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Should God be allowed a bigger role in peacemaking?

‘The mechanisms of the past – top-down methods of peacebuilding – are obviously not working: We can see a number of peace agreements are failing.’

This is a composite image. At the centre we see a black and white portrait of Mohamed Elsanousi, executive director of the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers. He is pictured smiling. His portrait is placed inside a yellow box. The background is a yellowish beige and some halftone pattern circles surround the portrait.

Mohamed Elsanousi, executive director of the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers, has a different background to many in the international aid sector. 

While Elsanousi has a PhD in Law and Society from the Indiana School of Law in the United States – and has advised the US government on engaging with civil society and religious actors – the Sudanese-born peacebuilder also holds a degree in Shariah and Law from the International Islamic University in Islamabad, Pakistan.

This specialised schooling has been “tremendously” helpful in his peacebuilding work, giving him the credibility to use religion as an entry point for speaking with community leaders, particularly imams, he told The New Humanitarian in a March interview.

“People understand that you are coming with a theology resonating from their own understanding,” said Elsanousi, adding that this can play out in myriad ways, including using Quranic evidence to encourage intercommunal tolerance, humanitarian relief, and education.

Elsanousi’s group has worked with peacebuilders in Libya, the Central African Republic, Ukraine, the Balkans, and across the Sahel and several other African countries.

We're living in a time of fragility, especially Africa, and trust in the West is not that good. There’s always the perception of having a hidden agenda. That's why focusing on local approaches and supporting local approaches is quite critical.

Such work isn’t new: the Finland-funded Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers launched after former UN chief Ban Ki-moon recommended an enhanced role for civil society in peacebuilding in a 2012 report.

The report recognised the “major” role traditional and religious actors play in peacemaking, but noted that they were underused and not supported by multilateral institutions or Western donor governments, said Elsanousi.

Twelve years on, the lack of will to embrace religion as a tool for progress is very much still in evidence. So as conflicts worsen globally, and calls for localisation build to a clamour, is it time for policymakers to give God – or tradition – more of a chance? 

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

The New Humanitarian: What is your definition of religious or traditional peacebuilders?

Mohamed Elsanousi: Religious leaders are spiritual leaders who are leading communities. You have different names for those – imams, bishops, rabbis – which are different in different contexts, but we mean those who are directly connecting to the masses. They are meeting in communities in one shape or another, whether it is a house of worship or community centre.

Traditional leaders are leaders in their own communities, clans, or tribes. They are people who have influence, a specific social structure recognised traditionally in their own local custom or context. In Somalia, clan leaders are known as elders, or in Nigeria, emirs and sultans. In some cases, they inherited this kind of leadership from their ancestors.

The New Humanitarian: What are the advantages and disadvantages of working with these types of people? 

Elsanousi: First the advantages: They have influence, credibility, and the trust of their own communities – provided they are not imposed by the government to lead communities. They are influential, trusted, credible and they can get the job done. If leaders are recognised and credible, their voices on matters can contribute tremendously to advance peace and security and carry out the sustainable development goals. 

Now the disadvantages: In our Western culture and way of thinking, they lack democracy, and for traditional leaders, sometimes basic human rights – people who support them may see them as their ‘masters’. In some contexts, the followers of traditional leaders don’t question their legitimacy and authority – this system is contradictory to our Western values of democracy.

The New Humanitarian: What are some practical examples of where this approach has been used? 

Elsanousi: In Somalia, the [strongly religious] constitution, guaranteed for 10 years or more, is now one of peaceful transition of power. There’s election processes happening. That particular constitution was agreed upon by the elders, traditional leaders, 12-15 years ago. They're not co-chairing the process, they're not co-chairing the constitution, that came from them directly – they cooked it.

In 2013-2014 in the Central African Republic, [where a civil conflict, often along religious lines, has been ongoing since 2012], I realised there was no interaction between the imams [representing the minority Muslim population] and the pastors of the [majority] Christians. We had to increase the theological understanding of Muslim imams in CAR to better understand authentic Islamic theology that supports interfaith dialogue and collaboration to promote peace and peaceful coexistence. In this context, we collaborated with the Moroccan government and they sent two scholars from Morocco to CAR to help achieve that goal. We chose to work with Morocco because of their amazing work with African Muslim scholars, and they speak French. This work also involved women of faith and youth.

We have also worked with traditional actors in Libya, helping them – through meetings in Tunisia – to form the first ever executive committee for Libyan traditional actors. For the first time, women leaders were involved and served in the executive committee of major tribes in Libya like the Warfala and Bani Faraj tribes. We also helped them to travel to the United States during the Trump administration, in spite of the travel ban, so they could talk directly to policymakers in the United Nations and Washington, DC, and advocate for their role to help resolve the conflict in Libya.

We also recently convened women from the Sahel region in Dakar to listen to them and to train them in peace mediation. This was in partnership with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland. We have also conducted training for women of faith-based mediators from Cameroon, Nigeria, DRC, and Ghana last month in Accra.

The New Humanitarian: Many Western policymakers share a similar background and worldview yet, being from donor countries, tend to dominate the space. Does this matter and what are the implications?

Elsanousi: Partnerships and collaboration in peacebuilding is critical, with governments and donors. But these institutions need to find the best way for bottom-up working. The mechanisms of the past – top-down methods of peacebuilding – are obviously not working: We can see a number of peace agreements are failing. 

We want Western donors to understand that consultation and respecting local mechanisms and Indigenous mechanisms in peacebuilding is important and needs to be supported and taken into consideration. That can only happen if you are going to talk to those people. On the other hand, we want people with influence within their own society to cook a meal with us in building peace.

The New Humanitarian: Is there ever a culture clash with Western peacebuilders or donors? 

Elsanousi: I wouldn’t call it culture clash. There is recognition from multilateralism and Western governments, but [it] is not adequately supported, whether morally, financially, or recognising it as a policy.

But the secular nature of these institutions are unable to better understand the positive role of religion and religious actors. Donors are still not adequately supporting local religious actors on the ground. 

There is compartmentalisation of religion – some Western governments have an ambassador for religious freedom, interfaith engagement – but is it just to tick the box? It's not adequately supported, or mainstreamed in other government agencies.

The New Humanitarian: What are the barriers to more support?

Elsanousi: There’s still that fear that religion and religious actors bring more problems, as well [cultures of] secularism and the separation of the church and state. People’s understanding of the positive role of religion is not there, many still see religion through the lens of radicalisation and extremism. There’s a lack of education on the positive role of religion, and many diplomats don’t engage with religious actors when serving.

We need to do a better job of promoting positive forms of religious actors and positive outcomes of using Indigenous methods. We need more good stories to lift up successful examples.

The New Humanitarian: What lessons are there for Western institutions?

Elsanousi: We need to better consult with local communities to strengthen peacebuilding. Western approaches and policies negotiated in New York, Oslo, or Brussels and taking them to local [level] is not going to work. 

We're living in a time of fragility, especially Africa, and trust in the West is not that good. There’s always the perception of having a hidden agenda. That's why focusing on local approaches and supporting local approaches is quite critical.

Another point – even with these local mechanisms, approaches, and organisations – we need to ensure they are inclusive in approach, taking women and youth into consideration. We realise we need to support motivated mediators from youth communities.

Edited by Irwin Loy and Andrew Gully.

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