High Level UN General Assembly Side Event recommended strategies for reducing religious sectarianism
Held on Friday 2nd October in New York, the UNGA Side Event ”Strategies in Reducing Religious Sectarianism: Voices from the field” offered concrete strategies through the lense of Libyan and Kenyan case studies. Organized by Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland, the US Department of State, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation of Spain and Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) together with the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers, the event brought together decision makers, policy experts, religious and tribal leaders, and civil society stakeholders to discuss the drivers of sectarianism that arises from perceived religious differences, and the ways it impacts peace efforts.
In his opening remarks Minister for Foreign Affairs of Finland Timo Soini stressed the importance of religious and traditional leaders in the pursuit towards sustainable peace. Mr. Soini complemented the efforts of the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers in enhancing inclusive mediation.
The Secretary General of the OIC Iyad Mandani noted that we are living an era of identities rather than ideology. As religion is a crucial component in shaping identities, it must be taken into account in peace mediation efforts. Dr. Aref Ali Nayed, Ambassador of Libya to the United Arab Emirates and the Founder and Director of Kalam Research & Media, highlighted that “the problem is not identity itself but how we go about it”. He stressed that sectarianism becomes brutal when it is linked to power and used for destroying the ultimate value of human beings.
Professor Mohammed Abu-Nimer from KAICIID Dialogue Centre stressed that religious divisions are not instrumentalized and abused only by religious leaders but also by policy makers. The politics of fear needs to be reversed by making sectarian language a tabu, normalizing differences, building trust and enhancing cross sectarian relationships.
These goals can be achieved through opening a dialogue between the conflicting parties. In order for the dialogue efforts to succeed, the focus should lay on condemning actions rather than naming any actor involved as terrorist or extremist. External actors such as international organizations can play a key role in supporting this process.
Voices from the field – Kenyan and Libyan examples
The sectarian divisions in Kenya have long existed but recent waves of terrorism are lifting them to a new level of mistrust, polarization, and questions on effective governance. Although there have been many terror attacks in Kenya, the last few attacks have created a new dimension to the problem. From the attack on Westgate in 2013, Mpeketoni in 2014, Madera 1, and Mandera 2 (2014), terrorists have selectively killed non-Muslims, more particularly Christians. Perhaps the worst attack was the Garissa University College attack earlier this year, where 148 students, mostly non-Muslims were killed. Both religious leaders and state actors need to urgently develop strategies to prevent further escalation of these internal divides.
Reverend Canon Francis Omondi Otieno has been playing an important role in reducing sectarian tensions in Kenya. His insightful speech in the Side Event called for responsible action that takes into account fair distribution of government resources, adequate security measures, importance of education and counter narratives in the media. The feeling of trust must be recreated and one cannot ignore that international developments also have local impact. His examples were supported by Sheikh Ibrahim Lethome’s input that was delivered in written and highlighted the importance of long term solution that is based on creating dialogue and counter narratives to those sustaining division.
Libyan case study demonstrates that sectarianism can be prominent even in relatively homogenous societies. Although Libya has not historically suffered from religious sectarian cleavage, the crisis since the revolution in 2011 has created an ongoing power struggle between a number of factions representing both geographical and ideological interests and dividing society. These dividing lines are hampering ongoing attempts at reconciliation and state-building. Extremist groups across the country have taken advantage of the power vacuum to establish presence and control in major urban centers in the East, West, and South, while smuggling and trafficking has surged. ISIS now controls the coastal city of Sirte and consequently has access to the port, airport and military and civilian infrastructure in the city. It is therefore able to exploit the national telecommunications infrastructure.
In his remarks in the Side Event, Sheikh Mohammed Al-Ajeel stressed that states must act in a responsible manner and support the disarmament process in Libya. Before this immediate security threat is solved it is hard to establish sufficient dialogue to solve the conflict. Najla Mangoush highlighted the importance of the inclusion of religious leaders and actors not only in mitigating the conflicts but also in restorative justice responses. She also stressed that in Libya it is Muslims who are killing Muslims and this dimension needs adequate understanding in the responses to violent extremism. The moderator of the panel, Pekka Haavisto, Special Representative on Mediation of the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Finland, stressed the importance of understanding the complexity of the issues surrounding sectarianism and the multiple identities that need due attention.
The meeting was also supported by a consultative meeting between the panelist from Kenya and Libya that aims to feed into the future developments in concrete responses to sectarianism. The Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers will follow up on these efforts.