The role of religion in conflict and peace-making. photo from St Edidio websiteThe lay-led St Egidio community in Rome is dedicated to the work of making peace between warring groups. [photo source: St Egidio website]

[This is an excerpt from an article in The Round Tabel: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.]

Like other fundamentals of human life, religion also can go wrong

We see, therefore, that for good and bad reasons, religion has contributed, and continues to contribute, to conflict at different levels and of various kinds. We can agree also that religion can and does go wrong. If spiritual or religious awareness is innate in us then, like other aspects of being human, it will be possible for it to be distorted and become pathological. Our capacity for love, for example, is one of the noblest features of humanity. It can be characterised by selflessness, sacrifice and care but, if it goes wrong, turning inwards on itself, it can wreak havoc in our personal lives, damage or even destroy others and cause immense suffering for families and communities.

Patriotism, or love for our country, is noble and to be admired. As social creatures, we need to belong and one way of belonging is being part of a people or nation. Such a sense of solidarity can make for the common good, provided it is not turned in on itself, becomes excluding and exclusive or promotes xenophobia and fear of the ‘other’. We have witnessed how all of this can happen and is happening, jeopardising regional and world peace and putting minorities at risk.

Just as love and patriotism can go wrong, to name but two of the most valued human commitments, so can religion. From the point of view of a Christian anthropology, there is nothing in the human condition which is not capable of rising to the heights but, at the same time, everything is also touched by the possibility of going wrong. Other religious traditions will, no doubt, have similar analyses of human nature. Here Reinhold Niebuhr’s comment about democracy is apt: human capacity for justice makes democracy possible and the inclination to injustice make it necessary! As with other fundamentals of humanity, our experience of the pathological in religion should not blind us to its existence, nor to its capacity to inspire and encourage men and women to selflessness, service and sacrifice.

Religion and Commonwealth values special edition – Introduction
2023 – Special edition of The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs
2005 – Special edition: Religion, conflict and conflict resolution in the Commonwealth

What is good religion?

Religion is often the catalyst and even the agent for reconciliation and peace making. The lay-led St Egidio community in Rome is dedicated to the work of making peace between warring groups and has been recognised for its role in peace making, for example, in the civil war in Mozambique. The courageous Muslaha movement in Israel/Palestine is dedicated to seeking reconciliation between Jews, Muslims and Christians in a polarised and dangerous situation and the famous Alexandria Declaration on peace in the Holy Land came about through the initiative of Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders. It is well known that religious leaders, like the Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Catholic Archbishop Stephen Naidoo, led the fight against apartheid in South Africa at a time when most of the political leadership was imprisoned or exiled. In many parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America, churches and other religious groups are engaged in the struggle for the poor to have access to justice and to have their basic needs, like employment, housing and food, met by sometimes reluctant regimes and elites. Organisations, from a variety of religious backgrounds, have been involved for centuries in delivering education and healthcare to those who otherwise would have had only marginal access to these facilities.

We can agree then that religions can go wrong and cause suffering in the world but so can secular ideologies. It can be argued, for example, that National Socialism, Marxism, Maoism and nationalist chauvinism have caused more large scale human suffering than religion has ever done!

The scope and purpose of interfaith dialogue today

It is true that the Jewish people, out of all proportion to their numbers, have had a huge influence on public and personal morality either directly through their sense of an educational and moral mission in the world or through the agency of the Christian churches which have taken the moral message of the Hebrew Bible, and Jesus’ understanding of it, all over the world. Islam also has many points of contact with this moral tradition.

The Jewish people cannot, therefore, be excluded from dialogue about justice and peace in our world today. It is, however, the two great missionary religions of our day, Islam and Christianity, which bear the greatest burden in ensuring a peaceful and just international order. Dialogue between them is essential so that each side can discover and appreciate the beliefs and commitments of the other. It is important that each should know about the spiritual experience which lies at the root of the practice of religion and it is most desirable that they should cooperate in the building and prospering of local communities. Most crucially, however, such dialogue has to be, more and more, about the mutual recognition and respect for fundamental human freedoms, including freedom of belief, expression and the freedom to change our beliefs and the expression of them in public or in private. In other words, this dialogue will only make progress if there is a common recognition of Article 18 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

I have been privileged to be part of such dialogue, in different parts of the world, and it is most rewarding to see how different traditions draw out commitments to human freedoms from their own documents and practices. All religions, and particularly Islam and Christianity, because together they represent more than half of all humanity, are accountable at the bar of world opinion and, indeed, in the context of dialogue, to each other. It cannot be acceptable any longer for religious people to claim that a matter of basic human rights is an ‘internal’ matter which they should be allowed to address on their own.

Michael Nazir-Ali is with the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy & Dialogue, London, UK.