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The Role of Religion in Peace Building


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The Role of Religion in Peace Building


Social conflicts with ethno-religious dimensions are more prevalent now than they have been in the past six years (Alger, 2014). There is significant evidence for a new wave of ethnic conflict, and a renewed period of turbulence that threatens international peace and security in multiple world regions. Violence in Myanmar between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims has led to hundreds of fatalities and widespread population displacement. In Nigeria, tension between Muslim and Christian groups deepens social divisions and continues to spark sporadic bombings and very deadly attacks (Alger, 2014). In Kenya, in 2013, a large-scale terrorist attack at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi increased inter-group tension along the coast, especially in Mombasa, where Muslim and Christian clerics have been killed or disappeared, leading to escalating riots (Alger, 2014). In 2014, Islamic militias have conducted multiple attacks directly targeting Christian groups in the Northeastern Province and along the Coast. Identity-based violence has recently increased in Lebanon.

Peace-building and development actors have learned that “social cohesion” is a necessary condition for the sustainability of peace settlements, for building state capacity, and fostering socio-economic development (Alger, 2014). International peace building networks, which include international organizations, states, and local non-governmental organizations, have in recent years oriented themselves around this concept to answer, in part, longstanding concerns that peace building interventions are often not sustainable because they are not based on a deep understanding of social dynamics (Tarimo, 2012). This paper seeks to address the role of religion in peace building relative to Islam, Christianity and Buddhism


Islam has a direct impact on the way that peace is conceptualized and the way that conflicts are resolved in Islamic societies, as it embodies and elaborates upon its highest morals, ethical principles and ideals of social harmony (Esposito & Yilmaz, 2016). Irrespective of the Islamic tradition to which they adhere, Muslims agree that Islam is a religion of peace and that the application of Islamic principles will bring justice, harmony, order, and thus peace (Tarimo, 2012). In short, key Islamic principles related to peace and peace-building include: Salam/silm (peace): Koranic discourse suggests that peace is a central theme in Islamic precepts (Esposito & Yilmaz, 2016). According to Koranic discourse, peace in Islam begins with God, but also encompasses peace with oneself, with fellow human beings, and with nature;

  • Tawhid: (‘the principle of unity of God and all beings’): This principle urges Muslims to recognize the connectedness of all beings, and particularly all human communities, and calls to work towards establishing peace and harmony among them.
  • Rahmah (compassion) and Rahim (mercy): Closely related to each other, these words invoke Muslims to be merciful and compassionate to all human beings, irrespective of their ethnic, religious origins, or gender (Tarimo, 2012). They connote that a true Muslim cannot be insensitive to the suffering of other beings, nor can he/she be cruel to any creature.
  • Fitrah: Individual responsibility to uphold peace emerges out of the original constitution of human beings (fitrah). Fitrah recognizes that each individual is furnished with reason and has the potential to be good and choose to work for the establishment of harmony (Tarimo, 2012).
  • Justice, forgiveness, vicegerency and social responsibility are other concepts in Islam that play a key role in relation to peace and peace-building (Tarimo, 2012). It should be noted that these concepts do not form the only basis for Muslim peace- builders. Additionally, Muslim societies across the globe have developed different traditional and cultural dispute-resolution mechanisms over the centuries.

These local mechanisms are referred to as sulha (in the Middle East), sulh (in Bosnia) or suluh (as in Kenya and Indonesia) because of the references to sulh (reconciliation/peace-building) in the Koran, and are based on the Islamic principles of peacemaking and dispute resolution stated above (Esposito & Yilmaz, 2016). These traditional conflict-resolution mechanisms become internal sources for resolving conflicts and peacemaking in these regions. Conflict resolution and peacemaking mechanisms are legitimized and guaranteed by communal leaders, such as elders and religious leaders, who know the Koran, the Sunna, the Hadith and the history of the community well.

