Religion’s role in extremism, conflict and peacebuilding

Gerard Powers says religious actorts do important work in peacebuilding around the world
Gerard Powers, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies

It is always stimulating to hear someone knowledgeable talk about an issue in a way that leads one to deeper understanding. Gerard Powers did that recently at Ottawa’s Saint Paul University in a speech regarding extremism, conflict and peacebuilding. Powers is the director of Catholic peacebuilding studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame University in Indiana.

“Wars of religion”

Powers made two basic points.  One is that the “war of religions” paradigm is frequently unhelpful and diverts attention away from other causes of conflict such as the role played by the foreign policy of nations, including those of the West. The second point is that religious actors are playing an important role on a daily basis in what Powers called the “peace of religion.” He described those efforts as “unheralded, under-appreciated, and under-analyzed.”

Some of the world’s conflicts, Powers said, certainly do involve religious extremists such as ISIS in the Middle East, but there are often multi-faceted dynamics at work which are not primarily religious in nature.  The rise of ISIS, for example, has included support from former secular Bathists in Iraq who were sidelined when the United States toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. As well, Iraqi Sunni tribes fear the Shiite-dominated Iraqi governments installed by the U.S. even more than they fear ISIS.

Powers said that Catholic and Protestant leaders in the U.S. had warned against military intervention in Iraq but the U.S government did not heed that advice.

“Peace of religion”

Regarding peacebuilding, Powers said, religious leaders and ordinary people motivated by their faith have do important work in conflict zones throughout the world, including Iraq, Syria, Uganda, South Sudan, and Northern Ireland. In many societies religious institutions are ubiquitous and can be present in places and situations where secular and government negotiators fear to tread.

In Colombia, for example, a local priest might travel in “no-go” areas and reach out to rebel leaders as a pastor who tends to both the victims and perpetrators of violence. He might even hear a killer’s confession.

The “track two” or soft power diplomacy provided by religious and other civil society actors, said Powers, supplements what he called the “track one” diplomacy engaged in by politicians and diplomats.

Powers said the “peace of religion” efforts would be even more widespread and effective if a greater number of people in leadership and in the pews understood peacebuilding as integral to their faith and to the vocation of their religious institutions.

Poor diplomacy

Powers added that there is among Western governments a secular bias which ignores religion, wishes it would go away, or that, at the least, it would remain a private activity with no influence in the public square. This lack of sympathy and understanding leads Western countries into foreign diplomacy that supports what they consider “good religion” while at the same time discrediting “bad religion” in foreign countries.

This, Powers said, is a self-serving approach that rarely works and often plays into the narrative of religious extremists such as those in ISIS.

 

Selling arms to the Saudis, jobs versus human rights

Project Ploughshares andf Cesar Jaramillo blow the whistle on Canada's arms deal with Saudi Arabia
Project Ploughshares executive director Cesar Jaramillo

In December 2014, the Harper government made a deal to sell $15 billion worth of military equipment to Saudi Arabia, whose regime likely beheads more people than does ISIS. The Trudeau government now says that a deal is a deal and they cannot overturn it, but a recent Angus Reid poll shows that fewer than one in five Canadians believe that abiding by the deal is a good idea. Continue reading Selling arms to the Saudis, jobs versus human rights

Vietnamese students, they stand when they speak

20 years ago I taught a video production course in Vietnam. I discovered interesting cultural differences between us.
Vietnamese students in 1996 video production course. Dennis Gruending photo

It was 20 years ago, in February 1996, that I went to southern Vietnam on a grant from the Canadian International Development Agency. I taught video production to a group of young agrologists at a research institute in the Mekong Delta. They had been using television to provide farmers with information but wanted a refresher on story writing and video techniques. In this piece broadcast on CBC Radio’s Morningside, then hosted by Peter Gzowski, I talk about the video course and some of my students. Continue reading Vietnamese students, they stand when they speak

CMA’s Demand A Plan a winner in 2015 Canadian election

Canadian Medical Association (CMA) President Dr. Cindy Forbes. Photo courtesy CMA.
Canadian Medical Association (CMA) President Dr. Cindy Forbes. Photo courtesy CMA.

I belong to Ottawa’s Parliamentary Press Gallery and had access to a rich variety of information circulated during the 2015 federal election campaign. The most impressive advocacy that I saw was the Demand A Plan campaign, which was launched by the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) and several supporting groups. Now, that campaign has been shortlisted for an international prize in the annual Reed Awards, which will take place in Charleston, S.C. on Feb. 18.

