Human history is full of instances on how religion has been blamed for conflicts within or between nations, and how inaccurate stereotypes about religions and faith have prevented the local and international communities from building stronger, deeper relationships and developing trust in areas where the threat of conflict is high. As a result, the world has witnessed heavy politicisation of religion, and unpredictable nature of conflicts have redefined the conventional notions of diplomacy in confronting ongoing disputes.
However, there have also been examples of how religious diplomacy has played a meaningful role in engaging and motivating actors, especially ideologically driven ones, into action. In September 2020, the UAE, and Israel came together to sign the Abraham Accords.
The Abraham Accords, as the name suggests – coming from the three monotheistic Abrahamic religions – unraveled new possibilities, not just in advancing the wider cause of religious tolerance in the Middle East; but also facilitating the normalisation of diplomatic relations between the predominantly Jewish and Muslim countries.
The Abraham Accords became the most potent force for positive change in the region, and reversed long-held mistrust, misconceptions, and misgivings about one another. The Accords also found new ways to encourage people-to-people engagement that bridged religions, cultures and nations – something which other diplomatic channels failed to achieve.
Historical evidence also shows that a vast majority of nearly 180 non-violent campaigns for major political change since the Second World War across the globe have involved religion in some way. The intention of religion is to finding ways to harness the power of religious beliefs and institutions in preventing violence and extremism, and in stabilising nations and communities in conflict.
There is ample evidence on how religious actors and faith-based organisations have actively participated in peace building and conflict resolutions across the globe. Religious diplomacy emphasises the importance of ethno-religious factors and how religions empower political behaviours and opinions.
The past few years have witnessed a flurry of interest and activity around religion and religious engagement in diplomatic circles. Religion nowadays can be hardly categorised as the missing dimension of statecraft. It is important to ponder how religious diplomacy could be used to substitute the clash of civilisations with a dialogue of life. There is no denying that religion can be seen as the most essential foundation upon which people unite. As a result, there are more and more efforts in many countries that strive to foster a sense of belonging among people and nations using religion as a base.
Policymakers seek to develop more systemic approaches to integrate religion and religious engagement into a wider range of diplomatic activities. And there is a need to regularly overview the major challenges and opportunities in the face of efforts to build awareness and capacity around the intersection of religion and foreign policy.
While diplomats focus on common interests as a starting point for interaction, clerics tend to look for the common good to initiate a conversation. Having said that, this does not prevent diplomacy and religion to try and seek a common engagement in an evolving world.
It is in this context that the conference recently organised by the Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi and Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy – the first partnership between these two academic and diplomatic institutions based in the UAE, assumes immense significance as it looked at how religion can address the three main dimensions of religious diplomacy.
Firstly, it sought to identify the actors involved in promoting inter-religious dialogue and inter-culturality. Secondly, the conference demonstrated how religious diplomacy positions itself as an alternative to classical diplomacy in defining specific objectives and methods of action. Thirdly, it examined how religious diplomacy could be a powerful tool of influence in helping building peace and aiding peaceful change.
Tolerance and co-existence are essential to shared humanity and peace. It is high time that long-standing paradigms are done away with and the circle of peace, both regionally and globally, is widened. This is possible through meetings of the faiths to send a clear message of reconciliation, acceptance and inclusion.
The conference reinforced that religious diplomacy could facilitate dialogue when exchanges seem impossible. It could also promote tolerance when the toughest positions seem frozen. The discourse conveyed by religious envoys could be better understood and accepted by governments because it appears distant from political intrigues and is adorned with wisdom or spirituality.
Given the complex roles of religion in peace and the presence of conflict dynamics unique to each context, it is important for anyone seeking to engage in peace-building activities to understand where and to what extent religion matters. Following that, to then determine whether and how to engage with religious actors and institutions, during times of both peace and conflict.
Religious diplomacy is based on dialogue, prevention and consultation with all actors. Collaboration with relevant mediators is inevitable. And religious actors frequently play vital roles in promoting peace, defusing conflict, and mobilising and delivering lifesaving assistance in emergencies.
The positive affect of inter-religious and inter-cultural approaches to dialogue both at the community as well as the global levels is increasingly recognised in the discourses on mediation, conflict resolution, peace making and peace building. Such dialogues go well beyond the religious sphere. The impact of initiatives such as the Abraham Accords will bring clear-cut benefits and overall progress, not just to the countries and peoples involved, but to the rest of the world as well.
So, how can we engage without religion being politicised by religious leaders, or politicians playing identity politics with religion, or using religious concepts for justifying or seeking support for their policies? The way forward is to judge actions and not intentions. The approach must be one that is shared, one that is jointly designed in trying to bring to the fore values that different groups might have in common to pave the way for global peace and progress.