Lisa Sharland, senior fellow and director of the Protecting Civilians in Conflict program at the Stimson Center, and Sukhsimranjit Singh, the Judge Danny Weinstein managing director of the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine University Caruso School of Law, discuss the United Nations’ role in peacemaking and how religion leaders contribute to conflict resolution around the world.
FASKIANOS: Thank you, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy webinar series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.
As a reminder, this webinar is on the record. And the audio, video, and transcript will be made available on our website, CFR.org, and on our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
So we’re delighted to have Lisa Sharland with us today to talk about “Religion and Conflict Resolution.” Unfortunately, Dr. Singh could not be with us. He might be able to join us later. We’re not exactly sure, so we will just roll with it. But we’re happy to have Lisa with us to talk about this important topic.
Lisa Sharland is a senior fellow and director of the protecting civilians in conflict program at the Stimson Center. She was previously the deputy director of defense, strategy, and national security, and the head of the international program at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Her research has focused on UN peace operations reform, peacekeeping effectiveness, protection of civilians, preventing and countering violent extremism, and women, peace, and security. She served as the defense policy advisor at the Permanent Mission of Australia to the United Nations from 2009 to 2014; and represented Australia in multilateral negotiations in the UN Security Council and General Assembly bodies, including the Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations.
So, Lisa, it’s great to have you with us to talk about this, given your experience, the research you’ve done, and the positions you’ve held. If you could give us an overview of the UN’s role in peacekeeping, especially the approaches that the UN has taken to deal with religious conflicts, and what you’ve seen over the trajectory of your career, and your prediction for or your thoughts on how we should be dealing with conflicts as we look out.
SHARLAND: Thanks so much for the kind introduction, Irina. And it’s a pleasure to be here with the Council on Foreign Relations and those that are on the call today.
As Irina has noted in my sort of biography, I’m by no means a religious scholar to comment on any of these topics. But what I’d really like to do in my introductory remarks is, I guess, offer a bit of some context in terms of the spectrum of different tools that the UN has available to it to engage in peacemaking and conflict resolution efforts, and then pivot a little bit to what this means for what we may term as religious conflicts.
So what do we mean by peacekeeping—sorry, peacemaking in the context of the UN? So there’s a spectrum of different tools that are available to the international community through the UN when it comes to resolving conflict and addressing threats to international peace and security. Although, I think really at the outset of this conversation it’s really important to note that many of those tools may appear out of reach when we look at the context of what’s happening with the war in Ukraine at the moment, and the intractability of any action in the UN Security Council. So what are some of these tools? And I think I have no doubt we’ll come back to some of the challenges around utilizing them in the conversation.
So we have at hand—and many of these tools have been around for seventy years; they came out and emerged from the UN Charter—conflict prevention, which is diplomatic measures that are focused on preventing tensions or disputes from escalating into conflicts. So, really, trying to target some of these tensions before they escalate into a context where civilians may be impacted by violence or those tensions maybe escalate into military conflict.
We have peacekeeping, which is well-known around the world for those blue helmets that you see on personnel that are deployed to different mission contexts—at the moment across twelve in the globe, including contexts such as Mali and the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and many that have been in place for decades including within the Middle East.
Further along that spectrum we have peace enforcement, which is really more direct intervention, under Chapter VII of the UN Charter in terms of military action.
And then we also use this terminology around peacebuilding, this idea of preventing the relapse into conflict, and how do we ensure that efforts to build peace don’t fall apart when some of these tensions emerge.
So these processes are not necessarily linear and may be required upon during the different stages of conflict for intervention.
Now, one of those that I didn’t mention in that spectrum was peacemaking, and this is sort of a terminology that has been explored for decades. We can go back to 1992 and An Agenda for Peace by the then-UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. And that noted that peacemaking is action to bring hostile parties to agreement, essentially through such peaceful means as were seen in Chapter VI of the Charter of the United Nations. So, really, what we’re talking about here is diplomatic action to bring parties to an agreement, often while hostilities are underway. And it may be used in conjunction with other tools or facilitated by the actions of others, including peacekeeping missions, humanitarian assistance, and so on.
In this context the UN secretary-general may exercise their good offices to facilitate the resolution of conflict, and a lot of that may involve consultation behind closed doors. And I have no doubt this is an ongoing conversation in terms of another conflict—a number of conflicts that we see around the world at the moment. It may involve the appointment of different envoys who act on behalf of the secretary-general, and it may indeed be undertaken by individuals who have no official affiliation with the UN in terms of supporting those conflict-resolution efforts.
What I think is notable at the moment is there is discussion about A New Agenda for Peace currently being driven by the secretary-general as part of his common agenda, recognizing that the world faces a new range of challenges and evolving threats to peace and security—climate change, cyber, information warfare—and I think these are all important to highlight in the context of what they mean when the intersect with religion and conflict.
