With so many parts of the world embroiled in religious conflict, U.S. officials — and the programs they fund — must walk a fine line between advancing peace and development and meddling in foreign cultural and belief systems.
One way to help circumvent some of those dilemmas is framing peacebuilding around development activities and partnering with civil society organizations, as government leaders and scholars discussed on Thursday at an event hosted by the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.
Arsalan Suleman, deputy U.S. envoy at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, suggested the U.S. government look to civil society to combat the teaching of religious extremism.
“The U.S. government can’t really fund programs that will teach someone religion in ‘a right way’,” he said. “So that’s a role for civil society to play.”
Suleman explained that for instance in Pakistan the network of madrasas (koranic schools) has filled the void left by the lack of resources of government-run schools. And sometimes these madrasas can expose youth to extremist ideologies, leading to violence and conflict.
“This is a clear place where the U.S. can’t act, where there’s a need for improved educational systems in certain countries, and I think there’s a lot of interest amongst … donors who may be outside or institutions who are outside, to partner with institutions within the countries to improve some of those systems.”
Jerry White, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of State for Conflict and Stabilization Operations, noted that bringing different religious communities together around a development project is another effective way to ease tensions and prevent violence.
As an example, he cited efforts by the Friends of the Earth Middle East to clean and revitalize the River Jordan — not only threatened by pollution and water loss but also by the scores of landmines scattered along its banks.
White said the river is itself a victim of conflict, and that its revitalization is an opportunity for peacebuilding: “They use the water issue as a collective trust building, to good effect … and they realized that they also needed to activate the religious community.”
And they sure did: religious leaders, teachers and community members from multiple faiths became involved, united under the goal of saving a historic and sacred river. These efforts are critical to preventing violence.
“We need more ideas and partnership with civil society,” he said.
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