Education towards violence free communication and conflict solution
James Cairns: Does Spirituality help in Conflict? Activities of Religions for Peace/The World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP) in Regions like Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sierra Leone and Indonesia
Areas with Concrete WCRP Involvement Potentials of Religious Communities
In trying to address the question, “Does spirituality help in conflict?” I want to begin with a story that might help us draw a contrast about the role of spirituality in conflict. I have an indelible memory from the television coverage of the 1991 Gulf War in the United States. After the military offensive began against Iraq, a US television station interviewed one of the fighter pilots, and he began to talk to the reporter, saying,” The other day I was flying and encountered an Iraqi aircraft and I could see the pilot. It struck me that he was about the same age as me and probably had a wife and family like I do, and I thought about my wife back home, and I was reassured…” (And I waited with anticipation for a message of universal brotherhood – that despite being at war we are all human, or at least a glimpse of what we might hope for; then came the line that I will never forget) “ …because I knew that God was on my side and I would prevail.” And he proceeded to shoot down the other plane and return safely.
This story reveals that when we talk about spirituality and conflict we must be careful, because it has several edges. There is this individual edge as expressed by the pilot, and we should not disregard the sense of comfort that spiritual belief gives to individuals in conflict situation. Unfortunately, however, it is sometimes expressed in ways that do not show much concern for those on the other side. There is also a collective dimension, and I want to look at the way communities approach spirituality and conflict. How do religious communities articulate an approach to public life and social concern in times of conflict and how can that be engaged through multi-religious collaboration to try to resolve conflict? It is in this way that WCRP is engaged in trying to assist.
Before going into specific examples, I want to outline the philosophy or model that WCRP uses to engage religious communities in this process:
First, we start by looking at religious communities in their entirety and the ways that they structure and define themselves. This is important because it demonstrates a fundamental respect for the structure, character and conscience of each community. To be an effective facilitator, we must know the religious communities well enough so that the structures or individuals engaged in a process of conflict resolution are ones that the members of that community would recognise as in some way representing them. If the persons involved are not seen in this way, then it is very difficult to mobilise or engage the full community in any meaningful way.
Second, we bring these representatives of religious communities together to begin a process of contact and dialogue through which they can discern what we call “deeply held and widely shared” concerns. As they look at the problems facing their society they can identify concerns that are deeply held within their respective traditions and at the same time are widely shared across tradition. This is the nexus of co-operation – the cross cutting issues or concerns that affect all the religious communities. It is a limited mandate, as it only addresses those areas where Christians as Christians, Buddhists as Buddhists, Muslims as Muslims, etc. can come together to say, “Yes, in each of our traditions, we have a deep concern for peace and overcoming conflict. Our teaching and tradition and practice speak to this concern. We can also see that these concerns are held in other communities, that they are shared concerns.”
Third, we use those shared concerns to develop common principles as a basis for collaboration. This requires a “translation” of language so that these principles can be expressed in language that both reflects the particular tradition, but that is not specific to any one tradition and thus can be shared by all. In this way, all traditions can see their own values reflected in the principles, expressed in language that is inclusive.
Finally, we use the principles to develop a plan of action. Dialogue is an essential part of the process, but it is not the end goal – it is a point leading to active collaboration among religious communities around common concerns. The move from a particular spiritual concern within a community into contact and dialogue among communities to define areas around which they can collaborate is the philosophy of engagement we are trying to promote. This plan puts into concrete joint action the idea of multi-religious co-operation expressed in statements of common principle.
Areas with Concrete WCRP Involvement
Now, turning to look specifically at the area of conflict, I want to highlight four areas where WCRP has been working concretely to test the model as it develops: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sierra Leone, Indonesia, and, in a slightly different approach, mediation with religious leaders in Ethiopia and Eritrea. In each situation, there is a society that has been in conflict, but the particular character and context differs among them. Sometimes these have been conflicts that have had religious labels on them, sometimes not. They cover a range of levels from wide-scale violence to localised intermittent violence. Ethiopia and Eritrea is a classic inter-state war, Bosnia is something in-between that and civil war, Sierra Leone was a brutal civil war, and Indonesia is struggling with a range of civil and communal violence and trying to prevent large-scale violence from breaking out. Let me sketch each one in turn.
