As I have mentioned previously, one important positive aspect of living and interning in Washington, DC is the easy access to a variety of presentations, seminars, and workshops on a plethora of issues stemming from the human rights field. A couple of weeks ago, for example, I attended a panel discussion on the role of religion and culture in the development of democracy in post-conflict areas. The subject of discussion fits perfectly the theme of the African Conflicts class I am currently enrolled in and I thought it is a wonderful idea to attend. The panel consisted of James Patton, Marc Gopin, and Mohammed Abu-Nimer and all three panelists offered valuable insight on the topic and made some great observations and conclusions.
First, religion and culture are very important and must be taken in consideration before any attempts at assisting a transition to a democratic state in a post-conflict area, whether that area is in Southeast Asia, Africa, or South America. Religion and culture must not be ignored or dismissed as inferior if the ultimate goal is to reduce the suffering in the conflict-ridden area.
However, a human rights activist must be careful not to assume that established religious institutions in a particular area will necessarily support the transition to democracy. As Patton emphasized, there are inherent contradictions between the ideas of religion and democracy. He stated that while democracy is about agency, religion is often about the lack of agency in people and the need to rely on an outside power for support. As an example, he highlighted that often the Catholic Church has supported dictatorial regimes in South America. Similarly, Gopin pointed out that historically, religious institutions were associated with torture and violence and that this was one of the main reasons for the creation of the democratic state.
Next, Abu-Nimer discussed the role of peacebuilding and warned against the danger of wanting to introduce what Westerners consider democratic values into cultures in which most of the beliefs contradict these values. Instead of helping an already ravaged area, this is a sure way to cause more damage and exacerbate the problem. I agree with his conclusion as I know from personal experience that arrogance and imposing beliefs on completely different cultures often bring more misery.
There were a couple of particularly interesting ideas mentioned and discussed that I am going to have to think about and perhaps expand into individual posts in the future. The first idea was that it is important for us to recognize that democracy does not necessarily equal no violence. Peacebuilding and humanitarian efforts should be clear and realistic about the desired outcomes of their efforts and be prepared to adapt as needed.
The second idea was that democracy itself is an ideology, similar to any religion, set of beliefs, or way of life. As Gopin emphasized, religion and secularism are not the problem; it is the abuse of those two by people for their own selfish aspirations that often leads to suffering.
Definitely a lot of interesting ideas to think about and consider. Especially by those interested in peacebuilding, humanitarian aid, and development.