Background: Especially in fragile contexts, development practitioners are gaining skills to apply a conflict-sensitive approach to their work. Catholic Relief Services (CRS) has added a layer to this approach by focusing on the religious landscape of fragile contexts, both in preventing violence and in building social cohesion. Shamsia Ramadan, program manager for the Capacity for Inter-religious Action program at CRS, is building capacity of faith-based partners in six countries across Africa. Shamsia met with Crystal Corman on April 15, 2015, just two weeks after the attack at Garissa University, to discuss her peace work and interreligious relations in Kenya. In this interview she discusses her own journey in becoming a peace practitioner and the importance of interreligious relations at all levels, especially in the current context. She also pushes beyond dialogue and emphasizes the need for faith-based actors to jointly take action to address issues within communities.
How did you get involved with peacebuilding work?
My profession has evolved over time. I began doing peacebuilding work in 2002 when I was first trained on active nonviolence by Chemchemi Ya Ukweli (Chemchemi). At that time, we didn’t have very many Muslim women involved; I happened to be available and interested, so I was engaged by Chemichemi as a trainer on active nonviolence. They were doing some work in Isiolo, a region in Kenya that has experienced a number of inter-ethnic conflicts. Because the different communities were predominantly either Christian or Muslim, the conflicts had been interpreted as religious conflicts. Chemichemi decided to go in on a fact-finding mission to actually understand the cause of the conflict, and I was part of the team that went to Isiolo and got involved in addressing the conflict there. That is how I got involved in peacebuilding work. There were a lot of interreligious dialogue activities taking place at that time, all across the country. I got involved in a number of interreligious dialogue activities, and that is when I got interested in peacebuilding work.
At the time, I had not yet attended university (I had a diploma in secretarial), but given my involvement in community work I decided it was time to go back to school. A colleague of mine suggested the social ministry program at Tanzaga College. The sciences and praxis program approaches community engagement from a faith perspective. I am Muslim and Tanzaga is a Catholic institution, and my colleague thought the program that is taught from a Christian perspective would be useful for the work I wanted to do in multi-religious communities.
It was not an issue for me to go to a Catholic institution or to study aspects Christian theology. I think it’s my background and my family upbringing. Exposure helps a lot in shaping an individual’s perspectives and worldview. I went to a Catholic institution for secondary school and we lived in a majority Christian neighborhood, so I interacted a lot with Christians and I think that contributed to who I am. I went to Tanzaga College in Karen and studied Social Ministry. At the time I joined, I was the only Muslim student in the entire college population. I still wanted to pursue peacebuilding work, so most of the electives that I took were peacebuilding-related. After graduation, I left and joined Citizens’ Assembly.
Tell me a bit about Citizens’ Assembly and what you did there.
Citizens’ Assembly was a platform that was created to engage citizens and leaders on governance issues. I was a National Coordinator for Citizens’ Assembly for one and a half years providing a platform for citizens and policy makers to discuss public and social policy issues. I then I started feeling pressure to go back to school for my master’s degree. I decided to move to a research focused organization in preparation for my master’s. This prompted me to take a job at Development Policy Management Forum (DPMF), a think tank doing research on public and social policy. As a researcher, I was in a team that conducted research on land policy, development, and governance in Kenya.
Even when I was at Citizens’ Assembly and with DPMF, I was still involved in interreligious dialogue and peacebuilding work with different groups, including Chemichemi, Peacenet, and the Program for Muslim-Christian Relations in Africa (PROCMURA). In 2006, I made a presentation at Hekima College on peace strategies for Africa from an interfaith perspective. After my presentation, a Catholic Priest and alumni of the Kroc Institute came up to me and suggested I apply to the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. I applied, got admitted to the program, and I attended Kroc from 2008 to 2010.
Did you return to peacebuilding work in Kenya after graduating from the Kroc Institute?
