Religious Responses to Conflict
A Forum in the Wilson Center Series "What Really Works in Preventing and Rebuilding Fragile States?"
This event was cosponsored by the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding and the Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity.
Betty Oyella Bigombe, Africa Program Distinguished Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Joyce Dubensky, Executive Vice President of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding
Deborah Schneider, Deputy Director of the Office of International Religious Freedom
David Smock, Vice President of the United States Institute for Peace's Center for Mediation and Conflict Resolution and Associate Vice President of the Religion and Peacemaking program
Michael Lund (moderator), Consulting Program Manager for the Woodrow Wilson Center Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity and Senior Associate for Conflict and Peacebuilding at Management Systems International, Inc.
In the post-Cold War era, many claims have been made about what methods of intervention are most successful in resolving intra-state conflicts. One of the most widely touted approaches draws on the role of religious leaders and faith-based peacebuilding. As part of the Wilson Center's forum, "What Really Works in Preventing and Rebuilding Fragile States?" panelists were asked to review and analyze religious responses to conflict, citing specific examples from conflicts around the world. The event was co-sponsored by the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding and the Wilson Center's Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity.
Joyce Dubensky led off the discussion and emphasized the importance of moderate religious voices in resolving conflict. In an effort to raise awareness of such voices, and underscore their significance in the promotion of peace, the Tanenbaum Center has recently published a book entitled, Peacemakers in Action: Profiles of Religion in Conflict Resolution. Dubensky highlighted several of the inspirational peacemakers profiled in the book, stressing to the audience the personal risks that these actors have taken in their efforts to secure peace. She believes that while the conflict resolution techniques varied among the peacemakers cited in the book, certain commonalities could be extracted from their experiences and replicated. The key shared traits of the peacemakers include: (1) the way that religion permeates their lives, providing them with the focus and tools necessary for building peace; (2) their strong community ties, which grant the peacemakers perceived authority to intervene in the conflict; (3) personal qualities such as the ability to see the humanity in others, a certain level of emotional intelligence, strong personal drives to make a difference, and the ability to empathize.
David Smock echoed Dubensky's belief in the power of individual faith-based peacebuilding, and recounted some of his personal experiences dealing with religious leaders in conflict-torn areas. He said that he has been particularly struck by the amount of interreligious cooperation he has witnessed over the years. Sharing a bond of religiosity, various religious leaders have been able to set aside personal disagreements in order to preach understanding and forgiveness in their communities. Smock asserted that the role of religion in peacebuilding efforts is often underemphasized and that religious leaders play a vital role in promoting peace, tolerance, and understanding. Citing a number of figures he has worked with, Smock believes that religious leaders harbor several key attributes essential to effective peacebuilding, including the ability to bring people together and the ability to recognize the extent of their influence, allowing them to concentrate their efforts in areas where they will be most effective.
Speaking from personal experience, Betty Bigombe shared how religion has impacted her involvement with the Ugandan peace process. Although she considers herself an ordinary citizen with average religious beliefs, Bigombe admitted that prayer brought comfort and calm during anxious and uncertain times. Surrendering to the will of God, Bigombe stated that she was able to overcome her fears and focus on ending the violence that had brought death and destruction to so many people. Bigombe contrasted this personal experience with the ways in which the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has manipulated religion to gain adherence and control. Convincing his followers that he has divine power, Joseph Kony, leader of the LRA, has turned young boys "into brutal killing machines," she said. Bigombe also spoke of the potential that religious leaders hold in reconciling war-torn communities. Strengthened by their presence and engagement in local communities, religious leaders are best able to spread the message of tolerance and forgiveness. However, Bigombe warned that forgiveness is personal and it is ultimately up to individuals to determine if reconciliation will occur.
Deborah Schneider informed the audience of the role that the US government and Department of State have played in religious conflict and the promotion of religious freedom. She stated that religion provides a critical lens for interpreting and resolving social conflict. Religious leaders play a particularly prominent role in peacebuilding because they are often seen as the keepers of collective identity, history, and memories. As such, religious leaders can help shape community responses to conflict, expose social injustice, promote tolerance, create conditions for healing, and condemn the use of terrorism. Speaking from experience, Schneider felt that the challenge from a US policymaker's point of view was in determining if they should magnify the leaders' efforts, safeguard conditions the leaders need to do their work, or simply, just get out of the way.
The general consensus of the panelists was that faith-based peacebuilding has a positive impact on mitigating, managing, or resolving conflicts. Qualities such as compassion, understanding, and forgiveness were cited as key attributes that help explain why religious peacebuilders are able to succeed where others fail. An additional consensus was reached that while religious responses to conflict present a viable avenue for resolving conflict, they will achieve greater success if combined with similar secular efforts.
Drafted by Mathias Kjaer
Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity