Amid the controversy over the Islamic cultural center in NYC and Pastor Terry Jones' threats of burning the Quran in Florida, a recent Pew Research Center poll revealed that 42 percent of Americans believe Islam encourages violence while 55 percent admit that they do not know very much about Islam. In at least 11 states, hostile demonstrations have been staged around proposed sites for mosques, and on Sunday mornings it is common to hear vitriolic sermons by religious leaders against Islam. While none of the world's religions is impervious to fomenting conflict, Islam has often been singled out as particularly and intrinsically violent. It is nearly impossible to speak about contemporary Islam without referring to the subject of violence.
Behind the explosive headlines and images of violence, there is a neglected story of how ordinary Muslims around the world, including in the U.S., draw on their faith and tradition to build peace, engage in dialogue, resolve conflict, and use nonviolent strategies in everyday affairs. There are existing principles, tools, and resources inherent in Islam to promote cooperation and resolve conflict nonviolently.
Since the September 11 attacks, many policymakers and critics vociferously promote reforming Islamic societies, arguing for the urgent need to bring political, social, economic, and even cultural reformation to the Arab-Muslim Middle East. Such reforms include reinterpreting religious doctrines more liberally by supporting "moderate," pro-Western religious and political leaders. Others argue for bold, impulsive reforms that target changing religious education, altering political systems, lessening the influence of religious law, and diluting social and cultural practices that appear to be obstacles to progress. The promotion of American idealism -- the values of freedom, justice, equality, democracy, and the pursuit of prosperity -- are not contradictory to Islamic principles of peacebuilding or culture of cooperation.
Islamic principles of peacebuilding affirm that all humanity has a common origin, and that human dignity must be respected regardless of ethnicity, religion, tribe, or nationality. Diversity amongst people encapsulates the richness of traditions. Dialogue with others means to cooperate, collaborate, and identify practical steps for real mutual understanding. To be actively involved in one's tradition means not to lead exclusivistic, hermetic lives, but to be engaged with others in a respectful manner.
There are astounding similarities and overlapping themes in Islamic and Western peacebuilding efforts. However, unfortunately, Muslim scholars and practitioners are unrecognized for their remarkable contributions in the fields of human rights, governance, gender rights, conflict prevention, conflict resolution, peace education, development, educational reform, interfaith dialogue, and other areas.
Peacemaking and Conflict Resolution
Instead of concentrating on reforming, reinventing, and transforming Islamic societies, we need to pay attention to existing peacebuilding practices by Muslims. Peacebuilding efforts work toward preventing the escalation of violent conflict and establishing a durable and self-sustaining peace. Sunni and Shi'ite scholars unanimously agree that basic Islamic peacemaking teachings are meant to help individuals in a society to maintain healthy, meaningful relationships, both with each other and with the divine. When conflict erupts, whether it is interpersonal, communal, national or international, Muslim scholars point out the disruption and destruction of human relationships, and restoring them is essential if justice is to be served.
Traditionally, Muslim theologians, jurists, and scholars have promoted Islamic teachings of ethics to prevent, mediate, and resolve conflicts, ultimately stressing the need for personal transformation and striving toward elevating spiritual awareness and overcoming neglectfulness through fasting, prayer, charity, meditation, service, rituals of reconciliation, recitation of the Quran, love of others, adoption of orphans, and, most importantly, displaying compassion and forgiveness to oneself and to others who have done harm. This approach on personal inner transformation -- moving away from greed, egocentric desires, suffering, negative materialism, harming others -- humans then can act peacefully in the world.
Early on in Islamic history, jurists legalized and institutionalized peacebuilding efforts from the top-down approach, which is the use of a judge to oversee the process of mediation, arbitration, and reconciliation. Conflicting parties also had an option to agree on a process of resolving a dispute with a third-party mediator, where the mediator would ensure that all parties were satisfied by the outcomes. Other customary practices of conflict resolution include using an intermediary to represent the party, but not necessarily lawyers, who can best present their positions as clearly as possible and can guarantee that the parties receive a fair settlement. Compensation is not only measured in financial terms; it also includes a service to the family or community and specific gestures of sympathy or public demonstration of reconciliation.
Contrary to stereotypical images of Muslim women in Arab-Muslim societies, peacebuilding is by no means an exclusive male prerogative or male-dominated field. Instead, leading civil-society organizations are directed by Muslim women, especially in conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, and Somalia. Suzanne Mubarak, wife of president of Hosni Mubarak, supervises the Institute of Peace in Alexandria, Egypt, where hundreds of trainings and workshops support youth empowerment and the importance of civic responsibilities. Soraya Jamjuree, founder of the Friends of Victimized Families and professor at the Prince Songklah University in Pattani, Thailand, has successfully implemented non-violent methods to mediate and resolve conflict in southern Thailand. Jamjuree publically stated, "When violence happens, the victim's family wants to take revenge if they know the perpetrators. I think we can reduce their pain, reduce their sadness and stop them from taking revenge. If we have success in this way, maybe we can stop the violence, if not now, perhaps in the future."
In Pakistan, Sameena Imtiaz, founder of Peace Education and Development (PEAD) Foundation has effectively trained hundreds of teachers and students in the most underdeveloped areas of Pakistan in peacebuilding, conflict resolution, human rights, minority rights, gender equality, and tolerance of others. In a recent workshop of peace educators, Imtiaz said, "Our work in peace education cannot be viewed as symbolic repair work, more than ever it is a necessity for the future of the nation."
Defying the role of passive victims cloaked in dark, ghastly clothing, Muslim women peacemakers are not seeking to be defended or liberated by others; rather, they are leading the field by creating new models of conflict resolution, using networks of activists, political figures, media, and religious leaders to negotiate peacemaking processes.
Despite these processes and current efforts, there is a real need to increase the support of peacebuilding activities through civil-society organizations, address political stagnation, address historical memories of violence and injustice, and identify a measurable solution to economic and political powerlessness. It is clear that the diversity of traditions, cultures, opinions, and civilizations within Islam greatly enhances and enriches the possibilities for greater peacebuilding work.
The views presented here do not necessarily reflect views of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).