So, very briefly, I wanted to go through how has the UN engaged on conflict and religion. And I think a really important question here to ask at the outset is: What are we talking about when we refer to religious conflicts? Religion itself can be both a driver of conflict and a mechanism for fostering peace. Some of the comments that I’ll make here will draw on some of the research that the Stimson Center and the Protecting Civilians in Conflict Program undertook back in 2020 looking at the issue of violence based on religion or belief, and this was spearheaded by colleagues of mine, Aditi Gorur and Julie Gregory.
Some of the things that this research noted that—is, in terms of geography, the Middle East and North Africa region has the highest level of violations based on freedom of religion or belief, followed by the Asia-Pacific, and Europe. And this is drawing on research by the Pew Research Center. These include violations by state and non-state actors. And there remain, of course, ongoing concerns about religious-related terrorism and violent extremism. Religious-related atrocities have been highlighted and amplified of particular concern by the UN special rapporteur on this topic, in relations to violence targeting Muslims in the Central African Republic, for instance; the Muslim Rohingya communities in Myanmar; and Yazidi communities in Iraq. Other areas of concern that have been noted generally by researchers in the international community focused on the forced internment of predominantly Muslim Uighurs in China, and the targeting of Christians by Boko Haram.
In this context, in terms of UN engagement there has been a range of different interactions and tools that have been utilized. However, I should note that they have not focused explicitly on the issue of the religious nature of this conflict, although they have been reflected, obviously, in a number of the debates and discussions. So, for instance, dependent on some of the countries that are being looked at, some of the countries that are on the agenda of the Security Council at the moment where there are different levels of religious-related violence include Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. In the context of UN peacekeeping and peace operations, which I previously referred to, we see it in the Central African Republic, the DRC, and Mali. And we also see it in relation to efforts to prevent conflict and violence by and the work of violent extremist groups, and in discussions around sanctions that the UN may employ under that peace-enforcement mechanism in relation to different ISIS affiliates, or al-Qaida affiliates, and so on.
The research that was undertaken by Stimson found that the issue of violence based on religion or belief was an underexamined issue in the Security Council. It was not an issue of thematic focus, unlike the discussions that have taken place in the broader membership within the UN in the General Assembly, and in the Human Rights Council.
The Security Council has recently indicated that it may be willing to engage more actively on the issue of freedom of religion as a security matter. Indeed, back in August 2019 it hosted what they call an Arria-formula meeting, which is a more informal meeting of the Security Council, looking at the issue of advancing the safety and security of persons belonging to religious minorities in armed conflict. And I should note that a number of those country contexts that I outlined do indeed consider or refer to the issue of religious intolerance and violence and how it can drive conflict in the resolutions that have been adopted on some of these issues. But one of the key findings that emerged from Stimson’s research was the need for further analysis of some of these issues and to explore whether or not there is any further causality between the issues related to conflict.
I want to refer to briefly some of the points that were mentioned in the research that looked at how perhaps religion may be related to the way that conflict develops, and I should note again this remains an underexplored area of research. But it may relate to, for instance, the identification of targets; to exclude individuals, making clear who is socially and politically included and who is not; to demarcate lines between those that may be perceived as the other and those that may not fall within that group. It may present risks that can trigger conflicts due to high levels of inequalities between different groups—that is, economic disparities, access to justice, access to different services that may exacerbate grievances. However, what I should note here is that it is likely a reflection of the overlap of different identity markers that are associated with religious belief or identity, and where politicization can enhance grievances and stoke conflict.
So what I want to draw out here is a comment that was made by the special rapporteur in their recent report on this issue in the UN, and I quote: “A number of these crises and conflicts have a religious dimension, sometimes involving adherents of diverse faiths or adversaries within the same religious tradition. However, it is essential not to unduly overestimate the role of religion in either conflict or peacemaking to the exclusion of other factors and motivations involved. This approach is often reductive, concealing the complexities affecting the lives of peoples affected by conflict and crises, including members of religious or belief minorities.” So I think it’s important to note there that while religion may have a really important role in terms of, I guess, intersecting with some of these different issues of discrimination or marginalization, that there are, obviously, a range of different factors to consider.
So what I want to conclude on before we have a chance to hear from our other panelist is, I guess when we’re looking at this role of the UN in peacemaking and engaging in some of these conflict scenarios and efforts to resolve conflict, what is the role of religious actors and faith-based organizations in these contexts? And again, I defer a little—a bit back to what the special rapporteur within the UN system has reflected on. And importantly, in looking at civil society engagement, they note the importance of promoting interfaith engagement, the importance of opposing narratives that may essentialize different parts of religious or belief communities, and the importance of faith-based leaders in terms of being influencers who can promote inclusive, peaceful, and just conflict resolutions. And I’m quoting directly there from that special rapporteur.
So I think that’s a really important note to conclude on when we consider the role of the UN in this peacemaking space and the vast array of tools that are available, that there is a really important role for civil society and faith-based communities in those conversations depending on the nature of the conflict. And I’ll leave my comments there. Thanks, Irina.
FASKIANOS: Thank you so much, Lisa.
And thank you to Sukhsimranjit Singh for joining. We’re so happy you could be with us.
