On July 11th, I was in Dhaka, Bangladesh. That Monday morning, I spoke to and facilitated a discussion with seventeen senior religious leaders: Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian. This was ten days after the attack on a bakery in the upscale Gulshan district of Dhaka, and the religious leaders were clearly nervous. Several had cancelled.
The headline in the Dhaka newspaper that morning was of the visit of the US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Nisha Desai Biswal who came to see Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to offer US support for countering terrorism. The gathered religious leaders expressed appreciation that Ms. Biswal had come. They were grateful that I, representing a US organization, had come despite the tense situation. They were hopeful that our visits may help.
Extremism, which sometimes yields violence and terrorism, is not only—but often—a religious problem. Despite the US government’s best efforts, military solutions such as drone wars (US dropped 20,144 drone-bombs in 2015) frequently result in killing innocent people—and in turn, breed more terrorists. Traditional diplomacy, such as what Ms. Biswal offers, does not necessarily reach to the ground where extremists may already be plotting their next moves.
Faith-based diplomacy is the engagement of religious leaders in addressing social change. Most religious leaders have the moral authority, and the organizational structure that can mobilize social movements. Moreover, religious communities are grounded in local communities where traditional diplomacy cannot reach. Because of this, religious communities—ubiquitous across the world—are ideally situated to be the instruments for countering violent extremism.
However, there’s a problem: While the causes of extremism vary, they primarily can be attributed to young people feeling alienated and disenfranchised from the political, social and spiritual centers of power and meaning that are traditionally offered by religious communities. Today, these young recruits are allured by the false promises of political enfranchisement, social networks and spiritual meaning and authority from the extremist movements.
Religions over the centuries have allowed themselves to be co-opted by empires. Political powers recognizing the power of organized religious communities along with the money that reside in them, offered favors to religious leaders who, in return, shifted theological trends to support the powers. Christian history is replete with examples. The conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine was perhaps the beginning of Christianity’s collusion with the empire. We might say it was not the conversion of one man to Christianity, but the conversion of Christianity to Constantinianism!
Binary definitions of identity are a hallmark of empires’ divide and rule policies from ancient times to today. In the modern colonial period that lasted 500 years, identity markers such as white/black, rich/poor, Christian/Buddhist, male/female became mutually exclusive categories. Sometimes the empire imposed its definition of identity markers. For example, the empire defined multiple and varied Indian religions into one identity which it called Hinduism with the sole intention of separating it from Christianity. There was no religion called Hinduism before the colonial period. Other religions too, most notably Christianity inebriated with empire’s power, willingly capitulated.
The paradigmatic story of Christian origins, the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, is one that pointed to a movement that transcended traditional identity markers. St. Paul’s famous proclamation, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female,” called for breaking down of old oppressive identities in favor of a new liberative one, “for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Disregarding these primary theological premises, Christianity adopted the empire’s binary definitions, disgracefully favoring one identity over the other: White over black, rich over poor, Christian over Buddhist, male over female, straight over gay etc. Doctrinal positions were shifted, and theological traditions were built to solidify that support. Exclusive claims to truth, and superiority of the favored particular identities became church-sanctioned doctrines. And here’s the worst part—we still live by those theologies!
What Will OMNIA Do?
For four decades OMNIA has built a competency to address this problem. Its well-honed method of contextual learning turns the traditional empire-based, “received” theologies on its head. Its L3M method—“Listening to, Learning from, and Living in deep solidarity with those in the Margins”—helps leaders to de-construct received theologies and re-construct new theological frameworks that arise from the context. In doing so, OMNIA seeks to engage hearts and minds, building a formidable and long overdue movement of people of faith and of goodwill. Trained in OMNIA's disciplines of contextual learning, leaders offer a model of Pluralism, Praxis, and Power that is helping to stem the tide of religious extremism.
This is not a quick solution to the intractable problem of religious extremism, but rather a thoughtful, long-term, and strategic approach. Judging by the hunger we see around the world for this, we believe that we have reached Kairos, the right time.
OMNIA plans to provide training events in Chicago, Nigeria and Bangladesh to strategically chosen leaders. OMNIA teams will train these trainers—who will in turn, return to their communities and offer training in churches, mosques, temples, schools, community centers etc. The L3M method of contextual learning provides skills for people to “Listen to, Learn from and Live in deep solidarity with those in the Margins.” This, in turn, leads to a deeper understanding. It leads to Pluralism—the robust engagement with diversity, to Praxis—the effective actions in solidarity with the other, and to Power—organizing people and money in order to build our capacity to act effectively.
