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T. Walsh: Interfaith, Multi-Track Diplomacy, and Peace

Presentation at a conference on “Religion and Peace in the Middle East: the Significance of Interfaith Cooperation”
Jerusalem, Israel - August 26-28, 2012
Published in UPF's interfaith journal
Dialogue & Alliance, Vol. 26, No. 2, Fall 2012
Theme: Religion and Peace in the Middle East

In recent years interfaith dialogue and cooperation have been recognized not only as means to build greater understanding, better relationships, mutual respect and cooperation among people of diverse faiths but also as important components of peacebuilding efforts in a variety of contexts.

The rise of interfaith awareness is one aspect of globalization that runs parallel to the globalization of the world economy, transnationalism, and increasing interdependence, fueled by powerful developments in communications technologies. In this wider global context believers of every tradition are increasingly more aware of the existence of believers from other traditions. That is, pluralism is an immediate and ever-present fact of social life. The overall impact is that each religion, each believer is in some respects challenged by the inescapable presence of “the other” that represents an alternative, even a competing worldview.

Just as ethnic and national groups have come to accept the reality of the other, even the much-despised or disliked other, the religions also face this challenge. Some celebrate and welcome the challenge, and others accept it with less appreciation.

Two primary social trends thus give rise to interfaith. One is the immediate presence of the other, the existential fact of diversity or social pluralism; it’s everywhere. Secondly, it is clear that religions are not withering away. There was a time when some thought that religions would gradually fade away like quaint old languages or disproven scientific theories. Some argued that secularization would expand somewhat inevitably, leaving primitive religious worldviews standing in their dust, overpowered by the intellectual force of science and rationality. But for the most part, among seven billion people, many of whom are even scientists and rationalists, such has not been the case. Secularist, atheist, or humanistic worldviews are more the exception than the rule. Throughout the world, religion remains a viable and energetic force.[1]

This is not to say, however, that the ongoing presence of religion represents an unqualified plus for humanity. Religion, after all, not only fosters humility, hospitality, and self-sacrifice for noble ideals, but often goes hand in hand with unwarranted yet passionate convictions, and a whole range of tempting pathologies.

In addition to these social trends, there is also a trend that arises from within the religious traditions and their scriptures and that calls for the believer to extend hospitality, respect, and appreciation for the other who lives outside the worldview. While often not emphasized, one can find ample texts that promote very Kantian-like universalist ideals and norms to be applied widely toward all people.[2]

As the fact of religion’s persistent presence, if not expansion in our world becomes more strongly felt by believers and unbelievers alike, other realizations dawn. What first comes to mind to many, and especially to those who like their religion lukewarm or not at all, is the menacing force of religion in many parts of the world, where seemingly very unenlightened fanatics threaten the norms and fabric of society, and rattle the sabers of war. Surely in the analysis of problems in the Middle East, it is not uncommon to hear mention of the irrationality of believers as a significant cause or contributing factor.

This, however, is not the only way in which religious ideas manifest in the social world. Religion surely can be and is, perhaps more than all the welfare programs and the social responsibility initiatives of governments, a force for good.

In either case, religion should not be ignored. If it is a menace, then it should be reformed. If it is a force for good, then that force should be encouraged and harnessed.

One area where religion’s capacity is being more widely recognized is in the area of diplomacy. This applies well here in the Middle East. For, alongside the political, economic, and social factors, religious factors are very relevant, and indeed essential to any comprehensive understanding of the ongoing tension and conflict in the Middle East. Awareness of all such factors is important for understanding both the causes and potential solutions to this conflict.

As regrettable as it may be, there is a kind of ongoing clash of civilizations in the region.[3] Not only the clashes between the civilizations that have roots in the three primary Abrahamic faiths, but also the internal clashes that exist within each of these three primary traditions: Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Evangelical, or Sunni and Shiite, or Orthodox and Reformed, not to mention the clashes between the religious and the secular, and the fundamentalist with the moderate.

In what way might a stronger focus on the religious factor, and especially interfaith activism impact efforts for peace in the Middle East? While interfaith dialogue has made inroads, its wider impact, outside of academia, tends to be fairly intangible. To some extent the interfaith movement,[4] though appreciated by many, is a rather marginal and some might say elite movement that lacks penetration into the core constituencies of the religions. Religious competition and polemics, either public or private, are standard fare in many parts of the world. And interfaith dialogue is not usually a strong part of the message in most religious traditions at their grass roots level.