I came back from Notre Dame University in August 2010. First I did a consultancy working on conflict analysis in Burao, Somaliland, and then I did some work for Life and Peace Institute, doing a conflict analysis for Marsabit and Tana River in preparation for their conflict transformation program. After that, they offered me a permanent position as the program advisor, policy and advocacy. I was there until 2013. At the Life and Peace Institute, I was also the editor of the Horn of Africa Bulletin, an online journal that focuses on peace and security issues in the region. I did some policy advocacy work for Somalia, including producing evidence-based policy advocacy for Somalia. It’s titled “Creating Fresh Approaches to Peacebuilding in Somalia.” Then this position I have at Catholic Relief Services came along.
Tell me about your position at CRS.
I’m program manager for a project focused on capacity-building for interreligious community action. We’re building the capacity of CRS and partner staff who work in multi-religious contexts to be able to engage with different religious groups in whatever area they work in, whether it be health, education, or another focus area. We help them integrate development and peace, drawing inspiration from religious values as a strategy to promote social cohesion. The program also aims to also address issues of radicalization among the youth.
The project aims to improve knowledge, skills, and attitude for interreligious peacebuilding and action. It begins with training in selected peacebuilding areas and then follows with practical application. Here, Muslim and Christian partners jointly implement a connector project in a multi-religious context that has experienced conflict. This also them to utilize the knowledge and skills that they acquire from the training and also gather lessons for interreligious peacebuilding on what works and what does not work.
This multi-country project began in 2013 and runs through 2016. It is being implemented in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Egypt, Nigeria, and Niger. That’s why I’m always on the move. They are building their capacity so that they can be able to engage constructively, being aware of all the changes that are happening in society and in some places, directly dealing with issues. For example, in Kenya, Egypt, Nigeria, we are already dealing with the tension that’s been created between the different religious communities. In Dar es Salaam, in Uganda, in Niger, we’re focusing on prevention.
This conflict-sensitive work is amazing. How do you work across so many countries?
We have identified a number of training units that will help the staff we work with to understand the conflict context, the conflict dynamics, and conflict sensitivity for interreligious action as they continue doing their work, whether it’s in health or in education. A lot of suspicion has been created with all the violence that is happening all over the world and particularly in these countries. So how are they able to continue with their work in a manner that does not make the situation worse? We focus on partnership and collaboration between faith institutions because we think it would be better if faith-based organizations formed long-lasting collaborative initiatives to engage the community rather than working in isolation. Then we also have transformative leadership and change management units to encourage organizations to focus on the youth, who are easily used when it comes to violence, and who are the ones who are being targeted by radicalization. We also have units on cross-cultural and cross-religious communication. We have workshops on facilitating and consensus building. We discuss mediation and negotiations, and then interreligious peacebuilding.
The project has two phases. The first phase was capacity building for foundational peacebuilding and conflict analysis. In the second phase, they have an opportunity to actually utilize the skills that they learned in the trainings, to see how it plays out. The second phase is also an opportunity for us to know what works and what does not work in inter-faith action. We focus on Interreligious Community Action, because the partners jointly engage in addressing real community issues by identifying a need in the community that will then become a platform to facilitate interaction. When the members of the community are assembled based on a common need, then they will be able to begin dealing with the differences.
In addition to training CRS staff, can you tell me a bit about your partners and interreligious engagement?
We’re training any staff who are working in a multi-religious context. We are hoping that at the end, we’ll have a resource pack that can be used for interreligious action and made available for other people elsewhere. We have partners in the different countries; we are working with different faith-based organizations. For example, in Kenya, we work with two partners, the Coast Interfaith Council of Clerics (CICC), based at the coast, and the Association of Sisterhoods of Kenya, who are Catholics who also work in multi-religious contexts. In Uganda, we are working with the Nile Dialogue Platform and Uganda Joint Christian Council who are implementing a connector project in Yumbe. In Tanzania, we are working with the Tanzania Episcopal Conference and National Muslim Council of Tanzania (BAKWATA); their connector project is targeting youth in Dar es salaam. In Nigeria, we are in three dioceses in the north—Kano, Sokoto , and Maidiguri—and we are working with Federation of Muslim Women of Nigeria (FOMWAN) and Jama'atu Nasril Islam (JNI). In Egypt, we are in three dioceses in Upper Egypt—Assuit, Sohag, and Luxor. Then we have CDA and Nur ul Islam. Those are the Muslim organizations that we are working with.
