Executive Director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue, USA
I echo the admiration expressed here for the Community of Sant’Egidio, and above all for the special model of leadership and friendship that it exemplifies. Sant’Egidio is an inspiration and testimony to what networks and friendship can achieve. They challenge us all to seek and follow new paths, to see problems in new ways, and to bring our creativity to bear on the world’s most important challenges.
How religion and conflict are seen
The growing awareness, in both academic and policy circles, that religion is an important force in both conflict and peace, opens new opportunities for action. True, the predominant focus of policy discussion still tends to dwell on religion as a cause and a driver of conflict. But the theme of “blessed peacemakers” is becoming more prominent, more solid, and more substantial in its form. That said, we need to recognize that this awareness of religion’s peaceful potential is far from universal. There is still a tendency to exclude even the very topic of religion from discussions about conflict and peace. Documenting and probing the roles that religious actors, institutions, and ideas play remains a task and a priority.
The realities of religion’s place are far more complex than the simplistic images that dominate many narratives, and they are often contradictory or overlapping. To take a recent illustration, within the same two day period two quite different, diametrically opposed, assessments about religion’s role in Nigeria’s Christian Muslim conflict pointed to a stark contrast. Then Acting President Goodluck Jonathan, speaking in Washington DC, vigorously denied that religion was a factor in conflicts, pointing instead to long-standing land disputes and economic woes, and blaming politicians for fanning the flames of a wildfire so that it spread out of control. At the same time, a Pew Forum report noted that about 58 percent of Nigerians see religion as “a very big problem” in their country. How can we explain the contradiction, echoed in many different forms about different conflicts? Nigeria’s President is presumably convinced that his diagnosis of the causes of conflict is correct but he is also anxious to downplay the role of religious divides both in domestic discussion and in international perception because of fears of what the perception of religious conflagration can provoke. And he is obviously correct that multiple factors account for tensions in Nigeria, history, political manipulation, migrant versus settler tensions, and contests for land among them. Yet if so many Nigerians see religion as a factor, it obviously plays a significant role, even if that is largely confined to perceptions rather than realities. We need to insist on greater sophistication and depth in explaining and exploring how religion and conflict are linked.
Understanding how religion can ignite and fuel conflict is part of our task and deserves sophisticated and thoughtful exploration. But the more positive focus should be on the roles that religion does and can play in building peace. Similar threads are part of both sides of the coin: the passionate convictions of believers, fears of the other, historical narratives, and roles of leadership. As the Nigeria story underlines, we need to face and explore both realities and perceptions.
Experience of religion and peace
As a practical matter, the experience and potential of religious institutions, voices, leaders, and ideas need to be far more prominent in discussions about building peace. Some roles, for example Mahatma Gandhi, Desmond Tutu, and Martin Luther King Jr. are part of global historical narratives. But many other stories and roles of an extraordinary range of religiously motivated peacemakers are not well known. Many different roles can be highlighted: brokering peace (as Sant’Egidio has so inspirationally shown in Mozambique, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, and other places), rebuilding shattered communities, healing personal wounds of war, reshaping narratives, witnessing the truth of what has happened. In all these areas, religious leadership has been creative and instrumental. Important ideas are on the table or are happening on the ground for new and different roles: intervention forces, specific problem solving as tensions emerge (say about building a religious facility), peace education, and use of new social media are among them. The rich experience of religious peace making and peace building needs to be far better documented and known and new ideas need to be developed.
In diplomacy and other “peace” circles, the potential peaceful power of religion is too little known. Recently a European Union diplomat commented that in a conflict religious voices could not be brought in because religious institutions and leaders could not move fast enough and were not sufficiently practical. Yet the same person noted how central and effective religious people had proved in helping to defuse the tensions around a new cartoon crisis. Practical narratives and clarity on potential can change the images and lead to more constructive arrangements for track one and a half as well as “track two” diplomacy.
