Advancing Diplomatic Engagement with Religious Peacemakers

Advancing Diplomatic Engagement with Religious Peacemakers

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Joyce S. Dubensky, chief executive officer of Tanenbaum, and Azza Karam, senior advisor on culture at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), discuss the role of peacemakers in conflict resolution, as part of CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.

Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Initiative.


Joyce S. Dubensky

Chief Executive Officer, Tanenbaum

Azza Karam

Senior Advisor on Culture, United Nations Population Fund


Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record, and the audio and the transcript will be available on our website and on our iTunes podcast channel Religion and Foreign Policy. We’re delighted to have Joyce Dubensky and Azza Karam with us to discuss the role of peacemakers in conflict resolution.

Joyce Dubensky is the chief executive officer of Tanenbaum, where she is overseeing the development of the Peacemakers and Action Network and book, which offers compelling life stories of religious leaders bringing peace and reconciliation to their communities. She has also led the creation of a toolkit on religious diversity for workplace managers and the first comprehensive guide on the intersections of religion and healthcare. Previously, she served as national consultant for the Jewish Federations of North America and as the general counsel for Jewish Philanthropies of New York.

Azza Karam serves as a senior advisor on culture at the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, where she coordinates UNFPA-wide outreach with faith-based partners and chairs the U.N. Interagency Taskforce on engaging faith-based actors on the Millennium Development Goals. Before she joined UNFPA, she was senior policy research advisor at the U.N. Development Program in the Regional Bureau for Arab States. Dr. Karam has also worked as special advisor on Middle East and Islamic Affairs and director of the Women’s Programs at the World Conference of Religions for Peace. Her publications include “Transnational Political Islam” and “Islamisms, Women and the State.” I’m delighted to have Joyce and Azza both in the room with me today, which is not what usually happens. It’s usually all virtual. So thank you very much for being with me here in my office.

Joyce, it would be terrific if you could begin, get us started on how you with Tanenbaum identify religious peacemakers and work with them.

DUBENSKY: OK. And I’m pleased to do that. Thank you so much, and thank you for all that you’re doing at CFR for our field. I appreciate it. It is great to be with all of you and to explore the field of peacebuilding, and in particular, from our vantage point the role of religious peacemakers. It’s a complex area, and I’ll be touching on that. But as you listen, I hope you’ll hear three key themes in my remarks. First, that religious peacebuilding exists and that it’s a force in conflicts across the world. Secondly, that local religious peace activists are still underutilized, that they can and they must become recognized partners for track-one diplomats and civil society leaders. And finally, that religious peacebuilding is a diverse but real vocational option, and one that needs to be understood in all its many dimensions. It must not be oversimplified as only the work of religious leaders or exclusively involved religious people working through religious institutions and using religion as their peacemaking mode of operations and their technique.

So I will start with that last point by focusing on how at Tanenbaum we’ve come to define religious peacemakers and their vocation. For lots of people, including those involved in international affairs, the idea of religion and peace is oxymoronic. Instead, they tend to see religion and religious actors as the fuel, if not a cause of violent conflict in the human rights abuses worldwide. And while that does happen and is often the case, it is also true that there are religious men and women who are working on the ground in every armed conflict, and for peace. We’ve been in this arena for 20 years at Tanenbaum, and we do our work in two key ways: first, by directly supporting a network of 26 diverse religious individuals—that’s women and men—who pursue peace in 23 conflicts across the globe. We call them our peacemakers in action. And they not only work in their home conflicts, but they also now collaborate with each other through our peacemakers networks. In addition to working with them, we also study them in order to document their stories, their work, and their technique, most recently in our publication from Cambridge University Press called “Peacemakers in Action: Profiles in Religious Peacebuilding.” It was through our analysis and our reflection about our work with the peacemakers over the years that it became clear to us that for these individuals, the work of religious peacemaking is not something random. It’s not a random choice that just emerged in their lives and then is over. Instead, it’s a deliberate vocational option. And when I say this, I’m not using the word vocation in the way it’s typically understood, as a job or a type of job, because we found that religious peacebuilders aren’t identifiable by their professional status or the actual type of work they do. They do many different things. They have very different professional identifies, often more than one in the course of a lifetime. They are lawyers and educators. They are conflict negotiators and community organizers, and some are even social media experts. As we’ve analyzed what they had in common and what made them distinguishable, we concluded that what makes a religious peacemaker is their motivation and their vision. Religious peacemakers are motivated by their religion, by their faith, to pursue a vision for peace and to seek a lived reality where violent conflict is prevented, stopped, and healed, and where respect for the divine in all people is put into practice.

