The diversity of interreligious dialogue approaches

At the heart of all interreligious dialogues related to peacebuilding is an effort to build trust and deepen communication across conflict lines. The purpose for which that is done, however, will vary from initiative to initiative and will determine the nature of participants and the content of discussions.

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Conflict Background


By Sabina A. Stein

Many people envision interreligious dialogue as theological discussions among religious leaders. Although such dialogues do take place, this is in fact a very limited definition of interreligious dialogue. At its most basic level, interreligious dialogue simply consists of dialogue between persons of different faiths. Participants can be from all sectors of a religious community, not just its clerics. Similarly, the content of interreligious dialogues is not fixed. In contexts of violent political conflict, dialogue is rarely, if ever, limited to theological discussions. Participants more often discuss political issues of common concern, prejudices and grievances. Organisations such as Religions for Peace International, the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy and the Community of Sant’Egidio are examples of peacebuilding actors specialised in interreligious dialogue. More traditional peacebuilding actors, states included, also support interreligious dialogues.

At the heart of all interreligious dialogues related to peacebuilding is an effort to build trust and deepen communication across conflict lines. The purpose for which that is done, however, will vary from initiative to initiative and will determine the nature of participants and the content of discussions. The purpose itself depends on the context, on the timing of an intervention and on the peacemaker’s analysis of the role of religion in the conflict being addressed. For example, a third party seeking to contribute to a cessation of hostilities might conclude that religious leaders are important national or community leaders with moral authority over their respective constituencies. Building trust between religious leaders and garnering their commitment to non-violence could help build support for a ceasefire. Examples include the Interreligious Council of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Iraqi Interreligious Congress, both of which brought together high-level religious leaders to mutually condemn violence.

Other initiatives might be concerned with community reconciliation and healing and may draw on religious rituals and reference to sacred scriptures as tools and resources for reconciliation efforts. Introducing a spiritual dimension into interreligious dialogues may produce what participants have described as “transformative experiences” where a space for reconciliation and healing suddenly opens up. The work of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy in Kashmir, for example, involved bringing together young, non-clerical leaders from different sectors of the Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist communities for a series of faith-based reconciliation seminars. The aim was to begin a faith-based reconciliation movement across both sides of the Kashmiri Line of Control.

Diversity of Approaches
As these examples illustrate, there are several approaches to interreligious dialogue. Approaches may focus on, among other things, the role of religious leaders as peacemakers, the role of common religious values in challenging prejudices or the role of spirituality in nurturing reconciliation. As religion often plays multiple roles in any given conflict and because it can serve different peacebuilding functions, most initiatives will mix approaches. It is important to remain aware of this diversity and of the different objectives of interreligious dialogues. When designing any dialogue initiative, however, it is crucial to have clearly defined goals and associated theories of change. Without these, dialogues are likely to become ineffective and participants may lose interest if it is not clear to them what the dialogue is helping to achieve. No single interreligious dialogue initiative will solve a conflict. Different dialogue efforts need to involve different constituencies depending on the ends, while linking up to other peacebuilding efforts.

Effective Interreligious Dialogue
One way of rendering interreligious dialogues more effective is to incorporate joint action between participants. According to many conflict practitioners, engaging in joint activities is generally a more effective means of building trust and mutual understanding than is discussion. The latter is especially true in conflicts where deeply-held religious values are perceived to be at stake and where parties have different worldviews linked to their different religious identities. In such cases, spoken communication can become very challenging. Moreover, when words are not followed by actions, there is a high risk of further polarisation and mistrust between parties. For this reason, some interfaith dialogues incorporate joint action. Dialogue through action – also known as diapraxis – has been shown to be particularly effective in conflicts involving religious communities or sensitive, value-laden issues. Moreover, joint action that specifically addresses conflict issues will be more effective than action unrelated to parties’ main concerns.

Another important consideration for increasing the effectiveness of interreligious dialogue is to ensure that it does not just take place among moderates. Indeed, a frequently-voiced critique of interreligious dialogue is that participants are often like-minded moderates already committed to outreach across religious communities. Moderates, however, may actually have little credibility within their own communities. Although harder to draw into a dialogue, efforts need to be made to reach out to those influential actors who are negatively disposed to the other side. This is why intra-religious dialogue, internal dialogue within a religious community, is as important as interreligious dialogue. Such dialogues can help counter exclusive and hostile discourses by bringing forth the variety of religious understandings related to war and peace within a religious community. This task will primarily fall to religious peacemakers within each community. Finding ways of creating safe spaces where exclusivist voices can express their concerns is one of the most important challenges of intra-religious dialogue.

In a world where more than four-fifths of the population identify with a religious tradition, interreligious dialogue will remain an important tool for conflict transformation. Interreligious dialogue is, however, not the only tool for addressing religious aspects in a conflict or for tapping into the peacebuilding capacities of religious traditions. As with any tool, whether it should be used, and how, will depend on the analysis of the conflict. Nor should we make the mistake of thinking that working on religion and conflict can be reduced to some tools or approaches.

In conflicts in which religion plays an important role, it has to be understood. This understanding must inform all efforts to address an armed conflict, from interreligious dialogues to high-level political peace negotiations.

Sabina A. Stein is a researcher and program officer at the Mediation Support Team at the Center for Security Studies (CSS), ETH Zurich. Her work focuses on mediation and conflict transformation processes that deal with the religious and cultural dimensions of conflicts.

The article was originally published in the Centre for Peacebuildinf KOFF‘s Newsletter, No. 124, February 2014 and can be accessed here


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