George Rupp in Sarajevo. CREDIT: Irfan Redzovic
George Rupp in Sarajevo. CREDIT: Irfan Redzovic

Religion in War and Reconciliation

Sep 3, 2014

"There is a long way to go before religious communities become more of a resource for reducing rather than a source for increasing antagonism. But to move in that direction clearly requires greater understanding at the local level."

GEORGE RUPP: It is a great honor to be with you on this somber yet also at least potentially positive occasion.

As Margaret MacMillan and Joel Rosenthal have stated so ably, we are gathered to commemorate the centennial of the terrible events that launched what became the First World War. The intervening century gives us an invaluable perspective on the brutality of war and also on the always difficult and uncertain prospects for peace. One feature of the battles in the intervening century is the inescapable role that religious differences play in generating underlying antagonisms. Less evident is the contribution that religions might make to resolving the issues at the core of the conflicts that we experience. I would like to direct our attention for a few minutes to both sides of that complex set of interactions.

Sarajevo is an apt setting for this commemoration because it so vividly embodies both the risks and the promise of religious and ethnic division. As many of you all know far better than I, Sarajevo was for centuries a place of considerable religious diversity: Islam, Judaism, and both the Orthodox and Catholic forms of Christianity. And for long periods there was relative amity among those different communities. Yet at crucial points ethnic and also religious tensions exploded. The one we commemorate today is World War I, but also we cannot but be aware of the four-year siege that the city suffered from 1992 to 1995. The challenge before us is to learn all that we can from the peaceful co-existence of multiple ethnic and religious communities in this place even as we bring the lessons that we learned to bear in order to avoid continuing repetitions of the years before and after 1914 and, if we're candid, from 1992 right up to the present.

At times—especially during the last third of the 20th century in much of Western Europe and the United States—some of our leading citizens have been quite confident that there is a simple and straightforward answer to the question of how to contain religiously based antagonisms. That simple answer is to assure broad tolerance for a wide range of religious views as matters of private preference but to insist as well that those preferences not be allowed to shape public policies. To put the point bluntly, religious views should be kept in the closet.

One of the legacies we all share from the 20th century is the lesson that this often taken-for-granted view is in the end simply untenable. As with members of ethnic and other communities, religiously committed individuals will not agree to the proposition that their beliefs and practices should shape their private lives but not their public behavior—including their political participation. Consequently, there is no alternative except to develop arrangements that allow the participation of multiple religious and of course also ethnic traditions within any given society.

That religion can contribute to conflict is evident in cases within nominally unified traditions. Consider Protestant and Catholic Christians in Northern Ireland, to take an example that seemed incorrigible only a generation ago, or, to take current headlines that we read every day, think of Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq. That is dynamics within a nominally unified tradition. It is of course also displayed in fraught relationships between different religious traditions—as with Christians and Muslims in Mali and Nigeria; or Buddhists and Hindus in Sri Lanka; or Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar; or Jews, Christians, and Muslims across the Middle East.

Religious institutions in fact have, in admittedly too rare instances, also sought to contribute to reconciliation among divergent sets of commitments. In view of the centennial we are commemorating, I cannot resist mentioning again the example that Joel Rosenthal has already noted, namely the commitment of Andrew Carnegie to enlisting religious leaders and institutions in his passionate efforts to ward off World War I. The poignant fact that we are observing the Centennial of what is now the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in the same year as we are commemorating the centennial of the start of World War I dramatically accentuates the reality that such efforts are all too often unsuccessful—especially if the only measure of success is the complete avoidance of war. But the dual centennial also can serve to focus our collective attention on the challenge of continuing to pursue the crucial goal that Andrew Carnegie set for all of us.

To frame that goal in general terms, it is to foster inclusive communities: communities that are capable of incorporating significant differences within a single unified framework. The goal affirms the value of particular commitments. It does not seek to reduce beliefs and practices to a least common denominator because its aim is to be inclusive rather than to seek what in the end attemps to be a single set of universal and all-encompassing affirmations.

The goal of inclusive communities is crucial as a counterweight to the presumption that the default position for allowing multi-ethnic and multi-religious political arrangements is what we value in the West as secular individualism. In contrast to every insistence that individuals must not allow religious convictions to shape their political positions, inclusive communities seek to incorporate more particular commitments into their institutional structures. Any such more particular commitments cannot simply be asserted as universal and therefore as appropriately imposed on everyone. Instead, public policies must be based on appeals to authorities that are in principle accessible to all citizens. While invoking religious convictions is not ruled out, any such appeals must also be open to public appraisal.

To build such inclusive communities is an enormous challenge at a time when all of us are aware of others who have quite different beliefs and practices from our own. To pursue that challenge, we must continue on the course that Andrew Carnegie set a century ago. We must enlist leaders from across a broad range of religious traditions to work together to advance a common agenda.