As we have laid out in his bio, he’s the Judge Danny Weinstein Managing Director of the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine University Caruso School of Law, where he’s also an associate professor of law and practice, and directs the LL.M programs. His practice, teaching, and scholarship focuses on cross-cultural dispute resolution, faith-based mediation, and utilizing modern theories, science, and technology to devise creative solutions for global disputes. Dr. Singh has resolved disputes in countries throughout the world, including Canada, India, Japan, New Zealand, and U.S. states across the country. And he most recently published Best Practices for Mediating Religious Conflicts for the American Bar Association.
So we’re really looking forward to your perspective, Dr. Singh, to talk about what religious leaders have historically contributed to conflict resolution, how they can continue to do so, and to talk about your Best Practices for Mediating Religious Conflicts as you have done and what you could offer to the group. So I’ll turn it over to you.
SINGH: Absolutely. Thank you. Can you all hear me well? Good. All right.
Thank you for inviting me. An honor to be here. And such a good pleasure to hear Ms. Lisa Sharland speak from her perspective. And, Ms. Irina, wonderful to be in your presence as well.
Folks, let me tell you my specialty, or expertise, or experience, rather. Years of thinking has been on the idea of dispute resolution, so my lens will be more towards conflict resolution and how religion plays a role there. Besides religious leaders, I’m going to make some comments also on culture and cultural identity besides religion and religious identity, because I think both are intertwined in many ways.
In fact, I’ll start with an example. In some countries, there’s a cultural practice of arranged marriage. People get arranged marriage. When it comes to—when it’s time to get married, their children, their grandchildren, people prefer to do arranged marriages. And I’ve been studying that for a few years. And I look—in those countries what is fascinating is the cultural trend of arranged marriages transcends across religious lines. So I’ve seen Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, Christians all doing arranged marriage in that part of the village that I’m talking about. This one is in India.
My interest in this area of international diplomacy came most likely when I started studying for my master’s degree in 2005 and ’06. But I published a piece in Cardozo Journal of Dispute (sic; Conflict) Resolution on international nuclear negotiations and the impact of culture and religion on them. To me, it’s fascinating to see how sometimes we miss this beat that religion can play a big role in negotiations. And I’m fascinated by this.
So again, I’m a practitioner as well as a scholar, so I’m going to give examples from both sides. Let me start quickly with my scholarship there and then I’ll give you example from a practical part of the world.
My scholarship looked into India and how India chose not to sign CTBT—Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty—when U.S. was negotiating with India on the signage of the treaty and that moment in time. And what’s fascinating to me is the impact played by religion in it, which is very, to my knowledge—my limitedness; sorry if I’m wrong—understudied topic, at least in that part of the region.
Two things. There is national identity involved whenever you involve international diplomatic negotiations involving at least two states. There is organizational identity involved, speaking from a cultural lens. And then there is the personal identity of the specific negotiators who are negotiating. So there are three things involved. Let’s quickly talk about all three.
National identity. I think national identity in this sense is what’s the major religion of the nation. Let’s say India: It is Hinduism. Some negotiator ought to—should have asked what is a Hindu’s mind about conflict resolution. Where does nuclear negotiation fit with the majority faith in India?
Now, these are interesting questions. Here is one data I found out that I’m going to read for you, all right? Let me read this—quote this for you: “Some displays in the annual Ganapati Festival in Maharashtra, India, celebrates India’s technological progress”—and I’m quoting it—“which is seen as a force for the betterment of people as a whole. The progress is equated with nuclear weapons. You could see vignettes of electricity, dams, satellite dishes, fighter planes, and Agni missiles sitting in temples right next to the gods.” What’s fascinating here is this idea, why should India not be fighting or not be as strong to enter into nuclear power that other countries were at that moment, and how religion is supporting that idea. I don’t plan to go too deep into it. I just wanted to touch the surface, a fascinating idea how missiles could be prayed, could be blessed upon in a temple, and how religion and international foreign policy can be connected.
Here is my general statement on this. How much do we study the impact of national culture? My article was published on India-U.S. nuclear negotiation. You can find it. I’m not going to go too deep into it. But my question is, when we negotiate, let’s say, with Iran, how deeply are we looking into the impact of religion, impact of cultural identity, impact of saving face for those negotiators who are at the table but who are also representing a national identity? And that is what fascinates me.
So when I travel abroad—and I’ve done work in New Zealand, and I’ve worked with Māori community—I have looked at how religion and culture is playing a role before I become successful in those mediations. That’s point number one.
Point number two. You asked about religious leaders. I think that is such a fascinating question, and I totally agree with that. Religious leaders are revered in most of the world, if not all of the world. People look up to them because they can lead a group of people, right? That’s what a culture is. Culture is a pattern of thinking followed by a group of people over time based on some values. So religious leaders can actually lead a group of people. That means they can lead a culture. They can lead a culture of people, culture with capital C. Any times you see resistance in the world, the first resistance you see is culture because cultures have a unique way of functioning. They have a unique way of working because that’s what makes culture. Culture is a software of mind.
