Category Archives: Engaging the World

Who Says Syria’s Calling? Why It Is Sometimes Better to Admit That We Just Do Not Know, by John Heathershaw and David W. Montgomery

The International Crisis Group’s (ICG) latest report on the radicalization of Muslims in Central Asia, Syria Calling: Radicalization in Central Asia (20 Jan 2015), focuses specifically on the recruitment of Central Asians to Islamic State (IS) and the consequences of this phenomenon for the region’s security. This short report repeats the ungrounded assumptions of earlier reports, as identified in a Chatham House paper we published in November 2014. It argues that recruitment is higher than previously thought, that attraction to violent extremism is found in the ”devout” who demand a greater public role for religion, and that the return of such people “risk[s] challenging security and stability throughout Central Asia” (p. 1).

The report’s assumed relationship between Islamization and radicalization, and the claim that both are ideological processes spurred by economic disadvantage, makes all pious Muslims potential followers of IS. However, as we have argued, there is no evidence for this claim in Central Asia. Furthermore, the very concept of radicalization is incoherent and disputed. Even in the UK or US, where the environment is more conducive to research, there is disagreement as to who are most susceptible to radicalization: rich or poor, recent immigrants or native-born citizens, the well educated or the ill informed, political entrepreneurs or those with mental health problems. In short, we know almost nothing about the causes of “radicalization,” despite the many millions of dollars that have been poured into research projects on the subject.

Syria Calling therefore appeals to received wisdom, not evidence and logic, to make its argument that IS’s purported success in the region is a consequence of the general ills of society. Given that ICG’s work is some of the best of its genre, based on fieldwork by experts working in the region, this is a strong assertion, and we do not make it lightly.

Therefore, let us consider in more detail the sources used to support ICG’s argument and the logic of the inferences drawn. Consider the following quotation, which links the very small number who have joined IS to the general Muslim population in a matter of a few sentences:

IS sympathisers in Central Asia are motivated by an extremist religious ideology and inspired by the ruthless application of severe social and political order that they interpret as reflecting moral strength. The growth of radical tendencies is exacerbated by poor religious education and grievances against the region’s secular governments. Radicalization also spreads partly because economic and political opportunities are scarce. Islamic organizations offer social services that Central Asian states do not adequately provide, such as education, childcare and welfare for vulnerable families (page 7).

The second, third, and fourth sentences refer to interviews with supposed radicals, experts, and officials as the main sources used to support the claims made.

There are at least four problems with how interviews are used in the report.

  1. Factual claims are dubious and/or unsubstantiated.

A case in point is the claim regarding the number of recruits. For example, the assertion that between two and four thousand Central Asians have joined IS—the headline finding reported in media coverage of the report—is no more than guesswork. Although it leads the online summary, its provenance is found in footnote 6 on page 3: ”Western officials estimate that about 400 fighters from each of the five Central Asian countries have travelled to join Islamic state. A Russian official put the total regional figure at 4,000. Crisis group interviews, Bishkek, October 2014.” We are simply required to trust these figures despite their obvious arbitrariness. Given that routes to Syria are clandestine and typically run through several countries, it is not clear how any expert or institution can possibly know with any certainty how many recruits there are.

  1. The declared motivations of “IS sympathizers” are taken as causal explanations.

Given how difficult and dangerous it is to meet with such people in the authoritarian contexts of Central Asia, this handful of interviews apparently adds a degree of authenticity to the report. However, the failure to distinguish declared motivation from causation is highly problematic. Since almost all Central Asians face the conditions summarized above, and many express frustration with government and lack of opportunities, the fact that a tiny minority of the region’s 50 million Muslims are drawn to IS or other violent groups means that grievance is merely the tip of the iceberg. Moreover, the tip is often a very poor guide to the shape of the whole.

  1. The opinions of experts and officials are uncritically cited as fact.

Central Asian experts and officials are quoted uncritically as authentic sources of information. Reports on regional websites that draw on arguments made by Central Asian governments are used liberally and taken at face value. Often, however, they actually reflect Soviet-style themes of materialism, religion-as-national-culture, and scientific atheism; according to these precepts, poverty is identified as a cause of radicalization and religion as a threat. Many assertions are made along these lines, such as that Issyk Kul (in Kyrgyzstan) is particularly prone to radicalization because the tourist season only lasts three months, and that the only choice facing youth is to ”start drinking or become religious” (p. 7, fn. 45). Not only are such testimonies unconvincing, these officials and many experts are not in any way independent. Elsewhere in the report, in discussing policy responses, they are dismissed as “often from the communist-educated urban elite” who need retraining to distinguish ”between piety and radicalization” (p. 12). But it is the same ideologically driven political analysis that informs both policy response (which is challenged) and political analysis (which is not only accepted but serves as one of the primary sources for the report’s claims).

  1. The anonymity of all interviewees makes it impossible to judge their reliability.

It is simply patronizing to assume that locally based scholars are reliable. In reality, as any researcher who has spent a significant amount of time in the region knows, while some are genuine experts with years of ethnographic research under their belts, others are talking heads who have never done proper fieldwork in their lives. Unfortunately, it is often the latter who are more likely to speak out on this issue. The anonymity of all interviewees cited in ICG reports makes it impossible to assess their reliability and hold them to account for their generalizations about the IS threat. The very few genuine experts in the region are invisible. In some cases it is necessary to maintain anonymity in order to protect sources. In other cases, independent scholars are happy to go on the record even when their views are somewhat controversial. Without any on-the-record citation, however, the credibility of the claims being made remains uncertain.

So what?

These concerns regarding the paucity of reliable evidence suggest that interviews with officials, experts, and witnesses are not enough to shed light on the causes and effects of IS recruitment in Central Asia. But it may be the best that can currently be achieved in terms of an analysis of the problem of IS in the region.

Surely we should recognize these basic facts and cut the beleaguered ICG some slack?  The report recognizes that risks from radicalization are in their infancy and that there is a danger that Central Asian governments will exaggerate it (p. 14). Like most ICG reports, this one is a mixed bag of questionable claims and cautious caveats. However, the authors cannot be let off the hook that easily.

Unfortunately, suggestive impressions masquerading as solid insights lead to adverse consequences—in this case for the Muslims of Central Asia who are publicly and politically active in practicing their faith. The long quotation cited above links IS recruiters with organizations such as Tablighi Jamaat, the so-called Akromiya movement active in the Uzbek city of Andijon before the massacre there in 2005, and the Islamic Revival part of Tajikistan. Indeed, it is the welfare and outreach activities of these nonviolent movements that seem to be referred to implicitly in that paragraph.

If the analysis in Syria Calling is correct, the adherents of these and other pious movements are all potential enemies of the state. Although the report makes an abstract distinction between piety and radicalization in one section, elsewhere its authors clearly identify piety and Islamic social welfare as the thin end of the wedge of radicalization.

ICG recommends a moderate response by Central Asian governments, perhaps along the lines of Denmark’s re-education and resettlement program (p. 10). Leaving to one side the question of whether it is realistic to imitate Danish policy, if the religious and ideological factors that ICG identifies are the actual causes of IS recruitment, then such a response by Central Asian governments would in fact be woefully inadequate. The problem would be urgent and extreme; draconian measures of internment, à la Guantanamo, could and perhaps would be justified. For the hardliners, reports like this are a gift, not a challenge.

Less is better

Fortunately, those of us with liberal consciences have very good reason to doubt ICG’s shorthand explanation for radicalization and therefore do not have to face the awkward question of whether repression of all unsanctioned religion in public life is necessary on security grounds. Given that such reports legitimize tyrannical state responses toward religious minorities, it is comforting that the more credible stance is to admit that we know very little about the IS problem in Central Asia.

Is it not better to focus on the little that we actually do know?  Publicly available evidence tells us that an unknown but relatively small number of “radicalized” Central Asians are in Syria as part of a global phenomenon; many of these people have already been killed or are finding it difficult to return through transnational networks. We also know from two post-Soviet decades of historical and social scientific research that while piety is increasing in Central Asia, the region’s Soviet-inspired secular Islam and its relative lack of armed conflict make it a less fertile recruiting ground than other Muslim-majority areas.

Finally, perhaps it also wise to recognize that there are limits to what can be done about IS in Central Asia.  Much of what masquerades as research on the phenomenon of IS is driven by the security imperative. Governments would like to identify an existential threat and step in like heroes to defeat it. But overgeneralizing this threat and making spurious associations between Islamization and radicalization just leads to clumsy policy. It is better to identify specific criminal justice responses to returnees when they come back—and, in Denmark at least, to take a restorative approach—rather than to treat all pious Muslims as potential recruits and enemies of the state. Sometimes, the more uncertainty acknowledged and the less action taken, the better the policy.

John Heathershaw is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics at the University of Exeter and Principal Investigator for the ESRC Research Project: Rising Powers and Conflict Management in Central Asia.

David W. Montgomery (ISSRPL 2003) is CEDAR Director of Program Development and Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh.

This post is part of CEDAR’s partnership with the UK’s Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), George Washington University, and the University of Exeter in organizing a two-part conference on “Islam, Secularism and Security in Central Asia and Beyond,” part of a British Council USA Bridging Voices dialogue.

Yoga on the Road in Uganda, by Rahel Wasserfall

On Wednesday December 17th 2014, after an exhausting bus ride on bumpy, dusty, and unpaved roads, we finally reached Kyaka II. We were traveling to this refugee settlement in western Uganda as part of the Equator Peace Academy’s (EPA) two-week program “Coping with Refugees in a Foreign Land,” which was devoted to the refugee question. With time before dinner and tired from the long hours in the bus, members of our group requested that I lead a yoga session.

After doing a few Urdhva  Hastasana, Badangulyiasana,  Utthitha Trikonasana poses,[1] the group became aware that two young girls from the refugee camp behind me were copying our moves. With a big smile, we invited them to join us. They were soon followed by a six-year-old boy. These little children all beamed with joy to be practicing with the grownups, just as their presence infused tremendous joy into our session. We did not need to communicate in any other way; yoga became our common language.

Feeling the togetherness and the joy, I decided on the spot that after almost two weeks together, the group was ready to try some partner work. As one person became a wall, his or her partner adopted a modified Adho Mukha Svanasana.[2] The children worked together. Both partners benefited from the stretch: one stood in Tadasana,[3] while the other gently lowered the trapezius muscles on entering into the modified pose. We then graduated to a modified partner Utthita Trikonasana and Virabharadasana II.[4] We felt a wonderful sense of togetherness. Practicing with these little children from the refugee camp brought energy and a sense of purpose; it was one of those moments when we touch grace.

This practice time in Kyaka II with the small children was the culmination of our yoga work. Almost every day we had learned basic asanas for 30 minutes. I was amazed to see how quickly the group, the majority of whom were from East Africa, the United States, and Canada and had no prior yoga experience, took to the yoga practice sessions. Many expressed their surprise at the power of these simple movements, which helped them center and let go of stress after a full day of activities.

At the beginning of the program we scheduled yoga practice every two or three days, but as people asked for more, we added sessions whenever possible. Yoga proved most helpful after long trips, which is how we came to practice together with the children in camp Kyaka II. Yoga brought us together in a fundamental way. As one participant observed, “we had fun, we could laugh together, and it also rejuvenated us.” In addition to giving us the power to bring our group of strangers together, yoga enabled us to reconnect to our bodies after emotional and intellectual activities. Integrating our bodies and mind reinvigorated each of us and nurtured our togetherness.

The EPA is an affiliate program of the global educational network CEDAR (Communities Engaging with Difference and Religion), where I am the staff member in charge of reflective practice. In our programs throughout the years, yoga has become part of our methodology, one of the different containers created to engage the whole person. This methodology, created by CEDAR and implemented in Uganda by the EPA, focuses on learning together how to engage with our differences. For more than 12 years we have developed programs that integrate the many ways in which we humans learn, creating an awareness of how we see strangers and the baggage we bring to these meetings. Lectures, site visits, and facilitation sessions in which we personalize our learning prompt participants to connect with their deep-seated assumptions regarding strangers.

As CEDAR’s program grew, I gradually started sharing my passion for yoga with our group participants. Iyengar yoga in particular supports my efforts toward reflective practice. One of the first things I tell each CEDAR group is that in meeting our “others,” we must become aware of our assumptions and act, not react. We need to stop and become aware. In a way this approach is like the yogic principle of Svadayaya, self-study. Only through stopping and feeling can we understand our own bodies’ reactions when we encounter strangers. How can we encounter our “others” if we are not seated in our bodies and aware of our own reactions?

I remember the first time, in Bosnia in 2004, when some joined in my daily practice after a very tense day, exhausted by the sheer destruction we had encountered in Mostar. Without words, we pushed the chairs away and created a space for opening our chests and ourselves to life again. Since then, I have brought my love for yoga to each different yearly group. Organically, yoga has grown in my own life as well as in our programs and has become an integral part of our routine. In our CEDAR groups, yoga has the power to bring us together, to experience joy, but also to accomplish the difficult task of bringing our bodies into sync with our minds. Meeting strangers and our differences can be scary at times, and yoga also teaches us to confront our boundaries, the places where we are afraid. Achieving the integration of body, mind, and soul is a lifelong process, but we take a small step toward it during these programs. In yoga as well as in the rest of the program, we practice with the group to face up to our places of discomfort as we encounter difference.

I am always humbled to see people who, during these two weeks, start the process of returning to their bodily sensations in a very methodical way and find these difficult places. They become aware of their body parts and the places where they hold tension, discomfort. Participants love the new feelings of openness, as well as the realization that these simple movements are actually not so simple. The feeling of well-being that comes at the end of a practice is indeed well earned. While we enjoy the process, we also meet with our boundaries, as we do in our groups. Yoga is one way we bump up against our physical boundaries. Sometimes, we learn that these boundaries are not set in stone, and that we can push through our discomfort to find a new way to engage not only our bodies, but also the stranger among us. Yoga has proved itself a most valuable ally in this process. It teaches us to look at our boundaries, the places where we are afraid. As we learn to face our own bodily sensations and feelings in yoga, we become conscious of the social boundaries within our groups and learn to confront them too. Both in our yoga practice and in our encounters with strangers, we have begun the work of learning to live with discomfort and difference.

Rahel Wasserfall is the CEDAR Director of Evaluation and Training and a Scholar in Residence at the Women’s Studies Research Center (WSRC) at Brandeis University.