As occurred before and after World War I, there was also at the close of World War II a surge of activity among religious leaders especially in the West but also in Asia to press for establishing a durable global peace. Much of that energy focused initially on the United Nations. But it then also sought other outlets.

By the 1960s, four American religious leaders determined that a global movement focused specifically on religion was required. Through their efforts and quite a few other initiatives—including several meetings in the United States and also a delegation of 20 Americans who undertook a round-the-world peace mission—the first gathering of what became the World Conference of Religion for Peace was held in Kyoto, Japan in 1970.

This meeting in Kyoto included discussions of disarmament, development, and human rights. It also led to the formal establishment of the World Conference of Religion for Peace (which is now known simply as Religions for Peace), with a board of directors in New York in a location near the United Nations. There were further world conferences in Louvain, Belgium in 1974; in Princeton, New Jersey in 1979; in Nairobi, Kenya in 1984; and in Melbourne, Australia in 1989. In addition, an effort was made to launch services programs—in particular, the Boat People Project in 1976-77 and the Khmer Fund in 1979-80.

Despite the interest in also developing practical programs, the thrust of those conferences was at the policy level to encourage engagement by religious communities to press for world peace. As a participant in the 1984 conference in Nairobi, I can testify to the fact that the discussion was really at a quite high level, talking about the ideal of generating cooperation or collaboration in the cause of peace. While this goal is surely a worthy aspiration, it is not adequate to meeting crises like the current disaster in Syria, to take the most salient example. Instead, we are faced with the imperative of also seeking to support efforts that enlist local partners. In acknowledging this imperative, international initiatives to enlist religion in the cause of conflict resolution in effect are recognizing the need that they have to follow the same path as international relief and development organizations. The challenge is to build local capacity on a global scale.

If there is any hope of enlisting religion as a resource for conflict resolution, the process must therefore include people on the ground where the battles are under way. How to pursue this objective is not at all clear and in any case extremely difficult. But to pursue it needs to be a top priority of religious communities to be a source for reducing rather than a contributor to intensifying conflict.

One approach is to seek to enlist local communities (both leaders and members) through contacts within their own traditions as representatives of those traditions interact with colleagues in other communities. In this regard, the meetings of Religions for Peace (and its predecessors with slightly different names) illustrate the process of establishing networks that cut across traditions and also across divisions within nominally unified traditions. Similarly promising are the Global Ethics Fellows and the Ethics Fellows for the Future, recent initiatives of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

Yet such networks remain at a quite elevated level in the traditions represented, and in terms of geography are heavily tilted toward the United States, Europe, and Asia—with a notable under-representation from Africa and the Middle East. Furthermore, in regard to religious diversity, Islam in all its variety is not as fully represented as it needs to be. In view of the demographics of current conflicts worldwide, existing global networks of religious leaders and institutions must, therefore, be broadened and deepened to overcome their limited reach to those areas where it is most needed.

One small organization that seeks to bridge the divide between Western non-government organizations and local religious leadership is the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, founded by Georgette Bennett and with headquarters in New York City. It has a program called Peacemakers in Action that is targeted directly on enlisting local leaders of religious communities in mediating between opposing sides as they seek to resolve conflicts that include a religious dimension. The roster of peacemakers is, moreover, indeed reflective of where the current conflicts are under way, notably the Middle East, Africa, and such countries in Asia and Latin America as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, El Salvador, and Colombia. Also included on the roster of peacemakers are representatives of immediately post-conflict countries like Ireland and also from here in Bosnia and Kosovo. In regular workshops these peacemakers have the opportunity to learn from each other—and also to teach those others of us who have the opportunity to be participants.

What is required is both to focus the attention of global networks devoted to interreligious understanding on conflict areas and to scale up the efforts of the few organizations like the Tanenbaum Center that are already concentrating on this concern. The result is in effect to complement the efforts of global networks with a further approach that seeks to work more directly at the local level.

There is a long way to go before religious communities become more of a resource for reducing rather than a source for increasing antagonism. But to move in that direction clearly requires greater understanding at the local level. Only such local understanding can provide a solid foundation for developing larger and more inclusive and more representative international networks so that religious communities can indeed become a resource for the mitigation of violence and even for conflict resolution.

Despite the fact that it has in the past two decades become less diverse, Sarajevo has the potential to be a model for the multi-ethnic, multi-religious community that is indispensable to reconciliation worldwide. With the history of this city as a location both for peaceful co-existence and for fierce antagonism and violence, Sarajevo can become—or better: be once more—a beacon of hope for the larger world. I urge all citizens of this great city to seize the opportunity and to work to allow Sarajevo to become a global leader in the cause of fashioning inclusive communities.

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