So come back to practical point: Can religious leaders play a role? I think they already play a role. I think in many ways they already have underserved for many of us around the world. My institute, Straus Institute, for example, had a blessing, privilege to work with Archbishop Desmond Tutu many years ago, and we have—we have it on tape. We had a wonderful meeting with him. We interviewed him. And we—part of my question—our question to him was, looking at—Professor Tom Stipanowich, my colleague, asked the question—was looking into the intersection of faith and dispute resolution, how faith is playing a role. And Archbishop Mr. Tutu’s comment was very powerful. He said faith not only plays a role in peacemaking; it plays a role in the daily lives of people, in everyday choices we make, in how we live, how we decide, who we talk to, how much we talk to. And I’m expanding on that. He didn’t go that far, but I’m trying to fill in the words, if you may.
So this is a fascinating concept, then. The question you are raising in this important webinar—thanks to the Council on Foreign Relations—is, are we not only using religious leaders, but are we underusing them? Do they have a role to play to do two things, influencing a culture of people within a country—because negotiation has to happen in two ways. One is external. One is internal, right? There’s always an internal audience. And externally, can they represent that faith or be a leader on a world stage?
And my colleague mentioned UN and the negotiations at the UN level. I was just with Ambassador David Carden two days ago—(inaudible)—who served under President Obama for ASEAN—Association of Southeast Asian Nations—and we were discussing how Indonesia, Philippines, many countries in that region are heavily influenced by faith, by religion, and how negotiations change the phase, how negotiations are different diplomatically when you’re dealing with a group of people that are emotionally intertwined with faith.
My last comment’s my third comment.
So, one, let’s take a look at culture and religion, how culture is bigger sometimes than religion—not always—and how we can influence this idea of culture—involvement of culture in different nations, and why we should not ignore it, especially the idea of saving face, the idea of gender, the idea of minorities in culture, the idea of just involving people as to where they are. Because people can be way more impactful when they’re emotionally involved in a negotiation.
The second thing I spoke about is this idea of not just utilizing world leaders, faith-based leaders, but I think we have underutilized them. Yes, we have—we have the Vatican, as we all know, playing an influential role internationally in diplomatic negotiations with many connections, with many missionaries around the world, and with a powerful presence. But can there be more representation of faith in a neutral setting, in a strategic setting, where leaders from a country like India and China? Of course, we have to manage how the diplomatic heads of those states feel about it, how they are including it, and how can they be in consensus that this is the right way to go. We cannot ignore the diplomatic heads.
And then, moving on from there, my last comments—and I want to go to more into Q&A—is going back to my piece on nuclear negotiations between India and U.S. in Cardozo Law Journal. I want to talk briefly about this idea of awareness, and I want to go personal for a second. My religion is Sikhism. A day ago, I spoke at a symposium at my own university and we looked at how—what we have learned from the pandemic. What I have learned is, first of all, on a—on a light note, I love people, so what I learned is I don’t want to be away from people. It’s good to be back, good to be without masks, good to be with people. On a more serious note, I hope it made us all self-reflect—self-reflect as to how we define meaning to life. What is meaning to life? What is it that motivates me on a daily basis?
So we’re sharing on this panel that what motivates me is this idea from Sikhism, which is sarbhat dah phalla, which is “may everyone be blessed”—not just one group of people, one idea of people. So there are two ways to look at religion. One is religion separates us. The other is religion combines us or brings us together because you are believing in a common major force in life. Whichever you believe in, one thing is clear: religion is here and it’s going to exist. It’s a powerful force.
So the next question for us is: How do we utilize people’s emotions? Because everyone wants to have meaning to life. Everyone wants to live through providing meaning to life, which I think is powerful from a macro perspective to a micro perspective around the world.
I just wanted to share those opening thoughts, but I’m happy to take any questions going to any one of those three topics further. But thank you for being—inviting me here. Please.
FASKIANOS: Thank you very much to both of you.
And now we’re going to go to all of you for your questions and comments. You can either raise your hands and when I call on you please say your affiliation; or you can type your question in the Q&A box, and also if you could add on your affiliation there that would be great.
And I think the first question is—do you see that question from Adem Carroll? Question to Professor Singh: Since high caste or other political elites make policies and shape popular views through mass media, isn’t there a risk in generalizing about religious culture? Isn’t the media the main filter? In India, for example, one sees the diverse—sorry—divisive policies like the discriminatory Citizen Amendment Act, promoted by the BJP. Should we be blaming Hindu religious culture for this, or specific politicians?
SINGH: Very good question. Wow. Thank you for asking a difficult question. I thought you will start with a softball, but no, this is not an easy crowd.
I would—this is a very, very good question. What we have to be aware of is the following: Every nation, to my knowledge, has a major religion that dominates, right—if not one, two religions. You can’t just focus on India. You can look at around you and you’ll see religious politics being played around the world. The question is, can you—let me rephrase the question. Can you ignore that religion and be friends with those politicians, or with the religious leaders, or involve them in a way in which we can have a peaceful dispute resolution? Let me ask you this way, a different way: The way to change, I believe, is first through trust-building, connection, involvement, listening, understanding people, trying to build empathy, and then, once you have built that channel, then pushing them slightly, then challenging them, right?
