Religion and Global Affairs

Religion and Global Affairs

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Katherine Marshall, senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, discusses the intersection of religion and international affairs, in terms of peacebuilding and the involvement of religious communities in meeting global challenges, as part of CFR's Academic Conference Call series.

Learn more about CFR's resources for the classroom at CFR Education.


Katherine Marshall

Senior Fellow, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, Georgetown University


Ruth R. Sullivan

Associate Director, Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

SULLIVAN: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the CFR Academic Conference Call Series. I’m Ruth Sullivan, associate director of outreach here at CFR. Thank you all for joining us today.

Our call is on the record, and the audio file and transcript will be available on our website,, within the next few days if you would like to share it with your colleagues or your classmates.

We’re delighted to have Katherine Marshall with us today to discuss religion and global affairs. Professor Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, where she leads the Center’s program on religion and global development. She also serves as professor of the practice of development, Conflict, and religion at Georgetown. From 1976 to 2006, Professor Marshall held a wide range of assignments at the World Bank, many focused on Africa. From 2000 to 2006, her mandate covered ethics, values, and faith and development work as counselor to the World Bank’s president. Professor Marshall also worked extensively on Eastern Africa and Latin America. As a longtime manager, she was involved in many task forces and issues, among them exercises addressing leadership issues, conflict resolution, and the role of women. You can follow Professor Marshall on Twitter @patlakath.

Welcome, Katherine. Thank you very much for being with us today. It would be great—

MARSHALL: Thank you, and welcome to all of you.

SULLIVAN: It would be great if you could start out by just giving us a brief overview of how religion influences international affairs, especially in terms of conflict and peacebuilding.

MARSHALL: Excellent.

Well, I have defined four different areas that we might touch on today. The last three I think are much more relevant for today’s discussion.

But first of all, religion in global governance overall is spiking in people’s interest. There’s far more awareness today about religious factors. It’s important at the national level—so, for example, in the United States, in Russia, Indonesia, India, et cetera—but also in the institutions of global governance; thus, the United Nations system, the European Community, regional organizations like ASEAN, et cetera. And I say sometimes that it involves issues from AIDS to zebras—and the last one, zebras, is a code, really, for the enormous interest that many religious organizations are taking now in climate change, interest in the new Sustainable Development Goals, poverty, inequality, issues of orphans, issues of basic values. So that’s the first set of very broad challenges which I think situate our discussion, and we can pursue any of those directions if you would like.

The second is the roles that religious institutions, leaders, and communities play in conflict resolution and in what we call peacebuilding. Peacebuilding is different from peacemaking in the sense that peace is always being built. It’s never something you can take for granted. So this is a specific set of issues. When you look at the conflicts of the world today, what role can and should and do religious institutions play in addressing those conflicts?

The third is understanding better how religion is and is not involved in conflicts in the world today, and more broadly in social cohesion. And I’ll come back to that.

And then a fourth set of issues that is important and directly related to the previous two—and in fact, to the previous three—is the role of religious institutions, beliefs, ideas in fragile states. Fragile states are countries that have a set of specific challenges, mostly around governance, corruption, many of them prone to conflict. There are a number of fragile state indicators—indices, and depending on which one you choose it’s roughly between 30 and 50 of those countries. But in relation to the previous two challenges of religion and conflict resolution and peacebuilding, and religion and conflict itself, the fragile-state issue puts a special spotlight on conflict prevention and on trying to build the kinds of societies that will not fall into conflict.

So let me go back first to this question of religion and conflict. And there I think you will hear and read widely different views that range basically from we face as a world a massive resurgence of religion and of religious conflict and tension—that many of the conflicts in the world are about religion. So that’s one end of the spectrum. At the other end of the spectrum you will hear the argument that, in fact, in today’s conflicts, religion really has nothing to do with it. So in other words, you go from religion is the primary cause—it is what it’s all about, it’s what people are fighting about, what sparks conflict—to the other end, that it’s all a proxy for issues, for example, of land disputes or machinations of evil politicians. So as you read about any conflict, whether it’s the Central African Republic or in the Middle East or in the Balkans, you are likely to hear the full range of those.