This work goes beyond dialogue [in multi-religious contexts]. Can you explain to me why this approach?
Dialogue is good, but it’s not enough. The causes of conflict are deeper issues in the society that will not just go away through dialogue. It’s about access to resources. It’s about opportunities for people, and it’s about the capacity of people. So, yes, you might sit and dialogue, but then what next after dialogue? Who actually takes action? Who actualizes the things that you have discussed? Most dialogues are focused on the leaders of each religious community, so that the message does not get to other levels.
For you to actually engage the community in dialogue, you need to be able to address some of the challenges that they have. Otherwise, it’s going to be another spate of rhetoric, just people coming and telling them things, but not addressing the real issues that they have. If you just engage in dialogue, you are looking at the behavior. You have not gone deep to understand what is causing the change in behavior. So that is what excited me about the interreligious action aspect.
Have interfaith relations changed in Kenya? What does the interfaith context look like now?
There has been religious tension especially after a spate of violent attacks by an insurgent group that claims to be driven by religious values. The attacks mainly targeting Christians and Christian institutions lead to religious tension. I was just thinking on what has happened since the Garissa University attack. I was hoping that the different religious leaders would have an opportunity to actually come together to address Kenyan citizens. But instead, interreligious relations began to deteriorate. I would see the attack as an opportunity for religious leaders to come together and show some unity of purpose. But all the religious leaders who spoke said, “As Christians, we need to unite. As Christians, we need to unite.” What happens to the others who are not Christians?
Do you think that Al Shabaab is exacerbating religious tensions in Kenya?
Of course. Currently, individuals who can be identified as Muslims from their dressing and by the name undergo extra security screening. This treatment is creating and growing a division in the society. The narrative that the violence being perpetrated is inspired by religion targeting Christians is causing hate and division between people of different faiths. That is exactly what the insurgency group wishes to achieve, and they will succeed in causing that division between Muslims and Christians if we allow them. I wish the religious leaders at all levels would come together to challenge and help change this narrative from a point of understanding and of common interest in peace and the well-being of all. Kenyans are all affected by the attacks, and we need to stick and act together. It would really have some impact if religious leaders could come together and show this unity.
After the Garissa attack, there has been a lot of discussion on social media. There were emotional perspectives, which you would expect following a tragic attack. There were also expectations on how Muslims should respond. One particular person said, “I wish the Muslims would come out and say something about it.” On the other side, I heard the Muslims saying, “If we came out, we’d appear to be defensive. I don’t think this is the right time.” But imagine if they [Christians and Muslims] had come out to speak together and collectively agreed to deal with this problem—which affects both Muslims and Christians.
Some people said the reason moderate clerics did not speak up is because they were being targeted in some places.
Yes, some were being targeted and threatened, but somebody has to do something. It is also possible that it is an issue of capacity, they may not know how to go about it.
I have heard that religious leaders were allowing a period of mourning before taking action after the Garissa attack. Do you think that is true?
Yes. That’s the other challenge. When the leaders do come together, it’s usually reactive, and that’s why we have deliberately put together this training and resource package on partnership and collaboration. The coming together of different religious initiatives is not an end on its own; it’s a means to an end. So what is that end that you want to achieve? What is that long-term thing that you want to engage in? It’s not just a PR exercise for the Kenyan citizens to see Muslims and Christian leaders together. No. What have they come together to do? Do they genuinely and comprehensively want to address the issue of radicalization? Even if those who are currently being radicalized are Muslims, can the Christians help? Since the issue affects all, then the best approach is to engage in a joint initiative and in a proactive—and not reactive—manner.
Are there other causes for worsening of interfaith relations in Kenya?
