POMED Notes – Religion, Violence, and Coexistence
The United States Institute of Peace hosted a panel discussion entitled “Religion, Violence, and Coexistence,” which looked into civil society’s role in preventing and addressing provocative statements of religious bias and violent responses to it. The discussion featured Suzan Johnson Cook, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom; Hoda Elshishtawy, legislative and policy analyst at the Muslim Public Affairs Council; Marc Gopin, Director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict; Manal Omar, Director of Iraq, Iran and North Africa Programs at USIP; and was moderated by Susan Hayward, Senior Program Officer at USIP.
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Suzan Johnson Cook discussed the recent anti-Islamic film that caused unrest throughout the Middle East. Cook stressed the importance of “improving our understanding of religious dynamics.” Before introducing the speakers, she emphasized that “government officials cannot do this work alone.”
Susan Hayward mentioned that International Freedom Day is October 27, and said that religious freedom plays an integral part in creating peaceful and just societies, adding that it should be an inscribed norm. Hayward reminded the audience that just because a pro-stance on religious freedom has been adopted does not mean religious biases don’t exist, noting the “Innocence of Islam” video. “In most cases,” Hayward concluded, “government and policy alone does not, and cannot, address religious dynamics that correspond with civil society.”
Hoda Elshishtawy began by emphasizing “when we talk about religious freedom in 2012 we must view the issues through a 2012 lens,” arguing that although freedom of expression and religion are human rights, they also carry responsibilities. Elshishtawy stressed the importance of defining what freedom of expression and religion looks like worldwide, and not allowing the media, which generally highlights sensational voices, to define the mainstream. When the press does foment a negative narrative, “the responsibility to push back (against such views) falls on civil society and government.” Elshishtawy said “the Arab Spring was all about being able to express ones beliefs,” and argued that religious institutions must be part of any government or civil society organization’s plans for dialogue. Elshishtawy closed by suggesting governments and civil society organizations can help by using their position to facilitate discussions. “We’ve had a million ‘Innocence of Muslims’ before, and we’ll have a million more to come, so let’s use our freedoms to counter hate speech,” she said.
Marc Gopin used the example of clashes between Hindus and Muslims in India during the 1970s to show how the media forms a historical narrative. During that time period, Gopin said, there were some sporadic clashes, but there were also many cities and villages where Hindus and Muslims not only coexisted, but had even adapted parts of each other’s traditions. Gopin stressed that “you either create bonds or someone will create the influences that tear the bonds apart.” He explained that one can build a society on hatred of the other, or on more important things, like better wages or healthcare. The key for civil society success centers on how organizations “utilize their power to create the social contract between groups that makes these kinds of incidents into embarrassing exceptions, not opportunities, for unscrupulous politicians or others to use that to build their power base.” Gopin highlighted Syria as an example of religious identity utilized by politicians to destroy civil society and control a police state. At a certain point in interfaith dialogue, Gopin closed, people get tired of words. One has to do more, by combining interfaith, peacemaking, and humanitarian aid all in one.
Manal Omar said the debate of religion freedom is not only international, but internal. Many in the Arab Spring countries are asking where religion falls in their constitutions, and how it will define them. Currently civil society groups are trying to work on the issues of identity, Omar said, and there is a fear that organizations must distance themselves from religion to obtain funding. “If there’s this understanding that anything to do with religion will not be seen as civil society … what is the result on the ground?” Omar asked. She responded, saying groups have been delegitimized and citizens who are religious and don’t want to go towards the secular, mainstream dialogue, find themselves pushed into fringe groups. “Polarization in the region is forcing people to choose sides,” Omar argued. For example, she said civil society organizations on the street in Libya immediately protested the violence in Benghazi, but the moment was turned into the political agenda of disbanding the militia, and is now being used to justify fighting in Bani Walid. In closing, Omar emphasized the need to address freedom of religion in the United States, noting a rise in Islamophobia.
During the Q&A, Omar said many civil society groups were created by Western forces, noting religious freedom will look very different in Arab and Muslim countries. She said it’s difficult to learn only from the international community, and argued for more “south to south learning.” Gopin said that in philanthropy, there’s a long history of doing something quietly. Governments, however, want their humanitarian and development work noticed. Gopin argued that governments can do a better job of supporting civil society and end up with more effective diplomacy if stay quiet and listen. Gopin closed by saying there “needs to be a conscious cultivation of interfaith communities,” in order to make civil society more effective.
Omar added that religious freedom must be written into the constitution following a full conversation, which has not happened in many Arab Spring countries. Many religious people don’t understand the concept of religious freedom, and thus fear it. The dialogue must also explain that religious freedom is intended to protect their rights. Hayward noted that many countries are concerned about proselytizing, and what that will look like when religious freedom is guaranteed to all. Gopin said there is a tendency in the West to believe that there is only one right way and one wrong way. However, “people have to struggle with the language” of what freedom of religion means in their country. Elshishtawy agreed, saying when it “comes to writing the constitutions, it is imperative to define these terms. Unfortunately, we live in a world where perception becomes reality.” Thus, it is the job of civil society to engage with government to help positively define the conversation around religious freedom.