In the “real” world, blunt instruments of force, coercion, and violence speak louder than counsels of perfection. At the very core of the state system is the concept of security, the ability to deter or coerce an aggressor from without or from within, with superior instruments of force, whenever wisdom, reason, and various forms of negotiated settlement fail to make an impact. For example, how does one deal with Boko Haram, a radical and violent Islamist group in Nigeria, or a Wade Michael Page, who killed six Sikhs at their gurdwara in Milwaukee only days ago? We recognize the value of interfaith, but it may not bring any immediate solutions.

While intuitively known to be important, it is nonetheless difficult to measure the impact of interfaith on peace. Surely it seems reasonable to believe that it does no harm to the cause of peace, and it would seem that even though it may not affect large numbers of people, or address immediate problems such as current violence in Syria or the Egypt’s Sinai, it does have some substantial and lasting impact. In many ways, for example, interfaith has gained in prestige, while dogmatic sectarianism is not widely affirmed in the world. This seems to be a good change, and one that seemingly contributes to a diminishment of interreligious hatred, hostility, polemics, etc.

Although religion is very important, it seems that it remains less important than politics or, rather, national self-interest backed up by military and economic power when it comes to global affairs. States, or nation states, still serve as the primary agents of the interests of citizens. Even though many citizens are religious and even though the state may require the “blessing” of religion to function effectively, the state has a kind of autonomous life of its own, owing in large part to respect for power and a collective appreciation for the state’s capacity to deter aggression and violence, not to mention a respect for a public philosophy underlying the government that is consistent with core religious values.

At the same time, religion is a factor that should not be under-estimated. Awareness of this reality has become widely accepted. In recent years, concepts such as “faith-based diplomacy” or “religion and diplomacy” or “religion and statecraft” or “interfaith peacebuilding” or “track II diplomacy” indicate growing appreciation for the religious factor in global affairs.[5] According to Scott Thomas,

Faith-based diplomacy, like multitrack diplomacy more generally, largely involved a variety of new actors, including religious groups and organizations, as a key part of civil society who are now involved in diplomacy and international relations[6]

Thomas adds that “religious leaders and institutions given their familiarity with local situations and close contacts with grass roots movements are particularly well placed to play a role in multitrack diplomacy.”[7]

Thomas defines multi-track diplomacy as referring to “the informal, nongovernmental contacts that take place at the individual, state, and society levels of analysis below the level of analysis of the international system. It includes private citizens, social groups, religious groups and a wide range of non-state actors.”[8]

In Multi-track Diplomacy: A Systems Approach to Peace, Louise Diamond and John McDonald list nine levels: 1. Governments; 2. NGOs; 3. Business; 4. Private Citizens; 5. Research and Educational Institutions; 6. Activists; 7. Religion; 8. Funding Organizations; 9. Media and Communications.[9] Of course, this is not a definitive list but is at least indicative of growing awareness of a wider range of stakeholders.

On a more philosophical or theoretical level, religion, while frequently failing in practice, at least aspires to rise above national self-interest, toward a transcendent universalism or spiritual cosmopolitanism. Moreover, we know that most religions prioritize the idea of peace (shalom, salaam, pax, shanti, etc.). Of course, some argue that religion only gets in the way of politics, spouting utopian ideals that are utterly impractical and which, when applied, often do more harm than good, e.g., preaching pacifism as a tyrant invades, or unwittingly enabling the more cleverly manipulative.[10]

Even still, one aspect of the growing appreciation for religion may be attributed to the impact that globalization in various sectors has had on the “state system.” Many NGOs, faith-based organizations, transnational corporations, as well as criminal elements, all expedited by communication technologies, operate transnationally or globally. Religion, including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism along with smaller religions, operates globally or transnationally. To refer again to a single recent incident in my own country, the killing of six Sikh US citizens by a deranged white supremacist US citizen is a global incident; Sikhs around the world take note, and people around the world commiserate.

Soft Power and Hard Power

In general, global affairs are governed by hard power realities and considerations, that is, national self-interest in security, sovereignty, and prosperity guides political and military decisions. Each state understands every other state as having its own national interests that it is expected to uphold. Such realism is standard procedure in international relations. Even alliances among nations are guided as much or more by national self-interest and balance of power calculations than they are by higher ideals of solidarity beyond borders.

