Geneva Peace Week: “Religion – A Source of Conflict or a Path to Peace? The Role of Religion in Preventing Violence”

News Releases – During the Geneva Peace Week that took place on 6-10 November 2017, the International Center for Peace and Human rights attended the following conference : “Religion – A Source of Conflict or a Path to Peace? The Role of Religion in Preventing Violence”, organized by the Cordoba Foundation of Geneva (CFG) on November 8, 2017 at the Ecumenical Center. As a result of a rich partnership, the discussion was animated by a diverse and eclectic panel moderated by Dr. Thania Paffenholz, director of the Inclusive Peace & Transition Initiative and including, Dr. Mohamed Elsanoui, Director of the Network of Religious and Traditional Peacemakers, Peter Prove, Director of the international affairs at The World Council of Churches and finally Rev. Trond Bakkevig. Through the examination of religious actors and institutions, this conference aimed to show how religion might be a fundamental means for peace promotion, and more particularly play a decisive role in preventing violence.

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Given that religion still plays an important role in human lives, it is important to consider its impact both in situations of conflict and peace processes. Indeed, it not only concerns the intimate sphere of individuals, but also juxtaposes different fields such the political and social ones. Regarding this latter area, religion appears as a powerful tool that can be used to achieve political agendas. Indeed, many politicians may use religion for their own political prospects. As noticed by one of the panelist, during the 2016 American presidential campaign, Donald Trump used Christian texts and beliefs to gain support and secure the votes of several Christian communities. In other contexts, the panelists underlined that religion could also be manipulated and used by government to obtain legitimacy.  For this reason, conflicts usually do not start because of religious dissensions but often end up as such. Regarding this issue, Dr. Mohamed Elsanoui explained to the audience that when religion is taken out of its theological context, it is subject to abuses. He continued by adding that religion could be compared to energy, which can produce both positive and negative outputs. Even though religion sometimes is an integral part of conflict, it is also an important factor without which it is hard to enable peace in the long term. Indeed, when there are political failures, it is often religious communities that hold the peace amidst chaos, illustrated in Libya, where religious institutions remained strong even after the political dislocation of the country.

In spite of the social benefits driven from religion, the violence contained in every religious tradition should be acknowledge and not ignored, according to Peter Prove. It is recommendable that the idea of conflict animates reflection, and it should be contrasted with mainstream and pacific practices, in order to show that even if violence exists within religion, peace is also present. Thus, theologians should acknowledge the violence but valorize and emphasize the positive aspect of scriptures in order to promote peace. As religion is not a pure and direct truth, it is always subject to interpretation, and the challenge consists of dealing with these two aspects. For some conflicts such as the one in Central Africa, the religious actors were immediately involved in the peace process, which allowed them to use their scriptures as a means to promote peace. As emphasized by Dr. Mohamed Elsanoui, if some conflicts are based on scriptures, then there is a need to examine them and to come up with solutions to resolve issues of misinterpretation. Furthermore, Peter Prove pointed out the fact that social media is essential in the spread of religious beliefs, which is why moderate religious actors should use it more frequently in order to highlight the similarities rather than the discrepancies among humans.

If it is a question of interpretation, why are people attracted to religious extremism? The pluralistic aspect of modern society is perhaps the key answer to this question. The audience was told that the more diverse a society becomes, the harder it is for humans to define themselves. As the cornerstone of many European societies, secularism is sometimes perceived as an anti-religious notion rather than an open space where all religions have equal status. This free space not only allows citizens to freely practice their religions, but also leads some individuals to use religion as a tool of contestation against a community or a political ideology. In this perspective, religious extremism comes out as a free space where people (especially youths) can express ideas, find themselves, and develop the desired sense of belonging to a community. As underlined by the different panelists, secularism only constitutes one aspect of the matter. Economic, social and political exclusion of the youth nevertheless remain important factors of extremist behaviors. Radicalization is indeed a way for people to access a place or a community that they failed to find in developed societies. Nevertheless, it is precisely on this critical feature that religious institutions can have an impact. By including and offering an understanding and a representation to individuals, religious institutions are able to prevent the heightened violence originating from religious extremism. 

So, as to bring cohesion and inclusion, the panelists argued that interfaith dialogue is the cornerstone to the fight against religious violence. By bringing people together, these dialogues create a space of inclusion and of acknowledgment of the other. One of the means used by associations to bring peace within communities is the lobbying to reach agreements on issues where common interests are shared, in an attempt to cooperate and confirm that mutual work is possible and advantageous for all parties involved. Indeed, based on his own personal experience, Rev Trond Bakkevig revealed that religious communities are a powerful lever that can be mobilized for peace. For example, amidst the conflict opposing Israel to Palestine, some religious actors noticed that there was a lack of narration on the part of the opposing community (Jewish or Muslim) in children’s schoolbooks. In order to address this issue, some religious actors decided to raise their voice and work together to provide an equal and true representation of the other side. Under this approach, religion can be seen as an important factor for social cohesion and communities’ participation and inclusion, especially in religious societies where these actors play an important role in individuals’ lives. This is therefore why the socializing power of religion should not be put aside in peace initiatives.  Furthermore, by dint of bringing people and the youth together, the citizens will throughout time build their own community based on intercultural understanding, thus preventing the distrust and violence of others. Religion does not only connect people from diverse communities, but also creates a bridge between countries, by virtue of faithfuls from different states sharing religious beliefs. In turn, this helps reduce political tensions between governments. Therefore, in this perspective, religion appears as a means to include the population back in the decision process, and to ensure them equal representation. By including and representing individuals, interfaith dialogues break the vicious circle of exclusion and anger that feeds religious extremism.

By Line Barabant - Research Assistant at CIPADH

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