Islamic Peacemaking in Dialogue and in Practice


INTRODUCTION

A large majority of Muslim scholars, religious leaders, NGOs, and governments denounce religiously-motivated violence and they condemn and detest the abuse of their religion.

Evidence of this can be seen in Muslim leaders’ widespread condemnation of terrorism and religiously motivated violence around the world. With the rise of radicalism and unprecedented conflicts in Muslim-majority countries, paradoxically, the world has witnessed astonishing efforts of many Muslim organizations and leaders to promote more frequent and effective dialogues to enhance mutual understanding and create practical steps to improve relations.

Efforts are also underway in many places to vigorously educate Muslim youth about the core Islamic teachings of tolerance, peace, and pluralism. Even governments and institutions in Muslim majority countries are working to reeducate, rehabilitate, and reintegrate Muslim extremists about the falsity of the doctrines they advocated and to find alternative nonviolent methods to express their discontent.

For too long, Muslim religious leaders and scholars lectured on the higher goals of peace in Islam by defining the goals with scripture and hadith, with prophetic sayings and actions, and with attempting to demonstrate that peace is a pillar of the faith. 

Ironically, with the rise of violence in Muslim global communities, we have witnessed a surge of publications, podcasts, social media, and organizations dedicated to peacemaking. Muslim religious leaders (imams) and scholars (‘ulama)recognize the important roles they play in reinforcing pluralism within Islam worldwide. ‘Ulama, researchers and Muslim leaders are promoting nonviolence, pluralism, and tolerance with immense intensity, and they should be recognized, and their vital efforts publicized.

WHY DIALOGUE?

Several notable Muslim faith-based organizations around the world are mobilizing to counter extremism within Islam, and they should be applauded. Dialogue efforts by ‘ulama will tend to start with the discipline of peacemaking as it exists within the tradition of Islam. Historically, according to Muslim jurists, Islamic law seeks to preserve and protect life, religion, property, rights, and intellectual expression. These fundamental objectives of Islamic faith, ‘ulama engaged in the dialogic process with others learn the importance of younger Muslims to know these fundamental values and how to live accordingly. 

The development of interfaith dialogue institutions(IFD) institutions like the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue in Riyadh, Royal Institute for Inter-faith Studies, and Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in Amman, The World Muslim Congress for Global Communities in Abu Dhabi, Kalam Research Institute in Dubai, Abdurrahman Wahid Center for Interfaith Dialogue and Peace in Indonesia, has set in motion a cultural, religious, social, and historical shift toward prioritizing interfaith dialogues and the acceptance of others.

These dialogic interactions and engagements illustrate subtle and immense changes for ‘ulama authorities who have experienced new understandings of the other.

All types of dialogue, whether interfaith or intra-faith, is increasingly recognized as a proven tool for learning and self-teaching because it connects people from different groups in a safe space for mutual sharing and listening. Dialogue is a structured process with a trained facilitator who can manage and supervise discussions with clear goals, learning objectives, and evaluate the impact of the dialogue.

Interfaith dialogues need to be a facilitated dialogic process to address intergroup tensions, correct stereotypes, encourage mutual acceptance, and develop relational bonds that help to bridge inter-communal divides. These dialogues are not designed to debate, or about determining which group has the authentic perspective, and it is not asserting one’s faith as superior over another. It is not about proving one’s tradition is more authentic than another tradition. Rather, effective dialogue transforms participants beneath the surface to deeper, more honest reflection to better understand not only the faiths and experiences of others but also their own faith and assumptions on a much more intimate level. 

Uncomfortable topics need to be addressed to bypass regular obstacles; unfortunately, religion is used to fuel the tensions, legitimize violence, and justify divisions and exclusions. The field of religious peacebuilding strongly advocates an effective approach to transforming these destructive religious dynamics is to operate within the framework of meaning for those during conflict—the language in which they are interpreting their reality.

That is when ‘ulama dialogue with their religious counterparts should use a religious framework to counteract religiously inspired conflict and to assert peacebuilding approaches based on religious principles of peace.

An important example in our time of Muslim interfaith dialogue is the Common Word document written by Muslim theologians asking for greater dialogue and improved relationships between Christians and Muslim religious leaders and their congregations. The Common Word was sponsored by the Ahl al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in Jordan. 

Typically, when the future of the Christian-Muslim dialogue was discussed it was in abstract terms, with no clear agenda or vision for an actionable plan. However, Common Word authors sought to build upon a common heritage with the basis of love of God and the love of neighbor as two essential cornerstones of our traditions.

One scholar has described the euphoric moment as “the Vatican II for Christian-Muslim relations.” If this is accurate, then it is critical to profit from the “Vatican II” dialogic spirit by thinking strategically, carefully, and with attention to global Christian-Muslim communities.

In the early years of the Common Word there were critiques who cautioned on moving forward. Because the document contained many complex and unresolved theological issues; in particular, many Christian denominations in the West disputed amongst themselves some of the Christian responses.