The Islamic values and principles of peacemaking are not only limited to relations with Muslims, but extend to other religious traditions, especially Jews and Christians as the ‘People of the Book’ (Esposito & Yilmaz, 2016). For example, the principle of Tawhid recognizes the unity of all human beings irrespective of religious, ethnic or racial origin, or gender, and asks Muslims to establish harmony between all of mankind (Halafoff, 2013). Islam therefore urges Muslims to go beyond mere coexistence and to actively seek mutual understanding and relationships of cooperation with one another. The idea of fitrah recognizes the good and perfection in every human being and that all humans are related and are from the same origin (Halafoff, 2013). Thus ‘human dignity deserves absolute protection regardless of the person’s religion, ethnicity, and intellectual opinion orientation’.The Koranic conception of justice, which is universal, asks each and every Muslim to treat others equally, declares that all human beings, as children of Adam, have been honoured equally, and states ‘O ye who believe! Stand out firmly for Allah, as witnesses to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice (Halafoff, 2013). Be just: that is next to piety; and fear Allah. Koranic emphasis on forgiveness suggests Muslims forgive those who have committed acts of violence and aggression towards Muslims. The Prophet’s example, where he forgave the Meccans who persecuted and attacked him and his followers, is strongly supportive of this position (Halafoff, 2013). And the Koranic conception of compassion calls for Muslims to show mercy and compassion to all of God’s creatures, especially all human beings.


With regard to Christianity, it is possible to distinguish a similar set of peace-related concepts. Obviously, in Christianity it is particularly the Bible that motivates Christians to work on peace (Nicholas, 2014). The basis of Christian peace-building is formed by Biblical teachings that refer to peace (shalom); peacemakers (‘Blessed are the peacemakers, they shall be called the children of God’); being created in the image of God; the unconditional love (agape) towards God and people (‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind. […] You shall love your neighbour as yourself’); lamenting, which helps people to grieve; confession and repentance (that is, the willingness to evaluate oneself and assume responsibility for one’s own contribution to the conflict, coupled with the willingness to change one’s behaviour or to repent); and reconciliation and forgiveness (‘for if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses’) (Nicholas, 2014).


Five observations regarding the Biblical or Koranic basis for peace and peace-building can be made. First, the Bible and the Koran provide a wide array of concepts that encourage religious followers to strive for peace and work at peace-building (Nicholas, 2014). As Muslims and Christians are both ‘People of the Book’, they share a number of similar concepts such as peace/salam, forgiveness/afu, compassion/rahmah, and human beings in the eyes of God/fitrah. Although these concepts are not fully the same, they may to a certain extent form the basis for dialogue between Christians and Muslims, and even for joint peace-building efforts (Nicholas, 2014).

Second, however, it should be realized that the transformation from Christian/Muslim actor to Christian/Muslim peace-builder should not be taken for granted (Nicholas, 2014). It applies only to a certain number of actors, the so-called ‘compassionate core’ or ‘religious change agents’. However, various Christian/Muslim actors will never be engaged in active peace-building (Nicholas, 2014). Some will be indifferent to peace-building, and will at the most side against extremist religious actors and against the use of violence in the name of religion. Some, however, will also remain against peace-building and in support of religious violence in situations of oppression and injustice (Nicholas, 2014).

Third, there is not one Christian or Islamic interpretation of peace and peace-building. Within Christianity different perceptions on peace and peace-building exist (Nicholas, 2014). Christians have not arrived at a universal set of values and priorities in pursuing peace. Even within a certain Christian denomination, people may not fully agree on fundamental matters, such as the proper relationship between peace and justice or the philosophical and practical meaning of basis concepts such as reconciliation (Nicholas, 2014).

The same is true in Islam. Many of the Koranic verses and Hadiths refer to particular historical events and at times they seem to contradict each other (Tarimo, 2012). Furthermore, they are written in medieval Arabic, which is different than the Arabic used by many Arabs today, and also a majority of the Muslims are from non-Arabic-speaking societies (Hayward, 2012). For these reasons, it has not been possible to develop a single Islamic tradition of peace and peacemaking traditions (Omer, (2015). Local traditions and geopolitical conditions have also impacted upon the evolution of the Islamic traditions of peace and peacemaking (Hayward, 2012). Consequently, and similar to secular discourses, there are various different approaches to peace and the resolution of conflicts in the Muslim world. Still, there are certain fundamental ethical principles and moral values.