There are other issues, including politics. When they openly show their political inclination, religious leaders become partisan. The religious leaders were there during the post-election violence in 2007 and 2008, but they did not take the position you would expect religious leaders to take to end the violence. They were also not visible in the peace process that followed and this is because, during the campaign process, they aligned themselves to different political leaders and political parties. This partisanship denied them a lead role to partake in national peace and cohesion processes.
The different faith group interests are also part of it. Faith groups do have different interest and values but then they also need to transcend these differences for the common good. For instance, a section within Christian fraternity opposed the inclusion of the Islamic court within the constitution during the constitutional review process. If only they had come up with ways for how to deal with differences that will emerge—because of their interest, values and positions—and retain joint faith collaboration. Because, in reality there are common factors that bring the faith groups together but there is also absolute differences that first, need to be acknowledged and, second, managed if faith groups are committed to work together. Obviously, it is a delicate process but with the challenges in the world today it is important to find away of dealing with them so that they do not undermine interfaith partnerships. It is important to acknowledge that we have differences, but we also have something that we want in common for the communities and the country. So, when these differences emerge, how do we deal with them? Nobody thought about that. It seems that still nobody is thinking about it, and the differences are increasing each day.
Tell me more about the interfaith work CRS is doing in Kenya.
We are working at the community level in Kenya. We work with the Coast Interfaith Council of Clerics, and at the county level at the coast, there’s a lot of involvement and collaboration of religious leaders. It’s not like they don’t have their own issues and conflicts, but they are able to manage. When you come to Nairobi, there’s not that kind of collaboration between the religious leaders. If we had something of that nature at the national level, we would all be contributing to actually helping address many peace, security, and development issues.
Are there efforts to address radicalization in Kenya?
There are some efforts that are taking place at the lower level and quietly. There is a movement known as BRAVE—Building Resilience Against Violence Extremism. Most of the activities that are happening within the Muslim community are done with their own resources. These are internal initiatives that focus on developing capacity internally, and then hopefully they will reach to other faith groups.
Is CRS targeting specific groups, like women or youth, in your interfaith action programs?
You know, we have left it to the respective countries to decide. In Niger, they are interested in working with women. The Association of the Sisterhood [in Kenya] wants to work with women. In Nigeria, they want to work with youth. In Egypt, they want to work with youth. In Uganda, they are still deciding.
Have you focused on reaching out to women in your own work?
Yes, specifically encouraging women of faith to get involved with peacebuilding. Chemchemi asks me, “How are we going to clone more of you?” I go to trainings and I see other Muslim women. They say, “Yes, we are trying to turn her into you!”
Do you feel like you are a role model for some women?
Yes, they say I’m a role model. A few people who are new to peacebuilding, both men and women, have told me they would like me to be their mentor.
What is your thinking these days on interreligious relations and peace? Do you have advice for our research?
What I would really want to emphasize is establishing interfaith partnerships that are based on long-term engagement, because the challenges that are coming up require long-term engagement.
The challenges also require conflict-sensitive development projects. The organizations should be able to do conflict analysis so that they understand the context, and they understand the conflict dynamics. They should be able to connect the health or the education service provision in a conflict sensitive manner such that, even if they are not working directly on the conflict, their programs help in addressing the conflict indirectly.
Initially, when I started working with faith-based organizations, they understood peacebuilding and development as different activities. When I started working with the Association of Sisterhoods of Kenya, after several trainings they told me, “You know, all this time, we’ve been doing peacebuilding work and we didn’t know it. We always thought peacebuilding work was for people like you. So you do peacebuilding, and me, I do health. We never understood that it was possible for me to provide antiretroviral drugs in a manner that is going to help in peacebuilding work.” I am happy that the participants in the program I am directing understand their work—whether directly focusing to address conflict or providing services in a conflict context—contributes to justice, peace, and social cohesion. By integrating peacebuilding and particularly conflict sensitivity in their development projects, “how” they interact and engage with the conflict context and becomes so central and not only the “what” of the project they are implementing.