[1] Upward hands pose, upward bound fingers pose, triangle pose

[2] Dog pose

[3] Mountain pose

[4] Warrior II pose

Students Share the Burden of Education, by David W. Montgomery

The priorities of the university are changing and these changes put at risk one critical dimension of the university’s role in society as a place of reflective (self-) learning. Much has been written about the marketization of education and the trend toward running universities as businesses concerned with efficiencies and bottom lines,[1] pushed even further by recent proposals of the Obama administration to rank universities by the “value” they provide.[2] What it means for students to receive a “well-rounded” education is increasingly constrained by economic pressures and the politically biased devaluing of certain fields of learning. We see this in Florida Governor Rick Scott’s statement deriding the value of anthropology[3] and the University of Pittsburgh’s decision to cut programs in classics, German, and religious studies due to declining enrollment.[4] The shifting of resources toward STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) classes is representative of the changing university.

It can be persuasively argued that disciplines such as those listed above, and humanities and social sciences in general, are essential to teach students the intellectual rigor that will best enable them to meet the future’s unknown needs with flexibility.[5] But even in a consumer-driven society where service providers readily respond to customer demands, students must see themselves as sharing the burden of schooling if they are to receive anything resembling a well-rounded education.

The imperative for students to view themselves as actors in their own education can be seen in a recent petition by the University of Pittsburgh’s Muslim Student Association (MSA). The petition protests the cancelling of four classes on Islam for the fall 2014 academic term.[6] One of the classes mentioned, Anthropology of Islam, is a class that I have taught at the university for the last five years, the last four of which have been in the spring term. Regardless of whether the course is taught again, there is some validity to the ideals of the MSA’s petition. The University of Pittsburgh is a major research university that is decidedly weak in the area of Islam. While I fully believe resources should be directed to increase opportunities for learning about Islam, the way in which the university “values” its resources is influenced by the students themselves.

The MSA petition emphasizes the importance for students of the opportunity to learn about Islam, the religion of 1.6 billion people in the world. Yet in the last five years I have regularly taught Anthropology of Islam, which has had an enrollment cap of 40 to 50 students, at half capacity. Very few Muslims have taken the course—in some years one or two, in some years none—and there has never been noticeable participation by students from the MSA. Regardless of the priorities of the university, basic economic theory suggests that a real demand by students for classes on Islam would make the provost and others more inclined to increase funding for such classes.

When I taught introductory courses on religion in the past, it was the case that students invariably performed worse on the exams that covered the religious tradition with which they identified. This makes sense, for having grown up in a particular tradition, one generalizes the familiarity with that religion without appreciating the diversity, historical controversy, and more doctrinal explanations of its rituals and beliefs. We think we know about our own beliefs and want others to learn about them so that they understand us better. The problem is that the corollary assumption does not hold: having others learn about our religious tradition does not in any way guarantee that we know about ourselves.

I support the MSA’s call for people to learn about Islam. But I wish to push them further: classes on Islam should also be filled with Muslim and non-Muslim students seeking to understand the diverse ways in which different religions provide frameworks for morally engaging with the world, ways intended to overcome the banality of misunderstanding. A rounded education is one that not only teaches the skills of a bureaucrat but also imparts a way of thinking that facilitates the ability to make morally engaged judgments. Though they are not taught with this end exclusively in mind, the humanities and social sciences should be seen as applied disciplines that prepare not only for work but also for life.

Students should learn about others’ traditions as well as their own, for what they will discover is that the assumptions and beliefs they hold will be challenged. And it is in preparation for such challenges that the university should engage its students. As concerned as we may be about our place in the world, we must also realize that the responsibility of education is not simply for others to learn about us, or even for us to learn about others, but also for us to learn about ourselves. Understanding is, after all, appreciating the difference of the other and recognizing the prejudices that keep us from seeing those differences as something—even when uncomfortable—to be tolerated.

David W. Montgomery (ISSRPL 2003) is CEDAR Director of Program Development and Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh.


[1] See Kendzior, Sarah. 2014. “College Is a Promise the Economy Does Not Keep.” Al-Jazeera, May 14.Available at, last accessed July 24, 2014.

[2] See Shear, Michael D. 2014. “Colleges Rattled as Obama Seeks Rating System.” New York Times, May 25, A1.

[3] Anderson, Zac. 2011. “Rick Scott Wants to Shift University Funding Away from Some Degrees.” Herald-Tribune. October 10. Available at, last accessed July 24, 2014. For a response to Gov. Scott, see Gomberg-Muñoz, Ruth. 2013. “2012 Public Anthropology Year in Review: Actually, Rick, Florida Could Use a Few More Anthropologists.” American Anthropologist 115 (2):286-296.

[4] The memorandum announcing these cuts is available at, last accessed July 24, 2014.

[5] Roth, Michael S. 2014. Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[6] Petition available at, last accessed July 24, 2014.

“Forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors”: The Unfinished Business of the Lord’s Resistance Army, by David-Ngendo Tshimba

It was recently reported in one of Uganda’s daily newspapers (Daily Monitor) that the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel leader, Joseph Kony, had written to Ugandans seeking forgiveness and a resumption of peace talks to end the insurgency. Kony’s letter, dispatched by Mission Okello, reads in part: “I want to assure the people of Uganda that, we [LRA] are committed to a sustainable peaceful political settlement of our long war with the government of (President) Museveni…. We are willing and ready to forgive and seek forgiveness, and continue to seek peaceful means to end this war which has cut across a swathe of Africa for the people of the Great Lakes and the Nile-Congo Basin to find peace.”[1] Allegedly, Kony further noted that he did not go to war as an aggressor but in self-defense. In response to this letter allegedly authored by Kony, Government of Uganda (GoU) Media Centre chief Ofwono Opondo dismissed Kony’s plea for fresh talks, saying he wasted the opportunity to hold peace talks. Instead, Opondo advised Kony to surrender to government armed forces or apply for amnesty and denounce rebellion before time runs out.

Futile peace talks

The Juba peace talks between the GoU and the LRA, which began on July 14, 2006 and were mediated by the then recently instituted quasi-autonomous government of Southern Sudan (GoSS), were initially presaged as the best hope to end this armed conflict since it began. In particular, these talks were considered crucial to both the GoSS and the LRA (whose commanders feared International Criminal Court (ICC) warrants issued against them in October 2005 and saw these peace talks as a possible way to evade arrest. However, Ronald Atkinson argued that even though the ICC warrants surfaced as an issue for the LRA during the Juba peace talks, there is little evidence that they were a major factor in the LRA’s decision to enter talks, for it had increasingly become part of accepted wisdom from a range of people inside and outside Uganda to secure LRA cooperation in order to end the war, at the expense of ICC prosecution. Hence, both the GoSS and the LRA were unwavering in their commitment to the peace process in the face of often expressed skepticism by the GoU and the international community; shockingly, “hopes were reinforced when the talks produced relatively quickly a Cessation of Hostilities (CoH) Agreement on August 26, 2006”— the first ever formal bilateral accord signed by representatives of both the LRA and the GoU.[2]

Furthermore, on  June 29, 2007, the two sides signed what Atkinson termed “the even more wide-ranging” agenda on accountability and reconciliation in a bid to identify and/or establish a combination of local and national justice mechanisms designed to promote reconciliation and address issues of accountability for wrongs committed by both LRA fighters and the Ugandan Peoples’ Defence Forces (UPDF), “with hints that this combination of mechanisms might satisfy the ICC”.[3] Nonetheless, following frequent hiatuses resulting from divisions between the two sides over mediation procedures and more especially from instigated dissensions within the LRA delegation and fighters, LRA leader Kony—who was scheduled on April 10, 2008 to add his signature to the Final Peace Agreement (FPA), with President Museveni to sign four days later—did not sign, ostensibly because he wanted further clarification about the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) of LRA fighters and the mix of “traditional” and “formal” legal proceedings that he and his fighters faced, including the role of the ICC.  Given the unresolved dispute over issues of restorative and retributive justice, coupled with the deep-seated commitment of one party to the conflict (GoU together with its regional and international supporters) to end this conflict militarily, the Juba peace process—which had yet produced landmarked agreements—was relegated to futility.

Learning from the Juba peace talks

Impediments to peace differ in different contexts, but it is no exaggeration to state that peaceful communities have many things in common. By and large, avoiding the dangers of othering would be one of the most promising ways to secure durable peace in the aftermath of violent conflict. The rationale for avoidance of othering—searching for characterization in terms of some “us” as opposed to some “other”—is that othering tends to bestow social acceptability on a call for retribution or punishment to members of the “out-group” (considered offenders) as opposed to those of the “in-group” (considered victims) following a convoluted manifestation of violence. In fact, throughout this two-decade armed conflict, hegemonic discursive structures by one party to the conflict (GoU) have either caused compliance or inhibited disagreement with perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors that eventually rendered and continue to render military offensives against the other party to the conflict (LRA) a legitimate form of action in the search for peace.

Perhaps Oresteia—the celebrated classical trilogy of plays by ancient Greek writer Aeschylus in which the author narrates three tales that focus on the events following the Trojan War—subtly reiterates the need to reconsider the notion of lex talionis  (an eye for an eye) in the quest for righting past wrongs. Movingly, Suren Pillay recapitulated Aeschylus’ lesson in the following words:

The first story commences with the Greek King Agamemnon’s victorious return from the battle for Troy along with his prize, the Princess Cassandra, and the unfortunate chain of events that this sets off. It is a compelling tale that sets out in staged dramatic form the generational intrigues that destroy the House of Atreus. In this famous story successive acts of injustice beget new acts of injustice and unleash a cycle of turmoil unforeseen by the central protagonists when they began their original quest for justice. The central lesson for Aeschylus is that the manner in which we right wrongs may impact on the future in ways that we might not have intended or desired.[4]

Against all odds so far registered in bringing this protracted armed conflict to a definitive end, dialogue in lieu of further confrontation ought to be reconsidered as a key option to address the deep-seated forces that continue to fuel this armed conflict beyond the confines of Uganda. Agreeing to dialogue with diverse histories and circumstances, memories and experiences, views and beliefs, could widen the horizons of those who have been a party to the conflict—whether involved directly (LRA and GoU) or indirectly (South Sudan, Sudan, Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo)—beyond protractedness.  Even more insightfully, Paulo Freire’s notion of dialogical relations underpinned this possibility:

Dialogue is the encounter between men, mediated by the world, in order to name the world…dialogue is thus an existential necessity. And since dialogue is the encounter in which the united reflection and action of the daloguers are addressed to the world which is to be transformed and humanized, this dialogue cannot be reduced to the act of one person’s ‘depositing’ ideas in another, nor can it become a simple exchange of ideas to be ‘consumed’ by the discussants…Because dialogue is an encounter among women and men who name the world, it must not be a situation where some name on behalf of others.[5]

Pillay finally underscored that if justice and reconciliation are in tension, then the balance between the two is best judged according to the criteria of what most effectively creates lasting peace and stability in a divided political community.[6] By and large, the demands of justice in today’s LRA-affected region go far beyond what any retributive endeavor—whether under the auspices of the ICC or otherwise—can deliver. Assuredly, the less conspicuous but more pertinent concern for the majority of vulnerable members from the LRA-affected region consists of a fuller restoration of their psychosocial as well as economic tissues torn apart by this armed conflict. Away from the need for a military victory and/or internationalized criminal prosecution against the LRA (now operating as armed rebels beyond Uganda), a context-specific restorative justice has huge potential for building lasting peace by addressing both the material discrepancies and psychological legacies of conflict. The main objective of such pursuit of justice should consist of creating a fresh political community from a fractured historical experience. Only then can a more nuanced understanding, as well as a much more appropriate application of justice with peace, be achieved. Does such nuanced understanding of justice not begin with the imploration of “forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors”?

David-Ngendo Tshimba (ISSRPL 2009, 2012, EPA 2012) is Assistant Lecturer at Uganda Martyrs University and a Research Fellow with International Alert.


[1] Waseka, A., “Kony asks for mercy, blames Museveni for S. Sudan woes” Daily Monitor, 27 January 2014. Available online at–blames-Museveni-for-S–Sudan-woes/-/688334/2161498/-/8ivihg/-/index.html (viewed on 27 February 2014).

[2] Atkinson, R. R. “From Uganda to the Congo and Beyond: Pursuing the Lord’s Resistance Army” International Peace Institute (IPI) Publications, December 2009. New York: IPI, 11. Available online at, accessed April 25, 2014.

[3] Atkinson 2009, p.12.

[4] Pillay, S. “Conclusion” in C. Sriram & S. Pillay (eds.) (2010) Peace vs Justice? The Dilemma of Transitional Justice in Africa. Durban: University of Kwa-Zulu Natal Press, p.348.

[5] Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. [Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos] London: Penguin Books, pp. 69-70.

[6] Pillay (2010).

How Can I Accept the Other as Being Different from Me So That South Sudan Can Be at Peace?, by Noel Santo

On 9th July, 2011, South Sudan, then part of the Sudan, became an independent country. The huge majority of the population of South Sudan considered this step a colossal victory—something that they had sought for a long time. But one main challenge that accompanied breaking up South Sudan just as it gained its independence was the tendency to manipulate ethnic identities for private interest. Thus, we can understand the root causes of the current ethno-political competition, discrimination, and violence.

Following independence, internal divisions among the ethnic groups became noticeable. South Sudan has 64 ethnic groups, and they all have unique cultures and languages. Although there were divisions and conflicts among them before, the South Sudanese ethnic groups generally put those aside and united against the common enemy of Sudan. Once that common enemy disappeared, though, they started to focus on the differences among themselves, and inter-tribal violence broke out.

The strong identification with one’s ethnic group created a poor sense of belonging to a shared nation. People are identified by ethnicity, for instance, Dinka, Moru, Bari, Nuer, Lotuko, Shilluk, etc. The ideal solution could be to create an institutional atmosphere in which all citizens of South Sudan can live together and maximize their values.

Nevertheless, many of the issues facing South Sudan are interrelated—for instance, there cannot be peace if the government is incapable of managing effectively the ethnic diversity in South Sudan and improving the ability of the various ethnic groups to live together peacefully notwithstanding their religious and sociocultural differences.

Living together in peace with the other who is different from you is still the biggest challenge to socioeconomic progress in South Sudan. It has become not so easy among many South Sudanese to accept the other as being different and to coexist in peace with him or her.

On the 15th December, 2013, the viability of the South Sudan state was put at risk when fighting spread from a few presidential guards to many parts of South Sudan and soon became a militarized ethnic conflict.

