GUESTVIEW: Missing dimension in Middle East peace process

June 1, 2009

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Rev. Bud Heckman is Director for External Relations at Religions for Peace (New York) and Matthew Weiner is Program Director at the Interfaith Center of New York.

By Rev. Bud Heckman and Matthew Weiner

obama-and-muslim-womenIn the foreshadow of President Obama’s much anticipated speech to the Muslim world and on peace this week, there is new hope for peace in the Middle East. Its source is the opposite of what many may think: religion, and the extraordinary promise of principled inclusion of religions in seeking solutions for peace and justice.

Of course, in one sense this is nothing new. Think of the Peace of Westphalia and the political virtue of tolerance developed in response to bloody religious civil wars, which were no less serious than any religious conflict we face today. One difference now — to some degree the result of secularization — is the assumption that the political and public is more frequently separate from the religious. That is to say, an assumption arises that we can do without religion in the public sphere to solve public problems. With this secular mind set, when making a political peace, it is assumed that religion should be sidelined or asked to join only in some superficial way.

(Photo: An image of Barack Obama made from postage stamps at the Asian International Stamp Exhibition in Jakarta, 25 Oct 2008/Dadang Tri)

But this neglects the very real power of religion when it comes to developing shared forms of peace-building and reconciliation. In fact, the very frameworks of social justice and peace that good minded politicians hold dear often emerge from these religious moral principles.

Again, U.S. President Barack Obama will make what presages to be an historic address in Cairo on June 4. We are among those who eagerly await details of his peace plan as well as the dialogue that his announcement will spark around the world. Together with President Obama, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and King Abdullah II of Jordan have each offered to bring fresh initiatives towards achieving security and peace in the Middle East. These are encouraging signs. Prioritization of attention and resource allocation on behalf of the United States, the other members of the Quartet, and Arab countries are welcome developments.

However, these initiatives alone are not enough. In fact, too often grand peace agreements are reached with little attention either before or after to building peace on the ground, between communities, which leads to festering and a breakdown of peace later on. Instead religious communities must be engaged through their own moral structures. We believe that the collective voices and actions of millions of people of faith can make a meaningful and substantive contribution to forging lasting peace.

blair-abdullahWe know and delight in the powerful and positive resources for healing, reconciliation, and justice within our respective traditions. From our work together in such organizations as Religions for Peace, we have witnessed first-hand the irreplaceable strength and effectiveness of our multi-religious cooperation.

(Photo: Jordan’s King Abdullah (R) welcomes Middle East envoy Tony Blair in Amman, 8 Jan 2008/Yousef Allan)

Political leaders may inspire their citizens, but they largely and historically address the outward aspects of our lives. Religious leaders primarily seek to address the extraordinary power of the inner life; that may, in turn, powerfully affect the outer life. Our texts and our traditions provide a tremendous moral impetus for peace and justice.

Those who argue that religion is part of the problem will agree that religion must be part of any effective solution. As President Obama himself has repeatedly said, “religion is a force for good greater than any government.” This absence of religion has been one of the major failings of past peace initiatives in the region. It has lead to premature and shallow agreements for peace. We don’t need a process that ends with just another morally impotent handshake on the White House lawn.

The current efforts led by President Obama, former Prime Minister Blair, and King Abdullah could hold great new promise in these regards. Each leader has acknowledged the powerful and unique role that religious communities can and should have in addressing our most difficult problems. However, this must be practically translated into accepting religious leaders as genuine and principled partners in a comprehensive solution for peace.

We believe in the possibility of peace from the very core of our beings, based on the deepest dimensions of our faith.

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