So when we talk about these individuals, we have to think about the language that we use. And one of the things that we’ve noticed is that there’s often a default to describing them as religious leaders, and that implies the individuals at the top of religious traditions and institutions, who are usually men, and such a framework is simply too narrow. Religious peacemakers include women, youth, and men, and they are driven by faith for peace. That’s why we refer to them as religious actors.

And over the last 25-plus years, a field of religious peacebuilding has emerged, and there’s vibrant activity both in practice and scholarship. For much of that time, when we talked about the field and we talked about religious peacebuilders, we seemed to presume that they were a unique breed, somehow distinct from their secular peacebuilding counterparts. We tended to think of them as working from a religious perspective, usually in a religious institution, and uniquely using religious peace techniques. We tended to imagine them only as being in the midst of an armed conflict and somehow resolving it.

Now, all of those images are accurate. They’re all true. But they are incomplete and they are certainly not the full story of religious peacebuilding. They bely the complexity and the diversity within religious peacemaking and how it intersects with secular activities and secular peacebuilding. The reality is that many people who we would call religious peacemakers hold secular jobs and often use peacebuilding approaches and techniques that are inherently secular, that go beyond conflict resolution to conflict prevention, transformation and healing. Consider Tanenbaum’s peacemaking team from the Galilee, two elementary school educators, principals, and Arab Muslim Israeli and a Jewish Israeli. They brought their students together because they wanted these young children to know one another so that they would not grow up simply adopting the stereotypes and the hatred that was all around them. Their techniques, though, were not primarily religious. They were largely secular. As they brought young children together for fun and service, the kids would dance, sing, and paint together, even when they didn’t always speak the same language. And sometimes they would be teamed up to visit a nursing home so that they could do service before the elderly together. That’s an example of religious individuals driven to use their profession for peace and doing it through a secular technique.

Other religious peacemakers use techniques that may on their face appear to be religious, but they use some for secular purposes, like Chancho Lahste (ph), who was a priest in El Salvador and used the power of the pulpit to convene his community so that they would march for economic justice and land reform.

Many do use, in addition, religion’s specific techniques, like using religious texts to inspire and the authority of religious leaders to validate their work, and most of them use a mix of techniques, because one of their great skillsets is problem-solving and they will use the technique that will work in the moment.

In addition, some of our religious peacemakers do more than work at the grassroots. And again, this shows the diversity within this community. Some of them move between, quite adeptly—quite adeptly move between grassroots work and track-one diplomacy. Now—(inaudible)—South Africa is a great example. She was an anti-apartheid activist, and she spent a year in solitary confinement before emerging to be one of the people who helped create the constitution for South Africa. In the ensuing years, she served the government both as deputy minister of defense and a deputy minister of health, but in more recent years she’s returned to the grassroots, where she has been working to counter sex trafficking.

For some time now, leaders in the field of religious peacemaking have been urging that individuals like Tanenbaum’s peacemakers in action, religiously motivated peacebuilders, be viewed as a resource, not ignored and uninstrumentalized, but recognized and accessed by diplomats and civil society leaders, especially in global conflicts where they may have particular access, local knowledge, and influence. This is important, and it’s actually one of our long-term goals and the long-term goal of many. One of the things that we’ve seen is that there’s been some real movement toward that goal in recent years, and we hope that it will continue. We were particularly moved by the work of the Office of Religion and Global Affairs at the U.S. State Department, led by Shaun Casey, and the big vision and the work that was done there, including starting to think about what it takes to train a diplomat so that they’re equipped to work with religious peacemakers.

But when I turned to that issue, I start getting into Azza’s piece of the conversation, so I’m going to turn this over to her so she can share more about the diplomats and how they’re working with peacemakers and those among them who we call religious peacebuilders.

FASKIANOS: Azza, over to you.

