Autumn 2007 issue cover


Living Walls

Among Muslims, peace building takes on its own distinct forms.

Cover illustration by Anna Bhushan. Cover design by Point Five Design.

By S. Ayse Kadayifci-Orellana

A few years ago I traveled to the world social forum in India to listen to a panel on the progress of Muslim peace-building efforts, but the presenter never showed up. The moderator asked the 30 or 40 people in attendance if there was someone who could fill in. I had just published my first article on Islam and nonviolence, and so, hesitantly, I raised my hand.

I began by explaining how the news media present a bleak picture of Muslim societies, which are either victimized or vilified. Yes, most of the Muslim world is plagued with violence; yes, many groups and individuals have resorted to extreme forms of violence, such as suicide bombings, in the name of Islam. However, I explained, the beautiful principles of Islam, which go back to the Qur’an, promote nonviolence. In fact, Islam, derived from the word slm (peace), is rich with values and practices that encourage tolerance, peacemaking, and dialogue. Muslims around the world all use the same sources of Islamic teachings and the same basic tenants of Islam. These sources and tenets established a foundation based on unified community (ummah) and to this day provide Islamic approaches to peace with a common vocabulary, a set of values and principles. Soon, the room was filled with 80 or 90 attentive listeners.

At the end of my extemporaneous talk, one person asked: Where are all the Muslim peacemakers today? That was a very important question. And, after a short pause, hands raised throughout the audience. One after another, Muslims from Indonesia, from Thailand, from India started to explain their peace work.

After this experience, I began looking into the issue of Muslim peace-building actors in the world. I discovered there is considerable misunderstanding between Western donors and institutions and the East—the concept of friend, even, is culturally very different among countries. Western peace builders have vastly developed organizational formats; they all have accessible staff, with phones and the Internet. They have budgets. In contrast, the apparent lack of systematic research and analysis creates the impression that there are no authentic peace actors in the Muslim world. The truth is, however, that there are a number of local religious leaders, as well as nongovernmental organizations, around the Muslim world working in their communities to resolve conflicts, build peace, and encourage reconciliation and interfaith dialogue. These religious leaders and individuals—in areas as diverse as Africa, Asia, the Middle East, the United States, and Europe—often work under extremely difficult conditions, with very limited financial resources and institutional capacity, even risking their lives. Many of these Muslim peace-building actors are not easily identifiable because they are individuals—their peace-building work is assumed in that identity—that is, as individuals, they are engaged in charity or humanitarian efforts. They are not NGOs established to connect people; they are imams in the mosques doing the work of intervening in conflicts, not only between local people but also between communities.

Many Muslim societies, however, have traditional structures that restrict effective peace-building efforts and contribute in many ways to the continuation of conflicts. Some of these traditional structures are based on hierarchical social divisions, on discrimination according to religious affiliation and gender. Frequently, these structures present a major challenge to peace initiatives. Still, with their moral authority and knowledge of sacred texts, and by providing successful examples, Muslim peace-building actors can reinterpret religious texts and challenge these traditional practices.

Islam, as the religion of more than 1.7 billion people around the world, includes many different linguistic, cultural, and ethnic groups. Reflecting the particular historical, social, political, and economic evolution of each group, these differences lead to varied interpretations and practices and make it difficult to talk about a single “Islam.” Still, in most Muslim communities religion plays an important role in social and political life and is a key component of people’s identity.

With the 50 or so organizations that I’ve studied, I’ve discovered one strong characteristic among all these communities: they are all very narrative; they like to tell stories. They derive their inspiration from and base their practices on the same Islamic sources, namely, the Qur’an, the Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet), and the Sunna (the practices of the Prophet). Although it isn’t always specifically said, “This is from the Qur’an,” a word, a gesture makes it clear to the people listening that a story, something said, is from the Islamic perspective. And, these stories are so woven into daily life that it is very important for community members to understand them.