WCRP began working in Bosnia-Herzegovina in mid-1996 to bring together the senior representatives of the four main religious communities in Bosnia (Muslim, Orthodox, Catholic, and Jewish) to begin a process of dialogue to help the religious communities to find ways to work together in the reconstruction and reconciliation process after the war. Taking this step was extremely difficult because the dividing lines in the conflict were national/ethnic and the primary thing that defines the difference among those national groups is there religious identity.
We went through a formation process with the religious leaders similar to what I outlined earlier: we convened initial joint meetings, worked with the representatives in the creation of a “Statement of Shared Moral Commitment” and supported their decision to form the Interreligious Council of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which took place in June 1997. Since that time we have worked in close partnership with the Council. WCRP also carried out other activities in an effort to engage other sectors of the religious communities in addition to the leadership, in particular youth, theological students, and scholars. With the latter group, we looked at how human rights questions could be engaged by the scholarly community, both religious and secular. This has been a slow process, due to the deep wounds and divisions in that society, but the IRC has reached a point where it is functioning on its own, and it has taken on a number of more public activities – they produced a weekly inter-religious radio program, they are making public joint visits to cities around the country, and they started to get involved in legal advocacy work, particularly how to deal with questions of restitution of property and issues of legal status in a country where it was heavily proscribed under previous communist regimes. The Bosnian religious leaders have also been instrumental in encouraging their colleagues in Kosovo to take a similar step taking part in two joint visits during the first half of 2000, one in Sarajevo and one in Kosovo. This process has given us the opportunity to see how the model of inter-religious co-operation can be owned and shared among religious communities in a particular region. The Bosnian leaders were able to share their struggles to keep working together in the face of many reasons and events that would have made it easier to stop meeting with their Kosovo colleagues who are neighbours in one sense but part of the same communities in another sense. It was clear that the Bosnian leadership came with tremendous credibility, because the Kosovo leaders watched Bosnia go through an experience similar to what they had just experienced in Kosovo. As a result, during the joint meeting in Pristina in April, the Kosovo leaders announced their intention to form an inter-religious council and WCRP is now working with them to find ways to move this process forward and create a functioning council.
In stark contrast to the struggle of the formation process in Bosnia, the religious leaders in Sierra Leone, whom we also assisted in forming an inter-religious council, leapt quickly into the fray in that country. They faced a lingering civil war, and in May of 1997 there was a coup d'etat and a junta government that ruled for about a year, until the elected government was restored in mid 1998. Finally, there was escalation of the civil war and the invasion of Freetown in January 1999. Throughout this horrific cycle, the religious leadership has been actively engaged in advocacy work and humanitarian assistance, but most importantly in the first half of 1999, after the rebel invasion was quelled, the Inter-religious Council became the only group in the society that was trusted enough by both the government and the rebels to be a go-between. These efforts resulted in the IRCSL being invited to serve as the moral guarantor of the peace process that culminated in the Lome Peace Accord, signed in July 1999. The role played by the IRCSL illustrates multi-religious collaboration in mediation and immediate conflict resolution. In contrast to the Bosnian situation, where religious leaders were strongly identified with particular parties to the conflict, the IRCSL was able to transcend the divisions in the society and to move among the different groups because the conflict did not carry any religious labels.
Taking another war situation, the experience in Ethiopia-Eritrea is a case of more straightforward mediation work. WCRP, in collaboration with Norwegian Church Aid, has been engaged in gathering the senior religious leadership from the two countries over the past two years both during and after the war. Through a series of 5 meetings, the religious leaders were able to maintain contact throughout the war, and they expressed a clear desire to move forward together. However, in the context of active fighting, they were often paralysed by their ties to the political leadership on each side, and were very cautious to not be too far ahead of where things stood politically. Now, since the cease-fire was established, the leaders have taken stronger public positions and have announced their intention to hold joint meetings on the border as a symbol of reconciliation and reconstruction.
