Report on Talks on 'Religious Leader Engagement in Post-Conflict Societies'

Wednesday, November 26, 2014 - 00:00

Dr Tony Walsh of the Centre for Studies in Irish Protestantism reports on the wonderful event held in Maynooth University on 25th November 2014 ‘Religious Leader Engagement: Creating Space in Civil Society for Reframing Conflict’ by Dr S.K. Moore, St. Paul University, Ottawa, Canada and ‘Muslim Religious Leadership and Engagement with Reconciliation’ by Dr Yazid Said, Mater Dei Institute of Education, Dublin City University.
There has been an unprecedented increase in the complexity of armed warfare in recent years; the traditional model of two state conflict has been replaced by intricate intra-state conflicts  where social media has found to be at least as significant as heavy weaponry. Battles for hearts and minds and an understanding of the assumptive worlds of those engaged in conflict are at least as important as physical warfare. Recent events involving ISIS and Al Qaeda amply illustrate this evolving reality. In response it is necessary to develop ever-widening, lateral, and inter-agency approaches to peace building and peace maintenance and an understanding of the importance of religious mind sets, in promoting peace. In this context the rewards of creative and positive engagement with and understanding of local and national religious leaders and their philosophies is increasingly recognised by militaries, politicians and academics. Religious leaders frequently have access both to power groupings in a society as well as having significant leverage with grass roots community members. These can be far more significant than that of official ‘mediators’; engaging their influence is therefore vital.

At a recent event at Maynooth University, jointly sponsored by the Centre for Studies in Irish Protetantism, the Kennedy Institute and the Curragh Military College, The Rev Dr Steve Moore, a retired Canadian Army chaplain argued for the broadening of the traditional pastoral function of defence forces padres to broader and more strategic roles. He quoted a number of examples where he and other chaplains had been involved in making links with local clerics, both Christian and Muslim, and in creating links between them. He noted that whatever the theological differences between leaders of different religious groupings, there will frequently be a recognition of humanitarian needs, spiritual priorities, and a concern for the legacy which is to be left to the next generation. These commonalities can aid the creation of superordinate goals, collaborative projects and the elaboration of social capital,  all essential  primary projects in the building of peace at all levels of society.

In an accompanying paper Dr Yazid Said, a Palestinian Anglican priest, academic and international expert in Islamic studies addressed the rise in Muslim fundamentalism. He noted the current preoccupation with immediacy in our world (both East and West), to the detriment of an appreciation of rich historical heritage and context. This is particularly prevalent in an assumptive world formed by ‘snap-shot’ media analyses. In this situation, a significant section of the Islamic world, facing what is perceived as an increasingly surprising, secular, West (allied to American totalitarianism), instead of reverting to a its rich legacy of spirituality, mysticism, plurality and self questioning has reacted by adopting a ‘puritan’ fundamentalism and an accompanying new revolutionary spirit. Dr Said emphasised that such responses cannot be defeated in a context where the logic is Western.  Western politicians need to abandon the assumptions that they have the answers (although an enhanced understanding of Muslim assumptive worlds, and an increased appreciation of the very real historic influences of Islam on historic Christian thought and spirituality will always be helpful). Instead orthodox Islam needs to draw on its own historic riches in developing a prophetic leadership. This possibility is however hampered by the very decentralised nature of traditional Islam where there are no particular spokes persons. Western educational institutions as well as the media can be of help in highlighting the need for an in-depth understanding of Islam and by jettisoning the notion that everything Muslim is both ‘other’ and inexplicable.