I mean, let me give you quickly, from being a devil’s advocate for a second, what will their response be if you challenge India’s idea of whatever the idea is, a nationalist Hindu movement that you are mentioning in your comment, which many people, especially minorities will agree with, right? And one of the things you will hear back from—you may hear back—is who are you again to tell us to reform? Oh, OK, so you just did this in this country and you’re telling us to stop doing it? OK, so you did 1,130 nuclear bomb tests and you’re a nuclear power, but you don’t want us to be nuclear power? Oh, I see. And I address that in my article as well, it’s amazing that some countries have conducted more than twelve hundred, more than two thousand nuclear tests but when one country does five, we have issues, we have problems, we have judgment. So you have to be very careful in not going in as an outsider and telling them, here is how you fix your country and these are three problems you have. I believe in the other side of diplomacy, which is, how can I work with you, how can I involve you, and leave the issues that are local to them to be fixed but I’ll start by building trust.
Long answer. Sorry about this, but that’s just a diplomatic way of involvement of religion because, again, I missed your name, but you have to see one thing: You’re dealing with one billion people who probably belong to that faith. Let me repeat the number: one billion people. Will they be open to lecture, or will they be open to working with us if you involve them?
So great question. Sorry for my indirect answer.
FASKIANOS: Great. So we are—we have several hands raised now, so I’m going to Katherine Marshall.
MARSHALL: Good afternoon, and thank you for the presentations. I’m at Georgetown University and the World Faiths Development Dialogue.
I think there are two dimensions that you’ve highlighted; one is understanding the religious dimensions, and then the other is the active involvement of groups that are specifically with religious roots in the very complex controversies that we have in the world—I think of DRC, or South Sudan, or the Rohingya-Myanmar issue. So I’m interested in more comments on the formal or the visible roles that religious actors, ranging from the Vatican, or Sant’Egidio, or maybe the OIC might play in working through the UN channels but through others in moving forward on what seemed to be perpetual and intractable problems.
SINGH: Do you want to take this first?
SHARLAND: Happy to, Professor Singh.
Look, thanks, Katherine. I think that is a really important question and one that goes to the crux of, I guess, where some of the gaps are in terms of addressing conflict resolution and peacemaking, about the inclusivity of those processes. As you say, a lot of this work is undertaken informally and there is quite a bit of engagement by different actors on the ground. If we take the example of peacekeeping missions, for instance, working with faith-based communities, working with different civil society organizations, recognizing that they have an important and influential role, I think, in garnering support for peace processes, for ensuring that different grievances are addressed. But I don’t think perhaps that those roles are as formalized as perhaps there is capacity for them to be.
Now, some of this may be indeed due to misunderstanding or sensitivities around the role of religion in some of these conflict environments, and therefore, perhaps there is an assessment that a lot of that work being undertaken at the grassroots is really important, and pivotal, and beneficial when there isn’t a very strong watch shined on the work that is being undertaken. But there is no doubt that in some contexts, particularly as Professor Singh had noted there about the visibility at the national level of religion, and identity, and culture, that there may be a greater role for highly visible religious leaders to be engaged in these processes to bring different parts of the community into those processes. And I think this is particularly important when we consider concerns about relapse into conflict. There is a tendency for international actors, the UN and others, to depart, sometimes on a timetable or sometimes when the Security Council decides that its appetite for engagement in a conflict is no longer there, and then really, at the end of the day, it is the communities, and it is the different leaders of those communities who are involved in picking up the pieces and trying to identify how to resolve those grievances and concerns about conflict and identity that have not been resolved.
So I think, to go to your question there, there is capacity and I think it’s an important consideration that at times is perhaps overlooked a little bit in terms of engagement in these processes.
SINGH: I’ll make a quick comment. I 100 percent agree with the comment of my co-panelist.
And I think, Ms. Marshall, Professor Marshall, that’s a very good point you raised is the question of active groups, right—active groups is the word you used—and how religion—but the point I’m going to say—I just want to include a new thing, thought here, if you may allow me. We have to be careful how some groups use religion and manipulate religion for popular votes, and for popularity in their local regions, and how international actors and religious leaders can just do a bigger role—play a bigger role through still coming back and saying, OK, hold on, don’t blame religion for this; religion is not the cause, but the politicization of religion, the abuse of religion, the use of religion, the strategic ways in which you have used religious votes to gain power, and to manipulate local society has to blame. I think sometimes that slight distinction can help raise more awareness, as my colleague mentioned—that’s the word—raise more awareness locally as to how one may have to distinguish oneself from a group or from what they may be calling a religious political party but it might be just a political party who’s using religion.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to go next to Mark Webb.
WEBB: Hello. Thank you for your remarks and for including me in this discussion.