KARAM: Great, thank you very much, first of all. Irina, again, I would underline the gratitude that Joyce expressed for your own work here and some of the acknowledgment of how much this has brought the issue of religion to the prominence of policy in foreign affairs, the United States, but also for those of us working at the global level being able to have that—(inaudible)—insight and recognition has been extremely helpful, which ties in very much to the work of you yourselves, Tanenbaum, Joyce, because I think that we like to often start things from the beginning. When we realize that there’s actually a legacy of work done on identifying religious peacemakers, bringing them together, placing them in the right places at the right time and being able to give them credit and encouragement and support for the work that they receive, especially a convening of them together such that they may learn from one another and strengthen one another. I think that this is an aspect that Tanenbaum does beautifully and one of the many things which we found to learn from.

I am here to speak for much of the work that we’ve been able to do in the United Nations system, but I am actually not speaking on behalf of the United Nations system. So God forbid anyone should think that whatever I say is the official position of the United Nations. Please do not think that. I am speaking very much as a scholar of religion and foreign affairs. I am speaking as a person who happens to be a staff member of the United Nations and has the distinct privilege and humbling honor of working with a number of different actors, religious actors, as well as secular ones on issues of religion and development and peacebuilding, but I am not speaking on behalf of the United Nations system today in any way, shape, and form. And those of you who know that the United Nations system is composed of, I don’t know, 65 different corporate bodies, including the World Bank and the World Health Organization—and a whole bunch of others will understand that there’s no one human being who can speak on behalf of everything except for the secretary-general of the United Nations, which I am not.

So having clarified that, I think it would be very helpful for me to then just say a few words about what we’re learning and what we’ve been able to learn through the process. And “we” is, again, a very heterogenous group of individuals and/or corporate organizations. But having studied some of this work at the U.N., there’s a few things that are interesting to point out here. The first is that when we look at peacebuilding itself, we identify it more often than not as everything that integrates: the development itself and development processes, so from providing health and food and water and sanitation to communities around the world and working with governments to do so, all the way to the intricate processes of bringing people together in order to resolve an actual dispute and armed conflict. So it’s a vast field that we understand to be the field of building peace and making peace, and it does not start at the moment of war, nor does it start only at the end of a situation of an armed conflict. So it is—we see it as a much broader expanse, and therefore if you look at the Sustainable Development Goals Agenda, you’ll notice that whether it’s the environment and the damage that it’s caused by climate change, or whether it’s actual inclusiveness in society that is otherwise leading to disruption and xenophobia, or whether it is indeed armed conflict, all of this falls under the arena of peacebuilding and making—building peaceful societies.

So the definition being this broad, it is worthwhile then to see, well, how have we engaged with religious actors and how do we see the role of religion in this huge domain? So the second observation to make here about the work across the U.N. system is that over the last, I would say, decade in particular, there’s been a huge shift within the United Nations system in terms of the appreciation especially for those based in Geneva, New York, Vienna, and Rome from the U.N. system, because many of us are headquartered in these Western cities even though the work of the U.N. extends almost exclusively, actually, to the developing world itself and it is necessarily located in the Western Hemisphere. But our headquarters, we would be able to observe that within the headquarters that realization of the importance of religion and religious actors has taken a huge leap in the last decade. How this has manifested has been extraordinarily different depending on the entity, but I think looking at it again overall—and I’m happy to answer more specific questions—but looking overall, it’s very clear that, A, there is an acknowledgement that religion matters; B, we’ve moved from why should we engage religious actors, which we were very busy doing the last few years, now to how do we engage the mechanisms of engagement and the diversity of such mechanisms of engagement. Where we need to move to is precisely where the work of Tanenbaum as well as Shaun Casey’s work in the State Department have already led, which is to training our own people within the U.N. system to be conversant with the ways and means in which religions themselves are expressed by people in ordinary contexts, but also the ways and means in which who are the religious actors, how exactly they have been engaged, and understanding that the dividing line sometimes between the so-called secular and the so-called religious can be extraordinarily thin, but also understanding that there are some religious actors who are very much religious in their actions, as you pointed out in your presentation. That awareness of the how and the means of engagement and the mechanisms of engagement is where we are today within the U.N. system, and it is incredibly interesting to understand that we still—in a sense many of us still fall into the trap of trying to see the religious actors’ domains through the prism of the religious leaders’ domain. And there are obvious—as you pointed out, Joyce, there are obvious limitations to that, because religious leadership can often be misunderstood in a very narrow, formal sense of the word and it leaves out so much of those who are community leaders, influencers in their own right, but may not have an official position designated by church or a mosque or a synagogue or an institution.

