Local Religious Peacemakers: An Untapped Resource in U.S. Foreign Policy

Article excerpt

Sectarian violence in the Middle East; religious nationalism in South Asia; threats of religious extremism in the West; interreligious battles in Africa; religious suppression in East Asia. These realities suggest that religion plays a significant role in the modern world and, by implication, U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. government, despite its own secular tradition, is challenged by the intersections between the role of religion and other international objectives. Misunderstanding or even dismissing religion proves to be deadly.

Over the last few years, the government has made some attempts to better accommodate contemporary religious issues, but the results are limited. Actions and reactions continue to be based on a cursory understanding of religion's influence, an outdated understanding of conflict and a misguided response to the interplay of the two. If attention is paid to religion, the focus remains on the extremist beliefs and actions of a minority, rather than the ways it guides and inspires the majority and can be harnessed for good. Further, there is widespread recognition and much evidence that today's conflicts differ significantly from those of the Cold War era (i.e., the majority of contemporary conflicts are not between nation states; rather they involve state and non-state actors and are often based on identity). (1) Despite this shift, we have not always responded with corresponding changes in the methods used to resolve conflicts. In general, current government approaches continue to discount the complexity of religion and conflict, especially at the local level, in favor of immediate action and oversimplified "us versus them" explanations.

This response is problematic. When we view religion as strictly a promoter of violence or dismiss it as irrelevant to our goals, we risk misunderstanding the local dynamics of conflict and simultaneously overlook a potent resource for addressing urgent conflicts. Religion, with its unmatched authority among many communities in every region of the world, carries within it a diverse set of traditions and methodologies that promote peace. Individuals who have the knowledge, credibility and inclination to tap into these resources--local, peace-seeking religious leaders--may carry some of the answers to combating those who abuse religion to ignite violence.

This article argues that in an increasingly globalized and religiously diverse world, local religious peacemakers are critical partners in diplomacy. An in-depth knowledge of their communities is critical for building societies conducive to stability and development and meeting national foreign policy goals. Following a brief description of its methodology, this article presents a concise background on how religion is a challenge for U.S. foreign policy. This will be followed by a discussion on religion's contemporary place in world affairs, the changing nature of conflict and its resolution, and how these two factors necessitate a closer look at the role of individual religious peacemakers working at the grassroots level. Based on interviews with local religious peacemakers, coupled with research on their work in armed conflict zones, this article then examines their important roles in and contributions to their countries' peace processes. Finally, some recommendations are offered on how U.S. government officials and diplomats can benefit from the efforts of local religious peacemakers and enhance their chances of reaching their security and policy objectives.

METHODOLOGY AND DEFINITIONS

Since 1993, the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding has been identifying, supporting and studying the work of relatively unrecognized religiously-motivated peacemakers working in areas of armed conflict around the world. (2) This article is based on a series of interviews with and research on members of Tanenbaum's Peacemakers in Action network. Although these men and women are from vastly different cultures, conflict situations and religious backgrounds, they share a set of characteristics distinguishing them from other actors. …