There is a difference also in the way these groups see conflict. In the United States, we tend to view conflict more as a matter of politics and policy, whether constructive or destructive. Many Muslim communities, however, see conflict as a negative thing, as a destruction of the harmony created by God. So they tend to develop mechanisms to recreate harmony. Even to refer to something as a conflict is negative—so the idea of conflict is not necessarily mentioned. The nature of peace and reconciliation is seen from a holistic perspective and not separate from human needs, at the physical level and at psychological, emotional, and spiritual levels.

Derived from these Islamic principles and values, peace-building efforts in the Muslim world often take different forms. Based on Cynthia Sampson’s1 categorization, these include advocacy, intermediary, observation, education, transnational justice, and interfaith/intrafaith dialogue.2 As advocates, Muslim peace-building actors attempt to empower the weaker party(ies) in a conflict situation, restructure relationships, and transform unjust social structures. These activities often aim at strengthening the representativeness and inclusiveness of governance. As intermediaries, these actors aim to bring the parties together to resolve their conflict and establish peace. As observers, these actors often are watchful eyes that serve to discourage violence, corruption, human rights violations, or other behavior deemed threatening and undesirable; they may actively monitor and verify the legitimacy of elections, or they may form “peace teams” or “living walls” between active sides in conflict situations. For example in Kenya, the Wajir Peace group has organized early-warning teams to detect potential conflicts and send peace workers who help resolve differences nonviolently. As educators, they try to sensitize a society to inequities in the system. As agents of transnational justice, they seek accountability for atrocities and human rights abuses during times of war through local and international tribunals or truth commissions. Muslim peace-building actors also encourage intra- and interfaith dialogue in order to contribute to the peace process—most often beginning at the local level.


Musa al Sadir was a leader in Lebanon, just before the civil war broke out. He was a Shi’ite leader, and he foresaw the coming civil war. Wanting to start a genuine dialogue between the religious groups in Lebanon, he would give sermons emphasizing the importance of peace and cooperation. But it was very difficult to transform people’s suspicions and stereotypes. One day, a Christian ice cream seller came and talked to him, knowing that Sadir would understand his plight. The man explained to Sadir that because many Muslims think Christian food is impure, they would not buy his ice cream, and this was bad for his business. So, instead of going to the mosque and simply delivering another sermon on the importance of learning about other people’s cultures, Sadir gave his sermon (at the time he had quite a few followers) and afterward, saying it was such a hot day and that he would like to have something cool to eat, he went all the way to the other part of the town, a long walk. Many of his followers followed him—literally—and that was not a usual thing. Then he went to this ice cream man and bought an ice cream and started eating it. This act was a much more powerful gesture than a sermon with the message that we should go and eat ice cream from this Western man. Seemingly small gestures like this have a big impact.

Based on the specific needs of their communities, individuals or groups who engage in peace work in the Muslim world assume different roles and perform multiple tasks and peace-building activities, rather than only one. These Muslim actors are often more effective than secular institutions because, as religious leaders who know the Islamic tradition and history of the conflict and the parties well, they have moral and spiritual legitimacy and are perceived to be evenhanded and trustworthy. Thus, they are better equipped to reach out to the people and mobilize them to rehumanize the “other.” To do this, they employ Islamic values, such as justice for all, forgiveness, harmony, and human dignity, and they motivate others to work toward peace. As a result, these Muslim actors have been quite effective in mobilizing and motivating their communities to change behaviors and attitudes much more effectively then secular organizations.

So, if there are many Muslim leaders and groups working for peace, and if they are making significant contributions, why are they invisible? Why do we not hear more about them?

There are various reasons for this invisibility. Mainly, it is due to the unique characteristics of peace-building efforts and actors in the Muslim world, which make it difficult for those observers not familiar with Muslim societies and peacemaking traditions to identify agents of peace and peace efforts. Unfamiliarity with these characteristics may also lead to misunderstandings and miscommunication that can be unproductive, even destructive, in the long run.

Peace-building practices in the Muslim world . . . are often ad hoc and informal, initiated by religious leaders.