While there were some Christian scholars and clergy who argued that the Common Word defined the parameters of interfaith dialogue too narrowly without the consultation of Christian clergy. However, most Christian religious leaders believed it was a beautiful invitation to finally engage with Muslim‘ulama. The Muslim theologians and scholars of the Common Word aimed to foster a global culture of dialogue with Christians which was undeniably an invitation to move the two communities toward a common good, toward common interests, and to recall our common heritage of loving God and our neighbor. 

The common good agenda, as it been called, is not limited to theological debates and historical views of the other but it insisted on moving toward specific peacemaking goals.

There are immense lessons from the Common Wordinterfaith dialogue experiences in the past decade, and in any dialogue, venture learning lessons and gaining sight from these experiences will only enhance the goal of peaceful relationships. While ‘ulama and Christian clergy focused on scripture, textual sources, and historical interpretations of those sources it was only step in the dialogue. 

One lesson is clear: for too long Christians and Muslims extend immense effort in identifying sources to love each other, to dialogue with one another, and to argue a case for dialogue instead of the actual work of dialogue.

The Common Word experience forced the Muslim and Christian participants to work through the resources and scripture- one specific type of dialogue- but beyond this, the participants did not move beyond it to real practice dialogue.

In retrospection, the Common Word dialogue experience raised critical questions about how little participants would share their own real-life experiences connected to interfaith encounters, and how our experiences are filled with or absent of fundamental divine directives like loving others.

Participants of the Common Word interfaith dialogues realized the heavy burden of scripture and their original intent on loving God and loving neighbor. This awareness to love others is not to be minimized. 

However, the dialogues needed to continue to pursue personal human experiences of Muslims and Christians. This dialogue experience is a powerful reminder of a divine mandate to faithful believers in each tradition, and in essence, reinforces the importance of loving God as a fundamental aspect to the traditions of Islam and Christianity.

When this conference asked participants to share what are the higher goals of peace in Islam, it is undoubtedly must include the lessons of the Common Word because in many ways the experience helped us become more sensitive, empathetic, caring, and nurturing of the other person in our lives. The dialogic experience pushed us to take what is in scripture and apply it to our daily lives. It is summed in the Qur’an Kareem in 2:152

So make remembrance of Me, and I will make remembrance of you. And show thanks to Me, and do not deny Me.

INTERFAITH DIALOGUE CHALLENGES

If the primary objective of dialogue is to learn from another while transforming oneself, then we need to acknowledge that this requires empowering individuals to challenge themselves in ways that will make them active peacemakers. 

As much as many peacemaking training programs rely on the content of the skills to change the participants’ perceptions of the situation, as well as their understanding of the self in relation to the larger society.

Dialogues in peacemaking consist of understanding the nature of peacemaking, how to think about peacemaking strategically, mediation, real dialogue, reconciliation, and nonviolence.

I have argued in Crescent in Dove: Peace and Conflict Resolution in Islam book that if are able to enhance‘ ulama skills in peacemaking then we can make advances in real dialogue. 

Real peacemaking dialogue skills include topics of religious ethics, theology, principles, and practices of forgiveness, compassion, justice, love, dignity, reflection, patience, solidarity, service, tolerance, and reconciliation.

If ‘ulama and imams alike are able to learn peacemaking skills then this will create a process of self-examination and a healthy self-criticism and the self-empowerment to transform themselves, their communities, and regardless of their circumstances, they can serve as peacemakers.

It is built upon the basic idea that peacemaking efforts focus upon cognitive perceptions of the individual and the multiple ways an individual can contribute to society as a peacemaker.

Let us recall that in the Qur’an Kareem 2:34,

“Remember, when We asked the angels to bow in homage to Adam, they all bowed but Iblis, who disdained and turned insolent, and so became a believer.”  

Iblis responds in Qur’an kareem7:12,

“I am better than him (Adam), You created me from fire, and him You created from clay.”  

In the Islamic verses of creation, God created Adam out of clay (earthy material) and asked the angels to bow down to the new creation but one angel, Iblis, refused to bow down believing that it was a lesser form of creation. ‘Ulama consistently refer to these verses to argue that conflict has always existed since the creation and it is impossible to create “conflict-less societies” – the best we can do is to minimize the amount of conflict that arises in life. 

These interpretations must be taken seriously because the role of dialogues is critically important in identifying counter-narratives of finding solutions to violence and intolerance.

‘ULAMA PEACEMAKING DIALOGUES:

When ‘ulama participate in dialogues on topics such as peacemaking their effectiveness depends on their ability to function in that environment. All dialogues are not the same. There are nuances and dialogues are structured on specific goals. ‘Ulama and imams need to first be self-aware of the ongoing issues in the community; asking questions on their concerns and worries. 

They need to expand their skills and capacity building in these areas while ensuring they are sensitive to local and regional issues. Both being demonstrating more empathy (ma‘arifat al- ghayri ) and using a skills enhancement approach will enrich their knowledge of peacebuilding and position them into the wider field of peacebuilding efforts. 

