Faith can play a positive role in diplomacy, according to three prominent Middle East scholars who told a gathering Thursday night at Deerfield’s how they see the intersection of religion in the peace process there.
The three men participated in one of 18 events this week put on in the Chicago area through the School of Communications at Bar-Ilan University in Israel taking a look at challenges in the Middle East.
Shai Har-El, founder of the Middle East Peace Network in Northbrook criticizes the current state of the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians for lacking a grass roots component by people on both sides.
In its current framework, the effort “is nether peace nor process,” Hal-El said. He thinks it is just “talks about talks.” He believes success needs to begin from the ground up. Government leaders’ signatures will never rid either side of, “deep-seated distrust and bitterness that must be overcome,” he added.
While Hal-El pushed for his grass roots approach, Eytan Gilboa, the director of the school of communications at Bar-Ilan, believes religion’s role can exacerbate the situation or calm the conditions.
“Religion can be used for many purposes,” Gilboa said. “It can be used to expand conflict or for conflict resolution and confidence building measures.” For religion to be used as a tool in the peace process, it must “emphasize elements in religion favorable to conflict resolution,” he added.
This is what Gilboa calls faith diplomacy. “Religious people have one common characteristic they believe,” he said. “This is a critical component in faith diplomacy.”
Hal-El sees faith diplomacy encompassing a ground-up process through public and civil life as well as business and economic development, communication, education and culture. This is how he would build “bridges of reconciliation.”
For Sam Lehman-Wilzig, another professor at the Bar-Ilan school of communications, the role of religion in peace making is more complex because of the differences within Jewish and Muslim thinking.
While many Americans believe a Muslim is a Muslim, there are many varying forms of Islam, as there are in Christianity and Judaism, according to Lehman-Wilzig. The problem becomes one of intrafaith disagreements before the issue of interfaith disagreements can even begin. “The situation does not demand dialogue but multilogue,” he said.
Gilboa thinks listening to what is being said in institutions like mosques is as important as what people on different sides of different faiths say to each other.
“We must listen to what is being said in mosques everywhere,” Gilboa said. He contends many people who attend mosques believe utmost in what is said inside the mosque over information from anywhere else.
“Changing what is going on inside the mosques” is critical to any potential peace process, Gilboa said. While he understands the argument for freedom of religion, “governments have to do something about it.” By talking to religious leaders and those with influence on leaders, Gilboa thinks things can change.
None of the men offered an opinion that any of this is easy but said they think constructive dialogue between groups can make a difference. “It starts with small steps,” Hal-El said.