Finally, in Indonesia we see a slightly different explication of the model. The religious communities have been in dialogue with one another, with WCRP’s facilitation, since the fall of the Suharto regime to explore how religion can be involved in this country of remarkable diversity that is facing localised communal violence, some of which has religious labels on it, particularly in the Maluku islands and Ambon. Here again, religious representatives are coming together to ask “what is it that we can do to bring religion back into a society where it was tightly controlled under an authoritarian regime?” It is not dissimilar from the situation in Bosnia (absent the war). In both cases religious institutions were somehow slightly tainted or compromised by an inevitable association with the previous regime, and yet they carry deeper historical legitimacy in those societies than other institutions, and so they have an opportunity and even an obligation to lead people through the uncertainty and chaos caused by the change in regimes and systems.
These have been very brief and probably insufficient sketches of complicated and ongoing engagements in difficult situations that deal with a variety of types and levels of conflict. Out of these examples, however, I want to distil a few factors that help us determine what moves a process towards success or not.
Potentials of Religious Communities
There are two factors related to the conflict itself and the potential of religious communities to be involved in a constructive way:
First, what is the level of communal violence in a conflict? For example, Ethiopia and Eritrea were fighting a classic border war with armies engaged on behalf of their governments. This would rank as a low level of communal violence. Contrast it with situation in Ambon where leadership and authority is much less clear in the communities that are in conflict with each other. Much of the violence is unstructured and “spontaneous” and therefore less controllable and affecting whole communities. Bosnia was somewhere in between and Sierra Leone as well, but it was less of a communal conflict as tribal/ethnic identity was not a prime motivating factor propelling the conflict. The higher the level of communal character, the more difficult it is for religious communities to be involved, particularly when those communities in conflict are largely defined by religious identity. These are not “religious” conflicts as such, but they pit communities against each other, which makes it difficult for religious leaders to express solidarity for peace when the communities they represent are in conflict.
Second, what are the relationships between the religious leaders/institutions and the political leaders/institutions in that society? How much freedom of movement and expression is there for the religious leaders? We can look at the Middle East in this context, where no matter what the religious leadership might want to do, they understand themselves to be on very short leashes politically. Because of the character of the conflict and the politics involved, it is difficult without political clearance to take steps towards engagement and reconciliation. This element has been clear in the Ethiopia and Eritrea situation where the leadership has felt constrained by the close links between the political and religious institutions in those countries. In Bosnia-Herzegovina as well, the link between national and religious identity is almost total. For example, there is no real distinction between the Croat community and the Catholic community. As a result, the religious leaders have difficulty trying to speak as “religious” leaders as something distinct from community leaders.
These two factors – how communal is the violence and what are the institutional ties between religious and state institutions – will be critical in determining the ability of religious communities to play a constructive role in conflict situations. From WCRP’s perspective as the facilitator or catalyst in this process, I would identify three other factors that are important in achieving success.
First, being the “inside-outsider” as a facilitator is key – coming as an organisation that carries credibility in each community and can be the neutral convener of initial contact. Frequently, there is a situation where people on each side might be ready to come together, but the context does not allow anyone to offer or accept an invitation from the other side. This occurs in varying degrees. In Bosnia, to initiate contact with the other group would have been perceived as reaching out your hand to those who have been slaughtering your own people and would be almost impossible. In Sierra Leone it is much less difficult, but there are still sensitivities within the society around one’s identity in belonging to a particular community, and so decisions about the venue for meetings, etc. need to be addressed with care. From a high degree to a low degree of difficulty, there is a role for a facilitator to convene initial meetings among religious representatives to provide neutral space in which the contact and dialogue can begin. Therefore, establishing confidence within each community and being a trusted actor to play that role is essential in the process.
