Religion, The Next "it" Thing?
In our contemporary world driven by religious extremes, God tends to be more and more associated to conflicts, internal strife, and chaos. Many people are becoming weary of religion on the grounds that if God existed, so many disasters and catastrophes would not happen, while on the other hand, many people around the world make religion their shelter and absorb themselves in it, in many cases to find their bearings in an ever changing world.
These two stands belong to the private spheres, and therefore should never enter the area of politics. Nevertheless, as religion is used, manipulated and turned into the cause of the majority of the ongoing current conflicts, it is a variable that should definitely be taken into account; not so much during the conflict in itself, but rather during post conflict peace-building efforts.
Indeed, if used wisely, religion can become an instrument of peace-building, especially in the Middle East, where it is so crucial in Arab societies. The power of the Sheikh, the Priest, or the Pastor is still very much respected and people tend to turn to their religious community leaders whenever a problem arises. If religious people, whom people believe in, started advocating for peace, mentalities could slowly shift to a logic of hatred to a thought frame of tolerance.
Religion, the Next Big Peace Advocacy Tool?
Although the idea seems incongruous in the Middle East, if we observe the blooming of inter-faith dialogue efforts that are being undertaken in Lebanon and Syria, and that seem to spread (albeit slowly) to the rest of the region, it seems that religion is more and more becoming a peace building tool.
More and more often, groups of religious representatives from different faiths gather in order to find areas of understanding and common grounds. In November 2008 the first Muslim-Catholic Seminar took place in Rome. In their joint statement, republished and promoted by Hiwar.net, the website of the Islamic Christian Dialogue in Lebanon formed by the Institute Of Islamic-Christian Studies (of St Joseph University, Beirut, Lebanon) in 1998, representatives of both faiths stressed their common beliefs, such as the philosophy of love underlying the two religions, as well as values such as the protection of life and dignity of human beings, gender equality, tolerance, and freedom of religious practice. Religious leaders also called for governments to establish civil laws that guarantee full citizenship and equal rights to each member of their population. Sounds familiar? Probably because the Civil and Political Rights Pact of 1966 give the same obligations to signatories states. In the Middle East, where religion is such an important component of day-to-day life, international law texts, although legally binding for member states, have a lesser impact than religious declarations. Religion can thus reinforce the secular body of laws voted, hence the ever-growing importance of inter faith dialogue for peace in the Middle East.
The Islamic Christian National Dialogue Committee in Lebanon, founded in 1993, is another good example of the will of certain religious leaders to be part of the peace building movement that is happening in the Middle East. A post war structure, the Committee aims at reaching out to civil society and partner with other like-aimed NGOs. Its main work is principally focused on advocacy both at the national and at the global level. At the national level, the Committee tries to reach out to all the strata of the population, rather than addressing dialogue among the heads of each confessions, in order to avoid intellectual elitism, which would be completely counter productive with regards to the aims and objectives of the Committee. Advocating for a better understanding of the “Other Side”, for more openness and tolerance, is something that is badly needed in Lebanon, and the Committee endorses this responsibility, something that might seem too big for this organisation that works on a voluntary basis only. At the international level, the Committee raises awareness on the particular situation in Lebanon, with its 18 confessions, its Constitution based on confessionalism, and its society that deducts your religion from your name, and shares good-practices with other NGOs.
The issue of religion as a peace building tool takes all its meaning in Lebanon, where no significant peace building efforts have been undertaken following the war. The amnesty for all was pronounced at Taef and that was it. Where were the legal instruments that could have helped victims cope with the horrors that they went through? No International body or government seemed to demonstrate the same hurry to create an ad hoc tribunal to judge war criminals that they did following Hariri’s assassination. In many other countries, especially in Africa, the aftermath of a civil wars often comprises a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, like the ones set up in South Africa, Liberia, or the one soon to be created in Kenya. In Rwanda, ex-Yougoslavia, and Cambodia, ad hoc tribunals were set up to judge war criminals, and with the creation and implementation of the International Criminal Court, warlords in DRC are now being judged in The Hague. These transitional and criminal justice institutions have at least helped the victims see their torturers apologize or be judged and condemned, which has created a better climate for reconciliation and cohabitation with “The Other Side”. In Lebanon, nothing of the sort happened. It is as if the Civil War never happened, as if no one was a militia member, as if no one killed anyone. All the confessions got back to their community and day-to-day life, licking their wounds behind close doors, with no or little dialogue with the enemies of yesterday. This very unhealthy situation had to be confronted, and, everything having to be related to religion in Lebanon, interfaith dialogue has emerged as the favourite means of peace building. The irony in that resides in the fact that now Lebanon is considered as taking the lead of interfaith dialogue in the region.
While it is true that the Cedar land occupies a privileged role in this area, other countries seem to actively engage in this dialogue in order to bring peace and stability to the region.
Other efforts to widen and deepen the inter faith dialogue in the Middle East are being undertaken by other countries, such as Syria and Palestine and Israel. Syria, perhaps the most secular country in the region, has always made a point of protecting religious minorities and nurturing the dialogue and cooperation in between the different faiths that compose the Syrian mosaic. Many actors of this partnership can be identified, including for example Mar Gregorios Youhanna Ibrahim, metropolitan of Aleppo for the Syriac Church, whose efforts to strengthen the cooperation between the different religions as well as women’s networks have gone beyond Syrian boarders.
In Israel and the Occupied Territories, 41 rabbis, sheiks and bishops agreed to participate in the exhibition Face2Face, that showed them making funny faces that would be exposed on different buildings throughout the world. Laughing for peace was the main idea of this initiative that at least brought together religious representatives of the main three faiths of the country.
The challenge that arise from this inter-faith dialogue movement is one of class: only top religious leaders seem to be involved or targeted by the initiatives, which gives an elitist edge to them. Inter-faith dialogue needs to reach out to lower ranking religious clerics, and to community leaders, who would be the most influent in terms of changing mentalities and building peace. Besides, the inter faith dialogue is very enthusiastic when it comes to building peace, but much more shy when civil matters are at stake, as observed for example in Lebanon, where the issue of the civil marriage is raging and where religious leaders are running behind.
It is truly inspiring to see so many religious leaders break free from the ideology of hatred. Nevertheless, these efforts should be backed by secular institutions and public policies, so as to disengage from this logic of confessions and religions once and for all in our region, and start thinking as nations rather than as confessions.
· Interfaith Dialogue in Lebanon: The Necessary Path Towards Post-Conflict Reconciliation
Moving Beyond: Interreligious Dialogue in Lebanon
· Christian-Muslim dialogue
· Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue
· Welcome to Hiwar.Net [Islamic-Christian Dialogue in Lebanon]
· URI – United Religions Initiative
· PHOTOPERA – un espace pour la photographie suisse d’auteurs et les photographes suisses
· Engaging Religion to Reduce tension : the case of Syria and Lebanon, Frida Austvoll Nome, International peace Research Institute, Oslo