It also is a little bit limiting because it means that we don’t look at the broader community of faith and communities of faith, and the already existing connections that have taken place between the so-called secular and the so-called religious establishment and representation.

Having said that, however, I think that we now, if we can—if we collectively move beyond the limitation of religious leaders only, on engagement of religious leaders only, and look at what’s actually been happening, we will find out that a good number of U.N. entities, whether they are WHO or the World Bank or UNDA or UNICEF or whatever, have actually tremendous experience, over decades of working with different religious actors in countries. And the aggregation of this experience is only very recently happening, and it’s proving to be a bit of a learning wow moment for all of us, because we realize that when we harvest the experiences from the country level going up, we actually have plenty to learn from ourselves in the countries and from our partners in the countries. And that I think is something that is valuable, but it’s also helpful for us to realize that we don’t need to do this alone, because in 90 percent of the cases we’ve already worked and engaged with local organizations and institutions, many of which are supported by NGOs like Tanenbaum, but also who have been reached out to by USAID and maybe many other bilateral developments actors over the years. So the partnerships are happening and have been happening at the local level, and it’s about us learning from some of that work and beginning to collate some of the learning.

Nevertheless, I think where we stand now is at a very important moment, which is once we appreciate the diversity of religious actors and the diversity of ways in which those that have termed themselves as religious actors have already contributed to peacebuilding processes and mechanisms, we are still caught between responding to humanitarian crises, which we’re expecting to be almost 80 percent of what we will have to do on a global level in the years to come, either thanks to natural disasters or actually thanks to man-made intervention. But we are expecting a plethora of humanitarian crises in the years to come. Given that we have this concern about responding to the humanitarian and given that we tend to see the humanitarian as somewhat different from the development, we now have to make sure that those religious actors with whom we have an opportunity to establish partnerships can help us work with them in those different communities to ensure that the crises that we’re anticipating can be preemptively addressed and maybe we can try to prepare ourselves better. And so this is the challenge to our humanitarian colleagues in the U.N. system who often—who have been actually the last to realize the importance of religious actors even though they were the first to engage them, because it turns out that religious actors are the largest humanitarian responders out there. The religious organizations are some of the largest humanitarian service providers. But for some reason our own policymakers in the U.N. system have only recently come—who work on humanitarian work have only recently come to appreciate that role, that specific role that the religious organizations provide in humanitarian.

So the challenge is to be able to work with them and say, actually, you’re working with them quite a bit. You’ve been able to support and consolidate and coordinate. And then, now how do we build that link between providing the food at country level in normal situations which are not humanitarian; two, providing the food when there is a humanitarian crisis? Where are we working with and consolidating our partnerships and relationships with those religious actors and able to expand the pool that we have today of—so that the pie is not—is not—how should I say this—that there is a bigger pool of those religious actors working together already to provide development and humanitarian relief to communities, to lead people together in prayer for peace, to negotiate and to resolve conflicts and to prevent hatred and violence and genocide? How do we expand that pool of religious actors globally, but also nationally and regionally, such that the margins, which is where we will still find the ISIS and ISILs and the likes of them in this world, so that that margin can become extraordinarily marginal, even more marginal than ever? Because at the end of the day, I think we all have to realize that religious extremism cannot only be countered by secular arguments and methodology.


KARAM: So at the end of the day—and this is precisely what you all have been working with and arguing for and the Office of Religion and Public Life has been making specifically is that we have to be trained to understand that in order to combat religious extremism, we need to make sure that we’re working with religious actors who can themselves be the interlocutors, I think, because we don’t speak the religious languages all the time. And some of those who would do violence would do so in the name of religion. We can argue from here to kingdom come how religious they are. That’s not the point. The point is that they will use an avenue to religious discourse. So we need those who can work—who can speak that religious discourse also to work with us. And we have them. We work with them on a daily basis to provide humanitarian service, to provide food, education, nutrition, sanitation. We work with those actors on a daily basis. But we tend to think that that’s a separate breed, and actually the point is, because we’ve worked with these religious actors and we do have partners, the counternarrative to religious extremism and religious violence is already there, and it is the partnerships that are being built and have been built and can be consolidated with religious actors who are performing humanitarian and development services all the time. We don’t need to recreate a counternarrative. We have it—we have been part of it and of nurturing it over the many years. That we need to come to the awareness of together.