I’m a philosophy professor at Texas Tech University and I was very interested to hear about the idea of trust-building. It’s something I last heard when I was talking to some people at the EastWest Institute, and their idea was that there are already people who trust each other across these lines and if they are not the leaders, then perhaps former military leaders, former politicians, businesspeople who trust one another and have contacts, that those kinds of lines of connection can be used to build trust, to sort of get you out of the prisoner’s dilemma of international problems. (Laughs.) And I wondered, is there any reason why religious leaders can’t be used across borders for that same kind of track to diplomacy track 1.5 diplomacy, whatever it is. Is that some—that strikes me as a very promising sort of avenue.
SINGH: Can I quickly comment, Lisa?
SHARLAND: Yes, absolutely.
SINGH: Thank you.
I think that’s a very good—thank you, Professor Cook, for that question—Professor Webb. I think what—you almost gave the answer within your question, right? I could hear the answer within your question, but—if I’m right. Absolutely yes. The simple answer is absolutely. The question is how, right? And the very first question that was asked today—let me see if I can get the name here and that was by Caroll, if I’m not wrong, P. Carroll.
FASKIANOS: Adem Carroll with the Burma Task Force.
SINGH: OK, wonderful, by Mr. Carroll. Now, the question is connected in some ways. What we have to be careful is, when you appoint a religious leader, does that religious leader represent the diversity of religions of a state? That’s the question, right? Because some people may feel marginalized because religion has a very powerful force, is OK, who appointed that leader? So just a simple theory there, or suggestion there is I really enjoy being on interfaith panels, on interfaith conversations, on interfaith dialogues, on interfaith—that’s one of my best days—if you put me and ask my students and my clients, my best day would be when I’ve just attended a one-hour, two-hour, three-hour interfaith discussion. The reason is it challenges me. The reason is that I end up learning more about myself and others by being with friends who are from a different faith than myself. I think there’s a power there in appointing multiple—what I’m going there are religious leaders within a culture, someone who can represent, let’s say, Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism, and so forth and so on, just saying it quickly, from a religion, from a country to be on a panel, and that would be wonderful. In fact, let me give you an example, though it is interesting. Indian Supreme Court tried to come up with an interfaith panel for a very controversial case in Delhi. I’m not going to go into the case. I’m not going to talk about it or the panelists because I know a couple of panelists, but I will tell you that at least the approach, the idea that we can have this interfaith leadership was, I think, something we should remark about.
Now, coming back to your other point, I think you made an amazing point about trust-building and there are people, you said, who already have trust. That’s an excellent, brilliant point, not only, I think—totally agree with you; I think that’s what you’re alluding to—not only they’re underused. We don’t ask, we don’t have awareness. Have we gone to Iran? I’m just saying it loudly—forgive me, I don’t want to be on record for this point. Have we gone to a people in Iran and asked, how do you get persuaded? Who is your leader? Can we work with your leader? How can I work—or a village in India, or a village in China. This idea of involving people who already have trust either from my side, or your side, or a global side, and utilizing them for peaceful negotiations, diplomatic negotiations is a brilliant idea. I think it’s truly underserved, and here’s a quick answer why. It takes time. It takes effort. And our international diplomacy, we all know, sometimes we do things, then we think about them, or we’re a little behind, or we don’t have time, as we say, or we have to be quick because we don’t have time because things change, especially now with social media, things change in an instant.
Great question. I hope this was some help. (Laughs.) I don’t know if I was much but I’m going to stop here.
SHARLAND: I might just jump in there briefly with a slight pivot to the point—(inaudible)—because I do not have the exceptional expertise of my current panelist on some of these issues, but the point about trust-building there and I refer back to my—(laughs)—native Australia in terms of the context, and the importance of building relationships that we saw around defense counterparts, for instance, between Australia and Indonesia when it came to the intervention in Timor-Leste, and the importance and fruition of those relationships twenty years later when it came to de-escalating hostilities in different contexts, purely because there had been that engagement, that trust, that building of relationships, so I think that is an incredibly important point when it comes to conflict resolution.
And I think, on a related point to the inclusivity of different, I guess, groups, I really take the point there that Professor Singh made there around the representation of different religious groups in these processes, and ensuring that it’s not just one associated with identity or culture. And I think I would extend that to say that this applies obviously not just to religious leaders, but ensuring that different marginalized groups—traditionally, women we highlight in peace process is the fact that they are often not at the table, often not taking part in these conversations, and that that actually is to the detriment of being able to resolve the conflict and the sustainability of those efforts going forward. So I think there’s some related points to what you just made there, so thank you so much.
FASKIANOS: Wonderful. And I’m going to go next to Tereska Lynam, who raised her hand and also wrote the question, but I would prefer you to tease it out, Tereska.
There you go; you’re unmuted.
LYNAM: OK, thank you. Sorry about that. Yeah, so I did write the question down, but, one, fantastic presentation. Thank you all so much; this is great.