What occurred made me think about the other who is different from me—but is also a South Sudanese like me. Should I kill the other because he/she is different from me? Compete against the other because he/she is different from me? Or cooperate with the other notwithstanding his/her differences? Is it possible for South Sudanese communities to recognize and accept their differences build a peaceful civil society? How can the main differences between the ethnic groups in South Sudan be no longer a source of conflict?.

Noel postOn 15th January, 2014, I was challenged to recognize and accept the other as different when my close friend and I were invited for a thanksgiving prayer in the house of another friend of ours, who was carjacked in Munuki (a suburb of Juba town). Luckily, he got away with his life, sustaining only a slight bullet wound on his ankle. To my surprise, some Muslims were called to lead the prayers for thanksgiving. At first I felt uneasy, but gradually I accepted it. After the prayers we had a shared meal, all using our hands to eat from the same dish! It is common practice in South Sudan.

This situation challenged me—not because of the type of the food but because of the ethnic composition at the meal. Different ethnic groups were accepting each other and sharing the same dish. I came to understand that not accepting the other who is different from me is a result of seeing the negative in them. Instead of focusing on why someone is different from me, I should focus on how to live together in our diverse but one country—inhabited by people with very different religious, moral, sociocultural, and political beliefs.

Noel Nyombe Santo (ISSRPL 2012, EPA 2012) is a Catholic Priest from the Archdiocese of Juba in South Sudan and a Ph.D. candidate in Development Studies in Uganda Martyrs University.

2013 – CEDAR Occasional Paper No. 6, by Lauren R. Kerby

Pluralism versus Tolerance: Turning Principles into Action in Interfaith Organizations

Lauren R. Kerby

In contemporary discussions of how societies manage religious diversity, two strategies are often juxtaposed: pluralism and tolerance. Both are attitudes that shape the kind of interaction between different religious groups in such a way that peace and social order are maintained. However, among liberals in the West, “pluralism” has a distinctly different valence from “tolerance.” Whereas pluralism is viewed positively, as the pinnacle of achievement for a religiously diverse society, tolerance is viewed negatively, as the bare minimum of what is required to maintain peace in such a society. In this view, tolerance is only a stepping-stone on the way to the ultimate goal, pluralism. Despite this popular understanding that pluralism is the superior option, the distinctions between the two terms are not always clear. But the differences are well worth our attention if we hope to understand the very different ways in which tolerance and pluralism operate in the world.

This paper articulates the difference between pluralism and tolerance through an analysis of two nonprofit organizations dedicated to creating and maintaining peace in a religiously diverse world. The first, Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), takes an approach to religion and religious differences based on pluralism. The second, CEDAR—Communities Engaging with Difference and Religion,[1] bases its approach on tolerance. A comparison of the organizations’ methods and outcomes demonstrates that we are not talking about an abstract philosophical distinction whose effects are confined solely to mission statements and annual reports. On the contrary: the basis in pluralism or tolerance, respectively, profoundly shapes the methods and, therefore, the outcomes of each organization’s projects. By comparing pluralism and tolerance in this way—“in action,” so to speak—we can better see the benefits and limitations of each. The key distinction between pluralism and tolerance is the value assigned to difference, which directly impacts the degree to which differences are hidden or revealed within an interfaith program. I argue that because difference is essential to the construction and maintenance of identity, a successful interfaith program will be one that values differences over commonalities, thereby offering the maximum amount of protection for identity in a religiously diverse society. The pluralist approach ultimately privileges commonalities, while the tolerant approach privileges difference and protects identity. Thus, despite its negative connotations in the contemporary West, tolerance is a viable strategy for living with religious difference.

Difference, Identity, and Threat

Before turning to concrete interfaith approaches to managing religious difference, a brief discussion of why difference is so important is in order. In short, difference plays an essential role in constructing and maintaining identity. The identity of any group is circumscribed by its boundaries, which are by their nature exclusive; boundaries indicate that what is on one side of the boundary differs from what is on the other side. Boundaries separate Group A from Group B, Group B from Group C, and so on. Without the presence of difference, the boundaries are meaningless, and the distinct identities of each group merge into indistinct homogeneity because there is nothing left to separate them. No group can define its identity without saying how it is different from the surrounding groups. The construction of a group’s identity requires the articulation of both what they are and what they are not. For a religious group, this may mean a first attempt at differentiating orthodoxy from heresy. For instance, the first Christian creeds and canons emerged not out of a spontaneous desire for group identity, but out of a need to systematize Christian doctrines as a means of guarding against the heresies of Arius or the Docetics. Defining orthodoxy was simultaneously a process of defining heresy. Drawing the boundary around early Christian identity required the presence of religious difference in order for early Christian leaders to say both who they were and who they were not.

This need for difference (or deviance) is the point Durkheim makes when he argues that crime is both normal and necessary to social life.[2] Society requires the presence of “deviants” who violate social norms, because by articulating what it means to violate those norms, it articulates the norms themselves.[3] Kai Erikson adds that group members must know something of what exists beyond the boundaries of the group if they are to understand what it means to be within those boundaries.[4] By confronting and punishing deviance, the group “is making a statement about the nature and placement of its boundaries. It is declaring how much variability and diversity can be tolerated within the group before it begins to lose its distinctive shape, its unique identity.”[5] Deviance within the group and difference outside of it are both essential to maintaining group identity. For this reason, identity is threatened when difference is trivialized, ignored, or even erased, as is the case in a pluralist approach to religious diversity.

Yet the role of difference is paradoxical: at the same time that difference is necessary for the articulation of identity, the presence of difference can also be deeply threatening. When Group A and Group B live adjacent to each other but do not intermingle, difference remains an abstract concept. The people on the other side of the boundary are said to have different practices or beliefs, but they are not immediately visible to the members of the other group. In contrast, when members of Group A and Group B are neighbors, living side by side in the same space, the constant, visible presence of difference can be destabilizing. Members of both groups are forced to confront the fact that their way of life is not the only way of life; others may have different rules, practices, values, or beliefs. This can be incredibly destabilizing—at the very least, it is uncomfortable—but modern society is composed largely of such intermingling of groups, and with this shift comes a significant threat to identity. How a given group deals with this threat is the central challenge faced by organizations seeking to mitigate the conflicts caused by the presence of religious diversity.

Backgrounds of IFYC and CEDAR

Both IFYC and CEDAR were founded at the turn of the 21st century, as consciousness of religious diversity grew in America and around the world. They share the goal of meeting the challenges posed by religious diversity with programs based on social scientific theories that teach participants how to deal with the threat a diverse community poses to their own identity.  However, because their underlying principles—pluralism in the case of IFYC, tolerance in the case of CEDAR— differ, beyond these initial similarities their strategies and outcomes bear little resemblance to each other. Both give their participants tools to address the discomfort caused by the presence of religious difference, but they do so in ways fundamentally shaped by their respective philosophical basis in pluralism or tolerance.

IFYC was first imagined by its founders—Eboo Patel, Jeff Pinzino, and Anastasia White—in 1998 during an interfaith conference at Stanford. The three young people realized a need for interfaith outreach that specifically targeted the rising generation of college undergraduates. With support from three leading interreligious organizations, they slowly began to build their organizational infrastructure. In 2002, with the aid of a $35,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, the organization was incorporated as Interfaith Youth Core, with headquarters in Chicago. Over the next few years the group’s work gained national and international attention.[6] In 2005 IFYC partnered with the Clinton Global Initiative, a group dedicated to turning ideas into action. As a result of that partnership, IFYC worked with Queen Rania of Jordan to establish an exchange program for Jordanian and American students. IFYC also partnered with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation in 2007 to train religious leaders as ambassadors for the United Nations Millennium Development goals, particularly the eradication of malaria. Most recently, in 2012, IFYC partnered with the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships to challenge over 270 college campuses to increase interfaith community service.[7] To date, IFYC has operated on five continents to train thousands of young interfaith leaders, including those on over 200 college campuses in the United States.[8] In addition, Eboo Patel’s memoir, Acts of Faith, which details the founding and philosophy of IFYC, has been required reading for freshmen at over a dozen colleges.

The main focus of IFYC in 2013 remains the training of undergraduate students to lead interfaith activities on their home campuses. Several times a year, students, faculty, and administrators from colleges across the nation gather in major American cities for Interfaith Leadership Institutes (ILIs). Students are trained to “build relationships across identities, tell powerful stories to bridge divides, and mobilize their campuses through interfaith projects.” Faculty and administrators “network, share best practices, and partner with their students to learn how to transform their campuses.”[9] Both students and faculty learn about IFYC’s “Better Together” movement and how they can implement it at their own colleges or universities. “Better Together” is a flexible slogan that can be applied to nearly any campus event that fits three requirements: students are encouraged to “voice their religious/non-religious values, identities, and experiences; engage in conversations about those values, etc., across lines of difference; and act together based on the values they share to improve their campus and their community.”[10] These activities range from food drives to concerts, fast-a-thons to interreligious speed talking. At the ILIs, students are trained to be grassroots organizers of the interfaith movement and given the skills they need to coordinate Better Together activities on their campuses. They also learn about the other religious and nonreligious perspectives of their peers at the ILI and on campus.

The underlying philosophy of IFYC is pluralism, a concept that informs both its mission and its methodology. IFYC, following Harvard scholar Diana Eck, defines pluralism as a positive attitude toward religious diversity that requires “the active engagement of diversity toward a common end.” Whereas “diversity” merely describes a fact of modern life, “pluralism” indicates a particular orientation toward that diversity.[11] A religiously plural world, according to IFYC, is one characterized by “respect for people’s diverse religious and non-religious identities”; “mutually inspiring relationships between people of different backgrounds”; and “common action for the common good.”[12] All of the activities and campaigns of IFYC are designed to foster this pluralist attitude in students, so that they come to understand diversity not just as a fact but as a good. The problem of discomfort caused by religious diversity is resolved by teaching students to understand diversity as positive. IFYC leaders Eboo Patel and Cassie Meyer dismiss tolerance, in contrast, as merely “superficial,” a tool that “may or may not be able to stand the challenge of real tension.”[13] Like many activists in the world of interreligious dialogue, they see tolerance as a weak alternative to pluralism, and they refuse to settle for this lesser option. Everything IFYC does is designed to foster attitudes and behaviors that treat difference as a positive thing, a fact of life that is to be embraced, not avoided.

Like IFYC, CEDAR recognizes the inevitable fact of religious diversity and offers strategies for dealing with it, though its attitude to the inherent value of difference itself is far more ambivalent. The idea for CEDAR was first conceived in 2001 as an international summer school, when a group of friends met in a restaurant in Sarajevo and discussed how religion might be an asset in “building a more tolerant and pluralistic world.” The inaugural summer school was held in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia in 2003, focusing on the role of religion in the conflicts of former Yugoslavia.[14] In subsequent years the school was held in a variety of other locations around the world—including Israel, Cyprus, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Indonesia—on a wide range of topics, from the “Muslim question” in Europe to religious syncretism in traditional Bulgarian societies.[15] After 10 years of summer schools using this model, CEDAR’s mission expanded to the point where organizational changes became necessary. In addition to adopting its new name,[16] it moved from holding a single annual summer school in changing locations to establishing several more permanent programs in various countries with CEDAR support. These include the Balkan Summer School on Religion and Public Life in Plovdiv, Bulgaria; the Connaught Summer Institute on Islamic Studies in Toronto, Canada; the Equator Peace Academy in the Great Lakes Region of Africa; and future programs planned for southern Africa and central Asia. Each of these programs utilizes the pedagogic principles developed by CEDAR to help participants engage with various forms of difference and develop tolerant behaviors and attitudes.

The primary model CEDAR uses is a two-week summer school—hosted by a local collaborating partner, usually a university—that draws participants (fellows) and lecturers from around the world representing a broad range of religious and nonreligious backgrounds. Over the course of the two weeks, fellows participate in an intensive combination of lectures, site visits, and discussions, as well as meals, films, and informal recreational activities. Through these activities, fellows learn not only cognitively, but also experientially and affectively. These three dimensions of new knowledge help to overturn fellows’ assumptions about self, other, and the interactions between the two.[17] The liminal space of the summer school functions as a sort of laboratory in which to practice living with difference, and fellows learn to do so during their informal, quotidian interactions as much as in formal lectures or discussions. In recent years, the school has expanded its focus from solely religious differences; it now includes differences in ethnicity, culture, sexuality, and gender, since these, too, are essential aspects of many people’s group identities. All of these differences emerge in one way or another during the summer school, and fellows must improvise solutions for how they will live together in spite of them. Fellows are not required in any way to accept, validate, or otherwise support the differences of their peers. What they must do, though, is learn how to live with those differences for the duration of the school.[18]

“Living with difference,” CEDAR’s catchphrase, in effect indicates the premise on which the entire enterprise is based: tolerance. Unlike IFYC, with its ambitious goal of teaching people to value diversity, CEDAR’s more modest goal is simply to teach people that they can—and in many cases, must—live together differently. In CEDAR’s view tolerance is not “superficial” and insufficient, but profoundly difficult yet essential to life in a religiously diverse society. Many interfaith organizations, including IFYC, ultimately focus most of their attention on commonalities between religious groups while paying lip service to the differences that divide them. In contrast, CEDAR begins with the understanding that differences are essential and inevitable: “Our focus is on difference and seeks not to trivialize, privatize, or otherwise ‘overcome’ difference, but rather to accept the constitutive differences among human individuals and groups and from that baseline begin the hard work of learning to live with such differences and build a modicum of trust and solidarity despite these differences and all they imply.”[19] Fellows are not encouraged to see diversity as a good or bad thing, but rather as an unavoidable fact of life. They may be made to feel uncomfortable as a result of this difference, but they learn—cognitively, experientially, and affectively—that they can live with this discomfort. In fact, they may not be able to avoid discomfort without giving up fundamental religious commitments to exclusive truth claims. IFYC’s pluralism demands that diversity be viewed in a positive light; CEDAR demands only that the discomfort that accompanies diversity be tolerated.

Approaches to Difference

As a result of their respective foundations in pluralism and tolerance, IFYC and CEDAR’s strategies for engaging difference (or not) through their programs stand in stark contrast to each other. IFYC makes a point of acknowledging that religious differences do exist, unlike many other interfaith programs, which emphasize that differences are merely superficial distortions of core commonalities. However,  its programs are designed to hide religious differences in subtle ways so as to make it easier in the end to subordinate them to a shared liberal, pluralist worldview. CEDAR, on the other hand, makes religious (and other forms of) differences the focal point of its program; if commonalities are ever acknowledged, it is only implicitly or privately, in conversations among the fellows. These divergent approaches to difference shape every aspect of the two programs: the selection of participants, the discussion or reflection topics, the design of activities and choice of spaces in which they take place, and the rules that govern participants’ behavior.

