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Religious leader engagement: A new capability for conflict mitigation in operations

Military leaders have acknowledged the strategic merit of building rapport and establishing cooperation with the religious segment of society as critical to the accomplishment of mission man-dates. Under the authority of commanders, chaplains can contribute to meeting operational objectives through engaging religious leaders and their faith group communities.

As of 24 June 2011, the Army Capabilities Development Board endorsed Religious Leader Engagement (RLE) as a new capability under development, advancing its formation from the concept phase to that of design. Based upon JIMP, the army descriptor of the Comprehensive Approach, RLE sees chaplains engaging leaders of religious communities within the “public space” of indigenous populations.

Networking, partnering and in some instances peacebuilding, RLE advances what BGen Jim Simms, Chief of Staff Land Strategy, identifies as essential to the Comprehensive Approach: it is “about people, organizations and relationships – building understanding, respect and trust…cultivat[ing] involvement by key non-military actors.”

Drivers of conflict
The primary defining characteristic of terrorist activity today is the religious imperative. Since the early 1990s the only phenomenon to outdistance the increase in numbers of terrorist groups has been the steady growth in the percentage of these groups that hold to religious extremism as their driving force.

Today’s unprecedented co-optation of religion as a means of deepening existing cultural and political fault lines aids in fueling the justification of militancy and terrorism, embracing violence as a divine duty or sacramental act. Holding to markedly different notions of legitimization and justification than their secular counterparts, these organizations indulge without compunction in greater bloodshed and destruction than terrorist groups with solely a political agenda.

Adding to the mix are religious authorities, who, according to Pauletta Otis, “with their incendiary language, contribute to the congealing of adversarial identity markers, exacerbating the polarization of communities even more.” In such instances, the impressionable and uninformed come to experience religion as a combination of misinterpreted sacred texts imparted via clerics claiming to speak for the divine. Such sacralizing – a veneer of religiously sanctioned dictums to rationalize aggression – becomes a powerful inducement to engage in violence against rival ethnoreligious groups.

In recent decades religious violence has become particularly aggressive and relentless mainly due to a strategy of elevating religious images to the realm of divine struggle, thus creating in the minds of ardent followers the specter of cosmic war. Harnessing such emotive themes is the mainstay for many waging worldly political battles. Today, extreme religious expression has given terrorism remarkable power through spiritualizing violence.

In describing the future security environment, defence analyst Peter Gizewski rightly intuits religious belief as an intensifying factor of contemporary conflict. He states, “recent experience suggests that parties driven by ethno-nationalist/separatist, religious and quasi-religious beliefs and causes may undertake and prosecute conflict with a degree of purpose and intensity that confounds material-based and generally Western notions of rational action.”

Religious peacebuilding
Paradoxically, although exploitive leaders frequently appeal to religious identity to stir ethnic and tribal division, religion may also be invoked as a means of transcending differences and unifying rival tribes. In this vein, there is a growing body of literature emerging around religious and strategic peacebuilding.

It is not inconsequential that a number of the organizations calling for greater religious involvement in resolving conflict are secular in orientation. One such example bears mentioning. In their recent publication, Religion, Conflict & Peacebuilding, USAID states, “inattention to religious identities or to the views and aspirations of religious leaders may result in mischaracterizations about what the conflict is actually about or how likely it is to become violent.” The document further underscores the undeniable influence religious leaders have within their communities as well as the integrity and authenticity of religious themes and organizations in the midst of conflict.

Religious leader engagement factors well into operational initiatives as a subset of key leader engagement (KLE), resonating with the emphasis of civic engagement within theatres of operation. In recent years the JIMP construct has emerged as the principal strategic lens through which to view the complexities of the operational environment known as the Comprehensive Approach. Offered in capsule form here, “J” represents Joint or the combined nature of operations; “I” stands for Interagency, the whole-of-government collaborating in nation building efforts; “M” or Multinational speaks to international will – nations coming together under the auspices of the UN, NATO or other coalitions and bringing to bear all of their combined resources; and “P” or Public domain includes a wealth of organizations and activities, the most consequential of which are indigenous populations.

Land Forces newly released Counter-Insurgency Operations manual states, “In all cases, the indigenous population is the primary centre of gravity because no insurgency can survive amidst the hostile terrain of an unreceptive public.” It is no coincidence that charismatic religious leaders are categorized as having the capacity to shape moral opinion in the public domain – significant centres of gravity within local populations. In societies where western influence is limited, religious communities remain prominent in community life, and, in some instances, in government.

RLE stands as an enhanced capability for chaplains. Religious leaders in their own right, more than any other contingent member, have a natural rapport with their local counterparts. Civic en-gagement among more tolerant religious leaders and their faith group communities offers a means of accessing a large sector of society that may be apprehensive of “western” approaches.

Those of tolerant voice are faith group leaders – community leaders – often desirous of moving beyond conflict. Known as “middle-range actors,” they enjoy the confidence of the grassroots while moving freely at higher levels of leadership within their own communities.

Conflict transformation
Chaplain Branch leadership is presently implementing training that will prepare deploying chaplains to engage religious leaders and their communities on a number of levels. In concurrence with Command directives and mission goals, future operations will see chaplains networking among local religious leaders more intentionally, establishing communication and engendering trust.

Religious area analysis will be one of the skills chaplains will bring to theatres of operation, affording commanders greater insight into the religious life of their area of operations. As members of key leader engagement teams, chaplains will converse with the religious leaders present. Such authentic engagement facilitates dialogue where, over time, genuine needs of the surrounding communities may be identified leading to more intentional partnering with CIMIC or other government departments/agencies, NGOs, etc. Such program development serves as a crucial link in the security-development nexus.

In time, more seasoned chaplains will be equipped to initiate peacebuilding activities. Situations do arise when religious leaders of tolerant voice express a desire to transcend conflict. Chaplains have been known to facilitate
intercommunal dialogue across ethnic boundaries. Interfaith events and, in some instances, collaborative activities in development have resulted, creating greater cooperation and the easing of tensions. It is the repeated acts of cooperation in achieving common instrumental goals that sees greater trust emerge, an indispensable element of reconciliation. Such cooperation among local religious leaders and their communities over the long-term may function as “shock absorbers,” preventing the manipulation or abuse of religion to escalate conflict or tensions.

The peacebuilding activities of chaplains among estranged religious communities may be described as conflict transformation. Discerning superordinate goals – achieving together what could not be accomplished alone – pertaining to community needs goes to the heart of joint activities. Continual consultation with Command is imperative with such initiatives. Selecting the appropriate shared project is critical if such intercommunal cooperation is to be transformative. Program parameters and funding capabilities must fall within mission objectives, affording both continuity and long-term sustainability if such initiatives are to be effectual and credible.

Through intercommunal cooperation of this nature, an identity more inclusive of the other has occasion to take root, precipitating greater integration among communities. In such an atmosphere, conflict is transcended, new narratives are written and the healing of memory begins.

Major/Padre S.K. Moore, CD, PhD, is a Canadian Forces Chaplain and a visiting Research Fellow with Saint Paul University in Ottawa.

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