Jonathan Powell: Religion and Peace Making
27 Oct 2014
In a wide-ranging interview, Jonathan Powell, the British Prime Minister's Special Envoy to the Libyan Transition, speaks about the role of religion in peace negotiations in Libya and the wider region.
The differences we are trying to deal with in Libya are not ethnic, they're not Sunni / Shia, they're not really geographical although there is some tension between east and west and with the south but not actually a huge amount, really just about a lack of resources over the years. There are some tribal differences left over from history although less so in the west than in the east.
The real battle is about power and resources. Libya has been in a state close to anarchy for some time. It wasn't really governed under the Ottomans, under Italian colonialism or under Qaddafi, where there were no institutions. And since the revolution there has been no strong government and so groups compete but no group has come out on top.
There are ideological elements, but this alone isn't the key dividing line.
It would be wrong however to say there is no ideological difference whatsoever. Some of the political parties identify themselves on religious grounds but unlike Tunisia they seem to be much less widely supported; in the two elections, these parties got very few votes, particularly in the last election. Even though there weren't party candidates, support for any self-identifying Islamist candidates was pretty low.
Libya also has threats from extremism in the form of Ansar al-Sharia, and the anarchic state provides a permissive environment for non-Libyan extremist groups to operate – including al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) and elements sympathetic to ISIS. So there are ideological elements to all of this, but this alone isn't the key dividing line as it is in many other conflicts in the region.
There's not actually that much division about what the role of religion in the state should be and I think the Constitutional Assembly will deal with that fairly easily. I'm talking about the general population here, not extremist groups such as Ansar al-Sharia who don't believe in democracy and want to have a theocratic state. It is impossible to accommodate that view based on what the majority want, which is a democratic state.
The question put to me by Christiane Amanpour on CNN was whether everyone on one side of the conflict were extreme Islamist radicals. I made it clear that this was not the case. There are moderates on both sides and those are the people the international community are trying to work with. Of course both sides also have their extremes. The danger is that by just lumping them all in together, we fail to distinguish between those who are a real threat and those who we want to work with.
There is a spectrum of Islamist organizations and we need to understand that. In Syria there are number of Islamist-orientated opposition groups who enjoy the international community's support: they aren't terrorists and they aren't using violence to force the population into accepting an Islamic caliphate. But there are two groups, Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, who are, and we draw a very clear dividing line between those two sorts of Islamists in Iraq and Syria.
This tactic is different from many terrorist groups in the past who used simply to strike and run away, like the IRA who only ever held small border towns for a few hours. Groups like that don't try to take and hold territory.
But a number of contemporary terrorist groups take and hold territory, including the Taliban in Afghanistan, Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines, so ISIS are not that different. There is quite a big academic debate, about which my book goes into more detail, about the difference between a guerilla and a terrorist, although if they use terror they are all terrorists in my view. Taking and holding territory is interesting and new, but it's not that new, and doesn't make ISIS a different category of group.
People argue that ISIS is nihilistic and global and therefore totally different from previous groups we have faced in the past. Actually its nihilism is not particularly new, it's what we faced with the Nihilists and Anarchists in 19th century Russia, Europe and the United States. Nihilism is also what we regard al-Qaeda as representing. However, if you come to look in more detail at these groups, they are not quite as nihilistic as they appear. They are not just violent for violence's sake; they use violence to promote an end. In the case of ISIS, they are using violence for two reasons: first to attract attention, that's why they behead Western journalists, and second to terrify people so their opponents run away when they attack. So the nihilism isn't quite as new or mindless as you might think.
Sunnis hold legitimate grievances about their treatment by a Shia government.
My basic point is that every time we meet a new terrorist group we say their demands are unacceptable. But by definition they have taken up weapons precisely because we won't talk to them about what they want to talk about. Some people now argue that the IRA's demands were perfectly acceptable - no they weren't. A united Ireland at the barrel of a gun is not an acceptable aim and no British government was ever going to accept it when the population in the North didn't want it. The point is that when you sit down and talk to these groups there will be things to talk to them about, so if you take ISIS we will not be talking about an Islamic caliphate, but there are legitimate grievances held by Sunnis in Iraq and Syria about the way they have been treated by a Shia government in Iraq and an Alawite government in Syria, that we can talk to them about. The Sunnis need to have a future; they can't just be marginalized as they were.
It would be daft to say that we could sit down with ISIS now and start negotiating a peace deal - that's not going to happen at this stage. But you can at least start a conversation. With the IRA we opened a channel in 1972 and yet didn't actually start negotiating until 1991, so there's often a long lead time between one and the other.
The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.
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