When we picture religious leaders, many of us see older men wearing some form of ceremonial garment in our mind’s eye. Although we know that a diversity of viewpoints results in more equitable decisions, it is tempting to overlook the role religious actors can play in peacebuilding. After all, the instrumentalization of religion is an element in the majority of today’s violent conflicts, and violent extremism is often justified on religious grounds.
Search for Common Ground has a reputation for innovation in the field of peacebuilding. Whether Search is harnessing the power of technology to prevent online hate from becoming real world violence or promoting positive masculinity to reduce gender-based violence, Search knows that finding where opponents’ interests overlap is the key to establishing the trust and collaboration underpinning peace. Instead of asking those in a conflict to compromise on what each side wants, Search encourages each side in conflict to find a common interest and then work together to achieve it. Using this Common Ground Approach ensures that adversaries are invested in maintaining peace because each side gets something it wants.
The core messages of all religious traditions advocate for peace, not violence. This is the common ground upon which religious actors can work together to promote peace. Policymakers have begun to realize the necessity of including religious actors in conflict resolution, such as when Search recently addressed diplomats, policymakers, senior religious leaders, civil society organization leaders, and academics inside the Italian Parliament on the role religious actors play in peacebuilding.
Gaining Religious Literacy
Search actively works with diverse religious actors across 20 countries worldwide, and this number is growing. We intentionally use the term religious actors to include people who may not have formal religious authority, titles, or qualifications but still hold religious influence. These include men, women, and youth; community lay leaders, educators, social workers, and activists. We also make an effort to include as many stakeholders as we can, not just those who agree with us, in the hope of finding common ground together.
When working with religious actors to peacebuild, Search often begins by supporting participants in strengthening their religious literacy. Working with Search’s facilitators, people from within a religious community study their religious texts and examine their beliefs in a group setting. People can understand or interpret religious texts differently, so studying them together allows participants to grow their understanding together.
Participants usually find that their sacred teachings contain a message of caring for one another, which allows them to find a common ground when they meet with other religious actors with whom they may be in conflict and who have participated in a similar process. When parties in conflict work interreligiously, they may begin by discussing a religious text together. They may set up interreligious roundtables, which can include government representatives or non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Numerous texts from sacred books may be discussed. Because some sacred texts contain other messages promoting conflict, group facilitators highlight messages promoting care and human dignity and minimize messages of conflict. Focusing on the peaceful messages in the sacred texts enables a recognition of deeply felt, similar values and the building of common ground.
Contemplating a shared problem through a religious lens underscores how Search’s facilitators ensure that their peacebuilding approaches are rooted in the deeply-held values and identities of individuals and communities. The Search process focuses on inclusion and mutual respect based on evidence that countries which encourage religious freedom experience less violent conflict.
The Role of Youths in Religion-based Peacebuilding
Over half of the world’s population is under the age of 30, and over 85% of the youth population lives in developing countries. Most young people identify as religious, but almost half do not trust religious institutions. They are less likely to turn to a religious leader for support, preferring their peers. Looking for new ways to lead, they have the potential to be integral players in advancing religious freedom and human dignity throughout the world.
Religious Actors Facilitate Peacebuilding: The JISRA Project
The Joint Initiative for Strategic Religious Action (JISRA) is a five-year consortium project operating across Ethiopia, Indonesia, Iraq, Kenya, Nigeria, Mali, and Uganda to promote freedom of religion or belief and social cohesion. In a JISRA project in northern Iraq, Search facilitates intrareligious dialogues in which participants examine their own religious texts and beliefs in a group setting. Not only do the group discussions give participants the space to talk about community issues, but they also catalyze trust because participants see that they are not going to be converted, nor does the dialogue seek to create a new religion (syncretism), which can be initial, common fears among new participants.
Religious actors influence their communities on today’s pressing issues such as poverty, inequality, climate change, migration, refugees, and hate speech. As a result of the trust and good relations built up through these dialogues, interreligious actors in one community decided to attend a session wearing their traditional dress to share their culture and foster greater mutual understanding.
Search also ensures it includes women and youth in the community dialogues it facilitates. By including women and youth in these discussions, topics such as marriage, customary female responsibilities, and economic livelihoods are addressed. A female participant said, “I am a pregnant woman and I will give birth soon. I came to participate in this training, and I walked a long distance on foot because I love the detailed content of the topics of JISRA sessions.”
Because peacebuilding is context-specific, JISRA initiatives differ country-to-country. In Nigeria, religious actors received the Common Ground Approach training for advocacy. Like a pebble tossed onto a pond forming circular ripples, the Common Ground Approach training rippled into new spheres. One of the religious actors Search trained then trained their community members who were struggling with intermittent access to electricity. Religious and ethnic division within the community fed suspicions that the group in power received preferential access to electricity through religious or ethnic affiliation.
Using the Common Ground Approach, community members who had been trained by the JISRA participant determined that everyone needed more reliable access to electricity, and they advocated on behalf of the entire community to the local authorities. Persuaded in part because young women had been involved in the advocacy process, the local authorities began providing more reliable electricity access to the entire community.