To examine the major role that interreligious dialogue can play in conflicts resolution and peace-building in the MENA region, a combination of theoretical knowledge and practical experience suggest the adoption of a multidimensional approach, encompassing the various facets of insecurity and instability driven by religious-based views and identities. In particular, three levels of engagement can be singled out: 1) Political level; 2) Theological-Religious level; and 3) Social level.
1. Political Level
Interreligious dialogue is key to promoting the adoption of the “inclusive citizenship” model, as the first stepping stone to ensure common living, stability, and peaceful societies in MENA countries. Interfaith initiatives can help achieve mutual respect, recognition, and trust between different religious identities and groups, and this is a precondition for inclusivity to be incorporated in the constitution and legal frameworks of the state, in the form of equality before the law and respect for human rights for all denominations. Interreligious relations in MENA countries have long been predicated on exclusivity, discrimination, and sectarianism, and this has led to turmoil, violent extremism, revolutions, and external interventions, which caused further rifts and warfare, mainly to the detriment of minorities, including ethnic ones.
To be successful, however, the “inclusive citizenship” model needs to be adapted to the demands and characteristics of the local realities. The outcome of the state and institution-building process remains a democratic system, but the type of secular state that exists in the Western world is not suitable for societies where the “religious factor” maintains a central position in the public sphere, and people keep holding on to their religious identity and perceiving themselves as believers. Rather, it has already been proved that neglecting or even excluding religious identities can trigger adverse reactions and is far from an antidote to extremism.
Therefore, it is necessary to promote a complex, yet unique democratic system, capable of including and addressing the concerns of all the different religious identities, since neglecting or disparaging them would be conducive to internal strife, radicalization, and inter-state conflicts, instead of promoting peace, security, reconciliation, and stability.
To this end, interreligious dialogue can facilitate the encounter between stakeholders from different religious groups on a common platform to establish inclusive statehood and governance in MENA countries, fostering the participation in the policy and decision-making of minority groups as well, both on a religious and an ethnic basis. It must be noted that these groups have lived for thousands of years in these lands and are entitled to determine their political system, a right that they could not exercise in the past, as minorities were not allowed to have a voice in the state formation process in the region.
2) Theological-Religious Level
Interreligious dialogue offers the opportunity to present and promote “alternative” religious narratives, as opposed to the radical interpretations and understanding of religion, which lead to conflicts and divisions between different religious groups. The aggressive religious discourse dehumanizes the religious “other”, spreads hate speech, and justifies discrimination, thus preparing the ground to legitimize the use of violence. On the other hand, huge efforts have been made in interreligious contexts to convey moderate religious approaches to scriptures and doctrines that promote tolerance, common living, mutual acceptance and respect.
However, we are still far from reaching a time when the moderate “alternative” narratives and religious discourse are the mainstream or the dominant ones in the MENA region. This means that the engagement in this field must be further strengthened, so as to expand the promotion of the existing “alternative” narratives, encourage the elaboration of new ones, introduce them in religious schools, connect the moderate religious leaders together, and protect the champions of this frontier battlefront from all religious backgrounds.
The huge power of the faithful is being used for destruction and extremist purposes, but also for building bridges and advancing human fraternity across the religious spectrum. Faith-based actors are strongly committed to addressing the predicament of refugees, the inclusion of religious and ethnic minorities, the protection of the most vulnerable categories, conflicts resolution, and peace-building. International security strategies must thus empower and build on the faith-based activism in the MENA region that strives for peace, dialogue, reconciliation, mutual respect, and “inclusive citizenship”.
International security strategies should also take into consideration major official documents that have been issued in recent years, such as the Amman Message, the declarations of Mecca, Marrakech and Beirut, the Human Fraternity Document for World Peace and Living Together, signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Iman of al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb, along with the statements of prominent religious leaders, such as the Iraqi Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and institutions such as the Organization for the Islamic Cooperation. All these endeavours are complementing and building on each other, with a view to promoting mutual respect, recognition, and dialogue between different religions, as well as addressing “inclusive citizenship” and freedom of religion and belief. Other sensitive issues will hopefully be dealt with in the near future, such as blasphemy and apostasy.
3) Social Level
Interreligious dialogue, besides the theological-religious level, needs to address also the social, economic, and ethical challenges affecting local communities in MENA countries. This requires a “dialogue for life and reconciliation”, namely an effort to re-humanize religions aimed at building the so-called “religious social responsibility”. Similarly to the corporate social responsibility for corporations, religious institutions and leaders are called to play an active role in the different dimensions of society, in order to support the needs of the population.
In particular, the “dialogue for life and reconciliation” engages middle and junior religious leaders from different denominations in cooperation activities at the grassroot level, including charity work and fostering community cohesion. Religious educators and religious journalists are also involved, in order to achieve a higher impact on the ground and allow a greater participation of women. This is a dialogue that happens in refugee camps and poor suburbs, in soup kitchens feeding the poor and behind the scenes of battlefronts. But religious leaders can work together also in health promotion among the population, such as in the case of vaccinations, and in advocating for environmental issues, in partnership with national and local authorities, as well as international and non-governmental organizations.
Some examples to illustrate this endeavour can be found in Lebanon. The “Adyan Foundation” has established “The Forum for Religious Social Responsibility”, composed of hundreds of religious leaders who have received training on basic principles such as “inclusive citizenship”, freedom of religion and belief, the acceptance of the other, positive communication, and active listening, but they have been enabled also in terms of writing proposals, presenting projects, and fundraising. This group of religious leaders is now passing the message through their seminars, schools, and religious communities. Moreover, “Dialogue for Life and Reconciliation” is the name of a Lebanese non-governmental organization that coordinates the joint activities of a broad network of religious leaders in the north of Lebanon, perhaps the most tension-prone area in the country.
As for the next steps to advance the “dialogue for life and reconciliation”, it is necessary to engage religious seminaries and schools attended by students from different backgrounds. Furthermore, the concept of “community policing”, usually referred to law enforcement forces in local communities, should be included among the duties pertaining to the “religious social responsibility”, in order for religious leaders to play a role also in promoting security and stability on the ground.
Proceedings of the Study Seminar
A Strategic Perspective on “Religion, Peace, and Security”
Dr. Elie Al Hindy: “Interreligious Dialogue: Three Levels of Engagement for Peace and Security”
Dr. Majeda Omar: “The Amman Message and Other Insights from Jordan”
Prof. Aicha Haddou: Preventing Extremism: The Moroccan “Experience”
Imam Yahya Pallavicini: Policies and Initiatives Against the Radical Discourse in the MENA Region
Dr. Elie Abouaoun: “Food for Thought” On How to Foster Peace and Reconciliation in the MENA Region
Hon. Pascale Warda: Sectarianism and the Predicament of Religious Minorities in Iraq