BLESSED ARE THE PEACEMAKERS SERIES: Imams and Rabbis for Peace in the Middle East

A report by Dr. Katrien Hertog:

Imams and Rabbis from the USA, Europe and the Middle East, joined by Christians and other religious experts, came together for the third time to move forward on the road to peace in the Middle East. The Congress, under the patronage of UNESCO in Paris, reflected some of the common opportunities and challenges related to religions’ engagement for peacebuilding but also clearly highlighted the distinct added value of a spiritual approach to peacebuilding.

To start with, there were some clearly differing views on the role of religious leaders in peacebuilding, a question which relates to the interrelationship between religion, mysticism and politics. Some clerics were clearly afraid of too much politics. As one rabbi expressed it: “We didn’t come to talk about politics, but about peace.” Others were emphasizing that religious leaders should be concerned with changing the reality on the ground. It was pointed out several times that the peacebuilding potential of religious leaders and communities should reach politicians and decisionmakers. The political and diplomatic world share an overall secular bias, partly because religion is by many considered to be complex and divisive. But, as one rabbi pointed out: “If you don’t want religion to be the problem, you should not ignore it, which is an invitation to extremists, but you should make it part of the solution.” The view was widespread that political leaders had failed to bring peace to the region, partly because they ignored the religious factor. Therefore it was suggested that the new administration in the USA should not just involve secular leaders of both societies but also religious and spiritual leaders in its approach to peace in the Middle East.

Religious leaders were also called upon to take up their responsibility and make their voice heard among the public opinion so that political leaders would be supported to make the compromises which are necessary for peace. As one rabbi formulated it, religion should be able to provide “the psychological and spiritual glue” to hold the peace process together. Therefore it is important that the Congress really manages to reach out to the masses of believers, a challenge which is typical for these kind of inter-religious conferences. For example, it was suggested that Imams and rabbis, being preachers and teachers, should speak in each sermon 5 minutes on peace. The challenge is not only to reach the masses, but also the violent extremists in one’s own religious group. In this regard the great importance of intra-religious dialogue was emphasized and the ability of religious leaders to overcome the pressures against speaking out.

Another obstacle related not just to religious peacebuilding but to peace initiatives in general and one which was mentioned throughout the meetings, is the lack of attention in the media, which focuses all too eagerly on religions’ contribution to violence. One rabbi ironically suggested to organise a little fight with some blood at the end of meaningful peace initiatives in order to attract the press.

The Congress of Imams and Rabbis was also challenged by the call to include the important contribution of women to peace in society. For predominantly male religious institutions this requires of course a significant shift in mentality and practical organisation.

But through the meetings and the issues discussed, there was another voice present, which I would call the voice of spiritual peacebuilding. It can be heard in some of the words that were spoken, it can be felt in the company of certain people and it can be seen in certain behaviour. For example, His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who was invited to give one of the keynote speeches, shared his vision of a one world family, an ancient idea that goes back thousands of years, in which we will all feel our connectedness and not just tolerate, but celebrate our differences. He advocates a shift in identities so that we identify ourselves in the first place as human beings in this bigger picture of creation, sharing the same universal human values, and only then with a certain nationality or religion, instead of the other way around which creates so much problems. A journey from the head to the heart has to happen. This journey has to reach every corner of the world, because as long as some fanatics remain, there will be no peace. Practically he proposes concrete training programs to manage stress, release frustrations and channel energy towards positive contributions to society.

A similar view was expressed by Abdoulaye Wade, president of Senegal and of the Islamic Conference, who broadened the vision of the religious leaders to the level of global citizenship and planetary consciousness. Putting forward a challenging vision for the future, he said that wars belong to prehistory and that we therefore have not yet begun history as such. He also emphasized the importance of in-depth peacebuilding, such as developing deep interpersonal relationships and kindling peace in the hearts of men, like it is reflected in the UNESCO definition which states that war starts in the minds of men and should therefore be prevented in the minds of men. Also Rosa Guerreiro, representative of UNESCO for Interreligious Dialogue, stressed the attention which is needed for inner reflection on one’s own mind and attitude and on the question what actually hinders one to approach the other. The need for introspection was also emphasized by one rabbi, who, however, also pointed out the difficulties for a traumatized people to be self-critical. Another Jewish representative believes this introspection is possible and said the true barriers are found in our own minds. “If we can destroy our own fears, we can easily destroy the cement wall”, he argued. For him, the peace process is clearly a spiritual process throughout and not just spiritual when it comes to the final pictures. One imam said that, peace coming from the heart, we actually have to take the responsibility to attain that inner peace.

These broader visions and deeper connections are the life-giving juice of this interreligious gathering for peace and of the work for transformation on a deeper level. If not for that, would an Orthodox rabbi discuss issues of the heart with his “enemy” imam from Iran till the early morning hours?

To conclude, one could say that the Congress of Imams and Rabbis has a great potential. Religion is challenged and placed in its responsible position for peace, in a way which is not reactive but pro-active. It is also significant that from now on also Christians and women will be included in the initiatives. The realization of religions’ potential for peace depends however to a large extent on their inner dynamics. One rabbi issued a very strong and clear call: “Let us work for peace, or let us move from this path so that we are not longer a hurdle on the path to peace. Let us repent that we have been an obstacle to peace, but let us commit that we will now pave the way.”

I wonder whether the most significant inner transformation of religions towards peace would not be a shift from religious peacebuilding to spiritual peacebuilding, where the latter is understood as engagement for peace which can be embedded in a religious tradition but is not confined to it and therefore more universal. Then religious leaders can reach out to the depths of the hearts and minds of all people, independent of whether they belong to another religion, no religion, or whether they adhere to a violent interpretation of one’s own religion. Would that not be the unique added value of religions for peacebuilding?

Rabbis and Imams for Peace
Rabbis and Imams for Peace
© Marc Gopin