Strategic Takeaways on “Religion, Peace, and Security”: Opening Session

The Study Seminar “Religion, Peace, and Security: Challenges and Prospects in the MENA Region”, organized by the NATO Security Force Assistance Center of Excellence (NATO SFA COE) and the Religion & Security Council (RSC) took place in Rome at the Air Force’s Officers Club, on 5-6 May 2022. The event brought together an international group of scholars, experts, practitioners, and military officers who examined the potentialities of the “religious factor” in the Mediterranean and the Middle East as a “driver” of peace and security, rather than of warfare and instability.

The proceedings developed over three thematic sessions, focused on: 1) Interreligious Dialogue in Conflicts Resolution and Peace-Building; 2) Addressing Radical Thinking and Violent Extremism; 3) How to Foster Religious Freedom and Peaceful Coexistence: Best Policies and Practices. Each session featured two keynote speakers, who gave a 30-minute presentation, followed by a round-table discussion that allowed all participants to share their views and recommendations on the topics dealt with.

The goals and the scientific groundwork of the Study Seminar were outlined during the Opening Session by the NATO SFA COE Director, Col. Massimo Di Pietro, RSC Chairman Emiliano Stornelli, and Dr. Sihem Djebbi, University of Sorbonne Paris Nord and Pontifical Faculty of Theology of Southern Italy. The special remarks by Maj. Gen. Stefano Del Col, Former UNIFIL Head of Mission and Force Commander, provided first-hand insights into the importance of the role of the “religious factor” for the maintenance of peace and security, based on the case of Lebanon.

An account of the Opening Session is shared below, as a preview of the reports that will be published on each of the three main sessions of the proceedings, including the main “strategic takeaways” drawn from the keynote speakers’ presentations and the round-table discussions.

Col. Massimo Di Pietro, Director of the NATO SFA COE
The NATO Security Force Assistance Centre of Excellence (NATO SFA COE) acts as a SFA focal point for the Alliance in the promotion of research, doctrine development, and training activities aimed at supporting stability and reconstruction processes in crisis scenarios. By adopting a comprehensive and multidisciplinary approach, the NATO SFA COE carries out its mission along three main lines of efforts: policy, human capital, and support to operations.

In the “policy” line of effort, the NATO SFA COE develops all NATO concepts and best practices related to SFA, integrating them in the revision process of the already existing NATO doctrines, and delivering independent research and publications. In the “human capital” line of effort, the NATO SFA COE develops projects and initiatives that concur in enhancing the capacities, knowledge, and situational awareness of NATO personnel, so as to support NATO in providing the “best prepared people, in the right place, at the right time, every time”.

As for the “support to operations” line of effort, the NATO SFA COE takes all necessary actions to support NATO command and force structures in improving their ability to plan and conduct SFA activities across NATO missions and operations. The effectiveness of SFA depends on: a good analysis of the mission area; a planning process since the very beginning of the crisis; and the synchronization of the efforts along the tactical, operational, and strategic levels, accompanied by a continuous assessment.

In this context, the NATO SFA COE’s areas of responsibility are also extended to the so-called “Cross Cutting Topics” (CCTs), including a range of subjects that fall outside the primary military domain, but are still relevant to the success of NATO missions and operations. The NATO recognized CCTs are: protection of civilians; children and armed conflict; sexual and gender-based violence; cultural property protection; building integrity; women, peace, and security.

Another subject to be considered in the comprehensive approach for SFA activities is certainly the role of the “religious factor”, especially as referred to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, where religions have long been a pretext to fuel warfare and instability, but can also represent a powerful driver of peace and stability. The cooperation between the NATO SFA COE and the Religion & Security Council (RSC) has thus been prompted by the need to address the potentialities of the “religious factor” in crisis management, peace-building, and post-conflict stabilization processes across NATO’s Southern flank.

This Study Seminar is the first output of the NATO SFA COE-RSC cooperation, and aims to promote the exchange of knowledge and expertise between military officers, scholars, and practitioners, on the religion, peace, and security nexus in the MENA region, and on the related challenges to be met.

As a follow-up to the Study Seminar, the NATO SFA COE and the RSC will develop a wide editorial initiative, including a series of papers, reports, and other publications, with the goal to enhance the cultural and situational awareness on the “religious factor” as a crucial component of the SFA effort within the comprehensive approach framework of NATO missions and operations.

RSC Chairman Emiliano Stornelli
This Study Seminar is a significant example of civilian-military cooperation, and of the high-level results it can achieve also in the scientific and cultural domain. The event engages speakers and participants from different professional backgrounds and countries, but united by the same purpose, that is to address the role of the “religious factor” in the security sphere.

As a matter of fact, many of the conflicts and crises of our time have a religious dimension, and this is true especially for the MENA region, whose instability have major repercussions for the countries of the northern side of the Mediterranean and for Europe as a whole.

However, until a few years ago, the idea that religions and religious actors could play a positive and constructive role in helping peace and security to advance was still not taken into serious consideration whether in terms of strategic thinking, or at an operational level.

Talking about “religion” in relation to “security” was considered a “taboo”. There was a kind of fear to face the issue, as if we were crossing a forbidden threshold for our mindset. Such a mindset produced “a lack of awareness” of the potentialities of religions as an asset in the field of crisis management, conflicts resolution, peace-building, and post-conflict stabilization.

The Religion & Security Council (RSC) was established in 2016 to contribute to fill this gap, with a view to increasing the awareness of stakeholders on the strategic necessity to include the “religious factor” in the peace and security equation.