Needless to say—and I’m sure you’ve focused on this in many different contexts—the answer is that it’s complicated. And understanding those complexities, I think, is the absolute centerpiece of trying to make sense of the enormously complex challenges that we face in different parts of the world. In the same way that Tolstoy commented that happy families are pretty much similar but unhappy families are each distinct in their own way, you can make a similar comment about countries and conflict. That is, the context is enormously important—that each situation has a whole set of historical factors, personalities, political forces, demography, economies, variables that all of them explain or help to explain why conflict has emerged. So I think that appreciating this complexity, not oversimplifying—by saying it’s about religion or it’s not about religion, for example—is really vitally important.

So I think that’s a brief set of introductory comments on this question of religion and conflict.

On religion and peacebuilding, again, you have a wide variety of roles. And it starts with the fact that very few religious leaders and institutions have formally been accepted at the tables, at the peace tables where people discuss an agreement. There are many situations where they’re deliberately excluded or they’re neglected. On the other hand, in what’s called track-two diplomacy—or another term that’s used is track-one-and-a-half diplomacy, which involves public institutions but also civil society of various kinds—there are a remarkable set of examples of religious figures involved in peacebuilding.

So just to take a few examples, the community of Community of Sant’Egidio is a Catholic lay organization based in Rome that works in perhaps 70 or 80 different countries. Their mediation over many years in the disputes in Mozambique led to the signature of a peace agreement which has held in a remarkable fashion in Rome at the headquarters of Sant’Egidio. They’ve been involved in many other conflicts, among them Guinea in West Africa. In all of these cases, they were brought in because of their deep commitment to friendship and working with the poor. So working in prisons, for example, was a case in Guinea. So they got to know the people who were parties to the conflict and were invited to be part of the negotiations. They also were involved in northern Uganda over many years.

Another example is something called the Abrahamic Reunion, which works in Israel and Palestine, where a group of Christians, Jews, and Muslims have made a conscious effort to work together for peace—focusing, for example, on young people and on setting and modeling an example of what a community would look like.

In Northern Ireland there were quite complex examples of religious figures from Ireland, but also from other parts of the world, including the United States, who were part of the patient, long negotiations that led to an end to the major violence.

There are examples of cases where teams of religious leaders agreed to go to a hotspot. For example, if a church or a mosque is burned, an interreligious group will go to that spot to head off a conflagration. In Colombia, a group of women who are Evangelicals, Catholic, mainline Protestants, have worked together for peace. And in Myanmar—Burma—there are Buddhist groups that, again, are working for peace.

Some of the big global institutions like Religions for Peace are involved through local councils. And the most exciting examples, I think, were in Liberia and Sierra Leone. The film “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” gives an example of what the religiously motivated women did there.

There are other examples of religiously linked efforts to work for peace. One of them that I’ve been very much associated with is in Morocco, the Fes Festival of Global Sacred Music, where there is an effort through diverse religious music to help people to overcome barriers and to learn to speak to each other in different ways. And some religious groups also work with sports as a way, again, to break down prejudices and barriers. So the examples of religious peacebuilding are not necessarily very well known, but they’re very exciting.

So to spark the discussion—and I’m looking forward to hearing all of your comments—let me focus on what I see as four major lessons that I draw from many different involvements with religious groups who are concerned about conflict.

The first is that you really need to have a multidisciplinary approach that appreciates what I started with, which is the complexities of conflict and the complexities of peace. And to my mind, without a broad understanding of what we call the development challenges, it’s very difficult to move beyond the stuck narratives that give rise to conflict. And for many, what religious ideas and teachings are about is hope. And hope does mean an ideal of the kind of society you’re looking for, but it also means education, it means health, it means jobs, it means safe communities. And all of these challenges of—that I call development are so much tied into the quest for peace. More negatively, it means fighting corruption. It means providing enough security so that crime and disorder are reduced. So that’s a first set of issues, is linking peacebuilding to the broader challenges of development.

