The Syrian crisis raises profound moral questions about the way our world is governed today. In contrast to the Cold War era of state-to-state diplomacy, power has become more dispersed. The role of non-state organizations and individuals – from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to business to terrorists – that can often move faster than states has grown. Indeed, ours is a globalized world, where sustainable solutions must involve the “bottom-up” approach of non-state organizations and the “top-down” influence of state governance structures.
Moreover, religious communities have an increasing presence on the world stage. In some ways, they embody the former characteristic because they are globally “bottom-up” (with members serving in various governments), but whose ultimate allegiance is to something greater than the “top-down” of the state.
Thus far, the Syrian crisis teaches us at least four points. First, while the Westphalian state system is unable to act in concert, the resulting vacuum allows for particular states to exercise considerable influence. Second, what was a political conflict at the start of the Arab Spring has become a religious one.
Third (and related), many non-state Sunni and Shia actors – among whom are terrorists motivated by their own interpretation of Islam, some supported by other states – have organized to fight in Syria. Sunni and Shia clerics call for jihad against the other while Christians flee, gaining attention in the West.
Fourth, there has been no apparent and corresponding degree of organization among religious communities seeking to build and coordinate a practical policy solution, vis-à-vis their influence in state capitals worldwide. Neither, it seems, have states reached out to religious communities, unaware, unable or unwilling to see them as important to the crisis.
This last point begs some further thought in a global and religious age, as the Syria crisis continues, as the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region remains unstable, and as religion plays a critical role in the future of places like sub-Saharan Africa, Sri Lanka and Myanmar.
If religion is a part of the problem, can it be a part of the solution? Can the best of faith defeat the worst of religion? Can practical, multi-faith peace-building efforts and standing structures pre-empt religiously motivated violence?
For example, earlier this year, just after the French intervention in Mali against al-Qaeda affiliates, I participated in a dialogue with Salafi leaders from throughout the MENA region (convened by an NGO and funded by a state). Some of the Salafis suggested that they could have acted as mediators in the Mali conflict, but no one asked. Meanwhile, they argued, the French intervention had become al-Qaeda’s top recruiting tool.
Whether one agrees with this logic is beside the point; what matters is whether one’s mindset is open to such opportunities from outside traditional diplomacy. All of which begs a final question: Are peaceful faith-based organizations prepared to engage in the diplomatic realm of states, and are state diplomats prepared to not only receive, but also proactively engage such possibilities?
If there are to be answers to such questions, they will be rooted in education and training, hopefully with government officials and faith community leaders in the same room learning from each other. For example, in July, the US Foreign Service Institute (where the United States trains its diplomats) held a day-long seminar on countering violent extremism. Over 100 people attended. Not only were several government agencies represented, but 40% of the audience was from different faith communities and NGOs. Learning together often reduces stereotypes while creating relationships that can serve as the basis for future innovative partnerships.
Meanwhile, what if the Salafi dialogue that I participated in were a permanent structure? Or, what if such dialogues were more institutionalized worldwide, mutually aware and even interlocking, providing a “space” for relationships, training and education, as well as a “go-to” point for practical policy considerations for governments?
And, what if there were a place to permanently study such things? For example, the model of Kosovo is an intriguing one (as we consider Syria). Not only did a multinational force that included the Russians create a context for peace after a war that had become religious, but able leaders from that country are now building the state institutions that guard a multi-faith and multi-ethnic country. Could it be a home of a “centre of excellence” on such issues, enabling a safe space for discussion, scholarship, training and education, yielding a new global network of governmental and faith-based diplomats from the top-down of government and the bottom-up of grassroots?
If we are to improve the state of the world, we will have to allow for faith as a factor, one for which all parties will have to prepare.
Image: People are seen praying during a religious service REUTERS/Thomas Peter.