In these six years of work, the RSC has been engaged in addressing the main areas where religion and security intersect.

The RSC has been at the forefront in advocating for interreligious dialogue as the way forward to prevent confrontation, achieve reconciliation, and build peaceful coexistence, both at the inter-state and intra-state level. The RSC has also been advocating for the development of sound and balanced approaches to religious scriptures and doctrines to counter the radical discourse and narratives, and the indoctrination and recruitment by extremist groups, especially among youth.

Moreover, the RSC has closely focused on the predicament of religious minorities, backing the implementation of policies and practices to foster cooperation and communal harmony between different religious groups, as opposed to any form of sectarianism, discrimination, and human rights violation.

These areas of engagement have proved to be relevant to the goals of the SFA, and thus have become the topics of this Study Seminar, which explores the nexus between religion, peace, and security.

Based on the views, insights, and recommendations gathered during the proceedings, the NATO SFA COE and the RSC will continue with new initiatives to address the role of the “religious factor” in the security sphere on a conceptual and doctrinal level. Therefore, if today’s event is the culmination of a process, it is also the beginning of a new stage.

Dr. Sihem Djebbi, University of Sorbonne Paris Nord
The seminar sheds light on the specific contribution religion can provide in building peace and stability. Religion has long been disqualified by political and social sciences both as a matter of study and as a valid force in society. Analytically, religion was thought to be declining inexorably as a consequence of modernity. Axiologically, it was considered to be fundamentally linked with reactionist trends.

Since the end of the eighties, this secularist bias has been profoundly revised. The apparent rise of religious claims all over the world have led many analysts to define today’s era as a post-secular one. An academic consensus has been reached about the necessity to better explore the role of religion in society and politics. However, this renewed interest has resulted, over time, in overwhelming negative approaches to religion. The latter has been understood mostly as a main driver of contemporary conflicts and terrorism, especially with regards to Islam. It is only recently that academic research has started to explore the nexus between religion and peace.

Religion has recently gained more importance in global governance too. Religious actors, who used to be by-passed or considered untrustworthy in international politics, have eventually acquired a certain credit. Policy-makers have increasingly involved religious entities in the definition and implementation of projects related to the public interest in order to gain legitimacy and efficiency. This has been particularly the case in the humanitarian and development arenas, but the potential role of religious entities in the peace-building arena has not been thoroughly considered yet.

In this seminar, the concept of religion is broadly understood as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden beliefs and practices, which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them”. This definition, provided by Durkheim, highlights the numerous facets of religion. Religion is both an individual and a collective phenomenon, as well as a spiritual and a socio-political one connecting cosmological views, practices, rituals, cognitive and normative frameworks. Thus, the seminar pays particular attention to religious myths, rituals, doctrine, ethics, social and experiential dimensions as well as leadership, all aspects that should be addressed to help peace processes.

Religion must be approached as a dynamic phenomenon, which cannot but go through processes of adaptation, transformation and pluralization, especially in a globalized era. At the same time, it shapes and is also shaped by social, cultural, political and economic realities. It is a powerful driver of change as well as a deeply evolving reality. It is thus crucial to embed the study of religion in the environments in which it evolves, and to consider its variations over time and space.

The seminar gathers a panel coming from the MENA region, and from different socio-political and religious-cultural environments. This choice is meant to provide space for the expression and understanding of the variety of local perceptions, representations and aspirations. This should help global public action in the region acquire more efficiency and legitimacy.

Working on the potential nexus between religion and peace in the MENA region does not presume that the religious dimension of conflict is the primary one. Economic inequalities, social precariousness, democratic deficit, geopolitical rivalries, and environmental degradation are the leading factors. These issues provide ground for religious instrumentalization and framing, which, in turn, contribute to conflict escalation and duration. These non-religious core issues should be addressed primarily, in collaboration with, or apart from religious actors. Nevertheless, in the collective effort to build peace, certain religious realities could, and should be a precious “adjuvant”.

Maj. Gen. Stefano Del Col, Former UNIFIL Head of Mission and Force Commander
This meeting of experts is undoubtedly needed to better understand the MENA region from the religion, peace, and security perspective. In this area of the world, religions have long been misused to promote views that set neighbours against neighbours and jeopardize peaceful relations between communities that have coexisted for generations.

Religion is a powerful unifying force, but it is also easy for extremist ideologies to exploit the religious factor for their wicked purposes. This is where religious leaders, especially when they are far away from the political dimension, can play a major role in conflict prevention and in the reconciliation processes, by leveraging their networks and communication channels to help people separate their beliefs and religious identity from the attempts to manipulate them.

Aware of the cohesive power of religion, as Head of UNIFIL in South Lebanon, I used to engage religious leaders from different denominations in promoting non-violence, partnership relations, equality, and respect on a communal level. UNIFIL itself symbolizes unity in diversity, with troops from 46 different countries across the world. Recalling the words of the UN Secretary General António Guterres, UNIFIL is the “symbol of stability in an unstable region”.

As for Lebanon, it represents a microcosm of the world with all its diversity, particularly with respect to culture, religion, and education. Therefore, the Lebanese experience offers a fundamental contribution to the elaboration of concrete approaches aimed at addressing the topics of the Study Seminar.

Currently, Lebanon is going through an unprecedented socio-economic predicament, added to the many other issues that keep affecting its stability and future prospects. The gathering in the Vatican City of all the Lebanese religious leaders has been a major sign of unity in such a critical time, and reminds us of the need to invest more and more in fostering dialogue, social cohesion, and a culture of peace and human rights in troubled societies and countries.