Second lesson and important issue is who is at the table. Who is at the peace table? Who is thinking about these issues? Whose views are taken into account? And one challenge with dealing with religious communities can be that it tends to be men and it tends to be older people. So bringing women—who are ironically more religious than men—into the discussion is absolutely critical, and bringing young people in. You hear time and time again that the large majority of a society is below the age of 20, 24, or whatever, and yet bringing young people into real, serious discussions about peace is all too rare. So that’s, I think, a second lesson, is to think hard about who’s at the table.

A third is that a word that comes out again and again in this is narratives. And what it means is how are people thinking about the causes of their conflicts, and how are they thinking about their future. And of course, a feature of conflicts is that people come with very different understandings of the history, of the facts, and of the challenges. And that, in many ways, is what reconciliation and healing is about. And it can involve interreligious dialogue, getting people together. It can involve encouraging people to work together on a challenge like, for example, water or housing. It can involve conscious and creative work with media, social media, and many other ways. But this question of digging into the ways in which people understand the root causes of their conflict—whether it’s dealing with ISIS, dealing with Central African Republic, dealing with Bangladesh, whatever—is vitally important.

And the final point and the final lesson is that in today’s world one needs a level of religious literacy. That means that anyone who’s working at the State Department, in the United Nations system, with bilateral agencies, with development agencies, with NGOs, and particularly in these fragile states, needs to have a basic understanding of how the religious demography of the world works, how the history of different traditions. Not necessarily a deep theological knowledge, but certainly a knowledge of how the institutions work and what are the main agendas that these organizations are bringing to the table. So that, I think, applies at the university level, but it also applies when people are working in these organizations because so few people today have had the opportunity to have that kind of basic religious context that will help them to navigate what is clearly a vital issue in today’s world.

So that’s my introduction. Thank you.

SULLIVAN: Great. Thank you so much for that terrific overview, Katherine.

Let’s open it up to the group for questions and comments.

OPERATOR: Yes, ma’am, thank you. At this time we will open the floor for questions.

(Gives queueing instructions.)

Our first question will come from the University of Management and Technology, Lahore.

Q: OK. I’m—(name inaudible). I’m from Lahore, and I’ve been working in a peacebuilding—(inaudible)—peacebuilding in Pakistan. And I really disagree with—(inaudible)—in order to reduce the—(inaudible)—religious—(inaudible)—in Pakistan—(inaudible)—more than—(inaudible)—takes place in Pakistan. But then the problem is—and we can really (misidenfify ?) that the religion—(inaudible)—religion, and they’re distorting their (original ?) message.. But (it’s clear ?) we are making religion—(inaudible)—of peace, then we will be—(inaudible)—as well. And sometimes it becomes hard for religious community to be—(inaudible)—become skeptics. I think that we can improve religious liberty, but how can we be—we have—we then—(inaudible)—as well. So how can we (deal ?) with that?

MARSHALL: I had a lot of difficulty hearing that. Can someone summarize the question or me, please?

SULLIVAN: Yeah, I think they’re trying to adjust the volume of the line right now. We also had a hard time understanding the question.

OPERATOR: Also, if you’re on a speakerphone, could you try and pick up the handset and ask the question again?

Q: OK, let me try. Can you hear me? Or not?

OPERATOR: Yes, that was better.

Q: OK, fine. What I need to do—I think the idea of spreading religious liberty will work very well in Pakistan. It is very much needed in Pakistan. But then it sometimes becomes hard to convince people that—because they are sorted into—(inaudible)—religion has been used for violence as well. So when we’re talking about religion and—

MARSHALL: I’m sorry, I’m still—I’m still not getting the question. Could you—could you just have a very short what you’d like met to address, please?

