But can this potion be used for advancing peace rather than instigating war?
That’s the argument that an A-list panel of experts – including Shaun Casey, special adviser on religious issues at the U.S. State Department – explored on Wednesday (April 15) in a provocative debate at Fordham University that produced some surprising insights.
The goal, as author and moderator Eliza Griswold put it in opening “Beyond Extremism: Reclaiming Religion’s Peacebuilding Capacity in an Unstable World” – was to go beyond the easy optimism that says “religion really has nothing to do with the problems of the world right now.”
R. Scott Appleby, dean of the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame, didn’t mince any words.
“Religious communities, including most religious leaders, are not peacebuilders and indeed have little awareness that they are called to peacebuilding, and what it might take to become a peacebuilder,” he said.
Appleby, a leading expert on fundamentalism and religion and violence, argued that religion in practice isn’t really about building peace, but rather “trying to build and maintain a flock” and “protecting one’s own religious community, even if that means exaggerating and amplifying discord with neighboring communities.”
Appleby’s other three points were just as eye-opening:
For example, he asserted that contrary to many claims, “radical Islam is about Islam” and “until this is understood, religious peacebuilding is an empty promise.” He also said that Hindu nationalism, Jewish “irredentism,” Christian “chauvinism” and other forms of religious extremism are about those religious traditions as well, not entirely alien to them.
While such manifestations by no means form the core or entirety of religions like Islam, they nonetheless are features of those traditions. And they must be dealt with by building up religious institutions, reducing religious corruption, improving religious education and denouncing extremism in one’s own ranks.
Another point: All those lovely interreligious dialogues and ceremonies? They are little more than “the parlor games of those not sufficiently serious about religious peacebuilding, which begins with and should be focused upon intra-religious reform and intra-communal mobilization for peace.”
At best, Appleby said, such events are “useful for building solidarity among elite.” But they have “virtually no traction at the grassroots.”
In addition, Appleby argued that “well-intentioned” governmental efforts to foster religious communities to promote peace, especially after the 9/11 attacks, have actually “undermined religious peacebuilding, robbing it of its true potential.”