It’s always stimulating to hear someone knowledgeable talk about an issue in a way that leads one to deeper understanding. Gerard Powers
, the director of Notre Dame University’s Catholic peacebuilding studies, did just that when he recently talked about extremism, conflict and peacebuilding at Ottawa's Saint Paul University.
Powers made two basic points. One is that the "war of religions" paradigm is frequently unhelpful. It diverts attention away from the actual causes of conflict, such as the foreign policies of nations, including those of the West. The second point is that religious actors are playing an important role on a daily basis — in what Powers called the "peace of religion." He described those efforts as "unheralded, under-appreciated, and under-analyzed."
Some of the world's conflicts, Powers said, certainly do involve religious extremists, such as ISIS in the Middle East. But there are often multi-faceted dynamics at work that aren’t primarily religious in nature. For example, the rise of ISIS has included support from Iraq’s former secular Bathists, who were sidelined when the U.S. toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. As well, Iraqi Sunni tribes fear the Shiite-dominated Iraqi governments installed by the U.S. even more than they fear ISIS. Powers said that Catholic and Protestant leaders in the U.S. warned against military intervention in Iraq, but their advice wasn’t heeded by the U.S government.
Regarding peacebuilding, he said that religious leaders and ordinary people — motivated by their faith — have important work to do in conflict zones throughout the world, including Iraq, Syria, Uganda, South Sudan, and Northern Ireland. In fact, in many societies, religious institutions are ubiquitous, and can be present in places and situations where secular and government negotiators fear to tread. In Colombia, for instance, a local priest might travel in "no-go" areas, reaching out to rebel leaders as a pastor who tends to both victims and perpetrators of violence. He might even hear a killer's confession. This "track two" — or soft power diplomacy — provided by religious and other civil society actors supplements what Powers called the "track one" diplomacy by politicians and diplomats. And the "peace of religion" efforts would be even more widespread and effective if a greater number of people in leadership and in the pews understood peacebuilding as integral to their vocation and faith.
Still, Powers added that there is a secular bias among Western governments who ignore religion and wish it would go away or — at the very least — remain a private activity with no influence in the public square. This lack of sympathy and understanding leads Western countries into foreign diplomacy that supports what they consider "good religion" while at the same time discrediting "bad religion" in foreign countries. This, Powers said, is a self-serving approach that rarely works. And, more than often, it plays into the narrative of religious extremists like ISIS.