Article drawn from the Study Paper “Religion, Peace, and Security: Challenges and Prospects in the MENA Region” (pp. 89-91), and also published on Salaam Quarterly, Islamic Studies Association, Vidyajyoti College of Theology, vol. 44, n. 4, New Delhi, October 2023.
While religious-based views and identities are often misused to fuel inter-state warfare and geopolitical rivalries, domestic strife and tensions, radicalization and violent extremism, a strategy based on a truly comprehensive approach needs to take into consideration the transformational capacities of interreligious dialogue in enabling de-escalation and de-confliction, reconciliation and cooperation, both in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and other areas of the world. By engaging the stakeholders from different religious groups, interreligious dialogue can provide a neutral space for the encounter between representatives of the conflicting parties, contributing to:
− Defuse tensions, facilitate mutual understanding, and create bonds based on trust and respect, thus paving the way to peaceful settlements;
− Further living together and social cohesion, inclusive citizenship and the respect for human rights, mutual aid and cooperation for the common good, also for the benefit of the most vulnerable categories (religious and ethnic minorities, youth, women, refugees and displaced persons).
Given their position and role, religious leaders, especially the local highest authorities, are key players to initiate an interreligious dialogue process and to ensure its sustainability, including through the creation of cooperation platforms between them.
At the same time, the process needs to fully engage all the actors composing the scenario, such as decision-makers, officials, faith-based and civil society organizations, scholars, practitioners, and media professionals. To support inclusivity and the actions implemented, youth and women must be involved as primary characters. This would allow the benefits of dialogue to spread across the political, cultural, and social fabric in an integrated and synergic fashion.
To strengthen the effectiveness of these efforts, direct reference to official declarations or statements issued by prominent religious leaders and organizations would help provide dialogue and exchange with a sound conceptual framework and useful guidelines. Among the most recent initiatives, the Document on “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together”, signed in Abu Dhabi by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayyeb, on 4 February 2019, and the outputs of the summit held by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul on 14-15 April 2016, clearly indicate the path forward.
The “Human Fraternity” Document calls for “the adoption of a culture of dialogue as the path; mutual cooperation as the code of conduct; reciprocal understanding as the method and standard”. “Dialogue” is widely emphasized in the text, and is associated to the “promotion of a culture of tolerance, acceptance of others and of living together peacefully”, as opposed to violent extremism, which is the result of “a political manipulation of religions” and of “incorrect interpretations of religious texts”.
“Terrorists instrumentalize” religion, “this is why it is so necessary to stop supporting terrorist movements fuelled by financing, the provision of weapons and strategy, and by attempts to justify these movements even using the media”. “All these must be regarded as international crimes that threaten security and world peace”. Security-wise, particular attention is paid to the “places of worship”. Their “protection” is defined as a “duty”, while attacks or threats against them is a violation of both “religious teachings” and “international law”. The “Istanbul Declaration on Unity and Solidarity for Justice and Peace” highlights that OIC Member States “refuse sectarianism and doctrinarism in all its forms and manifestations; and encourage national efforts aimed at combating sectarian and discriminatory policies and practices as well as at enhancing reconciliation among all Muslims”. The Final Communiqué of the summit “underscored the need to shun the sectarian and denominational agenda as it carries destructive impacts and serious repercussions for Member States’ security and stability and for international peace and security”.
The Communiqué also “stressed the importance of reinforcing relations of good neighborliness among the Member States”, urging them “to strengthen existing mechanisms for intra-Islam dialogue in order to help avoiding misperceptions and promote better understanding and mutual respect”. The OIC Program of Action 2025, approved during the Istanbul summit as well, includes “intercultural and interfaith dialogue” among its priority interests.
These and other influential documents fully recognize the major role that interreligious dialogue can play in achieving and preserving peace and security in the MENA region. The same awareness is making its way also in the broader international community, where intergovernmental organizations and states are increasingly assessing interreligious dialogue as an area of engagement for their public and cultural diplomacies. As stakeholders themselves, they are now called to step up their support and encouragement to local actors engaged in cooperative and plural interfaith efforts, for which the latter retain ownership and responsibility.