Fourth, a key question is to what extent the Biblical/Koranic principles are applied—that is, how do Christians/Muslims implement these principles towards others. In this connection, it is especially important to consider the way in which Christians/Muslims, and other believers as well, handle the tension between ‘truth’ and ‘love’ (Hayward, 2012). On the one hand, each religious tradition, and especially the conservatives within it, believes that it has been entrusted with fundamental truths that are beneficial for all people and that must be defended and sometimes propagated. On the other hand, each tradition also calls upon its believers to have compassion for all people, including those who are different (Hayward, 2012). The task confronting each faith community is to find a creative way to affirm its roles as both the custodian of truth and a channel of love (Omer, (2015). At the heart of this issue, then, is the need to affirm one’s own identity in a way that does not negate the identity of the other. How Christian and other believers approach these basic questions of identity will determine their ability to act as agents of reconciliation rather than divisiveness (Hayward, 2012).

A final observation regards the limited access of various Muslim communities to different interpretations of the Koran, and as such to Islamic values that underpin peace and peace-building. Many of the Muslim communities today do not speak Arabic (Hayward, 2012). Because of high illiteracy rates, especially among women, many Muslims have limited access to the wide range of religious interpretations of Islam, which limits their access to the Koran and increases their dependence on certain clergy (Omer, (2015). Many Islamic educational institutions, such as madrasas, however, are outdated and the quality of education is quite low (Hayward, 2012). The experience of colonization, imperialism and underdevelopment has impacted upon the way that Islamic texts are understood and interpreted (Philpott, 2013).

Many Muslims are resentful towards the West and thus easily influenced by aggressive and radicalized interpretations of the Islamic beliefs and core values (Haynes, 2013). Texts used in Islamic educational institutions do not emphasize Islam’s peacemaking values, tolerance and dialogue. Many imams or religious leaders also lack the proper education and training to engage positively with religious texts (Omer, (2015). All of these factors contribute to a lack of knowledge as well as misunderstanding of religious texts by Muslims (Haynes, 2013). Ways to address these issues are to support programmes of general literacy, education and training of religious leaders in Koranic sciences, the preparation and distribution of textbooks and handbooks on Islamic values of peace-building and tolerance, curriculum development to include these peace-and tolerance-oriented books into the madrasa systems, and supporting radio programmes that address Islamic values of peace and tolerance (Philpott, 2013; Haynes, 2013).

The Buddhist Perspective

Buddhism, having enjoyed a long history and enrichment by generations of people in various traditions, ranges north and south with branches across many cultures and regions (Tarimo, 2012). However, a common core of Buddha’s teaching and practice is observed in major Buddhist traditions and considered essentials of Buddhism (King, 2014). In this article, the term Buddhism is used to refer to the common core teachings across the current major traditions of Buddhism.

Buddhists believe that the Buddha (meaning “the awakened”) awakened to the laws of the universe, which are said to be operating eternally, whether the Buddha discovered them or not (King, 2014). The most fundamental among these laws is the law of karma, or, in Buddhist terminology, dependent origination, which explains the genuine condition of things that exist in the universe. In its simplest straightforward form, dependent origination claims that anything (including sentient and insentient beings) can only exist in relation to everything else; if the causes of its existence disappear, then it ceases to exist (King, 2014). Nothing can exist on its own and everything is dependent on other things. All elements, all entities, all phenomena are thus related directly and indirectly to one another in the universe. Any change in this huge interconnected compound of existence would definitely, eventually exert influence on everything else (King, 2014). Derived from the principle of dependent origination is the Buddhist view of the cosmic world and the human being. At the macro level, the universe is represented and seen from a Buddhist viewpoint as a network of jewels, an interconnected and interdependent web of nodes, each of which simultaneously reflects all other hundreds of thousands of nodes in the web (King, 2014). All other nodes would simultaneously reflect this specific node.

The principle of dependent origination and the Buddhist view of the universe and the human beings undergird an imperative for people who realize the interdependent nature of their existence and the interconnection among all things (King, 2014). They would develop a strong sense of responsibility for their own behaviors, as well as appreciation and empathy for others. It is from this realization of the true nature of existence that non-harming, compassionate, altruistic action would arise (King, 2014). In the openings of many sutras, the Buddha, the one who awakened to the cosmic reality, is described as naturally expounding four basic mental faculties (Brahmaviharas, “Divine Abidings”; also named appamanacetovimutti, “immeasurable deliverance of mind”): loving-kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita), and equanimity (upekkha (King, 2014)). The Buddha teaches that these four mental faculties, together with the Four Noble Truths, are to be cultivated by all bhikkhus (Skt. bhiksus) and later all Buddhists through reflecting upon the sentient beings of infinite numbers who are on their way to become a Buddha (King, 2014). Yet the altruistic mental faculties are combined with the wisdom developed along with the gradually deepening reflection.