In the past few months, OMNIA has explored several locations to take its training.
Nigeria (Northeast Zone)
A team of OMNIA leaders recently traveled to Nigeria’s North East Zone, where the terrorist group Boko Haram is active. This listening trip was hosted by Rev. Abare Kallah, (an OMNIA-trained leader) chairman of the North East Zone of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), one of the largest ecumenical organizations in Nigeria. We visited tribal chiefs, political and religious leaders (both Christian and Muslim) and women widowed by Boko Haram terror attacks. We also conducted interviews with two people who defected from Boko Haram. We learned a great deal about the struggles of the region, and the pain of the people particularly in the city and state of Gombe.
“We are not going there to bring solutions from Chicago to Nigeria,” I said, to each of those leaders, “but we come with the conviction that the solutions are embedded in the context of Nigeria itself.”
Neither Christianity nor Islam is native to Nigeria. As such they are “received” traditions rooted in empire-based theologies of exclusivity and superiority, leaving little room for dialogue or for building relationships of trust between the two. The “received” tradition also taught adherents to distrust the context, which they feared would result in the loss of authority for colonial, ecclesial and missionary structures.
OMNIA believes that the potential for addressing extremism, and building structures for peace and reconciliation are in the context of Nigeria’s history, culture, and identity. Therefore, our proposal to Nigerian political and religious leaders was that we would help Christians and Muslims deconstruct “received” theologies of exclusivity and superiority and reconstruct new theological models based on the Nigerian context.
The OMNIA team noted that over 55% of Nigerian young people are unemployed, thus there could be significant potential for training in entrepreneurship. We noted that the Nigerian government has already begun to provide such training to young people in IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps, of which there are many in Northeast Nigeria. OMNIA will work with Chicago’s Social Enterprise Alliance to provide such trainings.
On July 1, Bangladesh experienced its 9/11 – a bomb attack in an upscale restaurant in the Gulshan neighborhood in Dhaka. Even though there had been prior attacks on people such as secular bloggers, scholars and other non-Muslim religious, no one really expected this.
At the invitation of Rev. David Das, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches of Bangladesh and an OMNIA leader, I visited there to explore possibilities of offering OMNIA training. Rev. Das and the NCC staff convened a high level meeting of key religious leaders of Bangladesh, including Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Christians. A Buddhist leader, Ven. Sunanda Priya, summed up the contextual question well: “Two months ago, if you asked us what was most pressing in Bangladesh, we would have undoubtedly said it was climate change.” Significant parts of Bangladesh get flooded every year and the severity of rain and flooding keeps increasing. “Today, its undoubtedly religious extremism. There is no question that this is the most urgent priority for the religious community, and not just for the majority Muslim community to resolve.” The leaders agreed to support a training program that deconstructs theologies of exclusivity and superiority and builds theologies of pluralism so that they can work together towards effective actions to blunt the power of extremists.
The leaders also discussed the need for such training to extend to remote villages as soon as possible. This cannot be done by traditional teaching methods even with the use of skilled teachers. It requires a strategic media campaign. In addition to its work of training trainers to go out to communities, OMNIA is also forging a media strategy (both print and broadcast) to get the message out as quickly as possible.
Inside the United States, we are in conversation with leaders in Pittsburgh, Ohio, and Charlotte, North Carolina, about the possibilities of conducting our trainings in those cities. In Pittsburgh, where Syrian and North African refugee assimilation has been a challenge, we will train leaders who will in turn help prepare communities that are receiving refugees. In the past, the mostly Christian receiving-communities had no training to know how best to welcome and receive the mostly Muslim refugees, whom many perceive as a religious and a social threat. In Charlotte, we are exploring ways to work with the faith communities to create thoughtful conversations and effective actions around race, an issue that is freshly charged because of police shootings of unarmed black men and women in many communities. OMNIA will help break down theologies that have helped maintain traditions of exclusivity and superiority and build up new theological frameworks and offer skills for standing in solidarity with our neighbors.
This is nothing short of a theological revolution and we are very excited to be leading the way. I invite you to engage with us, partner with us, sponsor us. Please comment, write or call and let us know of your interest.