Two important yet invisible elements: First, fragile states
A new development paradigm is the focus on the important group of countries grouped as “fragile”, failing, or conflict states. The “bottom billion”, Paul Collier’s formulation of the group of countries that is being left behind, highlights that categories that divide and split the world into rich and poor, north and south, first, second, and third world, reflect rather tired and obsolete approaches. In the complex geopolitical mosaic of today, a more important reality is that some communities and countries are trapped in poverty and conflict and we have far too few solutions to help them emerge. The causes of their entrapment are many: poor governance, rampant corrupton, history, oppression, and geography among them. And solutions are genuinely difficult. It is clear that pouring money into these countries often does more harm than good, and “capacity building” and education, however essential, are long term propositions.
Many institutions are focusing on these countries in search of new ideas and approaches. Among them are the governments of the UK and the Netherlands. The World Bank’s World Development Report this year is about fragile states. It is a major new theme of the international community. The challenges today for fragile states are often greater than for nations that are on a path towards greater prosperity.
Yet religion is almost entirely absent from these policy discussions, an invisible factor. This is an aberration because nowhere is religion more powerful a player, for good and less good, than in these countries and communities. Religious communities are often the major social institutions that are present in conflict situations, and religious communities persist and endure despite ferocious governance problems. Above all, the primary if not the only services that poor people there see are those provided by religious actors. Because their roles are so important, religion must be made more visible and brought into the narrative and the dialogue about policy options and priorities for the group of fragile and conflict states.
Women and Religion
Security Council Resolution 1325 highlights the important, if long neglected, roles that women play in conflict situations. It calls for attention to women’s roles at every stage, pre-conflict to post conflict healing, and for women’s presence in all discussions about peace. It makes clear that the classic characterization of women as victims in conflicts, true as it is, in only a piece of the story. Women do and can play central roles. Women are more a focus of attention and for example in the United States there is a generational revolution in the gender mix in policy circles, including not only diplomacy (for example women Secretaries of State) but in security matters and professions across the board.
But in one area women are largely invisible: women who are inspired by and linked to religion. Religious voices are still too few in peace discussions; but when it comes to women, they are scarcely visible at all. With the United States Institute of Peace, the World Faiths Development Dialogue and the Berkely Center at Georgetown University are investigating the roles that women play and how religion is a force and a factor in their work. We have found a rich mine of experience and ideas that belong at the forefront of discussions about peace and religion.
We highlight several factors.
(a) The dangers of “essentializing” women: gender stereotypes are flawed and risky in all cases. All people are individuals and they are different so sweeping generalizations are risky. Women contribute to conflicts as well as to their solutions.
(b) However, women’s experiences are often different and lead to different agendas and different approaches. Many report that women’s agendas focus far more on children and the future and on health and education. Women seem more able to view the community as central. Many are able to reach across divides and see people as people. Their practical attention to details of life can play important roles in the most tense situations.
(c) Women are often invisible in religious circles. Perhaps the last glass ceilings are those within religious institutions, meaning that women are rarely prominent in religious leadership circles. This means that alternative ways need to be found to identify the work and roles that women play.
(d) Women, including religiously linked women, often accept or even seek invisibility, preferring to work from the “shade”, or arguing that anonymity helps them to avoid danger and achieve better results. But invisibility also has major drawbacks. It means that women rarely share in decision-making and hold little formal power. They receive little credit and are thus not seen as models. And their work receives little resources.
(e) Classic discussions about the meaning of peace dominate still more when women are involved. Peace is far more than the absence of war, and includes human rights, security in all dimensions, domestic violence, and fairness and equity in life. Broader definitions of peace bring into view a far wider range of experience, for example Ela Bhatt in India, working with informal sector women, and many working in the Middle East and Africa.
(f) The divides between secular and religious women are quite deep but they detract from the work of peace and they need not be as much of an obstacle as they are often allowed to be. Purposeful efforts to bridge the divides can overcome initial stereotypes and conceptions of the other.
(g) Recognizing and respecting the great role that religion often plays in motivating women to work for peace and justice can bring new insights and new actors into dialogue and understanding. Women’s theological analyses and discussions also play important and creative parts in reshaping narratives towards peace.
(h) Interreligious efforts can offer a way to see and engage more women as hierarchies are being reformed in efforts to reach beyond traditional structures. The opportunity to bring women who are religious actors and religious participants into both faith and interfaith forums offers an avenue to repair the omissions that often occur and they should not be missed.