FASKIANOS: Thank you both for that—those opening comments. And I think now we want to turn to all of you to get your comments and questions.

OPERATOR: At this time we will open the floor for questions.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question comes from John Pawlikowski with Catholic Theological Union.

PAWLIKOWSKI: Good afternoon. Thank you to both for a very, very important, and I think, enlightening presentation.

My question is probably directed to our second speaker more, and that is as you probably know, I’m sure you’re well aware that since the Millennium Peace Summit of 2000, there’s been an on-and-off discussion about somehow formally establishing a position for religion within the United Nations system. As someone who has represented the Parliament of the World’s Religions at the United Nations, I’d be interested in hearing any observations that either of you have on whether religion should in any way be more institutionalized, if I can use that term, within the U.N. system, and would that be a positive or a negative in terms of the vision that both of you laid out?

DUBENSKY: That’s you, that’s you. (Laughter.)

KARAM: I have a whole bunch of pointing fingers here, and I’m very happy to take the question. Thank you very much, John. I think that you’re quite right. There’s been quite a bit of conversation and discussion about this for some time. There is in fact already a special rapporteur for freedom of religion, and that position was established some time ago. And we have had at least two or three special rapporteurs already, and they report directly to the secretary-general of the United Nations, so that’s a pretty powerful position allotted post to the recognition of the importance of religious freedom, but quite frankly also to the recognition of the importance of religion in the work of the U.N. system.

We also have an United Nations interagency taskforce on engaging with religious actors, which has been operational since 2010, but de facto came together and formed in 2007, and which continues to be doing quite a bit of work across the U.N. system in terms of institutionalizing the outreach to diverse faith-based actors. So I would say that a good part of our work in terms of the need to bring into the institution—not necessarily to institutionalize religions, because that’s really not been possible—but clearly to bring the awareness of religious engagement, to try to systematize this engagement to make it more deliberate, learned, strategic, and focused has definitely happened over the last—wow—10—10, 15 years, especially as I was trying to say, I think you could really—you can really see it happening across the system in the last 10 years. But whether we can effectively as—or whether the U.N. system as a whole can institutionalize religion, I sort of posed that question back a little bit by saying given how big the United Nations system is, given that you have everything from the World Bank to the United Nations Population Fund—and those are, you know, hugely different entities—and everything in between, it would be kind of hard to have only one place in that system that is dedicated to religious engagement, especially because the world of religion, as you know much better than I, actually dwarfs the United Nations system a thousand times over. So institutionalizing it into one particular office is not necessarily the easiest or it may not necessarily be the wisest way, but I think being able to systemize the awareness and the lessons and the learning and the policymaking and the opportunities for engagement, we’re well on our way to where it’s doing that. Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Michelle Bentsman with Harvard Divinity School.

BENTSMAN: Hi. Thank you both for your talk and for the wonderful work that you’re doing.

My question is for Azza Karam. You were speaking a little bit about how the United Nations is planning to preemptively address coming humanitarian crises, and I would love to hear more about what is being done right now to do so and how you’re working with religious actors in order to get that done.

KARAM: Thank you very much, Michelle, for your very good question as well. Just to—I could say way too much that would take us way beyond the call, because there’s so much being done at different levels of the U.N. system, but I will share with you a small anecdote to give you an example of an instance of that kind of preemptive work. You may have heard of the World Humanitarian Summit. It took place in May of 2016. It took place in Istanbul. The World Humanitarian Summit was one of—was the very first global humanitarian summit to take place, ironically, even though we’ve been facing a humanitarian summit for as long as the U.N. system has been up and around. But this was a moment, a critical policy and awareness moment for the whole world on issues related to humanitarian engagement. And unlike many of the U.N. summits, this one was deliberate in its intentionality to reach out to all the humanitarian stakeholders. So we had civil society organizations, we had governments, we had a huge array of nongovernmental partners around the table, we had the multilateral, we had the bilateral, we had —there was a great diversity of representation present. And kudos to our colleagues in the U.N. OCHA who worked really, really hard to coordinate and to make this summit possible, and to the governments who supported it and worked very hard to make that possible as well.