All dialogues- whether it be intercultural, interfaith, diplomatic, or corporate –require a long-term commitment by the parties involved. To have dialogues to be impactful and effective in society all stakeholders need to be synchronized, that is, religious institutions, civil society, media, youth organizations, educational institutions, business sector, and government must have the same vision for dialogue. For constructive, effective, and impactful dialogues of peacemaking to materialize we need to prepare our ‘ulama imams, and religious institutions to develop a formal and informal dialogue curriculum on interfaith. 

As education specialists have pointed out, all educational experiences consist of engaging teachers, peers, curricula, clubs, activities, sports, — essentially a total education culture or formal education.

However, students are simultaneously learning informally from social media, from role models from home and the public sphere, media, sports, opinionmakers, and thought leaders. The combination of formal and informal education needs to have foundational values and principles of dialogue. That is dialogue needs to be appreciated as an intrinsic value to learn, to grow, to prosper and to become a generous compassionate citizen of the world.

We need to understand dialogue as an intrinsic value and we must foster, cultivate, nurture and constantly reinforce this value in culture, religion, business and public spheres. To sustain effective dialogues and monitor their effectiveness, there needs to be safe and neutral spaces for dialogue, where the space is appreciated for honest sharing of opinions. Most importantly, there is a dire need to create models, methodologies, and manuals to implement in dialogues struggling with conflict and everyday situations. These materials must consist of content that addresses dialogue as a platform for resolving conflicts and teaching skills that enhance trust-building.

An ‘ulama-centered peacebuilding dialogue program must focus on shifting cultural norms toward self-evaluation, self-criticism, and heightened self-awareness in dealing with other human beings. This involves an intense commitment on evaluating curriculum, religious instruction, religious formation, an inter-religious education that teaches coexistence, nonviolence, reconciliation dialogue, and conflict prevention and mutual respect.

Designing programming on enhancing knowledge and skills for ‘ulama in the field of peacebuilding is valuable only if this venture corresponds to ensuring that the value of dialogue and intra-faith dialogue are an intrinsic principle.

Practical Peacebuilding Activities:

The fundamental Islamic principles of nonviolence and peacebuilding include the pursuit of justice; doing good; the universality and dignity of humanity; the sacredness of human life; equality; the quest for peace (individual, interpersonal, communal, regional, and international); peacemaking via reason, knowledge, and understanding; creativity; forgiveness; proper deeds and actions; responsibility; patience; collaborative actions and solidarity; inclusivity; diversity; pluralism; and tolerance.

These principles are integral to the Islamic tradition and to the Abrahamic faiths. Dialogue and interfaith dialogues and understanding the true nature of Islamic peacemaking enable citizens to maintain healthy peaceful relationships, both human-to-human and human-to-divine. However, when conflicts erupt and destroy these relationships, it is mandated that their restoration is essential for justice to prevail.

There is an extraordinarily rich history in Islam on promoting dialogue, of ethics to prevent, mediate, and resolve conflicts, and to learn from each other. Dialogue is a reminder that, ultimately, any level of disharmony is understood as a disruption to being peaceful.

An example of religious dialogue in theory and in practice is the Interfaith Mediation Centre in Nigeria which has focused on improving Muslim and Christian relations through workshops on dialogue, conflict prevention, conflict transformation, and mediation.

Confronting ethnic tensions and appalling violence in the 1990s, Pastor James Wuye and Imam Muhammad Ashafa, who were formally religious militants, created the center to resolve conflicts. Building on their religious traditions, the Centre fosters mutual respect and collaborative peacebuilding projects. 

As we persist through the global pandemic, one of the many lessons arises to the surface for us to contemplate is that we are one human family entrusted with this earth. As one human family, with distinguishing religions, races, tribes, and nations, real cooperation through dialogue is the only solution to any future existence. Ignoring or neglecting others and fighting others are not options for us if we want to create harmonious peaceful societies.

Let us recognize and enact upon what our traditions require us to do, that is to dialogue.

(Qur’an Kareem 49:18)

Dr. Qamar-ul Huda is a non-resident senior fellow at The Atlantic Council based in Washington, DC and an associate adjunct professor at Georgetown University. Previously, he co-founded the Center for Global Policy (CGP), a nonpartisan American think-tank that focuses on U.S. security and foreign policies in the Muslim majority world, where he was Vice President. Dr. Huda established CGP’s Security and Violent Extremism Program where he supervised the Program’s research activities and was instrumental in interfacing with U.S.policy makers and academic researchers. Dr. Huda was a Senior Policy Advisor for U.S. Department of State Secretary John Kerry’s Office of Policy Planning, and the Office for Religion and Global Affairs (S/RGA) where he focused on civil society, religious communities and religious leaders with U.S. foreign policy. His area of focus is civil society organizations, education, and multilateral affairs. Before joining S/RGA, the Bureau of Counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department recruited him to serve as a secondee as the first Director of the Department of Dialogue and Collaboration to Hedayah: The International Center of Excellence for Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) based in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

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