Building a Consensus for Reconciliation

Foundation Update

Building a Consensus for Reconciliation

06 May 2015

A core component of current conflicts is the growing polarisation between identities, particularly religious identities. To overcome this polarisation, heal divisions and build a consensus for reconciliation, we must develop patterns of dialogue and collaboration that build shared understanding, experience and trust. This will not be easy, but there can be no doubt that faith communities must take a leading role, writes Christopher Rider for our Global Perspectives Series.

Building a Consensus for Reconciliation

By Christopher Rider

Akbar Ahmed and John Campbell argue that the polarisation of identity, especially around religious identity, is a central factor in many conflicts today. Ahmed explores how the exposure of communities to new ideas and ways of living as a result of globalisation has eroded traditional identities. The emergence of reactionary and excessive forms of group loyalty, or 'hyper-asabiyya', reflects a fear of the unknown, of what is different or uncertain. So we look to identities that can reaffirm our place in society and help us to respond to political, economic or socio-cultural issues.

Religions often provide the most explicit forms of this reactive group identity. According to Campbell, this phenomenon has manifested itself in Nigeria through Christian and Muslim 'literalist' revivals, the like of which are apparent in all faiths worldwide. Rigid boundaries, set up around these exclusive religious identities, become hardened markers of difference, often leading to withdrawal from society, segregation and potentially violence and 'ethnic cleansing' as in parts of Nigeria.

Resolving this polarisation will not be simple or quick. It will require dedication from multiple sectors of national and international communities and substantial resource input, especially around communication and network building. Importantly it will require collaboration not only between these different civil society and political sectors, but also between different faiths. Narratives of 'us' and 'them' need to be turned into narratives of 'we' if we are to build effective and sustainable consensus for reconciliation and peace-building.

Mutual misunderstanding between faith groups and appeals to religious identity in support of contentious causes, can lead communities down the pathway to division and violence. But in both respects, faith groups can make a significant contribution to the process of reconciliation through facilitating and participating in dialogue and collaborating on social action.

This process must begin by fostering a shared understanding of core beliefs and a shared experience of each other. As Ahmed indicates, education about, and a shared understanding of, our commonalities provide the critical intellectual foundation for the sort of transformative experiences that can change behaviour. Dialogue which facilitates this learning and which brings opportunities to be exposed to each other's experiences and hopes and fears for the future is therefore essential. Our experience of working with religious leaders in Sierra Leone and Nigeria confirms this and indicates the necessity of moving this dialogue into practical collaboration to prove its success. Successful dialogue and collaboration builds mutual trust, which is critically important for undermining identity polarisation and beginning the process of reconciling divided communities.

However, initiatives of this kind often stumble for two reasons. Firstly, as Campbell highlights, disconnects between elite dialogues and 'the street' and between grassroots activism and national infrastructure can create misunderstandings between these actors that undermine constructive collaboration. Initiatives at both levels are equally important, but of limited effect if not integrated. It is for this reason that we advocate and work to build capacity and capability across 'mid-level' religious leadership. It is these 'mid-level' leaders who are best positioned to deliver and effect change in partnership with others at community level. They are able to recognise and replicate best practice across communities and harness the resources of wider national organisations to support community action.

In Sierra Leone, it is these leaders who have most effectively delivered health training and information to diverse and dispersed communities in partnership with national programmes. In Nigeria, it is these leaders who seek to build networks between the local communities and the national elites through which to counter misunderstanding, extremist thinking and hate speech. In our experience it is these leaders who have demonstrated through their work the critical role that faith communities can play in helping to forge more inclusive and integrated societies.

Secondly, if these initiatives take place close to the conflict, they are often hampered by events that can reinforce distrust and suspicion, or even bring the whole process to a halt. The creation of 'safe space' is fundamental to interaction that can develop the understanding and experience of each other. This has been what Canon David Porter has described as "disrupting the cultural settlement". Conversations with the author. By taking participants out of their daily working environment and removing them from fear of violence or retribution, it is possible to disrupt a cultural settlement of mutual distrust and suspicion and create instead a safe space in which there is time for reflection, for understanding to grow, for trust to build and for relationships to develop.

Our experience of running workshops in the United Kingdom for Nigerian mid-level religious leaders demonstrates the importance of this disruption of the cultural settlement for overcoming the prejudice arising from rumour and misinformation. For example, a narrative widely accepted in many Nigerian Christian communities is that the Muslims are killing Christians in the north of the country. As Campbell states, while Boko Haram has killed a significant number of Christians, most of its several thousand victims have been Muslim. When the nephew of one of our Muslim participants was killed in a Boko Haram attack on his school, the support provided by both the Christian and Muslim participants was powerful testimony that with shared understanding and experiences comes trust and friendship. We can all realise our common humanity and the impact that senseless and indiscriminate violence has for everyone, we just need the space in which to do so.

The problem of course is that we cannot disrupt the cultural settlements of mutual distrust that can infect entire populations. Rumour and misinformation will continue to spread rapidly if there is no authoritative challenge to them or any pathways offered for surmounting divisions. This, then, is the importance of supporting those leaders who are capable of turning dialogue into collaborative action. In Sierra Leone, for example, we have witnessed the dedication of religious leaders working together across faiths on Malaria prevention, building networks of support and trust. Excitingly, they are now using those same networks and partnerships to help battle against the spread of the Ebola virus.

In Nigeria we have seen the relationships developed by participants in our workshops strengthen as they have worked together to deliver change. One of their many initiatives is an employment training course for unemployed youth, to change the patterns of unemployment, idleness and boredom that lead to radicalisation and recruitment into Boko Haram. They are also establishing peace clubs to counter ignorance of Islam and Christianity and to make the case for mutual respect and co-operation within and between faiths.

It is through actions such as these that dialogue and collaboration can be developed; that shared understanding and experience can be spread in a way that is sustainable and replicable. In just under a year, by building networks and community projects, 24 religious leaders have taken the message of intra- and inter-faith understanding and collaboration to some 24,000 people in Nigeria. In Sierra Leone, in little over three years religious leaders have taken malaria prevention information to over a third of the population.

Needless to say, in a world of 'polarised' identities of 'us' and 'them', this dialogue and collaboration often carries risk. Perceived as a compromise and even as a betrayal of core beliefs and group identity, its proponents may become targets for violence. Yet the evidence coming out of our own as well as similar programmes indicates that individual and group identities can be transformed and sustained over time, opening up the capability and determination to reach out to the 'Other'.

Demonstrating that dialogue and collaboration between different faiths can work is essential in empowering communities to build trust once again. Through the creation of trust we have seen identities begin to shift from 'us' and 'them' to 'we', a shift that is fundamental to all aspects of effective conflict transformation. This process may not be quick or easy and it certainly requires long-term commitment, but it is vital if we are to overcome divisions caused by the polarisation of identities and begin to build a consensus for reconciliation.

This article is taken from the Global Perspectives Series (Volume I): Religion and Conflict: Responding to the Challenges. Find all the articles from the volume here.


The views expressed by this author remains solely their own and may not necessarily be the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.
From the Global Perspectives Series, Volume I: Religion and Conflict: Responding to the Challenges.
Copyright © December 2014 by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Edited by Daniel Cere and Thomas Thorp.