But one of the things that really took place there that may have escaped the notice of many is that we actually had a special session on religious engagement in humanitarian work that took place during that summit. And the U.N. system went all out to reach all the partners that we’ve been working with over decades on humanitarian engagement. And we gathered some 250 faith-based partners at that meeting, and that is not necessarily deeply significant until you realize that we didn’t pay for them. They came. We reached out and said can you come and tell us what we need to know about humanitarian engagement and your particular role, and they came out of their own resources. And that’s a huge commitment that I think was just staring everybody in the face from the faith communities around humanitarian work. But not only did they come of their own accord, they also came together and agreed to something called the charter—the Faith-Based Charter for Humanitarian Work, which had this been a discussion about how religions could fight with each other, it would have received a heck of a lot more attention, because this was actually a moment where the faith communities from across the different religions, from across the different organizational structures from across the world, came together to agree to a humanitarian charter what they would do, what—how they will—how they do respect international humanitarian law, international human rights law. It was such a seminal moment, Michelle, that it just strikes me that it just went totally under the media thing. And if God forbid anyone had decided to blow themselves up, I’m sure that we’d received a lot more media attention. But here was a charter that was agreed between all these different humanitarian actors—which they are already implementing, which many of them, from Sierra Leone to Sri Lanka to everywhere else have taken back to their communities and are trying to work together with to show that this is what we do and what we can do together.

I think that’s an enormous initiative right then and there. And what it took was the U.N.’s ability and willingness and determination to bring together the actors and reach out to them and say can you come together. We can convene you. Let us know what you need from us. Come and tell us what you do. And it was an extraordinarily powerful moment. But there were also—there are also now plans of action that have been elaborated within—across many countries that have involved the engagement of the faith-based actors in countries, regionally and internationally. So I hope that that goes somewhere towards answering your question.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

Our next question comes from Jon Pahl with the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.

PAHL: Good afternoon, and thank you to both of you for your encouraging and hopeful presentations in what is perhaps a somewhat bleak time here in the United States for religious peacebuilders, or so it would seem.

Both of you expressed a degree of ambivalence regarding the integration of sacred and secular peacebuilding, and both of you pushed against a little bit the tendency that’s present over the past several decades at least to reduce peacebuilding to material and economic policies. So my question is, what are you discovering that’s distinctive, if anything, about religious peacebuilding? And I realize this is going to be very diverse across contexts, but perhaps we can focus it by addressing the topic of practices, religious practices in relationship to sacred places, or the way in which land, place, material reality is valorized by religious actors. I hope that’s a helpful question. And again, thank you both.

DUBENSKY: Well, let me try and tackle at least some of that. This is Joyce.

PAHL: Hi, Joyce.

DUBENSKY: Hi. How are you? I think what we find that’s distinctive is what drives the religious peacemakers, which is their motivation, their faith-based motivation, and this vision, this understanding of peace and feeling compelled, if you will, to pursue it. But it is also true that this religious motivation often makes them stand out within their communities and can give them a certain credibility at times and authority that allows them to be influential in their communities. Now that does not mean that secular people don’t have the capacity to get—secular peacemakers do not have the capacity to get credibility for their wisdom and their—you know, and the other things that they bring. But in many countries where religion is very important, the religious motivation of the peacemaker gives them a credibility and a distinctness.

The other thing is that it does enable—there are some predominately religious techniques, I think. So even when I talk about the power of the pulpit as an example before and pointed out that it is not only used for religious ends but also for secular ends, I think that is an example of a religiously defined technique. And it—what’s interesting I think about that is it’s also religious texts. Now, people use religious texts in different ways. One of our peacemakers, an example in Afghanistan, a religious Muslim woman, Jamila Afghani, was working with imams in—and she was looking at the practice of Islam and the text of the Koran and how the—you know, the core of the faith did not always match the practice. So she was using religious texts as a way to expand the perspective and vision of those she was working with. But because she was a woman in Afghanistan, she went to religious leaders to review her work and essentially—and I’m probably using an incorrect way of describing it, but to rubberstamp it and say that she was interpreting it correctly, and that gave her the authority.