Q: How can we make religion as a source of peacebuilding when—(inaudible)—we have the precedent of religious leaders—(inaudible)—violence as well? (Inaudible.) You would have to be really selective in (our sourcing ?).

SULLIVAN: Yeah, I’m sorry. I don’t think—we’re not able to hear you, so I think we’re just going to have to move on to the next question. I’m so sorry.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from the Bush School of Government and Public Service.

Q: Hi. This is Charlotte from the Bush School.

I was wondering, you were talking about bringing in more women and young people into the discussion. I’m curious as to how you think people should go about that, especially if there’s certain religions where the structure requires that the elders be the ones that do the kind of negotiating?

MARSHALL: We’re actually going to be addressing that in a call next week, on the 29th of October, because I have a book on women, religion, and peacebuilding with Susan Hayward that’s just come out, published by USIP. It’s a very good question.

People now refer sometimes rather than to religious leaders, but to religious actors. And when you take a broader look at people who are involved in religion, you can almost always find women. Where, for example, in Senegal, the formal religious leaders are men, but it’s clear that there are women’s organizations within the different Muslim communities which have a long history and lots of activities. The heads of many faith-inspired organizations, like CRS, are women. And young people—obviously there are young people’s organizations, and the leadership of those organizations can be brought to the table.

It’s important not to let this be a token effort. It really does need to be done sincerely. And there are times, for example, when you really need to meet with these groups separately because their voices can be drowned out in a broader setting where the expectation is that the formal leaders have to have the main voice.

Q: Thank you.

SULLIVAN: Thank you. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: (Gives queueing instructions.)

Our next question will come from Washington and Lee University.

Q: Why do you feel that religious leaders, even though they often do exert a huge influence on their regional population, why do you feel that they’re not often brought into peace talks, peace discussions? And do you feel that if they are brought in that that could facilitate easier discussions, or do you think that would be more of a challenge?

MARSHALL: Good question again. There are a lot of different reasons, and it would vary by situation.

When you get into formal diplomatic circles, there is a tendency to assume that it is the formal diplomatic envoys who belong at the table. And when you have low levels of religious literacy or when you have people concerned, for example, about the separation of church and state, it will not come instinctively to invite religious people to the table. In some cases, where people believe that religious figures are part of the problem—in other words, that they’ve caused the conflict—they may assume that it makes sense to leave them out of the discussions rather than complicating them.

But you know, each peace negotiation has its own dynamic and its own character. And it’s not until you look at the whole that you see, for example, the remarkable exclusion of women from peace discussions and the remarkable exclusion of religious leaders in the same light. And yet, it’s important, clearly, to have their presence because they represent such an important force, numbers, and perspective.

But it’s particularly important because they do bring different agendas. They may—for example, religious figures in the most difficult conflict areas—for example, DRC—are the ones who provide the education and health. They take care of the orphans. They may even take care of wells and border points. So bringing them into the discussions of where you’re going in the future, bringing women in who also have their agendas, is absolutely vital.

Q: Thank you.

SULLIVAN: Thank you. Let’s go to the next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Washington University.

Q: Hello?

MARSHALL: Got you. Hear you.

Q: Hi, yes. I have a question regarding Kurdistan. So it has a very inclusive type of culture with the Peshmerga fighting alongside women. And I was wondering, with youth it would be very easy to work with because a majority—as you were talking about earlier, the majority of the population is probably around 25 years of age or younger. You mentioned a little bit about the Middle East. How are you—are there any—you said you’re working with Morocco, but are you working with Kurdistan, or—because a lot of issues arise with the Kurdish diaspora having—I mean, clashing with the Turks and, I mean, the Persians and the Arabs in Syria and Iraq. I guess that’s not specifically a question, but what are—what are you doing with that? Because that’s something that really interests me.