Second, there needs to be openness to engage communities at multiple levels. While respecting the way each community structures itself, it is useful to work through the entire structure so that different types of competency can be engaged at the same time – the leadership that carries the appropriate role of speaking for the community, but also scholars, youth, women, etc. – in a way that respects who they are and their ability to represent their community in certain areas. This approach allows for the process to move forward even if at one level, representatives are blocked from making progress due to the political situation or violent conflict. An example from Bosnia: in the period between mid-1998 and early 1999 there were several political crises and situations that prevented the Interreligious Council itself from meeting actively, but they were very encouraging of a process led by WCRP that brought together scholars from their communities to meet, discuss and issue statements; they also supported a series of seminars for youth to meet and discuss. Even though they as leaders were blocked from taking more public actions, there was space for other sectors to do what they could to encourage inter-religious co-operation. Scholars, for example, were not speaking on behalf of the whole community, but were addressing issues on which they had particular competence. In this context, WCRP was able to move the overall process of multi-religious collaboration forward, because we worked with various groups but always understanding their relationship to the overall religious community and its leadership.
Finally, there is the need to recognise that this type of collaboration must be a “limited partnership” Recalling the original methodology that I outlined, this approach deals only with concerns shared among the religious communities. It does not address internal elements of the communities themselves, and it gives those involved the ability to say, “Here are the things we know we can collaborate on. Some things we cannot work together on right now, but there are things we can do now.” Our approach is to find where there is common concern and to do what is possible today, with the hope that more will be possible tomorrow; and not allow what is impossible today to block us from doing anything. This process has limits and is often difficult, but it has proven to be successful as it speaks to the sensibilities of representatives of religious communities who understand inherently this approach of doing the possible.
In conclusion, there remains the question of how to measure the impact or success of this kind of work. Looking at the places highlighted in this presentation, none of them are bastions of peace and harmony today. There are still difficult struggles going on. We need to have realistic expectations when trying to determine success or failure. To illustrate this point, let me refer to the Hon. John Alderdice, Speaker of the new Assembly in Northern Ireland. He was on a panel at a conference in Sarajevo in late 1998 after the Good Friday Accords had been signed, but prior to the Assembly functioning. He was asked a question by an audience member, who noted that in Northern Ireland there was a religious dimension to the conflict similar to the situation in Bosnia, and then asked what should religious leaders be doing in such situations? Mr. Alderdice responded that in this context one of the dilemmas is that the conflict in Northern Ireland, like the one in Bosnia, is not at heart a religious conflict. The source of the conflict is economic, political, or communal, it is not religious per se. The problem this poses for the religious leaders is that they do not possess the authority to resolve the problem. Whatever is the source of the conflict is not something that they, as religious leaders, have the power to solve. Their dilemma is that when they are silent they are castigated for being apathetic and disengaged, and when they are engaged they are criticised for being ineffective, because they do not have the power to solve the real problems causing the conflict. However, he continued, at best they can be elements that can mitigate the worst of the conflict, they can try to mediate among the parties to the conflict, and they should never shy away from actively speaking out –either singly or collectively – about what is correct, what are the moral concerns related to the conflict, regardless of whether such speaking is deemed “effective” or not.
I believe that this is a wise and important “reality check” that can assist us in evaluating success. We need to look at a situation and analyse how has a process of inter-religious collaboration changed the character of interaction among religious communities and within communities as to how they look at each other and their role in dealing with issues of conflict. This is not very quantitative, but this seems to be how we need to approach it. One final example from Bosnia-Herzegovina can illustrate this idea. The members of the Interreligious Council were actively involved in the recent WCRP World Assembly in Amman, Jordan, in November 1999. They were part of a larger gathering of religious leaders from throughout SE Europe that adopted a major statement at the end of that meeting. About six months later, at the time of the Hajj, the council of Muftis of the Islamic Community of Bosnia-Herzegovina decided to issue a statement that would be read in all the mosques in the country. Half of that statement was taken essentially verbatim from the statement adopted in Amman. Here we see a set of concerns and commitments developed in an inter-religious forum being appropriated by the leadership of a particular religious community to give guidance and encouragement to the members of that community. Admittedly this represents a small step, but one that demonstrates how this process of facilitating the active engagement of religious communities in situations of conflict can be transforming over time, not only of the conflict situation, but also of the religious communities themselves.