Peace, Stability, and Faith for Kenya

This piece was written by my friend and colleague, Mike Eldon, management consultant and author, about an event in Kenya on August 4 that I helped to organize. His basic message is that the challenges facing Kenya, and many other places, demand courageous and unified leadership, bringing together religious institutions and leaders in peace-building, and particularly engaging youth in ways that bring them hope. His personal account of the event highlights both tone and urgent appeals for action.

I recently returned to a subject very dear to me: conflict resolution and peace building, through participating in a one-day event organized by the World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD), an NGO housed at the Berkley Centre for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University.

The idea for WFDD was born in 1998, the result of discussions between then World Bank President Jim Wolfensohn and Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey. Both men were concerned about the Jubilee 2000 campaign that called for the cancellation of third world debt by the year 2000, for which Carey was an active supporter. The two agreed that as they both represented the interests of the poor they would benefit from engaging in dialogue with each other. Since then the challenges have become even more acute, and the World Bank pursues faith-development alignment - including through engaging with the work of WFDD.

Kenya is one of the countries where WFDD is active, examining the role of religion in supporting peace and stability. The event I attended gathered a wonderful collection of peace-builders, so engaged, so constructive, so wise. I loved being inspired by their dedication to that worthiest of causes: peace.

"Religion is meant to help us reconcile people to their God, to themselves, to their neighbors and to nature," suggested one speaker, who identified violence as "an outpouring of negative emotions that comes from denying the identity of ourselves and others". Religious leaders must help us with acceptance and forgiveness, and hence healing, he said, pointing out that leaders must first heal themselves. He contrasted the case of Mandela, who had healed by the time he left Robben Island, with the angry, bitter Mugabe, who has never healed.

Another speaker told us that when people of faith have got together on matters of life and death, they've been able to find ways of solving difficult problems. Individually they haven't gone very far but with unity of purpose, they were listened to as trusted leaders.

We heard about BRAVE (Building Resilience Against Violent Extremism), through which the Muslim community has been mobilized against violence by their youth. "Violence," we heard, "is just violence." And where religion is misused to support it, that must be resisted.

Speakers told us how charismatic, radical self-styled clerics have been misrepresenting the Koranic scriptures, peddling the narrative of "the hatred of others". They use belligerent language to support their versions of Islam, but the response by moderates has been at best muted, with the militants ahead of the curve. There needs to be more assertive leadership in promoting the counter-narrative, acknowledging that Muslims who have stood up to fight for moderation have sometimes been accused of "diluting Islam".

What was clear from the day is that the needed conversations have begun, through both inter-faith and intra-Christian dialogue. But many who are joining Al Shabaab are university students, and many are non-Muslims. So why has this been happening? Too many young people feel their grievances have not been heard and that government, at both national and devolved levels, has not been listening to them. They feel disenfranchised (many have not managed to get IDs), and the problem is eating into the national fabric.

Speakers worried about "the socialization of violence", justified by protecting against "threats to our community". It is this that becomes one's identity, and that has led to the ethnic clashes, not least around the time of elections. And it's not just the poor, the ill-educated, the underprivileged and the unemployed who fall prey to the narrative.

One issue is the "securitization of peace" - the dominant response to terrorism threats through applying security solutions, like the herding of many Somalis into Kasarani Stadium, and the building of the wall at the border with Somalia.

A powerful documentary, An African Answer, is about the work of two Nigerians, Pastor James Wuye and Imam Muhammad Ashafa. In the 1990s they led opposing armed militias defending their respective communities in Kaduna, northern Nigeria. In pitched battles, Pastor James lost his hand and Imam Ashafa's spiritual mentor and two close relatives were killed. Now the two are co-directors of the Muslim-Christian Interfaith Mediation Centre in their city, leading task-forces to resolve conflicts across Nigeria. They came to Kenya to help reconciliation in the Burnt Forest area.

At their essence every religion espouses the same values. But too often these values are lost and perverted when religious teachings are misused by leaders - political as much as religious ones. Religion becomes a mere means to an end, and the end is often to do with power and wealth, with ego and glory, with the need to control and be praised, to be beyond criticism.

My mind was full of other thoughts too, about our schools and universities, at so many of which neither staff nor students have been exposed to "the other", and the need for visits and exchanges to get to know each other. About the need to develop in students the skills of constructive engagement and not just of adversarial win-lose debating. About using interactive theatre - including with puppets - to stimulate open conversations in safer and more enjoyable ways. And about the inevitability of the media focusing on conflict rather than harmony - with all the consequences thereof.

I worry that it's too easy to preach to the converted, leaving those who really need to change untouched. It's why we must go way beyond problem definition, and the mere raising of awareness of these critical issues. We must strain to change attitudes, and ultimately behavior, particularly targeting those who most need to have their attitudes and behavior changed, and those who are most influential as change agents - our politicians and sometimes our religious leaders.