For instance, peace-building practices in the Muslim world are generally not undertaken by stable institutions such as NGOs, as is often the case in Western societies. Rather, as I’ve said, they are often ad hoc and informal, initiated by religious leaders, such as sheikhs or imams, who intervene either at the request of one of the parties or on their own initiative. The specific person who may be chosen as a third party to mediate in a conflict also depends on the requirements of a particular situation. For that reason, it is not common in Muslim communities to establish separate and enduring institutions that are devoted only to peace work. Although, with the impact of Western groups and missionary churches, Muslim communities are now more familiar with NGOs, they still do not have much experience operating through formally constituted institutions as such, and the majority of peace efforts are still undertaken by religious leaders through traditional mechanisms.

Another factor contributing to the invisibility of Muslim actors in peace-building efforts is the inseparability of Islam from other aspects of life. With the exception of a few countries, such as Turkey, in most Muslim societies it is very difficult to separate the religious from the nonreligious. Peace-building activities are no exception. On the contrary, peace work is seen as a duty of reestablishing God’s harmony between people—thus, as a religious duty. As such, peace-building activities and initiatives are not viewed as a separate job, but as a social-religious responsibility of the individual, as part of one’s life and role as a leader. Because peace-building activities are viewed as a social and religious responsibility of religious leaders, and because most of the time the local imam or sheikh or other religious leaders and elders undertake peace-building activities in their personal capacity, quite often these leaders do not feel the need to indicate or emphasize the role of Islam in their work; they take it for granted. Thus, they do not explicitly refer to their organization or work as specifically “Muslim” or “Islamic.” But Islamic principles and values are critical in legitimizing their efforts, and religious leaders rely heavily on Islamic principles, values, and terminology, on stories told in the Qur’an and the Prophet’s example, as well as on historical examples, to support their work.

Another dimension of peace work in Muslim communities is that work toward peace is often combined with developmental and humanitarian assistance. Muslim communities have a long tradition of social services, community assistance, and charitable work. Peace work is seen as an integral aspect of these efforts. Religious and local leaders who are familiar with the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the community are often viewed as the more effective and legitimate providers of necessary assistance. For this reason, there is less need to establish separate institutions devoted solely to peace building.

Much of the peace-building work, such as education, advocacy, and observation, takes place at mosques, through sermons, at religious educational sites (such as madrassas), and at informal gatherings or other meetings. Often, religious leaders travel to towns or villages and, by talking with people, influence them. Rather than using written documents, they employ symbolic acts, gestures, or simple deeds, such as eating with the “other,” or praying together, to provide an example or to send a powerful message. These aspects of peacemaking in the Islamic context make peace work less systematic, and harder to identify, observe, and analyze.


Cultural communication differences between Muslim peace-building actors and their Western counterparts also frequently lead to misunderstandings between the two. Building working relationships with Muslim peace actors in these regions requires an understanding of these cultural communication differences. For example, Muslim communities are high context cultures3—that is, sharing a great deal of background information that defines experiences and expectations in detail, with a complex set of implied meanings known to everyone of that culture, in any given situation. They are less individualistic, and more community oriented. They are often more emotional, more indirect, and display discomfort at saying no, or in refusing another person directly. They rely more on body language to avoid shame and to save face, which is critical. They tend to concentrate on relationships and make linkages between people and group identity and emphasize collective responsibility for wrong. The focus tends to be on repairing and maintaining social relationships and harmony among community members. In this context, communities call for reconciliation, public apology, and compensation. These cultural and stylistic differences may lead to misunderstanding between the nonregional (or those outside of the particular culture) and Muslim peace-building actors.

At the same time, peace-building actors in the Muslim world are faced with enormous challenges that hinder their work. Deep-rooted traditional customs and structures, which usually serve the interests of certain groups, become severe barriers for these actors, especially in traditional societies such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Sudan. Challenging these customs and transforming these structures is daunting and requires resilience and perseverance, and courage.