Multi-media campaign

The Demand A Plan alliance last year waged a multi-media advocacy campaign, calling for a national seniors’ strategy. According to the CMA, more than 30,000 Canadians used the campaign’s website and sent roughly 25,000 letters to candidates across the country, asking where they stand on seniors’ issues. The campaign website also provided a “promise tracker” tool, which allowed visitors to compare the policy statements of different political parties.

Medicare must adapt

Although it was created more than 50 years ago, when the average age was much younger, medicare has not adapted well to serve the growing number of elderly Canadians. By 2036, people aged 65 and over will make up a quarter of the population and account for 62 percent of health costs.

The alliance says that it supports universal public health care but fears the system won’t survive unless seniors’ care is redesigned. For example, the group says that it takes nine months to get a hip replacement in Canada because hospital beds are crowded with seniors — many of them suffering from dementia and other chronic diseases without long-term care and home-care support. Interestingly, the group says that caring for someone in a hospital costs $1,000 a day, compared to $130 a day in long-term care and $55 a day at home.

Dr. Cindy Forbes: “momentum”

“We cannot lose momentum as we continue to push for federal leadership in the development of a national seniors’ strategy,” CMA President Dr. Cindy Forbes says, adding that the alliance has documented the Liberal Party’s election promises as they relate to seniors’ care (Those, too, are published on the website). They include negotiating a new Health Accord with the provinces and territories; investing $3 billion over the next four years to deliver more and better home-care services for all Canadians, including access to high-quality, in-home caregivers, financial support for family care, and, when necessary, palliative care; and investing in affordable housing and seniors’ facilities.

This spring, the CMA and its alliance partners want the Trudeau government to convene a meeting of provincial and territorial premiers to discuss seniors’ care. They also want to see a national seniors’ strategy in place by 2019.

No mention of pharmacare

Unfortunately, there is no mention in either in Demand A Plan or in the Liberal government’s promises, of a national pharmacare plan. Pharmaceuticals are the fastest growing component in health care costs and the need for such a plan is urgent.

They’ve come a long way

Still, there is no doubt that Canada’s doctors have come a long way since the CMA strenuously opposed the introduction of Medicare in Saskatchewan in 1962, and just as adamantly opposed recommendations for a similar national program by the Hall Commission in 1964.

A version of this piece ran in the United Church Observer on February 18, 2016.

A gift they gave me long ago

Lessons for life: A nun teaches me to type on an old Underwood
Lessons for life on an old Underwood

This is not a Christmas story exactly but it is about a gift that was given to me by three people and so it fits with the mood and the season of giving. The story involves a big black Underwood typewriter and the memory of that gleaming old monster was triggered this week when I saw an antique in a used bookstore in my city neighbourhood. Continue reading A gift they gave me long ago

Stephen Harper is gone, a weight is lifted

Justice Murray Sinclair (centre right) hopes the Trudeau government will act on TRC recommendations
Justice Murray Sinclair (centre right) hopes the Trudeau government will act on TRC recommendations

The recent Canadian federal election which thrust Justin Trudeau and the Liberals into power was, depending upon your point of view, either a happy day or an exercise in the politics of resentment. For many people who I have encountered since October 19 it is as if a dark cloud has passed or a weight has been lifted from their shoulders. Continue reading Stephen Harper is gone, a weight is lifted

2015 Canadian Election, a guide for rookie MPs

Welcoming Rookie MPs
Welcoming Rookie MPs. Image from The Hill Times

There is nothing quite like the euphoria that a newly-elected MP feels after the grind of a nomination and then a demanding election campaign. What a privilege it is to be chosen by your constituents to serve them and our country.  However, your life as an MP will likely be less glamorous than it might at first appear. Continue reading 2015 Canadian Election, a guide for rookie MPs

Justin Trudeau’s ‘sunny ways’ and the challenges ahead

Justin Trudeau’s “sunny ways”. Photo by Wikimedia Commons, Alex Guibord
Justin Trudeau’s “sunny ways”. Photo by Wikimedia Commons, Alex Guibord

As Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau stood before an election night crowd in Montreal on October 19, he quoted former Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, saying: “Sunny ways my friends, sunny ways.”  Referring to his Liberal party’s convincing upset victory in capturing 184 seats, well beyond the 99 for the Conservatives and 44 for the NDP, Trudeau said, “This is what positive politics can do.” Continue reading Justin Trudeau’s ‘sunny ways’ and the challenges ahead