A first important point of comparison between the two programs is what kind of community each builds. In the case of IFYC, the communities involved in various Better Together and other campaigns are for the most part pre-existing. Because IFYC focuses on college students, the community is already there: the college campus. Many smaller communities may come together from across campus to participate in a Better Together event, but all the participants share a significant marker as students at the same college. Moreover, despite colleges’ efforts to increase diversity, students have several important things in common. They have the financial means to attend college; they share the same level of education; and, most important, they already live together, sharing academic and social facilities and other components of college life. They may differ in many important ways, but their similarities are what brought them together in the first place and remain what structures their lives together. They are already a community with a shared social world that easily subordinates difference to what they have in common, at least on the surface.

The CEDAR community, in contrast, is temporary, existing for the first time on the first day of the program. Some participants may be acquainted with each other prior to their arrival, but most are not. Some may share native languages, but rarely with more than one other person. Since the summer school provides a limited number of scholarships and travel assistance for fellows, they may not have similar financial means. And they do not share religious commitments, since they represent a wide range of religious and nonreligious affiliations. What they do share, typically, are two things: a college-level or higher education and a sufficiently strong interest in religion and public life to travel across the globe to study it. From this base, a community of approximately 25 fellows is built. For two weeks they must live together, eat every meal together, and attend all summer school activities together. By virtue of this structure, their similarities and differences are initially given equal weight; there is no overarching shared community to mask differences.

Once the respective programs have started, both IFYC and CEDAR have the opportunity to highlight either sameness or difference through discussions, reflections, and stories that participants tell one another. Both choose to highlight difference, though to different degrees. For IFYC, one of the core requirements for a Better Together event is that students articulate their religious or nonreligious identities and values; presumably, this is where differences along religious lines would first arise, temporarily disrupting the sense of homogeneity among a group of students from the same college.[20] However, articulating these different identities is only the starting point. Subsequent activities and conversations work to smooth over this disruption, reinstating the sense of sameness in spite of expressed differences. Suggested questions and topics for interfaith discussions include the following: “What values do you think you share with people of other religious and non-religious identities? Share an experience where you saw these shared values in action. How does the civil rights movement exemplify interfaith co­operation? How do you think interfaith cooperation affected the impact of the civil rights movement? How does it connect to our work today?”[21] Students are expected to discuss their different identities, beliefs, experiences, and values; but the implicit norm is eventually to find points of commonality amidst the differences. This is a necessity in a group dedicated to taking common action for the common good. Religious differences can be expressed, but they are expected not to diverge too far from values upon which all students can agree and therefore act. The discomfort that arises from articulating differences is quickly alleviated by a return to homogeneity: everyone can agree on raising money for a soup kitchen or building a house for a homeless family. Differences may be expressed, but they are subordinated to commonalities.

CEDAR has no such normative approach toward common values and experiences. If anything, its norm is to bring difference to the surface and keep it there, despite the discomfort it typically causes for everyone involved. When fellows first meet, their natural inclination is to focus on things they have in common in their introductory conversations. Rarely do people meet a stranger and immediately begin listing the ways in which they are different. However, all of the discussions, lectures, and facilitations of the summer school are designed to disrupt any complacent sense of sameness that may develop. When I participated in the Balkan Summer School in 2013, not once were we asked to reflect on something we shared with the other fellows or other communities; every topic was designed to highlight differences and to force fellows to live with the discomfort that comes with being conscious of differences. Nor was this awareness of difference limited to our structured events: even in our informal activities—including meals, swimming, and conversations over drinks—we became more conscious of how religious differences manifest themselves in everyday life. Many fellows were fascinated by kosher laws, and mealtime conversation frequently involved this topic. Swimming breaks also highlighted our differences, perhaps unexpectedly, when one Muslim woman was unable to participate because of modesty requirements. Points of difference that might previously have gone unnoticed became inescapable, both because we were taught to look for them and because we were living together and sharing all of our daily activities.

IFYC’s and CEDAR’s approaches to difference shape more than just overt discussions about religion; they also shape the activities undertaken by participants, beginning with the type of space in which communal activities take place. Generally speaking, both groups conduct activities in two types of space: public space and private space. Public space is the overlapping space shared by all religious communities (or other communities of difference). It may include dining halls, city parks, arenas, classrooms, and so on. Private space, in contrast, is the space reserved for the use of a particular group separately from other groups. Most important, private space includes sacred space, the space in which religious rituals occur. The degree to which an interreligious group conducts its activities in private or sacred space is indicative of its attitude toward difference. Entering another group’s sacred space is a palpable experience of difference. Everything, from the architecture to the symbols to the rituals, is a reminder that this group is not one’s own. If sacred spaces feature frequently in an interfaith program, the participants experience difference as a focal point of the program. If most of the spaces used in an interfaith program are public, with only occasional entry into sacred spaces, the program is more interested in what it can accomplish in public, shared space than in addressing the discomfort that comes with unfamiliar sacred space.

Both IFYC and CEDAR use both types of space: public and private/sacred. However, CEDAR uses a higher percentage of sacred space than IFYC does. During the two weeks of the summer school, CEDAR fellows visit some form of religious site nearly every day; the experience of different sacred spaces is an integral part of CEDAR’s strategy of pushing fellows to confront difference. By this repeated exposure to a variety of differences, fellows learn not to erase their discomfort, but to live with it. For IFYC participants, sacred space is also important, but campus-wide events are rarely held in a sacred space. Small groups may visit a variety of houses of worship and be encouraged to appreciate the differences they observe, but different religious spaces are not usually the focal point of Better Together events. Rather, these events are typically held in public spaces that can hold more people and are less disconcertingly different. They accomplish many things, such as building relationships between people of different faiths and supporting a variety of social justice causes; but the focus is not on difference itself. Space is a key factor in determining to what degree difference will be experienced and how it will be evaluated.

The tendency toward using public rather than private/sacred space, or vice versa, also impacts the types of activities that comprise the interfaith program and the lessons participants learn about difference. IFYC activities that occur in public space may be ordinary activities like meals, but more often they are extraordinary actions such as fasts, house building, concerts, and so on. These actions are usually one-time (or perhaps annual) events that bring students of many different religious and nonreligious backgrounds together for a brief time and then send them on their way. Being together despite differences is an exceptional occurrence. Ideally, students’ awareness of religious differences is raised, but there is no compulsion for students to continue to engage difference as they go through their daily lives. The exception to this may be the leaders of any IFYC-affiliated group on campus. Student leaders planning and executing events will have much more sustained contact with one another than regular participants, and IFYC encourages groups to have a diverse student leadership. The main effect, however, is that students who participate in a Better Together event experience difference temporarily in an out-of-the-ordinary way; while they may take away an improved cognitive understanding of difference, their actual experience of difference is limited to a brief, extraordinary moment.

CEDAR’s preference for private/sacred space has the opposite effect on fellows’ experience of difference. Far from being out of the ordinary, the experience of difference is the norm, and fellows encounter it in all aspects of everyday life during the summer school. This includes experiencing difference within sacred spaces. Fellows are required to attend all summer school activities, including visits to religious sites that are not their own. Instead of participating in extraordinary activities like building a house, summer school fellows observe one another’s daily rituals, both religious and nonreligious. Unlike IFYC participants, CEDAR fellows experience difference in a way not limited to discrete events once or twice in a semester; theirs is a sustained encounter for the duration of the summer school. These two ways of experiencing difference, the extraordinary and the ordinary, have profoundly different implications for how participants expect/view difference in their subsequent lives. Students in IFYC programs may view difference as something that can be temporarily engaged toward a positive end, while CEDAR fellows are more likely to see it as an everyday fact with which they must live constantly and permanently.

The Problem of Proselytism

While all of the programming choices made by IFYC and CEDAR reflect their respective commitments to pluralism and tolerance, the impact of these choices is subtle. They implicitly shape how participants encounter difference during the interfaith program, but they are rarely, if ever, stated explicitly during the program. There is, however, one area in which pluralist or tolerant philosophies are forced to the surface: the rules governing dialogue or exchanges between participants. Both programs acknowledge that participants’ religious identities may center on exclusive truth claims that put those identities at odds with others. If those identities are to be expressed in a constructive way, the interfaith program must have clear guidelines for how this should be done. Creating those guidelines requires an explicit articulation of the program’s philosophy regarding religious difference, the degree to which it can be expressed, and to what end it can be engaged.

During interfaith dialogues in IFYC, participants are encouraged to “bring their full identities to the table.”[22] For those whose religious identities are sufficiently liberal that they do not feel challenged by the presence of others with diametrically opposed identities, this is relatively easy. For those on the more conservative end of their tradition’s spectrum, though, this sort of encounter can be extremely difficult. Some interfaith organizations ask their participants to deny their exclusive truth claims during dialogues, to assert that their own religion is not the only way. Patel rightly criticizes this approach for attracting only the most liberal members of most religions and effectively excluding the more conservative members from the conversation altogether.[23] To avoid this problem, IFYC emphasizes that one component of Eck’s definition of pluralism—“respect for individual religious or non-religious identity”—requires that participants be “allowed to believe that they are right and others are wrong.”[24] More important, they are allowed to express their “full identity,” meaning an identity with its exclusive truth claims intact. IFYC repeatedly states in its literature that interfaith dialogue “should not deny the real differences and disagreements that exist between religious and non-religious perspectives, nor should it diminish the reality that exclusive truths play in many religious differences.”[25] However, what happens once that exclusivist identity is expressed is key to understanding IFYC’s pluralist approach.

As Patel and Meyer put it, when dealing with exclusive truth claims in interfaith dialogue, “there need to be rules for how this conversation can play out.”[26] Simply put, the rule is that proselytism is prohibited: “Although proselytizing is an important part of many religious traditions, [interfaith dialogue] is not the space for it.”[27] Participants are asked to “acknowledge that others’ religious or non-religious perspectives are as precious to them as yours is to you” and thus to refrain from attempting to convert their dialogue partners. Instead, after this expression of participants’ “full identities,” the conversation is channeled away from proselytism and toward common values. This dialogue structure both reveals difference and subsequently hides it, for there is a clear limit to the amount of difference that can be expressed, and even at its most extreme, difference is still subordinated to commonality. This is the epitome of the pluralist approach: difference is positive, but only insofar as it can be made to serve a common purpose. When difference is expressed to such a degree that it threatens to be divisive—for example, proselytism—it must be suppressed.

CEDAR also has rules governing participants’ conversations, but they do not include a prohibition against proselytism. The summer school has only two absolute requirements: (1) fellows must attend every event, and (2) they cannot claim for their own community a monopoly on human suffering. In other words, everyone is expected to be a present and participating member of the summer school community, and to allow space for their peers to express their own experiences without denying the legitimacy or significance of those experiences. However, nowhere is proselytism expressly prohibited. To be sure, the implicit norm of the summer school was to avoid overt proselytism; as in most interfaith programs, proselytism is considered at the very least impolite. But to attempt to convert another fellow would not be against the rules. If anything, such an event would draw attention to how significant our religious differences are and how profoundly destabilizing it is to realize that we do not agree about what is true. CEDAR does not cut off the expression of difference when it threatens to be divisive, even when it veers into proselytism. Recognizing that extreme degree of difference and yet continuing to live together is the core project of the summer school. If the community of fellows can do that and then still sit down and eat together despite their profound disagreement, they have learned to exercise the sort of tolerance that makes it possible to live in a religiously diverse world, even without necessarily valuing diversity as a good thing.

The central challenge posed by religious diversity emerges in this confrontation between exclusive truth claims and, through it, the primary difference between pluralism and tolerance when they are put into action. Both organizations acknowledge that religious differences exist— but what to do with them? IFYC’s pluralist approach encourages passive expressions of difference, but any action taken must be an expression of “common values for the common good.” Proselytism is off limits precisely because diversity is understood to be a positive thing. After all, if diversity is inherently good, there ought not to be an impulse to eliminate that diversity by converting others to a single Truth. Thus, students can express their own difference, but they cannot try to persuade others to join them. This  prevents any arguments over who is ultimately right, which may allow participants to build houses together; but it also has the effect of privatizing religious difference, of making it something off limits for debate. Respect becomes a code word for silence. Moreover, when these differences are constrained to allow commonalities to remain the focus of both attention and action, differences are trivialized. Lip service is paid to their importance as individuals express their own religious identities; but that which has real value for pluralists remains that which is held in common.

As an organization founded on the principle of tolerance, CEDAR has no such compunction to promote diversity as something to be protected by prohibiting anything that might threaten it, including proselytism. The summer school’s goal is to make fellows aware of their differences and the significance of those differences—and to give them space to learn how to live together anyway. They are taught to exercise not pluralism but tolerance, which by its very definition recognizes that diversity is not the preferred option. Tolerance allows religious identities to be expressed fully, even to the point of expressing discomfort with diversity. However, what the summer school also teaches is that diversity is an inescapable fact of life. Fellows must find their own strategies for dealing with their discomfort. Those strategies can include anything except avoiding the source of discomfort by failing to attend scheduled activities. Difference in this way is not trivialized, but rather understood to be concomitant with identity. It cannot be subordinated to commonality without compromising identity. From this point of view, difference is inherently neither good nor bad, only disconcerting; and its expression cannot be constrained by rules prohibiting any actions that threaten a positive valuation of difference.


From this comparison of pluralism and tolerance in action, we can draw the following conclusions. First, we learn that a core distinction between pluralism and tolerance is the decision to view religious diversity as a positive thing or as simply an inescapable fact. This distinction influences programming choices in interfaith organizations, determining how differences and commonalities are presented and valued in relation to each other. In a pluralist approach such as that of IFYC, difference is to some degree peripheral and privatized, while the real action occurs in shared space doing shared activities. Commonality is consistently emphasized over difference. In a tolerant approach such as that of CEDAR, the reverse is true. Difference is central, and it features prominently in the cognitive, experiential, and affective dimensions of learning. The things we have in common with other humans are as peripheral to the summer school experience as the 50 percent of our DNA that we share with a banana.[28] The construction of activities, the locations, and above all the rules governing participants’ behavior are all dependent on whether the program’s underlying philosophy is pluralism or tolerance.