MARSHALL: Unfortunately I don’t know the Kurdistan situation well enough to comment intelligently, but you’ve brought up some important issues. Clearly finding creative ways, whether it’s through a student organization or a youth organization to bring them into a broader discussion of peace and development, I think is very feasible and it’s being done in a lot of places and should clearly be done in the situation you’re describing.

Another point that you’ve highlighted, which I think is very important is the question of diaspora communities, in other words populations that are living outside the country and that often play very important roles in conflict, either fueling the conflict or helping to resolve it. And very often, those links have a religious dimension. In other words, people in the diaspora community, whether it’s in the United States or Europe or wherever, their main social capital may be their religious organization. And their understandings of what the conflict is about may be shaped in religious terms. So bringing in this dimension of the diaspora, it sounds as if in Kurdistan that would be one of the first areas to look at.

Q: Thank you.

SULLIVAN: Thank you. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from St. Edwards University.

Q: Oh, hi there. My name is Jenny (sp), calling from St. Edwards University in Austin.

And I was just wondering if you had any thoughts regarding the role of religion or religious actors related to issue of free speech and blasphemy. And I’m thinking of, of course, the Danish cartoons in particular, the Charlie Hebdo crisis. I’m especially wondering kind of what your thoughts are about religion and religious actors and peacebuilding, especially in these very secular contexts.

MARSHALL: Again, excellent question. The question of human rights and religious freedom comes in quite often and, again, takes on a particularly sensitive forms in situations of conflict. And you’re referring to some of the dramatic cases where hate speech, or even speech, or comments that had no intention of harm can ignite a conflict. And that’s a feature of today’s globalized society, where something that happens in Austin, for example, can all of a sudden appear in Thailand or in the Middle of Africa, or something happening in the Central African Republic can have repercussions in Bangladesh.

The general consensus on—global consensus, it is, after all, international law and practice on issues of human rights and principles of freedom of speech, the sense of—the sense of responsibility that you need to avoid speaking in ways that hurt other people, that do harm—all of those principles are quite widely held, but it’s the ways in which they are applied. I was last week at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City. And these questions about blasphemy and its tensions with the right to freedom of speech were very much on the agenda.

And the basic message, which I think is the important one, is that, yes, rights are absolutely vital. It is important to protect people’s freedom of speech. It’s not something that we can compromise with as a human family, because it is so fundamental to the notions of freedom. But, that freedom comes with responsibility. And in many situations, that responsibility will even take some kind of formal form. So for example, you can’t cry fire in a theater because people could be hurt. But those lines, those boundaries, are very difficult to draw. And they’re done in very different ways in different societies.

Q: Thank you.

SULLIVAN: Thank you. Let’s go to the next question.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

Our next question will come from Norwich University.

Q: Hi. My name is Angela Pashayan from Norwich University.

And I would like to ask, how do you feel about the youth perhaps adopting a more interfaith perspective? I kind of feel like, you know, the old regime is just very dogmatic. And I’m wondering if you have some insights on the perspective of youth.

MARSHALL: I’m sorry, youth in interfaith organizations?

Q: Not interfaith organizations, but youth globally. I believe that they may have more of an interfaith perspective than our older generation. And I’m asking your opinion or your views on that.

MARSHALL: Yeah, I think you’re—I think you’re right. And it’s partly sort of the age-old traditions of youth, that younger people tend to be probing and curious and looking for new ways of doing things. But it is also today’s youth. In other words, we want to get away from the platitude that youth are the future, because I think we know that, but really to dig into what tools, what currents seem to be most important for young people. And clearly, the—everyone looks to the revolution of social media, and therefore the capacity of young people to connect, in very practical ways, instantly with people in other corners of the world. And the fact that many young people do that, whether it’s through Facebook or through Instagram or through the many other tools that there are.

