Religion and Peace-building

Hamed Kazemzadeh

As the field of religious peacebuilding begins to move from the margins toward the center of the field of conflict resolution, it has matured into what Scott Appleby describes as its “dread teen years: awkward, gawky, a bit reckless.”1 As the field has grown, it has had to contend with the changing nature of global conflict while demonstrating its effectiveness in transforming drivers of conflict. The changes both inside and outside the discipline have clarified the possibilities and current limitations of religious peacebuilding. Religious peacebuilding work has evolved within a larger, decades-old discussion about the role of religion in both fomenting and alleviating conflict. After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, several analysts and scholars were alarmed about the U.S. government’s insufficient understanding of global religious dynamics and their effects on international politics.2 When the Cold War ended and persistent localized conflicts overseas were interpreted afresh, analysts noted the salience of religion as a driver of conflict.3 Several organizations and individuals advocated for the U.S. government to begin to take more seriously the role of religion and to pursue engagement with religious actors and institutions as part of its work to promote peace, security, and development overseas. The passage of the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998, which created the Office of International Religious Freedom within the Department of State, was one response to this rally.

The government’s development of a more sophisticated and concerted effort to understand and engage religion has been swift in recent years, particularly following the events of September 11, 2001, and encouraged by former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright’s 2006 The Mighty and the Almighty, which called for increased diplomatic engagement with the religious sector.4 In 2009 the Obama administration initiated a mapping exercise across government agencies and bureaus to determine how, when, and why religious actors and communities overseas were being engaged to advance U.S. interests, including peace, human rights, and development. The exercise unearthed a great deal of interest in religious engagement and nearly universal engagement with religious leaders by embassies overseas, but it also found that the work was conducted largely on an “ad hoc and sporadic” basis, rather than as part of any strategic process.5 Since then, there have been several advances to institutionalize religious engagement. This began with seeking greater legal clarity from U.S. government legal counsels about how U.S. agencies can engage faith-based groups while still abiding by the establishment clause of the Constitution.6 Secretary Clinton initiated the Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society in February 2011, which includes a religion and foreign policy working group cochaired by Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook, Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Maria Otero, and Special Assistant to the President and Executive Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Joshua DuBois.7 The Religion and Foreign Policy working group seeks to “initiate a continuing dialogue with religious leaders and other members of civil society that informs U.S. foreign policy and fosters common partnerships with the NGO community, including faith-based groups, in support of conflict mitigation and development as well as efforts to promote human rights, including religious freedom,” doing so through three subgroups that look at religious engagement and conflict prevention and mitigation, religious freedom, stability and democracy, and the role of faith-based groups in development and humanitarian assistance.8

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