This in turn shapes how participants in the interfaith program understand and engage with difference as they return to their daily lives. Do they see encounters with diversity as something out of the ordinary, something rare but with a positive impact? Or do they see diversity as an ordinary feature of everyday life, which can be engaged either positively or negatively but cannot be ignored? What value do participants assign to differences, as opposed to commonalities, when they encounter someone from another religion in their lives? Does difference or commonality take precedence? The goal of the programs is to give participants the tools to navigate the diversity of their own communities, and the pluralist toolbox looks quite different from the tolerance toolbox. Which one is more effective depends heavily on the context in which it is used. In an environment where religious differences can easily—and temporarily—be subordinated to commonalities, IFYC’s pluralist approach is viable. In an environment where religion is a defining feature of multiple groups’ identities, however, religious difference may not be so easily hidden away as valuable but ultimately irrelevant to public life. CEDAR’s tolerant approach allows fellows to recognize the significance of religious (and other forms of) differences in both public and private life, and to practice living with diversity even if it makes them uncomfortable.

Put simply, a college campus is not Bosnia; the strategies that work for students at the University of Illinois will not directly translate to a neighborhood in Sarajevo. The pluralist toolbox takes for granted that those involved value diversity as an inherent good, which may not always be the case. Yet when such a position is the case, tolerance alone may miss opportunities for constructive action across lines of difference that a pluralist approach would provide. Both approaches, in short, can be effective if they are implemented in the appropriate contexts. What the pluralist approach misses, though, is that diversity is rarely seen as an inherent good. In reality, diversity is more often seen as a threat, precisely because of the danger it poses to group identity.

There is, then, an evangelistic component to the pluralist approach, the success of which directly impacts the effectiveness of any pluralist interfaith enterprise. Those involved must first be convinced that diversity is—or at least can be—a good thing. “Better Together” is not a descriptive statement, but an argument IFYC continually makes through its activities. In its literature, IFYC claims that its notion of pluralism is sociological, not theological; that is, diversity can be understood as socially positive even if it is still seen as theologically negative. In reality, the two are not so easily separated. The move to separate theological pluralism from sociological pluralism is akin to permitting the expression of difference but prohibiting any kind of proselytism: the result is that sincere theological reservations about difference are privatized, and a homogeneous “sociological” point of view regarding difference is imposed publicly. Tolerance does not make this sort of demand, and it is this feature of tolerance that makes it an option worth pursuing as a strategy for maintaining peace in religiously diverse communities. It is not a bad thing for pluralists to plead their case that diversity is positive, but they should never take it for granted that others will agree. Pluralism is the preferred option only if we truly believe that we can create a consensus that diversity is good. However, if we recognize that differences essential to identity and diversity have as much potential to be threatening as to be positive, we may be better off pursuing tolerance, accepting diversity as simply a fact of life that will elicit a wide range of responses. Demanding a positive evaluation of difference can be asking too much; simply recognizing that difference exists may enable us to live together.

Author Bio

Lauren R. Kerby, a 2013 BSSRPL Fellow, is a third-year PhD student at Boston University where she studies contemporary American religion and society.


CEDAR—Communities Engaging with Difference and Religion:

Durkheim, Emile. Rules of Sociological Method, ed. Steven Lukes. New York: The Free Press, 1933/1982.

Erikson, Kai. Wayward Puritans: A Study in the Sociology of Deviance. Needham Heights, MA: Macmillan, 1966.

Interfaith Youth Core:

McKim, Robert. “Responding to Religious Diversity: Some Possible Directions for the Interfaith Youth Core.” Journal of College & Character 11:1 (February 2010): 1–8.

Patel, Eboo. Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Soul of a Generation. Boston: Beacon Press, 2007.

Patel, Eboo, and Cassie Meyer. “The Civic Relevance of Interfaith Cooperation for Colleges and Universities.” Journal of College & Character 12:1 (February 2011): 1–9.

Patel, Eboo, and Cassie Meyer. “Defining Religious Pluralism: A Response to Professor Robert McKim.” Journal of College & Character 11:2 (May 2010): 1–4.

Patel, Eboo, and Cassie Meyer. “Engaging Religious Diversity on Campus: The Role of Interfaith Leadership.” Journal of College & Character 10:7 (November 2009): 1–8.

Seligman, Adam. “Tolerance, Tradition, and Modernity.” Cardozo Law Review 24 (2002): 1645–1657.

Seligman, Adam. “Living Together Differently.” Cardozo Law Review 30 (2008): 2881–2897.


[1] CEDAR was originally established in 2003 as the International Summer School for Religion and Public Life (ISSRPL) and operated under that name until 2013.

[2] Emile Durkheim, Rules of Sociological Method, ed. Steven Lukes (New York: The Free Press, 1933/1982), 97–104.

[3] And, in some cases, those norms can change as a result of deviance. See Durkheim, 101–02.

[4] Kai Erikson, Wayward Puritans: A Study in the Sociology of Deviance (Needham Heights, MA: Macmillan, 1966), 10.

[5] Erikson, 11.

[6] “Center Profile: Interfaith Youth Core,” The Pluralism Project,

[7] “IFYC Overview,” About Interfaith Youth Core,

[8] “IFYC Overview.”

[9] “Interfaith Leadership Institutes,” Interfaith Youth Core,

[10] “Quick Start Toolkit,” Interfaith Youth Core,

[11] Eboo Patel and Cassie Meyer, “The Civic Relevance of Interfaith Cooperation for Colleges and Universities,” Journal of College & Character 12:1 (February 2011): 2.

[12] “The Framework,” Interfaith Youth Core,; see also Patel and Meyer, “Civic Relevance of Interfaith Cooperation,” 2.

[13] Patel and Meyer, “Civic Relevance of Interfaith Cooperation,” 2.

[14] “CEDAR: Our Story,” CEDAR—Communities Engaging in Difference and Religion, us/our-story/.

[15] “CEDAR: Past Programs,” CEDAR—Communities Engaging in Difference and Religion,

[16] “The International Summer School on Religion and Public Life Changes Its Name,” CEDAR—Communities Engaging in Difference and Religion,

[17] “Pedagogic Principles,” CEDAR—Communities Engaging Difference and Religion,

[18] “Pedagogic Principles.” In this paper, I also draw on my own experience as a fellow in the Balkan Summer School in 2013.

[19] “How We Work,” CEDAR—Communities Engaging Difference and Religion,

[20] Information on IFYC’s programming is taken from a variety of resources available at, especially the “Quick Start Toolkit,” as well as from informal conversations with IFYC alumni.

[21] “Making It Interfaith,” Interfaith Youth Core,

[22] Eboo Patel and Cassie Meyer, “Defining Religious Pluralism: A Response to Professor Robert McKim,” Journal of College & Character 11:2 (May 2010): 2.

[23] Patel and Meyer, “Defining Religious Pluralism,” 2.

[24] Patel and Meyer, “Defining Religious Pluralism,” 2.

[25] “Making It Interfaith,” Interfaith Youth Core: Tools for Campus Impact,  See especially the footnote on pg. 5.

[26] Patel and Meyer, “Defining Religious Pluralism,” 2.

[27] Patel and Meyer, “Defining Religious Pluralism,” 1.

[28] Thanks to Adam Seligman of CEDAR for this striking metaphor.

How come a self-proclaimed progressive Jew sides with halal meat?, by Rahel Wasserfall

Last week, by chance, I watched a video from the site AKADEM, the French cultural site on all things Jewish (November 20, 2013). Claude Askolovitch, a self-identified progressive Jewish journalist, explained that he was let go from his job as a journalist at Le Point because of an article he wrote defending halal slaughter in France. I was intrigued and continued watching. On the video, he mused about the causes of hatred toward Muslims in contemporary France and asked why both the Front National, a right wing anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic political party, and the Socialists have difficult relations with French Muslims. He then presented the story of how the Front National has been taken seriously and has, in his words, become “the thinking norm.”

Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Front National, started a polemic about halal meat two years ago. She claimed that 45 percent of the meat eaten in France is halal and that halal slaughtering is inhumane. She also asserted that the French are eating it unknowingly and that it is unhealthy for the French population as a whole. Her outrageous statements culminated in a wild pseudo-scientific scenario in which the contents of a dead animal’s stomach are spewed onto the meat while the throat of the animal is ritually cut. This ritual way of slaughtering would pour the stomach bacteria over the meat and render it pathogenic.

This strong, vivid image made me think of my parents whispering that Arabs tend to kill their enemies by cutting their throats. When I was a child in Paris during the most difficult months of the OAS[i] retaliation in the city, an Algerian man was assassinated below my apartment. I can still see in my mind’s eye the chalk contour of his body form on the pavement when I went to school the next morning. The image of cutting someone’s throat was seared into my childhood as the “Arab way of killing.”

Is there something reminiscent of this primal fear in the antipathy to halal slaughtering? Is slaughtering an animal by cutting its throat somehow symbolically linked to the fear of being a human victim of that knife? Madame le Pen has also asserted that Muslims effectively reject the “real French,” as they believe that halal meat touched by a non-Muslim becomes non-halal, and thus no longer edible by a Muslim.  The news media erupted after her claims, explained Askolovitch, and many publications reproduced them without checking their veracity.

Askolovitch, a journalist, did exactly that; he researched the facts and proved that these stories reported all over the media were completely erroneous.[ii] The percentage of animals slaughtered in Ile de France was no more than 2 percent. Furthermore, there is certainly no scientific evidence that the meat is unhealthy because of the way the animals are slaughtered. Le Pen’s claim that halal meat is rendered non-halal by virtue of being touched by a non-Muslim is simply hate mongering.

In her claims regarding halal, Le Pen points to what she thinks is the main problem with the Muslims: they separate themselves, eat differently, and do not drink as the French do. France is not the only place in Europe where halal and kosher slaughter are under attack as inhumane, because stunning the animal prior to ritual slaughter is unacceptable to Muslims and Jews who eat halal and kosher.

Askolovitch develops a thesis surrounding the problem of secularity in France and the inability to include religious others into the Republique. He begins by telling his audience that Alain Finkelkraut, the French Jewish philosopher, just observed that he is not really completely French and the only “real” French are the “Francais de souche.” The word souche (lit: root) has connotations of ancestry and land, which takes us back to 19th-century nationalism and blood.

As I was listening to this story, I was reminded of my own adolescent feelings that as a Jew I would never “really” belong to France. I loved the Republique, but she did do not love me back! I left France to find my place in a Jewish land and then, as many Jews before me, in the goldene medinah,[iii] the United States. I am still longing for what could have been, if I had felt loved by the Republique of my childhood. Does the Republique today behave toward its Muslims as it did to its Jews?

Rahel Wasserfall is Director of Evaluation and Training at CEDAR and resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University.

[i] The OAS (organization de l’ armée secrete) was a counterterrorist part of the French army that refused to let go of Algeria, they were active from 1954 to 1962. Its motto was “L’Algérie est francaise et le restera” Algeria is French and will remain so.

[ii] Claude Askolovitch, Nos mals-aimes: Ces musulmans dont la France ne veut pas. September 2013, Editions Grasset.

[iii]Yiddish; literally the “golden country.”

Musings on diversity from Vienna, Sarajevo, and New York, by Maja Šoštarić

On a sunny morning in August 2013, as I exited the peaceful Parc des Bastions in Geneva, Switzerland and passed by the oversized chess figures near the park gate, I was astonished to see some familiar faces, a real blast from the past, on coming out into Place de Neuve. There they were again: four bronze sculptures by the contemporary German artist Thomas Schütte, entitled Vier große Geister. I had seen them before in 2011, earlier in their tour of European cities, on Vienna’s Graben Street. One is pointing to the skies; another looks defiant, with arms crossed; the third is stretching his arms combatively; and the fourth looks as if he is preparing to embrace someone. What do these four figures really represent? Faith, pride, persistence and hospitality? Or perhaps fundamentalism, segregation, fighting, and indoctrination?

FoD 1 b sostaric photos 3 - cropThe original German title of the sculptures can mean both Four large ghosts and Four great spirits. This ambiguity is probably intentional, as the odd foursome can be interpreted either as terrifying, voracious manifestations of one’s own past coming for its prey, or as dignified, lofty symbols of civilization and humanity. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. Be it as it may, the majority of observers will probably be captivated by something inherently paradoxical: the static dynamism and motionless interaction of the figures.

Back in 2011, while walking past the Vier große Geister in Vienna in the midst of the crowded Graben, replete with tourists, occasional horse carriages, and one very persistent cello player, I caught myself thinking, “Are these four sculptures in some sort of conflict? Or are they independent of each other?” And then, since I always find a way to connect my thoughts with my immediate locations, I concluded that, viewed through my Vienna lens, the four could stand only for faith, pride, persistence and hospitality, and that their interaction could be seen only as togetherness.

Indeed, as I was returning from an eventful soiree with some old friends in Vienna’s 16th district, also popularly known as the Balkanstrasse (Balkan Street), I thought how welcoming this place was toward the citizens of the former Yugoslavia. In Balkanstrasse cafés almost no one speaks German. In the subway or the street, you’re more likely to hear Croatian, Serbian, or Bosnian than German, to the point where you might forget you’re in the Austrian capital. When I was a student here, those of us from the “former state” used to hang out in a large area of the main university aula. But no matter how difficult it was for us—financially, culturally or socially—to adapt to Vienna, all my “ex-Yu” friends and I achieved our goals while respecting Austrian norms and culture and at the same time preserving our respective identities. Many Asians, Mexicans, or Turks in Vienna have embraced a similar lifestyle, in what may be a textbook example of togetherness resulting in diversity.

But Vienna was just a temporary shelter for my restless spirit. When I arrived in Sarajevo more than three years ago, I was handed a city map along with the names of the most important sights. Only several weeks after my arrival, having walked the webs of narrow streets and climbed all the neighboring hills, did I discover a still widely unknown Old Town souvenir: the Sarajevo cube. I stumbled upon it in the tiny streets of the central Baščaršija neighborhood. A simple wooden cube encapsulates the four symbols of Sarajevo: the Beg mosque, the Roman Catholic cathedral, the Old Synagogue, and the Old Orthodox church. This is also why Sarajevo is sometimes compared to Jerusalem: in a small circle of a few hundred meters, four important religions are represented. Indeed, on my short bike ride from the Old Town to my house, I travel through centuries of continuous religious and ethnic coexistence.

Yet I think coexistence has found its absolute pinnacle in the majestic New York City, where I see myself at some point in the future. Walking down endless Broadway late at night, blinded by the colorful lights of Times Square, I witnessed the city’s burgeoning night life, a sweet tyranny of everything, and an overwhelming power of contrast: luxuriously dressed-up people and half-naked people, dancing people and crawling people, people publicly denouncing religion and people publicly worshiping their gods. The avenue resounded with a Babel of different languages. “So this is what diversity is really all about,” I thought, slightly tired, somewhere amidst all those people. But I was not entirely right. The day after, I visited the impressive 9/11 memorial and the neighboring St. Paul’s Chapel, which hosted numerous volunteers who cleaned up the ruins of the destroyed World Trade Center in the months following the attacks. The church houses dozens of objects, photographs, and prayers recalling that period from throughout the United States and the world. That, in fact, is what diversity is all about.