So we would say, for instance, that a technique that both our more secular and more religious peacemakers use, is they appropriate religious authority in order to use (the work ?), and she was using the text. So I think that those are things that are distinctive among religious peacemakers. I am not, I would say—and so I would differ a little bit with your read of what I said—and I guess I wasn’t as clear as I would have hoped—I’m not per se ambivalent about the integration of the secular and the sacred. I actually believe that it’s inevitable and that the overlap is always going to be something that we’ll be encountering and that we do ourselves a disservice if we only define religious peacemakers as those who are religious, religiously affiliated and identified with an institution and only using religion as a resource.

And so, like, another very quick example in the DRC, Bishop Ntambo built orphanages and churches to educate orphans and to feed people, and he would work to make sure that people were fed. And he did all of that, and yet he was also accessed and called upon by the government to broker peace with the Mai-Mai, who are cannibals in—who were doing tremendous devastation in the community, and he did that. And when he first encountered the chief of the Mai-Mai, he—the chief knelt before him. And Bishop Ntambo used what he calls radical hospitality and welcomed him into his home.

PAHL: Thank you.


FASKIANOS: Great, thank you.

Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Thomas Walsh with Universal Peace Federation.

WALSH: Thank you. Both excellent presentations and excellent conversations.

Either speaker can answer. Perhaps Azza has more experience. I don’t know. But I think Joyce has been involved in some of these programs at the U.N. About five or six years ago, the World Interfaith Harmony Week was a resolution passed by the General Assembly, introduced, I believe, by the member state Jordan. And I’m just wondering if you have any reflections on the significance of that, how that’s going. Does it seem like it’s gained any traction as an important—it’s coming up the first week of February. So I’m just inviting you to reflect a little bit on that significant development, or at least from my point of view, and I think many others, the World Interfaith Harmony Week, how widely it’s known about and/or marketed or branded. Thank you.

KARAM: OK, I’ll very quickly—thank you, Thomas, for that question—just to say that I think the fact that it’s a whole week, by the way—now very often we have days that are declared, U.N. days. Ever so—every once in a while we have something called an interdecade of culture and peace and all that sort of stuff. But this is a whole Interfaith Harmony Week, and I think it’s been—if you just look at the progression of and the number of events over the last five years since it was brought and accepted, it’s amazing how many organizations and governments are now—I won’t say the word competing, but are certainly very helpfully taking responsibility for different events during that week and for—and using it as an opportunity to showcase not only the work that the different organizations are doing, but actually to also bring together different counterparts and partners across the world to showcase the religious harmony that actually does exist, which I think in the context of the world we’re living in now is not a bad idea, to put it mildly.

So I would say that it’s receiving a great deal more attention within the U.N. and those who are—those organizations who are working mostly with the U.N. system. It’s been receiving increasing attention. I think we still need to expand the awareness about this to those NGOs who are maybe even not religious in nature but have some work in this area. We still need to bring that resolution and that week to their attention. We certainly need to bring it to the attention of other policymakers who are not working with the U.N. that much. So, yes, there’s still much to do in terms of letting it be known that we have this opportunity. But within those—among those who work in the U.N. system, there’s a huge—

DUBENSKY: Yes, and I would just say that the—I think it’s not as wide as it could be in places like schools and other places, that it’s really something that tends to be held dear within interfaith work itself and with religious—within, you know, religious communities focusing on that.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Nell Bolton with the Catholic Relief Service. Go ahead, Mr. (sic) Bolton.

DUBENSKY: Nell, are you there? Nell might be on mute.

BOLTON: I’m sorry, can you hear me?

DUBENSKY: Yes, we can. Thank you.

BOLTON: OK. I apologize for that. Thank you very much for your comments. I wanted to go back to the issue of the intersection between the religious and the secular spheres of peacebuilding, as well as the inclusion of religious actors in track-one diplomacy. And I’m wondering whether, from your vantage point, you see any emphasis on the part of religious peacemakers to try to preserve some space that is inherently religious and set apart from the secular world and any sort of resistance to that integration of the religious and secular or integration into formal peace processes. And I’m wondering if you see that and necessarily what you make of it.

DUBENSKY: You’re shaking your head yes, so why don’t you respond first?

