Learn what some of today’s most exciting visionaries, thinkers, advocates, and activists are doing in the field of religion. Watch exclusive interViews, and read responses from the next generation of graduate students, seminarians, and civic leaders.
interView with Dr. Mustafa Ali
Response by Leigh Rogers
Dr. Mustafa Ali addresses two key points that intersect each other around issues of inter-religious dialogue and peace building: Women are key to building that peace, and faith is a catalyst for mobilizing the peace movement.
Dr. Ali indicated that Religions for Peace-Africa specifically targets women of faith because they are “excellent peacemakers” (as he described the women of Sierra Leone in their effort to secure peace in their country).
This is no surprise to me. I work for a faith-based women’s organization and we recognize on a daily basis that women are the ones who, in the end, will get it done, and get it done right.
Recognizing that faith is personal, Dr. Ali also mentions how religious leaders in Africa realized that faith also required them to “get out there” to the people. Faith is a mobilizer, a social phenomenon.
I’m continually inspired by Leymah Roberta Gbowee, the main organizer for Liberia’s peace movement and star of the documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.” The film tells the courageous story of Liberian women of Muslim and Christian backgrounds coming together for the sake of peace (and succeeding!).
The film is an interfaith story, and Dr. Ali validates the story, adding that because men tend to be in positions of power as religious leaders, they “lose out on women.” Peacebuilding women of faith are then able to forge ahead and mobilize in their own effective and grassroots way.
Response by Anna DeWeese
Thanks to Dr. Ali, and others like him, whose work, witness and storytelling give such perspective to those of us who have never (and hopefully will never) experienced the violence and daily horrors so many others have. Stories like these always inspire me – stories of strength and courage to stand up against extreme violence and hate; stories of men and women working together where they had not before; stories of peace and reconciliation. The work of RFP is to support such groups in making peace possible, from the standpoint that religion should be (and can be) a catalyst for positive change instead of intolerance.
Recently, a public figure in the United States made inflammatory comments comparing social justice churches with Nazism. As a Christian who happens to work toward and believe in social justice, I took great offense to these remarks. Hearing Dr. Ali, however, I am reminded that great work is happening in this world no matter the obstacles and opinions that stand in the way. Of all the religions I have studied, working for what is best for all people is a common goal I have understood each to espouse. So, unlike those who would have us work against one another, I believe in the work of Dr. Ali and all the others who choose to come together and work in solidarity to ensure a better life for any and all.
Response by Liane Carlson
The curious part of this interview, for me, was the hierarchical and corporate nature of the language Dr. Mustafa Ali used to describe his organization’s efforts at “conflict transformation.” According to his description, at the top, most remote from conflict, and thus best prepared to gain perspective on it, was his organization. Beneath that were the (male) religious leaders, who existed in a curious liminal space, both rooted in the people they served, but needing somehow to be pulled away from their transcendent orientation, in order to act in the world for and on their flock. Then came the women, more or less inseparable from the suffering populace, but more self-aware than their male religious leaders, and, as such, the real catalyst for change. Finally, there was everyone else - the trauma victims, the amputees, the powerless men, the victims depicted as totally without agency.
The goal, then, as so frequently stated, was to implement the most “effective” solutions. But efficiency takes the form of a traditionally gendered, top-down approach; foreign, male, corporate expertise is seen as the most efficient solution. And while admiring these peace-keeping efforts, I wonder if the this language of efficiency and hierarchy isn’t simply reinforcing other, less obvious forms of violence. Women are given credit for being great influences on leaders, but does that praise simply validate a system where women are forced to go to men in order to change anything, even to secure basic physical safety? And can the language of efficiency really be applied to works of charity with trauma victims, the wounded and the maimed? Dr. Mustafa Ali makes a nod to the difficulty of quantifying the success of his work at the end, which makes me wonder, if peace-keeping really is an unquantifiable project, whose interest does it serve to articulate its efforts in those terms? And why do we need to ask about its efficiency to determine its value?
Response by Anthony Paz
Dr. Ali's successes in the conflict-ridden areas of Africa pose an implicit challenge to our own religious leaders here in the US. The principles and methods his organization uses could be well-applied here to help with our own problems. He seems to work from a conviction that religion is relevant and powerful. His goal is not inter-religious hand-holding for its own sake, but religious leadership with an urgent purpose: to empower people and promote justice. His claim that it was the religious leaders of Sierra Leone that brought their war to an end should inspire (and, perhaps, embarrass) the religious leaders who must help heal our ideologically divided society. So we ask, how has he found this success? Through simple means: getting religious leaders together and encouraging the disenfranchised. There are small organizations using these tactics all over the US, campaigning for change on the local level. If my priest can get together with the local rabbi, imam and minister to discuss public transportation and truancy, why can't the head of US Bishops meet with other heads of religions to send a similar message to the nation?
Response by Freeman Trebilcock
When I hear stories of people such as Dr. Mustafa Ali, using interfaith as a tool to prevent conflict and heal damaged communities, I am truly inspired. Doing interfaith work in a relatively comfortable and peaceful country, it can be easy for someone such as myself to become complacent about just how much transformative potential lies in a simple encounter with the ‘other’. When feeling tired or deflated by the often tedious tasks involved in interfaith organizing, there is no better wake-up-call than remembering that in other pockets of the world people are killing each other in the name of religion. It certainly puts things in perspective, while serving as a reminder that while we act locally we should do so with a global vision.
Dr. Mustafa Ali also speaks about the role that religious leaders play in leading the way in conflict resolution, as well as the need to assist religious leaders with the skills and knowledge to do so better. It is not only within the capacity of religious leaders to show people the way towards healing and peace, it is their responsibility. Supporting local religious leaders as the agents for local change I feel is one of the best ways to bring about broader change. Not only are these individuals able to speak to their community and be heard, but they do so within the framework of faith, meaning that their appeals carry a special weight. Real peace comes only from personal transformation, and anyone who can assist to nurture the seed of compassion within others should be supported and nurtured themselves.