Vienna by night is not nearly as alive as New York, but there are certain nights when everybody is out and about. One such example is Lange Nacht der Kirchen (Long Night of the Churches). All Christian churches keep their doors open for visitors, whoever they may be. I remember the abundant scent of wax candles in a Russian Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas, and the elevated voice singing an Old Slavic mass in the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church of St. Barbara. Although the Muslim and Jewish communities are (still) not part of the initiative, their believers have expressed great interest in it. Indeed, if they were to participate, Vienna would have much more to offer; its first and second districts contain numerous synagogues, while the 10th, 16th, and 17th districts are replete with mosques and places of Islamic worship.

Given the presence of different religions in Sarajevo, there are also many occasions to celebrate. During the month of Ramadan preceding the Eid-al-Fitr holiday (also known in Bosnia as ramazanski Bajram, the Ramadan Bayram), observant Muslims fast from dawn to sunset. Come sunset, however, it is time to enjoy iftar, an evening feast. Many non-Muslims, myself included, are regularly invited to iftars and blessed by the hospitality of our Muslim friends. The small Jewish community in Sarajevo also prepares celebrations, and I was fortunate enough to attend a seder (festive Passover dinner) with prayers recited in Hebrew, Bosnian, and—interestingly—old Spanish (because the first Jews who came to Sarajevo were expelled from the Iberian peninsula in the 15th century). Likewise, on Christmas Eve, many Muslims and other non-Catholics gather in front of the Sarajevo Cathedral in order to wish their Catholic friends merry Christmas. All this is to say that the above-mentioned four sculptures, as viewed through my Sarajevo lens, are doing nothing less than emanating optimism—in spite of the war and annihilation of the city’s recent history.

New York, too, saw destruction not that long ago. Nevertheless, it is nothing but a splendid, relentless motion, resulting from the interplay of faith, pride, persistence and hospitality. I stayed in the exciting area bordering fancy SoHo on one side and colorful Chinatown and Little Italy on the other. In other words, a typical American cupcake bakery is just minutes away from countless Chinese restaurants or delectable Sicilian specialties— a microcosm of people and opportunities. New York really is “all that jazz.” After having enjoyed the magnificent revival of the Harlem Renaissance in the Apollo Theater, the African Poetry Theatre of Queens, and the Japanese-looking Botanical Garden of Brooklyn, completely by accident I found myself in front of Norman Mailer’s beautiful Brooklyn house. My guidebook quoted a sentence from one of his novels: “I don’t think life is absurd. I think we are all here for a huge purpose. I think we shrink from the immensity of the purpose we are here for.” Considering my second chance encounter with the Four great spirits in Geneva, I could only mumble to myself, “How appropriate, how wonderfully appropriate”.

Maja Šoštarić (2012 ISSRPL) works at the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

2012 – ISSRPL Occasional Paper No. 5, by Maja Šoštarić

Fixing the House: The Challenge of Tolerating the “Other” in Public and in Private

Maja Šoštarić

“Imagine that a rat somehow enters your house. What do you do? Essentially, you have two options. One is to kill the rat. Another one is to fix the house.”
(Indonesian kyai – Islamic scholar, during a visit to a pesantren – an Islamic boarding school)

I have witnessed many an interesting, bizarre, or even tragicomic scene during my two-years work in Bosnia focusing on transitional justice. Coming from neighboring Croatia, I have always found the Bosnian mentality somewhat similar to my own. Yet, the Bosnian sarcastically painted sense of humor is something unique that cannot be found anywhere else in the Balkans. I deem it to be by far the best tool for accurately portraying some truths regarding the country’s perplexing political situation, like that scene from Danis Tanović’s 2001 Oscar-winning movie where a Serb and a Bosniak, trapped in an improvised bunker between the opposing armies, quarrel over who started the war, although they might die under a sniper any minute. But eventually, it’s not the sniper that kills them, but their own haggling.

One real-life scene from my professional life in Bosnia is a case in point. During a public debate, a Bosniak, a Croat, and a Serb shared their deeply moving war stories of hunger, torture, and detention, recognized the suffering of the other sides and talked about reconciliation and coexistence. This was indeed something new for the audience present in a packed room on a chilly winter day. The international community must have been very content, for the “value-for-money” ratio finally looked larger than one.

Yet there is another side to the coin, as there always is. Immediately following the debate, I was fortunate to sit down for a cup of tea with the abovementioned three gentlemen, who were smiling to each other, to me, and to the rest of the world. No surprise, then, that I was enormously taken aback to discover, with the stage lights down and off the record, that these three men did not agree on virtually anything. One of them claimed to have been detained in a camp of which another man was denying the mere existence, and the third man was supporting the argument of the second one. As loyal followers of Balkan movies will have guessed, I left them cursing at each other and yelling, all at the same time. (I only heard, from a safe distance, that it was something about you, us, them.)

Is peacebuilding, therefore, just a colorful circus show, a never-ending performance to make believers of those who choose to believe? Is, by extension, tolerance (and hence intolerance as well) something that is exclusively reserved for the private realm, at least in the Western liberal intellectual tradition?[i]  If that is the case, we are very much facing the rat problem mentioned in the caption. What follows from that argument, then, is that the house should be fixed. The first step to proceed, if we think more about the kyai’s valuable advice quoted in the above epigraph, is to identify the hole through which the rat squeezed in, also allowing for the fact that the problem does not have geographical, cultural or social borders: any society can be seen as a house, and any type of intolerance as a rat.

These thoughts were on my mind as the bus I was traveling on this summer stopped in front of a mosque and a church – not one after another, but in fact, one next to another. In the Yogyakarta province, Indonesia, a mosque and a Protestant church share the same address. I was on the bus full of curious minds from all over the world. The bus has just arrived in front of the church and the mosque in order to obtain an insight into how local Muslims and Christians coexist peacefully. The persons on the bus have all read something about the numerous interreligious clashes and disputes in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, whereby the Muslims and all others also coexist with several Islamic subgroups not associated with or recognized by the majority of Indonesia’s Muslims.[ii]

Moreover, we have all heard stories about the Indonesian constitution that foresees six official religions (Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism and Confucianism) to one of which everyone has to belong, and where atheists, or those who refuse to declare their religion, are severely punished. But when one is in the country, stories like that are difficult to believe, judging from the smiling faces around every corner. Therefore, one cannot help but wonder whether the Indonesian people, similarly to the Bosnians and pretty much everyone else on the planet, sometimes only perform.

By performing, of course, I do not mean theater as much as life. But the metaphor of performance found applicability while watching with others the Ramayana ballet in Prambanan Temple in central Java. The content and structure of the performance finds parallels in how one makes sense of “fixing the house.” A traditional Javenese ballet, it is based on the prominent epic and performed in four acts, or, as they call it, episodes. But, the reader is now wondering, how does the ballet play out along the public-private debate? Does the message it conveys and the way it is performed tell us something more about tradition, tolerance and violence?  In the first episode, the main hero, Rama’s wife Shinta, is abducted by Rama’s most bitter adversary, Rahwana. In the second episode, Rama, helped by Sugriwa, the ape envoy, is trying to reach Shinta, while in the third episode Rahwana is already waging a war against Rama. Rama kills Rahwana in episode four, and, of course, reunites with Shinta, and they live happily ever after.

So let the story of tolerance in private versus public (in Bosnia, Indonesia, and everywhere else) and about a summer school that has the rare courage to address the issue (in private and in public), be told in four episodes as well, for the author of these lines still naïvely, but passionately, believes in happy endings.

Episode 1: ISSRPL – Locating the Problem

The curious minds hopping off a bus are the participants of the 2012 International Summer School of Religion and Public Life (ISSRPL) held on two Indonesian islands: Java, being the majority Muslim area, and Bali, being populated mainly by Hindus. By bringing together an ethnically and religiously heterogeneous group of participants (28 fellows from 18 countries) to a country that is equally ethnically and religiously mixed, the school organizers aimed to create small “communities of trust,” as the school director, Boston University professor Adam Seligman, puts it.

Generally, the summer school involves approximately 25-30 fellows coming from about 20 different countries. The yearlong discussion on tolerance and living together differently was started in the Balkans, where, as pointed out in the introduction, it is still a very delicate issue. The first ISSRPL was held in 2003 in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Dubrovnik, Croatia, followed by other Balkan-located schools in 2004 (Sarajevo and Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina), 2006 (Stolac, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Boston, United States) and 2011 (Sofia and Plovdiv, Bulgaria). The logo of the school is also closely related to the Balkans: it represents a design of the Čaršijska Mosque in Stolac, Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was destroyed in 1992-93 and reconstructed in 2003.

Through an intense degree of interaction, and combining cognitive (academic) and emotional aspects, the ISSRPL fellows learn about the country they find themselves in, but also about the people with whom they spend the bulk of their time: other participants of the school. Building on the premises that knowledge is collective (social) and that people build real, active communities (something that is deeply anchored in human nature) by doing together.

Unlike most programs in interreligious and interethnic dialogue, the summer school does not stress what we have in common with the other, but accepts and attempts to build precisely on our differences. That is a challenging undertaking, vastly avoided or at least ignored, precisely because difference is the root of every conflict, be it difference in standpoints, provenance, religion, or levels of wealth. Focusing on the root of conflict is, doubtless, the most targeted way to solve it. By the similar token, addressing difference in the context of the contrast-painted societies is probably also the most efficient method of dealing with difference.

Episode 2: Telling Them What They Want to Hear – a Recipe for Tolerance?

Back to the curious minds from the beginning. Similarly to the ape envoy from Ramayana, they are far from listless and drifting. In the next scene, we see them in a Protestant church, holding some pink lunchbox gifts, eating oranges and listening to the pastor. She is telling them how they, the Christians, have absolutely no problems with their Muslim neighbors. And the Muslim neighbors, who invite everyone to the mosque, concur. All is well, thank you for asking. Yogyakarta has been declared, according to some survey, the happiest city in Indonesia. And according to some other survey, Indonesia, the presenters hurry to add, is indeed the happiest place on the planet. Hence, Logical Reasoning 101 suggests: Yogyakarta is the happiest city on Earth! Some of the curious minds are immediately frowning, and we should forgive them, for doubt is the ultimate quality of those being curious. The question that imposes itself is: could it be that this is just an appearance, something similar to the introductory show performed by my three Bosnian peacebuilding friends? The group leaves in a state of doubt.

A Balinese intellectual gives them an opposite perspective, in a lecture held in a heavenly resort with palms, pools and all other predictable requisites of paradise, in Ubud, Bali. “The tourist heaven you see here”, he points out, “is nothing but the way we make our living. In reality, it’s completely different. Look around. See for yourselves.” The group does just that, trying not to be deceived by the fabulous odor of the yellow plumeria flowers which can be found all over the island. And indeed, truth is out there, as the “X Files”, a TV show popular in the 1990s, suggests. At times, it seems that the Balinese identity, with everything offered for sale, has been constructed merely for purposes of the tourist.[iii]

In a Javanese Catholic church, a priest, looking and speaking like a textbook example of Christ’s shepherd, gives a memorable Sunday sermon. Essentially, he speaks about three people: Udin, a journalist of a local newspaper in Yogyakarta who was probably killed by a politician whom he had associated to corruption; Marsinah, a female worker, who was murdered after she had led a mass labor protest against the corporative owner where she worked. The case was closed without any decision by the court; and Munir, a human rights activist who was poisoned on a flight by military secret agents. Udin, Marsinah and Munir are today’s prophets, the priest concludes, for they were ready to suffer in order to make this imperfect world a better place for the rest of us.

The core of the problem lies exactly in the public sphere. The reason why the honest and profound Bosnian reconciliation process so far has not translated from the public to the private, and vice versa, and why some people in Indonesia publically insist on impeccable harmony within society, while human rights violations still occur in suspicious and dodgy corners far away from sun and the sea, is the inability to grasp the very concept of tolerance, whom one should tolerate, and where. Tolerance “involves accepting, and abiding or accommodating views that one rejects. It calls us to live in cognitive dissonance and presents contradiction as a sought after goal. We are obliged to “bear” what in fact we find unbearable.”[iv]

Often times, tolerance is confounded with indifference – an elegant solution that is based on the premise that a realm of privacy is not to be broached at any cost, and that therefore, tolerant or intolerant views should be removed from public discussion. This is where the issue of space becomes pivotal, too. At home, we think what we want to think, and we say what we want to say, because we are free. Outside, in public, we do not really care (What is there to be tolerant about when it comes to Aborigines if I reside in Buenos Aires? Why on Earth do I have to have an opinion on the Tutsi, or even, God forbid, empathize with them, if I live in Montenegro?), or, in the best of cases, we pretend to care while simultaneously acting completely opposite. That, or so we seem to be taught, is the way to achieve world peace and to coexist with the “other”.

Episode 3: Tolerating vs. Confronting the “Other”

Then, again, who is your “other”? The “other” is obviously not a Tutsi from Kigali if you have spent all your life in Podgorica. On the contrary, it is someone who enters your own, private, comfort zone. The “other” is precisely that person claiming to have been detained in a camp that “your” army set up. The “other” is that Christian building a church in the middle of a Muslim neighborhood; the “other” is also a Jew in Bosnia, where he or she cannot actively engage in politics, or a Jewish observant in Indonesia, where he or she cannot tick a box which says “Judaism” on an ID card, for there is no such category; the “other” is a Muslim in the Paris banlieues or the London outskirts; the “other” is a Chinese on the island of Java, who has never learned to write or to speak Chinese, but has also never really been accepted as an Indonesian; the “other”, too, is that annoying human rights activist who does not stop reminding the world of child labor in your fabric. It seems that the world has plenty of “others”!

Deranged dictators and their policies (though not only) are, as a rule, obsessed with “otherness”. Hitler’s Endlösung (Final Solution) had the objective of exterminating every single Jew in Germany, and then beyond. Saddam’s gassing campaigns during Anfal targeted helpless Kurds in selected areas of Iraq, and Milošević’s insane policy of etničko čišćenje (ethnic cleansing) was systematically conducted against non-Serbs in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo. Throughout Indonesia, in 1965, everyone was suspected to be a Communist and as a consequence, thousands of innocent people died. Khmer Rouge, in Cambodia, went so far as to kill all the people wearing glasses, for they were deduced to be intellectuals, and therefore enemies of the Angkor, the civilization of Kampuchea established by Pol Pot.

