How does crisis intervention in your line of work function?
“There are a lot of different kinds of crises; we at ICRD focus on violent conflict. We do a mapping of the conflict; who are the actors, the institutions, the relationships. We create a systems map of the conflict. Then we look at adding resources or trainings and develop a theory of how that will transform the conflict. Every context is different. We do what we call “training-to-action”, so we train trainers in issues like conflict resolution, reconciliation or skills to combat extremism. When we train community leaders, they replicate those trainings in their communities.
In one program, for example, we brought American Evangelical Pastors together with Pakistani Imams in Nepal to discuss how to collaborate in defending religious minorities. Projects that came out of that were a countering Islamophobia program in the U.S. and our current program on counter-narratives to sectarian violence in Pakistan. In this project, leaders and influencers from the different religious sects got together and devised a religious and socially-grounded narrative which speaks against violence. It was vetted by over fifty different religious and spiritual actors and then put into the communities through local advocates. They push the narrative out in different media outlets (tv, radio, online).”
What role does religion play, not just in this project but in general, and how do you use religious leaders/organizations?
“We work in most of our projects with religious influencers or organizations. (We avoid the language of “religious leaders”, because in many contexts that tends to exclude women and young people.) The work is done at the level of faith and religion, but not necessarily focused on religious doctrine. Religion can be a great force for community resilience in many ways. In ICRD’s projects, we look for religious solutions to violent conflict. Religion itself is neither inherently good nor bad. It only takes on those qualities in relationship with others. If religion is driving conflict, then within the source of conflict itself we can often find the solution.”
Does religion exacerbate issues that start out political or economical issues?
“All conflicts are driven by multiple factors. Sometimes you hear people say “poverty causes violence”, but that direct causality is not true – there are many more poor people who aren’t committing violence than those who are. Abject poverty, however, which excludes people from any opportunity to grow personal and family economies, can certainly help to create the conditions for violence. I would never say religion is a singular cause. However, religion can undeniably be used to manipulate adherents through certain interpretations of doctrines, to mobilize communities to violence. But it is almost always coupled with other considerations. Often it happens with marginalized groups, who have great uncertainty about the future. Perhaps there is resentment towards to state. The best way to intervene is often to change the narrative that links religious mandates with practical problems and calls to violence.”
What is it like to go into areas where religion is being used to fuel violence, or one of the major drivers of it?
“I still believe that among the primary compulsions in religion is encouragement to behave in better relationship with one another. In this respect, religious narratives can offer the very counter to religiously-framed violence. Sometimes a good solution is to find more temperate leaders and elevate their voices. In some places we work, however, religion is not a driver of violence but a resilience in the community that has been overlooked. For instance, in Colombia, religion hasn’t been the main driver of violence. The drivers of violence are political, social sometimes ethic, mostly economic. The way we engage there is through faith values that can help define a new relationship not based on violence. Oftentimes these solutions are coupled with practical solutions. We are looking into building a bigger program in Colombia that has an element with mutually beneficial economies. Through the religious communities we find access to help a large group of people.”
Which roles do men and women play, in conflicts?
“Most violent actors, those who carry out violent attacks, are men. However, behind the scenes there are often cultures of violence, and those are supported by different layers of society. There is a lot of subtext where a man is expected to fill a certain role, including a violent masculinity, which can be supported and promoted by the wives, girlfriends and mothers. If you look at peace work, there are a lot more women who are drawn to it. However, each gender has both different influence and suffers different impact in conflict spaces. I think it’s important not to paint either gender with a single brush. For instance, women are often labelled as “nurturers” or “care-givers”. Not only does this overlook the possible role that women can play in fomenting conflict, it also unfairly limits women to an “emotional” stereotype. The subtext is that they are less rational or intellectual. The same is true of men, who are often engaged based on their perceived preference for rational and power-based calculations. Any intervention, however, has to balance long-term social change goals, such as empowering women in institutions or working on destructive gender stereotypes, with the urgent need to stop immediate acts of violence.”
How much can an outsider influence a group?
“ICRD is a facilitating organization and we go into a situation aware of the fact that the knowledge of living through a conflict, and the ultimate solutions to that conflict, is possessed by the people in the context. When I say we are a facilitating organization, I mean that we can help individuals and groups do certain things like strategic planning, program design, and relationship development, all based on their own assessment of their experiences and solutions. We connect people with groups or key figures, that they wouldn’t have thought of or had access to, but the solution always comes from within the group.”
How has conflict resolution changed in the last 20 years?
“I started working on conflict issues and economic development in Central America at Harvard University in 1998. We were already transitioning from great-power competition defining global conflict and seeing many more internal and non-state conflicts. But in the pre-9/11 world, it could be argued that there was a broad misunderstanding that religion didn’t really matter to economic and social issues. In the post 9/11 period, it became very evident that how people perceive the transcendent (the role of the divine and perceptions of an afterlife) massively influences how people and communities relate to one another while they are alive. Particularly when you have people who are adept at manipulating the religious rules that govern those behaviors. Interestingly, considering a wider perception over the last few years that religion matters – but primarily as a driver of violence – we have seen that faith can also take the lead in developing solutions. For instance, precisely as extremists build barriers between religious communities, we are seeing more collaboration between faiths to counter them.”
How do you get the exclusivists on board?
“Most religious doctrines are exclusivist to different degrees, in all honesty. But believing in a singular and ultimate truth is not synonymous with hatred for the other. There are many ideologies and doctrines that are non-violent and within most doctrines you will find admonitions to show kindness, love and cooperation with others. If you have exclusivist groups at risk of radicalizing to violence, and right next to them non-violent communities who have the same ideologies, then those are the groups to engage with. If you work with “liberal” or more “moderate” voices, you may have no legitimacy with those groups, because they don’t have a shared ideology. For instance, we are working in Yemen and Tunisia to see how we can engage Salafi actors to counter violent extremism. Most of the Salafi ideology doesn’t gel well with western ideas, and this is a sticking point. How do you include voices that are fundamentally opposed to including the voice of others? But these groups are very isolated and marginalized. So how can we access and influence the Salafi groups that are at risk of radicalizing to violence in Tunisia, for example? Within the Salafi community there are groups that are inclined to violence, like going to Syria and fighting with ISIS. The question is, how you keep the group on the whole from radicalizing. The Tunisian government is excluding them, which we have seen can lead to more radicalization. Those who have the three necessary elements of influence – access, authority and legitimacy – are other Salafis. It’s not a perfect solution, but if you don’t know how to engage with them, you don’t have that option. So we built a data-driven analysis based on interviews we’ve had with community members and come up with some conclusions of how to best engage with that community.
Ultimately, it is important for people to simply get to know one another. For people to engage in networks with other social groups, that are outside of their immediate identity group. They start to build affinities with different kinds of people. A multiplicity of identities is very good for the reduction of conflict and radicalization. For instance, on a soccer team or in an educational institution, you have a collective goal apart from all the different religious and non-religious identities. As we engage with exclusivists groups, we try to find these kinds of common activities or identities around which to build new relationships.”