The Role of Religious Leaders in Peacemaking: What is Needed?

Muslim womenThis guest blog by Prof. Mohammed Abu-Nimer is adapted from his remarks at the G20 Interfaith Forum in Bologna, Italy in September 2021. Abu-Nimer is a Senior Advisor at KAICIID and Professor of Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University. Prior to exploring some possible ways of engaging religious stakeholders and policymakers, and the challenges associated with this path, let us acknowledge several positive developments in the field of interreligious peace-making.

By Mohammed Abu-Nimer ~

This guest blog by Prof. Mohammed Abu-Nimer is adapted from his remarks at the G20 Interfaith Forum in Bologna, Italy in September 2021. The panel he addressed was entitled, “Healing Conflict: The Unheard Call for Global Ceasefire.” Abu-Nimer is a Senior Advisor at KAICIID and Professor of Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University.

Prof. Mohammed Abu-Nimer. [photo credit: American University]

Prior to exploring some possible ways of engaging religious stakeholders and policymakers, and the challenges associated with this path, let us acknowledge several positive developments in the field of interreligious peace-making.

First, compared to two decades ago, there are more governments and individual policymakers who recognize the potential constructive role that religious leaders can play in managing humanitarian crises and violent conflicts. Consider the work being done by international organizations and networks such as: the Transatlantic Policy Network on Religion & Diplomacy (TPNRD); the International Dialogue Centre (KAICIID), the International Partnership for Religion and Sustainable Development (PaRD), the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities (JLI); Religions for Peace (RfP), and the Network of Religious and Traditional Peacemakers.

Second, there is a substantial set of empirical data that points to the significant role that religious leaders are playing, especially at the community level. These studies have been generated by practitioners and scholars alike. They are published as evaluation reports and academic papers. We also have several journals that focus on religion and peace and as well as several new virtual data bases. For examples, see the Berkeley Center for Religion Peace and World Affairs, the Joint Learning Initiative, and KAICIID Peace Map. In addition, as part of this expansion in the field there is a serious growth in the creation of tools that advance technical skills (e.g. guides and manuals) on how to conduct inter religious and multifaith peace work.

Third, there is a growing awareness in the field for the need for the further inclusion of women, especially at senior levels, both when it comes to interreligious peacebuilding and institutional representation. The themes of women and gender roles in religious peacemaking have been emphasized in recent years as an integral part of the global, national, and regional agendas for peace. Obviously, there is a long way to go in genuinely integrating women in the field.

I will stop here, because I do not want to paint an overly rosy picture of the role of religious leaders in peacemaking and peacebuilding. There are many internal and external challenges that face those who attempt to engage in religious peacemaking, and it is worth addressing them to maintain a constructive and critical discussion on the state of this field.

I first want to unpack three stages of governmental engagement with religious groups on matters of peacebuilding.

First, while there are exceptions, the majority of politicians and their governments, especially in the Northern Hemisphere, remain in a denial stage in terms of the relevance of religion in peace and diplomacy. Their skeptical positions are quickly revealed when approached about potential collaboration with religious actors. And their skepticism can be measured by the few resources allocated to such areas by their respective foreign ministries. Many policymakers still do not see the constructive role that religious agencies can play in mitigating conflict, particularly in the context of violent conflict. Such policymakers continue to view religious agencies as the source of incitement, as fuel to the fire.

Second, other policymakers and government have recognized the potential role of religious organizations in peacemaking, but their engagement with religious actors is limited to symbolic representation. This is clearly reflected when a senior official invites a religious authority (and they accept) to offer their ceremonial blessing at a local, regional, or international peace accord, but religious actors are otherwise excluded from the substantive processes of peacebuilding.

Third, some governments and agencies recognize the role and have moved beyond the symbolic engagement, but they have allocated limited resources and compartmentalized religious engagement. Too often just one unit or one person in the foreign ministry or other related ministries is tasked with engaging with religion. This is certainly an improvement over the skeptical and ceremonial stages. Nevertheless, it remains less than the desired full mainstreaming of engagement with religious and faith-based organizations’ across all policy areas. Huge organizations such as the European Union, USAID, DFID, and the African Union cannot be adequately served by having just one person or small office to deal with religion.

There is a lively debate over whether religious and faith-based groups should be engaged across all social, economic, and political areas in society, or confined to these areas in which religious identity is manipulated or utilized in violent conflict. In the Southern Hemisphere it is more widely understood that faith and religion are integral parts of the everyday life of most people, so engagement with faith groups should be incorporated into all policies. “How can I engage with religious institutions?” should be a question that every policymaker ask himself or herself on continuous basis.

To equip diplomats and other policymakers to engage more effectively with religious actors, there is an urgent need for more religious literacy and for the capacity building. This will help to reduce the damage that is being done around the globe when governmental donor agencies neglect local faith-based organizations and work exclusively with secular international civil society organizations—or partner with religious actors who are disconnected from local communities and thus lack the legitimacy, credibility, or the capacity to represent the needs of the diverse faith communities.

Similar to other international agencies who operate in conflict areas, the interreligious peacemaking community lacks coordination and complementarity in their interventions in the same area and on the same topic (whether it be COVID-19, education, gender, or peace processes). There are no regional or national interreligious peacebuilding coordination mechanism to enhance the capacity of such organization to be more impactful in their similar work. For example, despite the fact that majority of the international organizations work in Nigeria, there is no forum or space for any systematic coordination to explore complementarity and efficiency. This internal challenge continues even though there are at least five major umbrella networks of which many faith-based organizations and donors are members.

Faith-based organizations themselves have many challenges. Allow me to briefly highlight a few.

    1. There are no institutional and sustainable structures for engagement with policy makers; the engagement is sporadic and dictated by the circumstances or external forces.
    2. Leadership and decision-making levels are predominately male, especially with regards to engagement with policymakers.
    3. Different governmental agencies continue to control religious authorities in many countries and dictate their positions on political issues.
    4. There is a growing gap between formal and informal religious authorities. There are parallel worlds of religious authorities with formal leadership, often closer to the state, and informal leadership that has a strong presence on social media and satellite television. Both authorities compete for the ears and hearts of their communities.
    5. Those religious peacemakers who dare to intervene and take the risk of engagement in conflict interventions have very little protection and support from their formal institutions or from government agencies.

There are many other challenges, but I want to end on a positive note. In the past few years there has been significant development to respond to these challenges I have mentioned above. On the academic level, three new Masters programs have been established in religion and peace and two specialized academic journals have been launched in the past two years. Several European and North American governments have convened and sponsored global meetings for faith-based organizations to explore constructive engagement. The 2021 G20 Interfaith Forum in Italy, building on its previous annual gatherings in Saudi Arabia, Japan, and Argentina has created a separate ministerial track to engage policymakers and discuss many of the questions that religious and faith-based actors often discuss amongst themselves.

These are important developments that we should celebrate.


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The Role of Religious Leaders in Peacemaking: What is Needed? ( photo credit: UN Women/Ryan Brown)

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