Let Freedom of Religion or Belief Pave the Way to Peaceful and Inclusive Societies

Peter Weiderud is Special Envoy for Religion in Conflict and Peace Building at the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs  

Listening to the morning news, we might get the impression that religion has grown as a source of violence and conflict. The reported difference between Shia and Sunni can serve as an example. It has been a theological schism for centuries, but before 2003 not necessarily perceived as a “casus belli“. Today, according to the Conflict Data Base at Uppsala University, more than half of the world´s casualties of wars can be found along this rift, primarily in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. However, this does not necessarily mean that it is a religious conflict.

I have had the opportunity over the last 40 years to reflect on the role of religion in conflicts from multiple platforms—as journalist, politician, diplomat, and conflict mediator, but also from peace movements and religious organizations. In my experience, I still have not found any conflict that I would define as entirely religious. The struggles in Northern Ireland, in the Balkans, and between Saudi Arabia and Iran are not purely religious. Not even the Crusades, the Byzantine-Ottoman Wars, or the 30-Years War would qualify, in my view, as purely religious.

Conflicts are about power, resources, or land, or all three. Religion can be of interest to the driving forces of conflicts because religion is closely linked to identity. It says something of who we are, but also who we are not. Hence, religion can be an important tool for mobilization as well as for defining the enemy. We have unfortunately too many examples where religious leaders have allowed and even promoted this political misuse of religion.

Embarrassment motivated Christian leaders in Europe to build the Ecumenical Movement after the World War II. They had witnessed how national churches blessed different armies and encouraged Christian soldiers to kill each other, in some cases with total neglect of international law, including international human rights laws, international humanitarian laws, and their own ethical frameworks. They decided to institutionalize a dialogue as a framework to avoid the same mistake in the future. As the challenge today is more diverse, we see for the same reasons the growth of interreligious dialogue platforms at local, national, and international levels.

Although religious leaders have a large responsibility, they cannot solve the world’s problems alone. In reality, states carry the prime burden of avoiding polarization and promoting peaceful and inclusive societies. The Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE/ODIHR) presented on 19 September 19, 2019 Freedom of Religion or Belief and Security Policy Guidance as a direct response to this growing challenge. In many parts of OSCE geography—from Vancouver to Vladivostok—religious intolerance by majorities over minorities is growing and polarization is increasing. This is often related to a perceived need to stress national identity in a more exclusive form.

In the wake of this polarization, states are looking for security measures to prevent or respond to the risk of violence. The need for action is often—but not always—legitimate. However, if these actions are insensitive, over-powering, or misguided, they might not have the intended effect, or might even exacerbate the initial problem of polarization.

The best way for states to ensure that security measures in response to the risk for religiously motivated violence are contributing to the Sustainable Development Goal 16 of peaceful and inclusive societies is to comply with the international norms protecting freedom of religion or belief. Hence, this Policy Guidance can be a most helpful instrument, not only for state institutions, but also for religious groups, civil society, and media who all have significant roles in bringing this complexity together.

The Policy Guidance offers 35 recommendations to states, 13 to religious communities, 13 to civil society, and 4 to media. They have dissimilar relevance in different parts of OSCE geography. If I, out of my personal experience, were to highlight a few, it would be the following:

  • States and society should avoid making references to “religious extremism,” when imposing security measures. This labeling term is vague, often misused in a discriminatory way, and tends to exclude rather than include. Extreme views are not necessarily violent, and ideas we do not like are better to fight in an open and transparent dialogue.
  • States and society should avoid attributing blame to a religious community as a whole when individual or groups of believers are involved in criminal activities. Sanctions should be directed only to the individuals concerned.
  • Religious communities should engage more in interfaith and interreligious dialogue and partnership. This is an effective measure to decrease polarization between cultures and, in my view, the majority culture is primarily responsible for initiating such dialogue.
  • Religious communities should ensure greater involvement of women in interfaith dialogues to stimulate the efforts for peaceful and inclusive societies. In general, the best way to achieve full enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief is to address gender imbalance at large. Men and women are often treated differently in family law, patriarchal governance structures in religious communities, and in relation to sexual and reproductive health and rights.

A little over 25 years ago, after the end of the Cold War, Samuel P. Huntington warned that future wars would be between civilizations. He made some important observations. But the clash we are witnessing today is within civilizations rather than between civilizations. In other words, between those communities—secular or religious—who see their own belief as so absolute and superior to others that they feel the need to divide society between true believers and infidels. Progress will come with those who are solidly rooted in their own culture but still open and curious to dialogue with others.

Respecting the right to freedom of religion or belief for all is the way, in a multi-cultural world, to vaccinate against clashes between and within civilizations and to promote peaceful and inclusive societies.

Return to the Conversation introduction.