And I wanted to say, I just attended a Judeo-Christian meditation group before this call and we were talking about Adam and Eve and the tree of knowledge and how it brought about many negative feelings and estrangement. And then later in the call we were discussing how much of the information, as just regular people, as citizens of the world, how much information we receive today, especially by anything broadcast media, creates anxiety within us, and that there are so many media outlets and sources; it’s not like in the ’70s, ’80s, and even the ’90s when people would watch one—there was a consensus about what we were all watching, so we were reading the same newspapers, we were watching the same news programs. That’s not happening anymore, even within, among closest friends and families. We’re just getting constantly different information. And so this unregulated, if you will, information gathering compounds our own anxiety and creates divisions within our tightest community because we’re asked to be outraged or we’re asked to do—I almost got sick reading about what’s going on in the Ukraine the other day. And if someone’s—when you have that and then you have someone who has a totally different perspective, it creates divisions, right? So what I’ve noticed, bringing it back to what religious leaders can do, is that if they create safe spaces within the congregation for information sharing and arriving at peaceful consensus, we come together and, possibly more importantly, are optimistic about the future and/or the ability to effect positive change.
And then, I didn’t write this down, but all the wonderful conversations you’ve been having, I think that we can—what I have been trying to meditate on is how I can be a spiritual leader for those not involved in my own congregation, or not involved in things, to kind of help them create a safe space for information sharing and optimism.
And to that end, Irina, I feel like this—what you’ve done here with this community is, for at least me, you’ve created a spiritual congregation for information sharing and arriving at, if not consensus, at peace and optimism. So thank you all so much for it and I’ve been—I look forward to hearing your comments. Thanks.
SINGH: Can I comment quickly? Can I, please? Yeah.
This is beautiful. Thank you for that comment. I think it’s deep. It’s deep. (Laughs.) We can go into logistics. I always say, as a lawyer, we can go into legal arguments all the time, but the question is seeing the bigger picture, and I think what you just saw, ma’am, is a bigger picture.
I want to comment on two things. Imagine we are all—I know it’s not an amazing analogy; forgive me for this—but imagine we are about to die and you’re closing your eyes. Are you going to think about your loved ones or are you going to think about your enemies? What matters to you in life is more love, and compassion, and the memories we create around it, not people we fight with. We’re not going to take them to our deathbed. I hope not. The question that we all have something in common is we’re going to die, right? The question here is the following—that’s why I took the example; forgive me—love has always sustained. Peace has always sustained. Wars start, wars end, but this mutual cooperation—if this ends, we will end as a civilization and that’s exactly the comments like you, I believe, people who will lead us into remaining believers, that at the end of the day we believe there are more people who believe in peace than of people who believe in war. That’s my comment on that. Thank you.
SHARLAND: Just a very quick reflection. I think it’s such an important point that you’ve raised there, Tereska, in terms of information that we consume, and information that we obtain, and it’s something that really drives consent in the work that we’re doing in our organization, because there is a lot of divisiveness created out of that, and it’s very easy to manipulate and to polarize different populations. And how do you break down those divides? And I think a really important part of that is being open to contested ideas and debate, and conversations around some of these issues, and ultimately, the shared goal of—as Professor Singh has noted there, about peacefulness and trying to bring these into the conversations, but unfortunately, I feel like so much of it—it is much easier to weaponize some of these ideas and to cut off information, which, I will say, is such an important precursor to different levels of conflict. We see this playing out at the moment in terms of the war in Ukraine and other things as well, unfortunately. So I think having that ability to have contested ideas and to have those conversations in spaces where people are open and receptive to collegial debate is so, so important.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
And thank you, Tereska, for your shout-out there. We really appreciate it. I appreciate it.
So I’m going to go next to Victoria Strang, who has written a comment. She is the first faith advocate at Human Rights Watch. “It is very rare for secular human rights organizations to have specialists who are skilled in engaging faith leaders and communities, which I think can be a detriment due to some of the examples that have been provided.” And she’s hoping that both of you can speak more to the importance of secular organizations in taking faith partnerships seriously and investing in that kind of work.
SHARLAND: I’m happy to jump in here to start. Thank you for the question, Victoria. I think it’s a really important point, and I think one of the risks that emerged or was highlighted in the research that we were doing, particularly in the context of UN at Stimson, was around one of these tensions, and often you may see this in terms of different religious or faith organizations when it comes to efforts to advocate for different human rights within the UN system. And we do see a lot of the tensions that emerge there in terms of advocacy around whether it be women’s reproductive rights, or whether it be the rights of different marginalized groups. And again, some of this comes back, I think, to the conversation we were just having there about the polarization of different ideas and what’s—how these ideas may compete with one another. So I think part of that conversation in terms of the benefits that may exist to bring faith-based leaders or those, at least, with an understanding of it into some of the work of these organizations, is to have really frank and open conversations around what some of these different issues and tensions are, because we do see them playing out in a very polarized manner in the UN environment and, of course, in a number of other contexts. So I think that would really be a first step to that conversation, because there is a lot that different organizations and those with different backgrounds can learn from one another, and it may be that some of the tensions cannot be entirely resolved, but I think we need to draw on our strengths where we can in these conversations, particularly when it comes to conflict resolution.
