In February 2016, the Centre on Religion and Global Affairs (CRGA) held a consultation on Religion, Violence and Failed States in Beirut. The vision behind the conference was to explore the relationship between religion and violence in conflict zones. With some 35 delegates, we undertook a comparative analysis of Boko Haram, ISIS and Al Shabaab, looking at how they emerged, evolved and performed, as well as their claimed theologies and ideologies.
A key outcome of this comparison was the recognition that, unlike the common public debates, violent conflicts are not caused by religions. We noted that religions play a central role in providing meaning and order in a chaotic world, belonging and solidarity, and social and welfare support. We observed how central faith is to people’s lives, and how, while media attention focuses on extremists, many more are moved to help improve their communities because their faith gives them strength. It is also clear that religious individuals play key roles in peace building initiatives, caring for the poor and those in need.
It was agreed that extremists in all religions follow similar strategies: they point out the challenges and problems, they provide ill fated solutions, and they claim a better future. While most people simply want to challenge extremists by condemning their chosen strategies of violence, not many people seek to address the same issues extremists speak about, which is why they are able to mislead certain young people.
What we need are religious thinkers and activists focusing not on why such extremists are wrong, but rather, on Theologies of Hope to counter the theologies of war, exclusion, destruction, revolutions and macro political agendas. Such Theologies of Hope will not be about grand political revolutions, but will speak to the individual believer, to help them to see a light, a motivation and a reason to work towards betterment of this world, not just for themselves or people of their ethnicity, nation and religion, but for all.
In fact, such a message is not about defeating extremists. It is about shifting our energy to help a new generation of people of faith, grounded in their tradition and at home with their identities, making this world a better place. It is about helping them to realise that yes, the world is not a fair place and is full of problems, but they have a direct personal responsibility to do something meaningful about those problems.
Therefore, as CRGA, we have decided to bring a group of Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars to look into their own faith traditions and provide a model of Theology of Hope for their own coreligionists. They were asked to provide answers to the following questions:
How does your religious tradition read the world?
What is the basis of hope in your faith?
What are the grounds for personal responsibility?
Why shouldn’t the person give up hope and continue?
The report include not only answers to these questions as building blocks of a theology of hope, but also demonstrate how rich religious traditions are and how central it is to provide meaning and hope in a seemingly out of control world is to them.
The implications of this approach are clear; rather than seeing religions merely as sources of conflict, there are more reasons to religions as powerful and constructive agents of change. Rather than spending our energies to refute extremists, it may be more meaningful to provide alternatives to the same questions they claim to be answering.