareness-raising and long-term educational models for peace and tolerance, but to devise relevant and timely intervention strategies that can respond to human tragedies. We see this need in societies like Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Nigeria, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. For interfaith peacebuilders to intervene in such contexts, we need to develop international, regional, and local institutional infrastructures and agencies that embrace the role of religious identity as a primary vehicle for active peacebuilding.

Special thanks are due to Tim Seidel for his review of this essay.