We’re seeing much more openness to different religious traditions, particularly in the United States, but that’s true elsewhere, where people—young people are curious about their traditions and they can travel virtually to almost any corner of the world. You can go to Bhutan, you can go to Mongolia, you can to go to Lesotho with just a few clicks, and see how people live. And therefore, to have the kind of empathy with people in other corners of the world that was very difficult not that long ago, when you didn’t have these miraculous kinds of communication.

And that, of course, applies to very practical aspects of religion, whether it’s people’s rituals and traditions, but also you have the possibility of digging deeper into different ways of thinking about issues. So there’s also the possibility of service—of linking service across very different communities, so that people really come to understand each other. So I think that that’s a place where we can, in some of the dark moments of today’s world, find hope and chances to look to a much better world.

Q: Thank you. Thank you, great. Thank you.

SULLIVAN: Thank you. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Our next question will come from the Bush School of Government and Public Service.

SULLIVAN: Hello, please go ahead with your question.

Q: Yeah. This is Christian from the Bush School.

Basically, my question is, what does the data show about the possibility of religion being a solution for conflict, rather than the cause of conflict, since a lot of people go back and forth on that?

MARSHALL: Well, the data is, I think, to be quite honest, mostly in the form of case studies and stories. And I listed a number that I happen to be familiar with. And they’re only a fraction of the cases of organizations and individuals, often with remarkable courage and creativity, who are approaching the challenges of peacebuilding. I can refer you to a brand-new instrument that’s done by KAICIID that’s based in Vienna. It’s the King Abdullah Abdulaziz Center for Interfaith and Intercultural—the interfaith center. And they have just launched a peace mapping instrument which has several hundred organizations that are working on interreligious dialogue for peace. So you can really look at a map and find somewhere in New Zealand, or Papua New Guinea, or Swaziland, or Haiti, and see that there are organizations that are working for peace.

What’s much more difficult, and this is to be very honest about it, is evaluating the impact of all of this enormous effort is not easy. And one of the reasons is that it’s—people take very different approaches. Another reason that it’s difficult is that quite often what happens is not really what you set out to do. In other words, unintended consequences, which often can be positive. I love the story of an organization I came—sat with some years ago in Ghana, where a group of religious figures got together to deal with garbage and sanitation because there was a big sporting event coming. And so they talked about cleanliness and godliness, et cetera.

And that effort made some progress, they got clean-up campaigns, et cetera, but what was really interesting was that when there was tension around an election, that group of religious leaders knew each other , and they made phone calls, got together, and helped to head off violence that they—people were afraid would happen during that election. So you have a number of other situations where the simple fact of people working together—whether it’s on a habitat project, or whether it’s on orphan care, or water, or climate change these days—that by working together they get to know each other and can come up with good ideas and approaches to conflict resolution, or to preventing conflict, which is I think what we’re—what we’re most concerned about.

SULLIVAN: Thank you. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our next question will come from Washington and Lee University.

Q: Hi. I was recently reading about beef ban in India, and how that’s been effecting a lot of Muslim communities who traditionally do eat beef, unlike the Hindu majority. And I was wondering how we could limit these kind of harmful policies that are taken by parties in power which have a religious bent. Like, how could we potentially fix the problem in India, just prevent those problems from ever even coming about?

MARSHALL: Good question. The tendency in India right now towards sectarian conflict is—clearly, it’s nothing new. In the 19th century there were—the Indian mutiny was sparked largely by people’s concerns about pork and beef and the role of the colonial powers in it. And it’s unfortunately something that has come up again and again. And what’s ironic, is that it’s set against a society where people have lived together for millennia and have in many cases respected each other, shared rituals and beliefs, et cetera. And one of the things I think we’re all trying to understand better is what it is that changes that situation of harmony and social cohesion and causes an explosion of violence. It can be the ways in which politicians approach it. It can be even the anger that comes with corruption, with the sense of injustice and unfairness, at inequality.