KARAM: Thank you, Nell. This is Azza. Just to say that I think there is and there has been, especially as we’ve seen this acknowledgement of the role of religion increase among some of the policymakers, there has been also another side to the coin, in a way, which is some of the religious actors have come back with concerns about why the sudden interest. What else is there that you might be thinking of? Can you be clearer? Are we being instrumentalized by you to just rubberstamp a certain agenda? And I think that that concern has to be honored, in a way, because it is—it’s very real. It isn’t necessarily a concern—I wouldn’t articulate it necessarily the same way you did, Nell, in terms of saying is it resistance to integration in formal peace processes, but it is more a sense of—at worst it’s a suspicion about why the sudden interest and are you really going to be listening to what we’re saying we need to see happen. At best, it’s a legitimate series of questions about how the manifestation of interest is taking place. In some instances, there’s a concern by some of the religious actors that are you just asking us to come and be there for a photo op once you’ve already had the conversation and decided what you want and so on? And for some it’s more like you haven’t heard us, really, have you? We’ve been asking you specifically for something here, and we don’t see it happening and we don’t see it being manifested, et cetera.

So I do think it is very helpful to understand that it isn’t simply oh, hallelujah, you now see us and we’re all working together and everything’s fine. It really is also about—and I think this is why you saw the governmental and intergovernmental actors becoming more interested and keen on learning the how do you reach out to these religious activists? It’s not simply a matter of knowing that they’re there and calling or dialing up a certain CEO, there’s a skill to learning to converse across these different ways of communication. And I think there’s a skill to learning to listen to one another. And so therefore this—these sets of concerns now that come from some of the religious peacemakers and religious actors more generally have made some of us aware that we need to learn even the very basics of how to do the outreach, how to identify, how to define, which is why the work that Tanenbaum does is helpful, because here’s what the definition is and here’s the diversity, et cetera. So it’s forcing us to be more intentional and more learned, but it’s also adding to the list of demands that we get confronted with as international policymakers. Let’s face it. It’s not simply a matter of here, you can do this, this, this and it equals that. It means we’re going to have to listen to more voices, which is also more different ways of doing things and more different ways of seeing things. And that doesn’t always mean things are easier. It can actually complicate things a little bit.

KARAM: So, yeah, so my experience is a little bit different, because when we work with our peacemakers—and many of them—you know, one of the requirements of being one of our peacemakers is that you have had to have done at least some work at the grassroots and locally, it—be doing your work there now. And so when we work with them and we bring them together, what I see is an enthusiasm about engaging the diplomats and looking to leverage their ideas and influence so that when we did some work and went to the U.N. during our last working retreat, there was an enthusiasm for that day and that work that we’re doing. So—but I’m not sure that that is totally an answer over the longer term in their home communities where there might be far more concerns and more care about their own work.

FASKIANOS: I think we have one more question, so I’d like to take it and get it in before we close.

OPERATOR: And our last question comes from Mehmet Oguz with Dialogue Institute of Southwest.

OGUZ: Hello? Hello?

FASKIANOS: Hello. Yes, we can hear you. Please go ahead.

OGUZ: Yes, I think—(inaudible)—my voice might not be clear. I just want to hear your comments about current persecution to the religious people in Turkey, the Hizmet movement, which is known also as Gulen movement, known as interfaith dialogue between—(inaudible). But they were now persecuted by the president and the Turkish government. Just I want to hear your comments on that. Thank you.

FASKIANOS: All in two minutes. (Laughter.)

KARAM: OK, so just a very quick comment here. Mehmet, I think you’ve raised a very important point. One of the—this instance has—is being looked at with—through the lens of the special rapporteur on freedom of religion, the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of religion, and there has been quite a bit written on some of this and addressed by some of our colleagues, our United Nations Colleagues in different offices, in different sectors across the U.N. system.

FASKIANOS: Well, thank you both for being with us today, Joyce and Azza, for your valued—sharing your valuable insights with us. We really appreciate it, for your work at Tanenbaum and at the U.N. We really appreciate all that you’re doing. Thank you all for your comments and questions. You can follow Joyce on Twitter at @joycedubensky and Azza at @Mansoura1968. We also encourage you to follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy on Twitter at @CFR_Religion for announcements about upcoming events and information about the latest CFR resources. So thank you all again, and we look forward to your participation and future conversations.


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