In international relations power is often defined as the capacity to achieve the goals that you want to achieve. This often means getting others, other nations, to behave in ways that you want them to behave. The concept of “soft power” was developed by Joseph Nye in 1990.[11] Nye talks about “getting others to want the outcomes you want” through means other than coercion. He states that “Seduction is always more effective than coercion, and many values like democracy, human rights, and individual opportunities are deeply seductive.”[12]

Soft power stands in contrast to hard power, usually defined as military force or economic sanctions; in either case, the emphasis is on coercive power. Like hard power, soft power can be used for right or wrong purposes. Dictators, along with virtuous statesmen, may appeal to high-minded ideals, cultural values, patriotic narratives, or a goal of world peace. Propaganda, patriotism, moral values, and appeals to human rights are forms of or expressions of soft power. Violations of such appeals can come in the form of legal action or various levels of global stigmatization. Like corporations who want always to be or at least appear to be high-minded, they do not want stigmatization, which can be just as damaging as legal action. The same may apply to nations.

Religion can play either a soft power or a hard power card. Sometimes religion matches up with a national self-interest, peace through force approach. In any militant theocratic state, religion is often tied together with hard power, sometimes tyranny, and aggression. Sometimes militant, coercive states suppress religion.

Reinhold Niebuhr, within the Christian tradition of the 20th century, advocated “Christian realism”, recognizing the world as ever tainted by sinfulness.[13] It is often mentioned that John Paul II was instrumental in bringing down the Soviet Union, through his appeal to soft power.

Can we expect things to be any different in relations between Israel and Palestine?

In the work of most faith-based organizations, an effort is made through “soft power” approaches to prevent or mediate conflict. Such approaches have had limited impact in the Holy Land. Not only are the “hard power” realities often overwhelming, but religions themselves are often more competitive than cooperative.

Realism (Hard Power) and Spiritualism (Soft Power)

Traditionally, international relations are guided by principles of national self-interest and balance of power relations. In either case, concepts of national interest and national security are at the very center. While certainly religion often aligns itself with national interests and a balance of power agenda, if not a more imperial agenda, it is also the case that religions call us to think “outside the box” when it comes to matters of power, the use of force, and security. Religions, perhaps at their deeper core, call us toward cosmopolitanism and a transcendent realm of ultimate reality and truth.

This “other-worldly” tendency of religion often, rightly or wrongly, disqualifies religion from being appreciated or welcomed into the public sphere of global or geopolitical affairs. Religion is at times too soft, utopian, or idealistic. If we would all only meditate or repent and connect to God, the world’s problems would come to an end. While, in the long run, such claims may prove to be true, we also know, as mentioned earlier, that in many immediate situations, take Syria, Jerusalem, or Nigeria, an appeal to interfaith understanding may not take us very far. Moreover, those who may be persuaded may be able to offer very little in the way of solutions.

Religion has often been unwelcome both for its otherworldly irrelevance to immediate hard cases of suffering and death, on the one hand, and for its tendency to get diverted by interreligious disputes, competition, disharmony, polemics, and a refusal to cooperate.

In order for any faith-based multi-track diplomacy to be effective, it is necessary to overcome these obstacles. Religions must become more “realistic” just as we expect governments to become more spiritually aware or more eager to search for win-win solutions in global affairs.

Religion has a clear foundation for understanding realism, for all religions teach of some primordial or fundamental fall, deviation, ignorance, or sin. We inhabit a world populated by people who manifest the consequences of this fall. Hence, we can assume that individuals, families, tribes, ethnic groups, nations, public and private sectors, are fallen and corrupt and must therefore be restrained, often by threat of force, and not merely the threat.

Since at least the time of Augustine, Christian thinkers have advocated for the justice of war whenever certain necessary conditions are met. In a sinful world, coercion is both necessary and legitimate. Coercion is necessary for any state that is based on the rule of law, for law must be enforceable.

With a very different basis of justification than we find in Christianity, one of Hinduism’s primary sacred texts, the Bhagavad Gita of the Mahabharata, tells of Lord Krishna’s counsel to the morally conflicted Arjuna to take up arms, not only against an enemy, but against members of his own kin. This is not a celebration of violence or hard power, but rather, it may be argued, a form of Hindu realism when it comes to the use of force.[14]

As religion soars above the ugly fray of history it can lose its relevance and its efficacy. As religion works within a conceptual framework that acknowledges the broken, fallen nature of all human beings, it can, in turn, become more realistic.