Africa, too, is not spared of such abominable stories. Rwandan genocide against the Tutsis was, similarly to what happened in Bosnia and Herzegovina, replete with cases of war rape, with the scope of humiliating the opponent to the core. Moreover, Uganda’s infamous fugitive Joseph Kony has committed unthinkable atrocities leading the ironically named rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (previously also dubbed the Holy Spirit Movement) and aiming to establish a state based on the Ten Commandments. The ongoing crises in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are closely related to this issue.

Punishing “otherness” can also occur in a less brutal manner, of course. Recently an American Muslim in Lombok, Indonesia, was sentenced to five months for religious defamation because during Ramadan in 2012, he pulled out the plug on a mosque’s loudspeaker claiming that the loud voice disrupted the guests at his guesthouse.[v] Likewise, “others” are in many cases held at a safe distance. For instance, the Palestinian people in Bethlehem cannot exit their town, secluded by a wall, and go and visit relatives in Jerusalem, only 8.5 kilometers away, without an official Israeli authorization that is extremely rarely granted. Similarly, Bosniak people in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, have not been to the Croat part of the city for more than twenty years and vice versa. Moreover, both Bosniaks and Croats also swear they will never do so, ever.

Episode 4: Knowledge of vs. Knowledge for Tolerance

But where does this discussion lead us? Now, imagine the group consisting of a Ugandan Catholic, an Indonesian Pentecostal, a Zimbabwean Anglican, a Bosnian Muslim, an Afghani Muslim, an Indonesian Hindu, an American Jew, and a Croatian Catholic. These people all carry along certain views of those who are “other” to them. Perhaps they think of these others as dangerous; perhaps they are skeptical about them; perhaps they see them with a nuance of neutrality, even indifference, when not in direct contact with them. In any case, there is always a certain level of mistrust in interacting with the “other.” Learning about the “other” in an academic way is useful, but it is only the part of the process (Seligman calls this “knowledge of”).

The most distinctive premise of the school, however, is to link this “knowledge of” with an even more precious form of knowledge: “knowledge for.” Imagine a long day of lectures on the Indonesian constitution or Balinese identity; visits to the Merapi volcano by motorcycle, the breathtaking Prambanan, a collection of 240 Hindu temples, or the Kotesan Buddhist village in Java; or worships like the Jewish Shabbat prayer, the Muslim Juma’t Prayer, the mass in the Javanese Catholic church, or the Shiwa Buddha tooth-filing ceremony in the midst of the rice fields of Bali.

After such a full day, when the abovementioned group of people, heterogeneous in everything one can be heterogeneous in – age, gender, race, religion, language, and built-in conceptions of what is acceptable and normal – has dinner together, dances together, sings on a bus, goes to swim, or cooks together, they necessarily build a closer community. They have shared experiences (for they have just returned from a long day and there is a lot to talk about), and they become more open to talk about some more personal issues, such as conflict, belonging and identity. That is, then, the “knowledge for.”

One particular moment that struck this author and which instantiated all that was said thus far, revolves around a young woman, whose provenance I will not disclose for her own safety, and who is the most impressive person I met during the ISSRPL in Indonesia. Young as she is, she leads an unthinkable life for the majority of us participating in the school, some even more than twice as old as she is. Her life consists in constant fear: how will she get to university? What will happen with her and her sister? Is somebody she knows going to get beaten up or killed? She has been trying for several years to set up educational programs for women in her country’s rural areas, facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles and risking her life on a daily basis.

And in the midst of Bali, the hallucinating paradise, something entirely unplanned happens: the young woman suddenly breaks into tears. And what follows, to me, is the core of the ISSRPL: Muslims, Jews, and Christians from all over the world sit still and listen to the girl’s sobbing. No one is trying to console the young woman with some wise words, proverbs and catchy phrases. Importantly, no one is trying to say: “You know, I understand you, for what is/was done to my people is equally bad”. The only gesture coming from all those present, the Muslims, Jews, and Christians, is that of silence, gradually turning into many tears. Certainly, no one was being tolerant in relation to the girl, for there was nothing to tolerate, given no geographical or historical connection between our realities and her quagmire. But, equally, no one was being indifferent. That is the point where empathy jumps in, or, as Dominique Moïsi has so wonderfully put it, the “geopolitics of emotion.”[vi]

That is, in brief, also what the experience of the ISSRPL teaches us. You actually do not have to tolerate your distant “others”, those you do not live with or are not connected to in any way, because their behavior does not affect you. But you can at least try, once in a while, to see the world from their shoes, and compare to what you see from yours. It is a refreshing experience. And that is exactly what happens when you have some forty people from all over the world discussing the limits of power of Yogyakarta’s sultan under a tree just next to the Prambanan temple.

The near “others”, on the other hand, are a more challenging group to deal with. Not only do you have to try to understand what they are going to do next, but you also have to tolerate them (as much in private as in public, in order for the concept of tolerance to really work) so you can all coexist peacefully. When the ISSRPL fellows go back to their countries of origin, this second, much bigger, challenge immediately arises. One thing is certain: You do not merely study the “other” like you study country flags, Amazonian vegetation, or architectural styles. Much more is at stake. You live with the “other”, acknowledge the differences between that other and yourself, and learn to accept them. It is, indeed, astonishingly simple, and, what is more, it guarantees the “happily ever after” ending. The house is safe; the rats will not return.

All that said, I have to note that normally I am genuinely disinclined to appreciate the texts ending with a verse, or, even worse, a whole strophe. It is just so cliché. But, wishing to leave the confused reader with something tangible, or at least memorable, after hearing a whole lot about tolerance, Ramayana, Indonesia, Bosnia, rats, the problem of otherness, and in particular, the ISSRPL that assembled all those puzzle pieces together into a beautiful mélange, I will close with a poem, for a simple reason. I do not believe that anyone has ever made such a powerful point in fewer words than this particular maestro, on why tolerance is a matter of sheer necessity:

The blood, the soil, the faith
These words you can’t forget
Your vow, your holy place
O love, aren’t you tired yet?

(…)A cross on every hill
A star, a minaret
So many graves to fill
O love, aren’t you tired yet?
–Leonard Cohen, The Faith

Author Bio

Maja Šoštarić, a 2012 ISSRPL Fellow, has a PhD in Political Science from University of Vienna with research stays in Paris and Osaka, a postgraduate diploma in International Studies from Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, as well as a Master’s in Economics from Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration. She has worked with a number of international organizations, NGOs, and think tanks. Her primary interests are diplomacy and international affairs, human rights and languages.

[i] Seligman, Adam B. 2003. “Tolerance, Tradition and Modernity.” Cardozo Law Review no. 24 (4):1645-1656.

[ii] Hefner, Robert. 2011. “Where have all the abangan gone? Regionalization and decline of non-standard Islam in contemporary Indonesia”. In: Politics and religion in Indonesia. Syncretism, orthodoxy and religious contention in Java and Bali. Edited by Michel Picard and Rémy Madinier, 2011. Routledge, London and New York.

[iii] Picard, Michel. 2008. “Balinese identity as tourist attraction: From `cultural tourism’ (pariwisata budaya) to `Bali erect’ (ajeg Bali)”, In: Tourist Studies; 8; p.155.

[iv] Seligman, see supra note 1, p. 102.

[v] Bagir, Zainal Abidin, 2011. “Defamation of Religion Law in Post-Reformasi Indonesia: Is Revision Possible?”, Gadjah  Mada University, Yogyakarta, Indonesia. The paper was first presented “Law and Religious Pluralism in Contemporary Asia” Seminar, 17-18 December 2011, organized by Asia Research Institute and the Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore.

[vi] Moïsi, Dominique. 2008. “La géopolitique de l’émotion: Comment les cultures de peur, d’humiliation et d’espoir façonnent le monde”, Flammarion, Paris.

2011 – ISSRPL Occasional Paper No. 4, by James W. McCarty, III

Rejecting Utopias, Embracing Modesty: Reflections on Interreligious Peacebuilding in Light of the International Summer School on Religion and Public Life

James W. McCarty, III

My field of study, Christian Social Ethics, is a child of the “Social Gospel” movement.[i] At its best, this movement represents the incredible possibilities of constructive and theologically informed Christian political engagement toward the creation of a just society. At its worst, it represents the worst of religious social thought: the utopian dreams of naïve people whose religious vision of a perfect society impeded their work for a good one.[ii] Like many others influenced by Enlightenment beliefs about human potential, some Social Gospellers believed that humanity was evolving into a more moral race and was coming into its final stages of development. This dream quickly became a nightmare in the wake of two world wars and the attempted extermination of European Jewry. Advances in technology did not coincide with advances in morality. Rather, they made it possible for the modern phenomenon known as “genocide” to come into existence.

On the other end of the spectrum, for nearly a century people were predicting the global decline of religion. People proclaimed “the death of God” and forecast the rise of a global secularism, understood as the disappearance of religion from public life. Those who were wiser cautioned against such bold claims, but the mainline story for decades was that religion was “on the ropes” and had nearly zero chance of long-term survival. Today we know that such predictions were naïve and pompous. The significance of religion in global public life seems, to people in the West, to have increased exponentially over the last decade. Of course, the importance of religion was never in decline, we often simply chose to ignore its untraditional manifestations. The utopian vision of a “secular” society liberated from religion seems like nothing more than a fairy tale in today’s world.

Finally, many liberals, devoted to social justice and peacemaking around the world, continue to spread the often offensive untruth that “all religions are really the same” or that “at the heart of every religion is love and justice and peace and, therefore, we should all just get along.” They gloss over real and significant differences between religious and theological traditions in order to proclaim a false universalism and surface unity between the religions.  We have seen over and over that people are often willing to die and kill over those seemingly “trivial” differences liberals want to ignore. They pursue the solidarity of religious traditions through the categories of liberalism and, therefore, fail to do justice to both the great religious traditions and the project of liberalism. The utopian hope of all faiths leading up the same mountain is dashed every time someone refuses to climb the aforementioned mountain.

Utopias are exciting and we want to believe them. They give us a goal to work toward and an energizing spirit that inspires masses of people. Utopias sustain us when reality causes others to despair. However, utopias are false dreams that eventually shatter when people attempt to implement them in history because they must eventually exclude those who do not buy into or fit neatly into the vision. Liberalism is one such utopia, and Communism is another, and both have been party to some of history’s most egregious crimes. They were the leading political visions of the bloodiest century on record.

In contrast, the International Summer School on Religion and Public Life (ISSRPL) embodies a pedagogy of modesty. Rejecting all utopias, the ISSRPL pursues tolerance, shared practices, recognized and embraced differences, and the admission of religious, theological, and ethical ambiguity rather than purity in communal religious life. Perhaps the most important form of modesty practiced by ISSRPL, however, is its refusal to claim to know any final answer to the complex question of how to make and sustain peace in a religiously plural world. The school is an experiment as much as it is anything, and while there may be tentative theories being explored, the results of the experiment are not yet clear. Focusing on the lived experience of religion in various contexts, the school challenges and complicates the “neat” pictures of public life theorists like John Rawls and Karl Marx present. Public life is not just “political life” in a narrow sense. Religious life is public life as well.

An Example of What is Possible

Bulgaria is a country that has passed through centuries of Orthodox Christian hegemony, five hundred years of Ottoman rule, decades of a Communist regime, and is now in the early stages of a liberal democratic society. Now, imagine if you will an Orthodox Christian monastery in Bulgaria that is home to one young monk. This monastery was built over a century ago by a Muslim man whose Muslim wife found healing at a nearby spring of healing water tied by legend to the traditional Orthodox faith of the country. Today this monastery houses a very old icon which has a special miraculous power: it provides healing to women who have been unable to conceive. Many women come and pray before this icon every year and find healing for their barren wombs. Christian women pray before this icon. Muslim women pray before this icon. This occurs in a country where churches were destroyed and converted into mosques which were centuries later converted back into churches. This, in a land where Turkish-Muslims were exiled to Turkey, and Bulgarian-Muslims were forced to have their names changed into “Christian” ones as recently as the 1980’s.

In a land with centuries of ebbing religious conflict, how does such a place as this monastery exist? On the one hand, it is a miracle. On the other hand, it is very simple: Christians and Muslims share something there. They share a history, a holy relic, and a practice of healing. Through times of strife throughout the rest of the country people of various religious backgrounds have come to pray before this miraculous icon. They have shared life’s pain and joy, at least, in this one place, and it has survived conflicts between religions and the Communist attempt to eliminate religion.

In this space questions of theology are not asked, Holy Scriptures are not compared and contrasted with one another, and no attempts at conversion are made. People from various religious backgrounds simply share in a practice that gives life. They go away from their shared practice different but not converted. Rather, they allow the space to be what it is—a shared space of life-giving practices—and do not trouble that space with the conflicts that sometimes rage outside.

However, that space is not wholly “public,” and outside that space conflicts still occur quite frequently. ISSRPL exists to discover if there are some other shared public practices that can create the space for tolerance. It is an experiment of which no one yet seems to know the results.

What is ISSRPL?

ISSRPL is an experiment, a “laboratory,” in which scholars and activists of interreligious peacebuilding from around the globe travel to some place in the world with a history of religious conflicts and live together for two weeks. During this time they eat meals together, study together, sightsee together, witness each other’s worship services, and even do “yoga” together. Throughout these two weeks a multitude of conversations and key events occur. For instance, imagine Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians from Bulgaria, Uganda, and Indonesia singing “Amazing Grace” while American Jews and Bosnian Muslims cheer them on. Or, imagine a heated debate about Muslim women wearing headscarves in which a Muslim woman makes it clear she will not remove her scarf because “it is part of who she is.” In response, a Christian man says, “You weren’t born with it on your head,” to which a secular Jewish woman enthusiastically cheers. Both of these instances happened within hours of each other at the 2011 ISSRPL.  This is life at the ISSRPL.

The Principles of the ISSRPL

There are several key principles and assumptions under which the ISSRPL functions. The first is that the dominant models in contemporary political philosophy, liberalism and communitarianism, are inadequate models for making sense of religious plurality and establishing a sustainable peace. Adam Seligman, the founder of the school, said, “[One] purpose of the school is to understand the implications of different political models.”[iii] One implication of both of these dominant models is that they are inadequate in the face of increasing religious diversity. They both assume a certain type of hegemony, of the individual or the traditional community, which inevitably excludes certain religious persons from ever being able to be full members of such a political community. They both create “others” that can never be wholly integrated. Rather than attempt to perfect one of these inherently flawed models, the school is an experiment in creating a third way between them.