So trying to understand why the government in India—or the specific groups that are responsible for some of the tensions around beef, and therefore around the Hindu traditions and beliefs—trying to understand what’s caused that change is a subject that I’m sure many of you will be studying in the years to come. What do you do about it? Well, I think that we have to have a lot of faith in reason and dialogue and bringing evidence to show what’s happening. We need, all of us, to work in every way that we can, which will be very different depending on where you’re sitting, to promote a culture of—that goes beyond tolerance to a real understanding, appreciation and respect for others.

And it’s not something that you can do from outside. It really does need to come, many people say, from an individual’s heart and from the society. It needs to be built. That’s why people talk about peacebuilding, that it’s something that’s done overtime. It’s something that people need to invest in. It’s about values. It’s about knowing other people. And it’s about respecting the most fundamental qualities that are human dignity.

SULLIVAN: Thank you. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our next question will come from the Bush School of Government and Public Service.

Q: Hello. This is Charlotte, again, from the Bush School.

You mentioned earlier about religious literacy. And we’ve spoken a lot about people abroad that are understanding different religious backgrounds. But we’ve also seen with the current U.S. election and previous discussions in the United States that there’s definitely an issue of understanding different religious beliefs. Do you see any way to make an impact at home with religious literacy, and how the United States could perhaps better prepare itself for a diverse population?

MARSHALL: Well, the—there is a book by Stephen Prothero which shows rather dramatically how pretty much across the education system in the United States, things that were taken for granted as basic knowledge and understanding have rather disappeared from the curriculum, starting very young, almost from kindergarten. There are many people who don’t know about Noah’s flood. They don’t know about Jacob’s coat. They don’t have really any understanding of Islam, of Buddhism, et cetera, except possibly as almost a frivolous—not frivolous, but as just an interesting cultural phenomenon.

So I think that the sense of people who are acutely aware of the importance of religion to what people estimate is 84 percent of the world’s population, which considers itself as belonging to one or another religious tradition and following it—84 percent that understanding that religious context is something that needs to be integrated into education systems right from the get-go, and also into family understanding, stories, et cetera, and extending, obviously and with particular focus, in the schools and universities and graduate programs that are preparing people to work in public service.

Now, in the United States, there has been a nervousness about curricula that focus on religious issues, because of the concern to separate religion from state. The way that I would put it, is that what we’re talking about is understanding of religion, and that that is really very different from being religious or teaching people to be religious. And it’s in a way easier said than done. In other words, that you really do need a sophisticated understanding of how to keep your own beliefs out of a broader discussion of the significance of religion, without making it boring. You don’t want to make it all about statistics. You really do want to give people the sense of what beliefs mean and about the religious—how people think in different ways depending on their religious tradition.

But it’s an investment that needs to be made. And your comment, your observation, about some of the issues around the electoral political discourse in this country bring that home. And it is, as you point out, a vitally important issue. And it’s important here. It’s important in other countries where, again, you need to look at the curriculum to see to what extent there are either deliberate or inadvertent biases that come into teaching of every subject—whether it’s history or literature, but even math and physics—that are colored by prejudices and different attitudes towards religion as opposed to the kind of open spirit of knowledge and understanding that we’re after.

SULLIVAN: Thank you. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from the University of Arizona.

Q: Hi. I have a question about factions or splinter groups. So we know that religious institutions are not perfectly cohesive at times. And so how can an organization, working in those fragile states, better identify the competing agendas even within a single religious institution? And how can they work with a particular faction that is interested in peacebuilding and counter one that maybe isn’t interested in it?

MARSHALL: Again, a very good question. One thing that we talk about is we talk about interreligious dialogue or interfaith dialogue. And there are subtle differences between those terms, but basically they are talking about trying to bring better understanding among the major, large religious institutions and traditions. But there’s also intra-faith dialogue, which means within a single tradition, even within a single church. As you know, I’m sure, there can be splinter groups within a family, as well as within congregations.