In turn, as “realism” drifts toward cynicism and eventually corruption, it is essential that “realists” are awakened to a deeper reality and a higher aspiration for the mission of the state, indeed the mission of the United Nations itself. In an article published in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies in 2004, entitled “The Interfaith Movement: An Incomplete Assessment”, Kusumita Pedersen writes that “The idea of a global organization of the world’s religions is an archetype of our time.” The creation of the League of Nations, followed by that of the UN, intensified efforts to found a global interreligious organization. Rudolf Otto, among many others, proposed such an organization early in the 1920s,[15] while Eleanor Roosevelt (in conversation with Judith Hollister) spoke of a “spiritual United Nations.” U Thant’s daughter, Aye Aye Myint U, stated that her father had envisioned the General Assembly Hall as a place where not only delegations of member states but also leaders of the world’s religions would meet from time to time.[16]

In the September 2000, the year of the Millennium General Assembly of the United Nations, things began to intensify in terms of moving toward a rapprochement between religions and member states. There was, for example, a gathering of religious and spiritual leaders called the “Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders.”

Additionally, the Universal Peace Federation (then known as the Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace) convened its Assembly, and its Founder delivered an address at the United Nations on August 18, 2000, proposing the establishment of an interreligious council within the UN system, in effect, calling the UN to become a kind of bicameral institution that would include a “house” for religious and spiritual leaders.[17] This idea has been widely circulated through the work of UPF over the past twelve years. During that time, many positive developments have occurred. Most recently, the General Assembly, in October 2010, passed a resolution calling for a World Interfaith Harmony Week to be celebrated each year during the first week of February. This resolution encouraged member states to promote interfaith understanding and to encourage the majority faith traditions of their country to organize programs that affirm and uplift the goodness of other faith traditions within their country.

If there is to be a productive coupling of the political and religious forces for good, there needs to be a mutual enhancement, preceded by a sense of what is lacking in the current framework for both governments and religions. Religions will never be welcomed, nor very productive, if they remain too otherworldly, utopian, and/or lacking in real world experience and wisdom. Moreover, religions need to rise above any tendency to confuse radical chic with being authentically religious.

Governments, on the other hand, must shift away from being entirely secularist and “methodologically atheist”, not to mention the need to avoid Machiavellian personalities and practices.

In an age of transparency, it becomes harder and harder for governments to escape exposure to corruption, deceit, and tyranny. The same applies to religions.

If religions behave themselves, then governments will be less loathe to tap into religious resources. It works the other way around as well.

In conclusion, interfaith should be viewed as a relevant and important instrument of soft power. Interfaith dialogue and cooperation may also be an effective instrument of “track II” or “multi-track diplomacy.” If religion is your enemy, it still may be wise to keep your enemy near. If religion is your friend, then cultivate that friendship.

Dr. Thomas G. Walsh is President of the Universal Peace Federation and served as the director of the Jerusalem Conference.

[1] Thomas Walsh, “Religion, Peace and the Post-Secular Public Sphere,” in International Journal on World Peace, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, June 2012.

[2] Immanuel Kant, “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch.”

[3] Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, New York: Touchstone, 1996.

[4] See Marcus Braybrooke, Pilgrimage of Hope, for an excellent historical introduction to the hopeful rise of interfaith movements.

[5] See Douglas Johnston, Ed., Faith-Based Diplomacy: Trumping Realpolitik, Oxford 2003; and Johnston and Cynthia Sampson, Eds., Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft, Oxford, 1994.

[6] Scott M. Thomas, The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Relations, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, p. 182.

[7] Ibid., p. 185.

[8] Ibid., p. 176.

[9] Louise Diamond and John McDonald, Multi-Track Diplomacy: A Systems Approach to Peace, Kumarian Press, 3rd Edition, 1995.

[10] See, for example, Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 2006; Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great, New York: Hachette Books, 2007; and others.

[11] Joseph Nye, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, New York: Basic Books, 1990, and Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, New York: Public Affairs, 2004, p. x.

[12] Ibid.

[13] See, for example, Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation, Charles Scribner’s, 1943, based on his Gifford Lectures of 1939, and many others by and about Niebuhr.

[14] I was reminded of this narrative from Hinduism through a reading of Robert N. Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, Harvard University Press, 2011.

[15] See Marcus Braybrooke’s Pilgrimage of Hope, p. 115.

[16] Kusumita Pedersen, “The Interfaith Movement: An Incomplete Assessment,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Vol. 41, No. 1, Winter 2004, p. 88.

[17] Sun Myung Moon, “Renewing the United Nations to Build Lasting Peace,” in Renewing the United Nations and Building a Culture of Peace, Ed. Thomas G. Walsh, New York: IIFWP Publications, 2000, pp.53-61.