A second key assumption is that “part of living together is bearing one’s own discomfort.”[iv] In other words, there are differences that cannot be transcended and these differences will sometimes, if not oftentimes, make us uncomfortable. For instance, I am uncomfortable when I see a woman wearing a burqa; in fact, I find it hard to fathom how enforcing this practice is anything other than a form of oppression of women. In a like manner I cannot count the number of times I have had Muslim women insist to me that women in the West are oppressed because they are forced to adhere to standards of beauty and sexual vibrancy that distract from their intelligence and spiritual strength to be successful. The dress of women in the West is truly offensive to their social, religious, and moral sensibilities. However, this does not mean that we cannot live with one another in a way in which we respect, or at best tolerate, our differences without either of us “accepting” them. More importantly, this does not mean that we cannot live together without eventually wanting to kill one another even if we never accept all of each other’s practices.

This is a third core principle of the school: tolerance is not “too low” a virtue to be the goal of interreligious peacebuilding. It is popular today to dismiss tolerance as an inadequate goal for social life because it implies a “distaste” for another’s way of life and, therefore, we should move beyond tolerance to acceptance or the celebration of differences. The school takes as one of its starting points the exact opposite stance. Just as human rights best function as a “floor” or “basement” for our social life rather than some unattainable “ceiling,” we should strive for tolerance because that is the best we can achieve in a world in which religious differences are often not simply a matter of “taste” but have significant moral and social implications. There is a high likelihood that one’s religious (and political) beliefs and practices are highly offensive to someone else. One part of social life is that we live with people who offend us. Striving to live as if this is not so is another utopia that is bound to disappoint. Rather, if we could simply tolerate those who offend us and make us uncomfortable we will have taken an important first step towards a sustainable peace.

One way in which this discomfort is borne by everyone in the school is by attending one another’s religious services. Witnessing the worship of another person can be a jarring experience. We are reminded of the different ways that we each pray to our God and that we inhabit different religious and moral worlds. While there are always places of contact where some commonality can be found, those points of commonality do not remove or transcend our differences. The differences always remain and must be tolerated if they cannot be accepted.

An important part of such tolerance, for the ISSRPL, is the willingness to live together under the assumption that no one people group—religious, ethnic, national, or racial—has a monopoly on suffering. In other words, no one in the school can claim the suffering of their people as a trump card to end the hard work of attempting to live together through offense and injury.[v] This is, perhaps, the most difficult principle of the school as there are often people in the school who come from places where the rhetoric of “greater suffering” of one group versus another is a daily reality. It is easy to view the goal of tolerance as a cynical one that refuses to move past “petty” offenses, but when one remembers that peacebuilding is not necessarily about how to live peacefully with your annoying next door neighbor but, rather, how to live peacefully with the person who stole your family’s land or how to ride the bus with the person whose brother killed your daughter, we are reminded of how difficult interreligious peacebuilding can be.

The learning that happens in being physically present in the worship of another or in suppressing the desire to claim one’s suffering as a trump card is fundamentally different than the learning that happens when reading an essay on prayer or reading about the suffering in your enemy’s history. This type of learning impacts us beyond some form of generalized knowledge[vi] about the other by forcing one to learn what it means to physically remain in relationship with one whose words or life are at times offensive. This is why the ISSRPL places such an emphasis on embodied pedagogy.[vii]

Finally, the school assumes that over two weeks of living, studying, and working together the group of between thirty and forty well-intentioned people of goodwill will “splinter.” Some event will occur that drives a wedge between certain members of the group. All that we have discussed before is tested in this experience. Can we practice tolerance in the midst of real offense and injury? Inevitably, it seems, the group recovers from this experience and comes back together to live together in a tolerant community. What is it that enables this to happen? This, it seems, is the yet unanswered question. In the year I was part of the school it was drawing upon some of the core principles of Western liberal individualism that brought the group back together. I gathered from conversations that in previous years it was a commitment to some form of communitarianism that brought the group back together after strife. However, neither of these alone is sufficient for the enterprise. The question of the school is, “What is the third way between these two dominant political models that the school is uncovering in its annual practice?”

Embracing Modesty

Out of my experience with the ISSRPL I have learned three key lessons for thinking about interreligious peacebuilding: first, dialogue is insufficient to establish peace; instead, shared practice, even public rituals, are necessary to sustain any peace begun through dialogue or political policy; second, interreligious peacebuilding is risky and there is never any guarantee that an achieved peace will last; third, we must embrace theological, political, and embodied modesty and reject the pursuit of utopias.

One of the most common responses to religious diversity and conflict is to promote interreligious dialogue. In these settings people of different faiths come together and talk about their religious beliefs with one another. Members of one religion teach members of another religion about their holidays, theological commitments, and forms of worship. Oftentimes, the purpose of such sessions is to dispel rumors about a religion or answer “hard questions.” While such dialogue is helpful in introducing people who may not otherwise cross paths to one another, and serves as a type of “icebreaker” between communities, it is insufficient to establish a sustainable peace. The knowledge gained at this level of engagement is still too abstract and general to sustain peace. Rather, people must share life together.[viii] Some form of shared practice—perhaps as simple as sharing a regular meal[ix]—is necessary for people to move beyond seeing those of another religion as a “generalized other.”[x] Practices are concrete, and sharing practices is a an embodied experience that makes it harder to act as if the one you share such a practice with is not a human in the same way you are a human.[xi] It is ritual that sustains religious communities during times of theological strife, and it will take some form of publicly shared ritual between religious communities to sustain any understanding or peace that is achieved through dialogue. “Ideal speech situations” do not exist in reality. In reality what we have are embodied persons who share space with other embodied persons. Shared practices and rituals create an embodied knowledge that simply cannot be achieved through dialogue, no matter how “ideal” it is.

In addition, no matter how much dialogue occurs or how many practices are shared, there is never a guarantee that today’s peace will last tomorrow. Peacebuilding is always risky.[xii] In response to this reality, the ISSRPL emphasizes “trust.”[xiii] It claims that with modernity we have had to learn to live in danger. More often than not we have responded to this danger with practices of exclusion, othering, and violence. In traditional communities there is no need to “trust” anyone because you can have “confidence” in them. Everyone you encounter is a person like you—from the same family or tribe—but with the rise of the modern age we began to live with strangers. You can never be confident about how a stranger will react to your action or even your being. Living amongst strangers seems to be an inherently dangerous situation. In this situation, if we want to live peacefully, we must trust our stranger-neighbor with no guarantee that they will not harm us. Thus, every attempt at living peacefully with those who are “other” is a risky endeavor. [xiv] To pursue a worthwhile end we must always take risks. Our attempts at life-sustaining moral action are never guaranteed success. Too often people refuse to act without the confidence that their actions will achieve their intended results; they do not engage people without knowing they will be respected and treated appropriately. However, if we only welcome others when we are sure our hospitality will be reciprocated we become slaves to our individual prejudices and fears and of our society’s generalized stereotypes of those who are our strangers. To create peace we must be willing to trust people who offend us and make us uncomfortable. It is for this reason that peacebuilding is always a risky endeavor.

Finally, we must embrace what Adam Seligman calls “epistemological modesty”[xv] and Ellen Ott Marshall calls “theological humility.”[xvi] We must be willing to admit we do not have a monopoly on the truth if we are ever to achieve a lasting peace that includes those who are “not like us.” One can claim to know the whole truth and maintain a certain form of peace in a homogenous and hegemonic community, but in a plural society one must always make “modest claims.”[xvii] We must make modest and humble claims—and have modest goals—because bold claims too quickly become utopian justifications to continue the cycle of violence that plagues our world. The most terrible crimes and human rights abuses of the twentieth century—genocides in Europe, Asia, and Africa, constant and protracted warfare, decades of Apartheid rule in South Africa, the use of “disappearances” in Latin America, international terrorism—were all committed in the name of political, ethnic, and religious utopias. Some of history’s greatest atrocities have been motivated by humanity’s highest ideals. The remedy for such overzealous violence is modesty.

One of the leading causes of violence is the notion of “purity.” The pursuit of ethnic and religious purity, especially, has served as a justification for violence against all who may be potential “pollutants.” One way in which we learn to embrace modesty and reject utopias is through sharing spaces and practices with one another. For example, the monastery mentioned earlier is a shared space that both Muslims and Christians in Bulgaria have an interest in preserving because they share practices there. In a similar manner, there is a small community in Macedonia in which Orthodox Christians and Sunni and Shi’a Muslims all celebrate the Day of Saint George at the same shrine. In these celebrations the Christians incorporate some traditionally Macedonian Muslim practices (such as stepping through a string of beads), the Muslims incorporate some traditionally Christian practices (such as giving gifts of eggs dyed red), and they all incorporate traditional Macedonian practices in their celebrations (specifically, the  youth swinging from a rope on a tree).[xviii] They share holiday practices and a holy space and maintain peace while being surrounded by communities that have experienced conflict. While shared spaces and practices are no guarantee of peace, they are a risk that, when taken, opens up the space where trust and peace are viable possibilities.


We live in a world shaped by great ideals and horrific violence. The twentieth century has taught us, if it has taught us anything, that the inevitable outcome of striving for utopian dreams is historically gruesome violence. In response to this, the ISSRPL maintains that we must take modest steps towards religious peace. These steps must be physical and not metaphorical. Politics is impotent to create peace between religious and ethnic groups. Dialogue, while pointing in the right direction, is incapable of sustaining peaceful relations. Perhaps we should return to the lessons of so-called “primitive” or “traditional” religions and communities and create shared practices and rituals that perform peace. Habituation in such practices may be able to form people with the virtue of peacebuilding. And even if we continue to be so different from one another that we still experience discomfort, perhaps we will have enough of the virtue of patience to be able to bear our discomfort. At least, this is what the ISSRPL understands to be its modest claim. And if this happens, maybe we will stop killing each other.

Author Bio

James W. McCarty, III, a 2011 ISSRPL Fellow, is Director of the Ethics and Servant Leadership Program at Oxford College of Emory University, a doctoral student in Religion at Emory University, and a former minister at Normandie Church of Christ.

[i] See Gary Dorrien, Social Ethics in the Making: Interpreting an American Tradition (West Sussex, UK: Wiley –Blackwell, 2011), for the most comprehensive survey of the discipline and the story of its roots in the Social Gospel movement in the United States.

[ii] See Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (1932, Charles Scribner’s Sons; reprint, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), and Reinhold Niebuhr, Reflections on the End of An Era (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934), for two of the most biting critiques along these lines.

[iii] Quoted from an informal conversation at the 2011 ISSRPL.

[iv] Adam Seligman, “Trust, Tolerance and Modernity – the Problem of Liberalism,” lecture delivered at ISSRPL on July 5, 2011.

[v] Charles Taylor has called the phenomena of using the suffering of one’s people group as a “trump card” the “victim scenario.” He claims that one defining feature of the modern world is the proliferation of people claiming to be victims in such a way that it justifies their present and future violence. When two groups continue to use this “victim scenario” against one another a cycle of violence is put in motion that is very difficult to overcome and often ends in the mass killing of innocent people. It is no coincidence for Taylor that genocides arose in an era where the claim to victimhood absolves moral considerations. See Charles Taylor, “Notes on the Sources of Violence: Perennial and Modern,” in Beyond Violence: Religious Sources of Social Transformation in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, edited by James L. Heft, S.M. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004), 15-42.

[vi] See Adam Seligman, “Pedagogic Principles and Reflections Developing Out of ISSRPL Practice,” ISSRPL Occasional Paper Series No. 1,

[vii] Ibid., 1.

[viii] This claim is not dissimilar to Sharon Welch’s critique of Jürgen Habermas “that morally transformative interaction requires far more than conversation between different groups and people” and her claim that “genuine’ conversation presupposes prior material interaction, either political conflict or coalition, or joint involvement in life-sustaining work.” See Sharon D. Welch, A Feminist Ethic of Risk: Revised Edition (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000). 124.

[ix] Welch, A Feminist Ethic of Risk, 136. “For those whose differences are great, work together is often possible at only the most basic level: preparing food together, cleaning, building houses, making clothing.”

[x] See Seyla Benhabib, “The Generalized and the Concrete Other: The Kohlberg – Gilligan Controversy and Moral Theory,” in Situating the Self: Gender, Community and Postmodernism in Contemporary Ethics (New York: Routledge, 1992), 158-70, for the classic exploration of generalized knowledge about social groups.

[xi] I am not so naïve as to think that practices as simple as eating together will lead to world peace. Rather, I am claiming shared practices such as cooking and eating open up spaces that make peace a greater possibility than if those spaces had not been opened. Sadly, Tone Bringa, in her documentary film Bosnia: We Are All Neighbors, has demonstrated that even friends who have shared coffee for decades can abandon one another in times of violent conflict between religious groups.

[xii] John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 163-9.

[xiii] See Adam Seligman, The Problem of Trust (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997).

[xiv] This is not unlike Sharon Welch’s “ethic of risk.” Welch argues against an “ethic of control” which has defined so much of Western ethics and argues instead for an “ethic of risk.” She defines the ethic of risk in this way: “The ethic of risk is characterized by three elements, each of which is essential to maintain resistance in the face of overwhelming odds: a redefinition of responsible action, grounding in community, and strategic risk-taking. Responsible action does not mean the certain achievement of desired ends but the creation of a matrix in which further actions are possible, the creation of the conditions of possibility for desired changes.” Welch, A Feminist Ethic of Risk, 46.

[xv] Seligman used this phrase during a group conversation during the 2011 ISSRPL.

[xvi] Ellen Ott Marshall, Christians in the Public Square: Faith that Transforms Politics (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008), 75-6. “I use the phrase theological humility to denote a posture that (1) admits limitations of knowledge and partiality of perspective, (2) explicitly and deliberately practices hermeneutics, and (3) remains transparent about faith commitments and accountable to other sources of knowledge.”

[xvii] See Adam Seligman, Modest Claims: Dialogues and Essays on Toleration and Tradition, (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004).

[xviii] I learned of this shrine from viewing the unpublished film Peace for All (Shared Shrines) and in informal conversations with its director Elizabeta Koneska. The historical background behind this film can be found in Elizabeta Koneska, “Shared Shrines in Macedonia,” in Elizabeta Koneska and Robert Jankuloski, Shared Shrines. (Skopje: Macedonian Centre for Photography, 2009).