SINGH: I will quickly comment that sometimes we need alliances with different partners, strategic partners who can do more persuasion in their groups, so your point about partnering with secular organizations who take faith partnerships seriously. And the rest is absolutely spot-on because what you then do is you invite people who may or may not believe in faith or who may have a different take on faith, and if you believe in faith, you’ll accept them too, right, and everyone is the same. So the idea of how do we—the idea you’re going at is persuasion. How do we persuade more and more folks to come to belong to this peacemaking mission? And the idea of persuasion is to go through alliances, to go through connection, to go through the bridges that have already been built instead of starting a new bridge. And I think that’s exactly where your comment—again, you provide an answer to us within your question—is absolutely right and it’s needed, and needs to be more studied. And there is some really good work done on it already, as you can see, you can find, by terrific scholars, but still, we can do more implementation of that work in the practical field.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the next question from Thomas Walsh, who’s the Universal Peace Federation. He’s written the question: Today we heard from the Security Council special session on atrocities that are horrifying. I would like to hear your thoughts on how religions can contribute to conflict resolution in Ukraine—obviously not simple or easy—and how can we support the UN in its efforts?
SHARLAND: Here’s my short answer to this very challenging question that you’ve raised there—(laughs)—and I’m certainly not going to do justice to it in the few minutes that are remaining.
I think the one major point I would make here is the need to avoid having religion weaponized in a way to stoke the conflict further. And I—we have seen in terms of the misinformation around the rationale for Russia’s invasion and other things sort of on different precursors or different information around what was happening in Ukraine. But I think the key point I would make here, as a starting point is that this context is not manipulated to the advantage of different groups to stoke the conflict further, and indeed, I think we have seen some instances where that has occurred. I think, obviously, in terms of—we talked early on, and indeed, Professor Singh mentioned early on in his comments—one of the notes that I made here was the importance of, I don’t want to say saving face in this context, but a lot of people have talked about what’s the off-ramp, how do we de-escalate the conflict, how do we come to some political resolution? And I think core to that is trying to understand what the motivations, and the different identities are that are attached to different groups that in no way, in our line of work in the program that I work in at Stimson, we are very much focused on the atrocities and what sort of is coming out of this conflict, which is absolutely abhorrent. But I think that gives us more impetus to really focus on, well, how do we de-escalate this, how do we ensure there are justice and accountability mechanisms when it comes to the atrocities that have been committed, and how do we ensure that the civilians that are being impacted by the conflict right now have the protection that they require, and unfortunately, we are falling incredibly short in that right now and we need to continue looking at how we mitigate some of the impacts of this conflict going forward.
FASKIANOS: Dr. Singh, I’ll let you conclude.
SINGH: OK, totally agree with my esteemed colleague there, beautifully stated. So let me say, in addition now, after—in consensus with her comments. In addition, I would say, I think from a young age we should teach empathy and listening as two skills. Imagine some of the world leaders right now if they know what empathy is. That’s so totally missing. It’s bizarre how much some people have no idea what empathy is. Seeing children dying on the street—I mean, you just got to not have a heart, right? The connection is missing. The empathy is missing for—of course, the idea that who you are. And the other thing is you’re not being heard. You’re feeling—but you don’t know how to listen to other people but you’re also crying to be heard.
So the idea, now, to come back to the role of UN: My quick idea there is we have faith communities. The word is community. What builds a community? What is a community? Can communities be powerful? I think every faith-based communities are very well connected. You can look at my community, look at other faith-based communities. We have a unique way of connecting, which also means we can use that as a power tool. We can use it as a tool to make good influence in the world. But we haven’t done that. We haven’t gone there. We haven’t used systemically faith-based communities to lobby whatever we need to lobby at the UN level, but also to give more prestige to UN, the work that UN has been doing. So two things.
Last thing I’ll say is, I think we need more focus outside of UN—whatever it is, schools, colleges, everywhere else, in spaces like this one, so I’m so thankful you’re doing this—on peace. Why is peace important? Is peace a culture? When peace is missing, what are we losing? How can we teach peace and idea of peace from a young time, and what happens when humanity loses peace? If these concepts are explored from a young age, at a young mind, I think we’ll be able to create more sustainable—because our time is going, right? We’ve already seen the disaster in the last few weeks on earth. The question is, how do we not make it happen again, twenty, thirty, fifty, hundred years from today?
FASKIANOS: Thank you. A very powerful way to end and we really appreciate you both being with us today to share your expertise, and insight, and analysis, and to all of you for your questions and comments. So I encourage you to follow Lisa Sharland’s work on Twitter at @LJSharland and Sukhsimranjit Singh’s work at @Sukhsimranjits, and his website, singhadr.com. So we will circulate resources as well as a link to this webinar so you can reference it, as well as the Stimson report that Lisa mentioned. And I hope you also follow us, CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy program, on Twitter at @CFR_religion. And as always, we encourage you to reach out to us to send your suggestions, comments, questions to [email protected].
Thank you all again. Our next webinar will be on Thursday, April 14 at 12:00 p.m. for a Social Justice and Foreign Policy Webinar on Religion and Voting Rights.
So thank you both again for being with us today, and to all of you, stay safe.