The absence of resources is another challenge these peace workers must confront. Especially in Africa, or in countries like Pakistan or Bangladesh, many of the communities have no, or very limited, access to such basic resources as electricity, phone, email, and fax. Poverty and underdevelopment is a major issue. Lack of financial resources is another relevant factor that has an impact on the effectiveness of peace-building initiatives in these communities. For local peace-building actors who travel to remote parts of their country under extremely difficult conditions, lack of basic resources hinders their ability to communicate, in particular with the international community, as well as their organizational capacity and effectiveness. Many Muslim peace-building actors are without educational resources such as libraries, books, pen and paper. Combined with the high illiteracy rates in their communities, being without resources poses an almost insurmountable challenge.

Operating without long-term funding or commitment from nonregional actors is another factor. Changing the attitudes and behaviors of people after a longstanding conflict is a difficult and long process, requiring core capacity building and long-term, stable funds to support an enduring investment in peace. Quite often, Muslim peace-building actors in these regions depend on external actors to fund their efforts. Effective cooperation with local groups is often based on trusting relationships that are built over a reasonable period of time. However, Western donors are rarely interested in building long-term relationships with local groups. Their focus is on getting the project done, and they generally require concrete indicators of the effectiveness of the work at the end of each project, which is quite hard for the local communities to provide. Once a project is done, these organizations usually move quickly on to new projects in areas that seem more urgent. This approach not only creates mistrust between these groups, but also makes peace-building actors feel abandoned and betrayed in the eyes of the community.

Muslim peace-building actors must also deal with competing interpretations of Islam on issues of war, peace, and justice within the Muslim community. Some of these interpretations incite violence toward “others.” Deep-rooted fear and mistrust of Western communities, including peace-building organizations, based on the experiences of colonization, globalization, and imperialism, influence perceptions of Westerners’ intentions and the way religious texts are understood and interpreted. Poor-quality educational systems do not provide the necessary understanding of and training in how to address issues of peace and tolerance and Islam, and frustrated youths are easily seduced by radical and fundamentalist interpretations of religious texts. Peace-oriented Muslims need to compete with these more radical interpretations. Hostile and suspicious groups attempt to undermine the work of these peace groups by claiming that they are creating another religion, serving the interests of the West. They may initiate campaigns slandering peace-oriented actors and accusing them of being collaborators.

In spite of the grave difficulties they face, more and more religious leaders and groups are taking up the challenges of peacemaking. The most effective response to the radical and militant voices is the voice of those religious leaders and groups who have the courage, the knowledge, and the capacity to stand up and present Islamic sources of peace, tolerance, and dialogue based on authentic Islamic sources, such as the Qur’an, the Hadith, and the Sunna. It is critical that ways be found to engage with and strengthen the peace-building capacity of Muslim institutions and leaders. At a time when religious violence is rampant, and individuals and groups are committing violence and inciting hatred and intolerance in the name of Islam, it is critical to understand the unique characteristics and capabilities of these agents of peace, and to give them power. Only then can we successfully counter the militant, violent, and radical voices that have usurped a religious tradition which is, in fact, founded on values of tolerance, justice, compassion, mercy, and peace.


  1. See Cynthia Sampson, “Religion and Peacebuilding,” in Peacemaking in International Conflict: Methods and Techniques, ed. W. Zartman and L. Rasmussen (United States Institute of Peace Press, 1997), 273–316.
  2. See Mohammed Abu-Nimer and S. Ayse Kadayifci-Orellana, “Muslim Peace Building Actors in the Balkans, Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes Region,” compiled by the Salam Institute for Peace and Justice for the Clingendael Institute, May 2005; www.
  3. Edward T. Hall, Beyond Culture (Anchor Books, 1981), in his work in intercultural communication, developed the concepts of “high context” and “low context” cultures: in low context cultures, more is explained through words, explicitly, rather than through shared cultural background.

S. Ayse Kadayifci-Orellana, Associate Professor at American University, gave a fuller version of this talk at the conference “Visions of Peace and Reconciliation in Religious Traditions: Historical and Contemporary Patterns,” held at the Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard Divinity School, May 15, 2007. She is also the associate director of the Salam Institute for Peace and Justice in Washington, D.C.

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