This is the guiding principle of all Buddhist practices –the middle way. Through these mindful actions conducted with moderation can an ideal Buddhist state of existence come true—living in harmony with everything (sentient or non-sentient) in the universe (King, 2014). This Buddhist way of looking at the world comes, in the opinion of Johan Galtung, a Norwegian peace studies pioneer, closest to the one dynamic, complex peace theory he proposes, in which the world is “precisely a process based on diversity in symbiotic (mutually influential) interaction (King, 2014).” In this world of multi-leveled plurality, according to Galtung, peace is not a stable, end state but a more interactive process of a series of changing and balancing acts, an on-going dialectic between our actions and the world (King, 2014). This contingent view of peace, as shared by many peace scholars and activists in the field, is similar to what Buddhist perceives peace to be.

With this interdependent frame of reference, Buddhists would prefer a holistic view of peace, instead of peace in separate contexts such as schools, families, or the environment. From the holistic perspective, the connection between the concept of negative and positive peace becomes clear and imperative in the light of the Buddhist law of nature, dependent origination (King, 2014). Absence of war and direct violence only constitutes a temporary peace if there is no justice present in the socio-economic international structure. The injustice and the violence causing suffering in every other node in the web of existence would inevitably and eventually weigh the negative peace away (King, 2014). Though the negative peace is only temporary, unstable and fragile, it is absolutely indispensable on the way to the positive peace. Since each human being and each level of systems are interconnected, to create a positive peace compels efforts of everyone at every level of human structures.

The Buddhist view of the interconnected world demands that the ideal of world peace is less rhetoric at the negotiation tables among some “superpowers” in the international level than starting a personal transformation of one’s daily living (King, 2014).


As this paper has provided, scholarship and support from the Western world has tended to focus on the Abrahamic traditions such Christianity, and Islam, which identify Abraham as a foundational figure. However, a great deal of knowledge and practice from indigenous and dharmic traditions such as in Buddhism analyzes the causes of conflict and the means to manage and resolve it that could deepen the field. Buddhism offers insight into how greed, anger, and ignorance drive suffering and conflict, both in individuals and in social, political, and economic structures. As much as this paper has not considered indigenous traditions, these are acknowledged to vary enormously. But generally speaking, they have developed communal practices for addressing conflict and contribute wisdom about the need to preserve the integrity of the environment, which is often harmed during conflict and, in turn, propels it further. Greater engagement between peace builders in the Abrahamic traditions and those of other religions is necessary to broaden and deepen the field.


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Esposito, J. L., & Yilmaz, I. (2016). Islam and Peacebuilding: The Gülen Movement in Global Action. The Ashgate Research Companion to Religion and Conflict Resolution, 15.

Halafoff, A. (2013). The Multifaith Movement, Global Risks and Cosmopolitan Solutions (pp. 1-8). Springer Netherlands.

Haynes, J. (2013). Religion, conflict and peace. Peacebuilding, 1(1), 159-164.

Hayward, S. (2012). Religion and Peacebuilding. United States Institute of Peace.

King, A. (2014). Peacebuilding and Post-Conflict Recovery in Nepal: A Buddhist Case Study. Thich Nhat Tu and Thic Duc Thien, 2014, 357-80.

Nicholas, S. (2014). Peacebuilding for faith-based development organisations: informing theory and practice. Development in Practice, 24(2), 245-257.

Omer, A. (2015). Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding: Synthetic Remarks. Religion, Conflict, And Peacebuilding, 659.

Philpott, D. (2013). Religious Freedom and Peacebuilding: May I Introduce You Two?. The Review of Faith & International Affairs, 11(1), 31-37.

Tarimo, A. (2012). The role of religion in peacebuilding. African Ecclesial Review, 385-402.
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