‘Beyond Wishful Thinking’: Peace Building in the Middle East

February 11, 2020
Professor Jocelyne Cesari
Visiting Professor Jocelyne Cesari. Photo: Rose Lincoln, Harvard Staff Photographer

On January 3, the United States launched a drone attack that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, whom United States officials said was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition soldiers. Soleimani’s killing prompted a retaliatory attack by Iran on an American base in Iraq, during which a Ukrainian passenger jet was mistakenly shot down, killing 176 people on board.

Meanwhile the United States in October 2019 began withdrawing troops from northeastern Syria, and the war-torn country experienced more devastation this month when Turkish forces launched air strikes.

With the most recent U.S. actions in the region leading to increased tensions, HDS spoke with Jocelyne Cesari, T. J. Dermot Dunphy Visiting Professor of Religion, Violence, and Peacebuilding, to provide context on the latest crisis, where religion fits in, and how peace efforts can come about.

HDS: Can you explain a bit how Islam influences political life and society in the Middle East and how that reality might differ from how it’s understood in the West?

Jocelyne Cesari: There’s been consistent and intriguing data from surveys conducted in Muslim majority countries over the last few decades. When people are asked about democracy, their opinion is very positive. The same people also consider shari‘a very important for good public life.

At first glance, being in favor of shari‘a and being in favor of democracy seems contradictory. It reflects however the political status of Islam in most Muslim-majority countries. When Muslims say they are in favor of shari‘a they are not referring to religious law as applied in Saudi Arabia or Iran. They have in mind instead a set of principles from the Qur’an such as justice, fairness, compassion, etc., that they consider relevant to the enactment of the common good.

In fact, it is possible to draw a comparison with what some Christians would say about the role of religion in public life today in America. Of course, most Americans do not accept religious actors in political life and most Muslim respondees share this opinion. But at the same time, a lot of Americans, like Muslims, are keen to see political life regulated by moral injunctions. From this perspective, shari‘a is not about penal law or cutting heads, but about moral principles like social justice or anti-corruption. Such a conception is an important element of the status of Islam in political life that is not obvious, especially when our understanding of shari‘a is limited to the cases of Saudi Arabia and Iran, which do not reflect the diversity and fluidity of political Islam across Muslim countries.

HDS: How can religion help bring about peace in this situation? Are we even at that point yet? How can we move forward?

JC: The point is not to argue about the positive role of religion in conflict resolution because it obviously is not always the case. It is more productive to explore when and how religion is relevant to peace building or is not. From this view point, religion cannot be apprehended only as personal belief or deciphered solely though textual analysis (more information on that point). When it comes to conflict resolution or even more ambitiously peace building, religion matters in the social ways of being and interacting. For that reason, it is counterproductive to limit Christianity, Islam, or any religion to solely beliefs or performance of rituals, or to disconnect religious discourse from social issues that influence all believers on a daily basis.

In the disputed areas between Syria, Iraq, and Turkey, the significance of religion does not lie exclusively in theology, but in the social meanings, collective memory, and cultural exchanges informed by religious traditions. That is the greatest challenge faced by the American or European scholars who focus primarily on doctrines, while it is not the most significant dimension when it comes to politics and peace building.

For example, it is impossible to envision post-conflict Syria without healing religious communities that have been torn apart by the religious extremism of both state and non-state actors. The problem is that as of now, the Syrian state has pretty much won the war, which begs the question: what is the incentive of the Bashar al-Assad regime to consider religion as a peace building tool to reconciliate citizens with different religious backgrounds? This is a very different approach than analyzing the textual resources of Islam or Christianity or the opinions of some religious leaders, which is regretfully what most peace building studies tend to do. In other words, the influence of religion is not intelligible if the historical and political context in which religion operates is not taken into account.

HDS: Who is best positioned to help bring stability to the region, to offer a plan or path for peace?

JC: International religious organizations in conjunction with local ones as well as state actors have a role to play. These religious actors should reflect the religious diversity of all the groups that have been affected by the war: from Christians to Muslims and Yazidis. Interestingly, some attempts at reconciliation have been conducted by local religious actors in some regions of Syria. They could become relevant nationally only if political actors and international organizations take them into account in the peace building process.

HDS: Where can we see examples of how this is being done?

JC: Sant’Egidio, a Catholic international organization devoted to peace building, brokered in January a reconciliation agreement between different protagonists in South Sudan. This positive outcome was possible because there was an international overture where such a religious NGO could play an influential diplomatic role. I’m not seeing this happening in Syria; although religion has been a key element in the conflict, it paradoxically is not considered “serious” enough to be included in any peace discussion. Without a serious assessment of the political and cultural context in which religious arguments can or cannot be deployed, any study of religion and peace unfortunately does not go beyond wishful thinking. It means that peace building does not exist on its own, but within the broader field of religion and politics, which provides knowledge on the institutional and ideological reality in which religious actors operate.

—by Michael Naughton