I think the challenge in a conflict situation—because we’re talking both about sort of broader societal understanding that takes into account the religious dimensions—but we’re also focusing today particularly on violent conflicts, of course, violent extremism. And in those situations, there’s really no substitute for intelligence and listening and trying to get a good idea of what the landscape is, and then seeing the ways in which you can bring a different set of parties to the table.

It can get complicated, as you know, because there are in all cases—you’re seeing this in Afghanistan with the Taliban; we’re seeing it in Nigeria with Boko Haram, with Al-Shabab in the Horn of Africa and Mali, and in Burma—that how do you deal with the fact—with who to bring to the table when they are directly involved in the conflict and when they may be very violent and espousing violence? How do you decide? And what—in many—you clearly need to navigate that on a case-by-case basis.

But it is clear that at some point you have to be able to reach out, even to groups with which you profoundly disagree. But you also need to set lines that you really cannot—there are certain groups that you need to—certain principles that you need to uphold. But I’ve had, for example, a lot of interesting conversations with people from the Community of Sant’Egidio, the Rome-based lay-Catholic movement that I described before. And their philosophy is one of friendship and care for the poor. And they visit people in prisons, and therefore people who clearly have a history in many cases of violence. And by helping those people, they get to know people from splinter groups or from violent organizations. And it is through that that they’re been invited to be part of mediation.

I think a different dimension, which you may have been referring to, is that the religious landscape in almost any situation you look at, including of course the United States, is unbelievably complicated. There are hundreds of thousands of Protestant denominations, many different Buddhist traditions, plus minority groups, much smaller communities like the Yazidis or the Zoroastrians, which all would like to be at the table. And so you can’t have everybody at the table all at once. So again, there simply has to be an intelligent and thoughtful effort to include as many as you can in a way that allows you to do the kind of work that you need to do, and to achieve the results you’re after.

SULLIVAN: Thank you, Katherine. I think we’re unfortunately almost to the end of our hour. I’m wondering if you have any closing thoughts that you’d like to share with the group.

MARSHALL: Well, I’ve enjoyed your very probing and thoughtful questions. I’m sorry that I—we could not hear the speaker from Lahore, because I’m sure that she comes from one of the most demanding and challenging situations in the world, where the role of religion is immensely complex. The questions that I—clearly are on your minds are how to bring young people most constructively and in meaningful ways into the work for peace. And that, I think, does start at a very micro level. It starts in communities and universities. But it also can be part of the broader thinking about peacebuilding, and finding ways to dig into some of the barriers that might prevent young people and women being at the table, and making the case of what they bring when they do. So I think that that’s an important set of questions that you all have raised.

The religious literacy question I think is enormously demanding, and enormously important because these are, as I think has become—has been very clear in our exchange today, immensely complex issues that cannot and should not be treated in a light manner with stereotypes or over-simplistic images. So the religious literacy, I think, is very important.

As you read about religious violence, violent extremism, and as you hear people’s comments about the evils of religion, I think it’s vital to remember the enormous potential for good that has historically, and still is today, a fundamental part of religious communities and traditions. The traditions of compassion and caring, the commitment to peace which is embedded in the DNA of religious traditions, and their very practical sense—their knowledge of what people are concerned about at a human level, their prophetic voice, their capacity to speak truth to power, their ability to transcend the very local and to go beyond national boundaries. All of those offer an exciting and important resource that we need to and can build on.

So thank you all very much for joining. And look forward to meeting some of you in person someday.

SULLIVAN: Yes, Katherine. Thank you so much for sharing your insights with us today. And thank you, everyone on the call, for your excellent questions and comments.

Our next conference call will take place on Wednesday November 4th, from 12:00 to 1:00 p.m. eastern. Janine Davidson, senior fellow for defense policy at CFR, will be discussing lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan. In the meantime, I encourage you to follow CFR’s Academic Outreach Initiative on Twitter at @CFR_Academic, for more information on new CFR resources and upcoming events. Thank you for joining us today. We look forward to your continued participation in your discussions this fall.

MARSHALL: Thank you all, again.