The focus of my roundtable session was conflict resolution. Directed by BYU professor and grassroots activist Chad Ford, we discussed how religion plays a major role in political and social conflicts. Chad is involved in many peacebuilding projects in volatile communities, and has used basketball, education, and counseling to promote reconciliation in some of the most fractured regions of the world.
Chad’s personal experiences in Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Palestine provided some salient examples of regions torn apart by community differences. Conflicts over political representation, economic development, and social services quickly develop when these differences are reinforced by competing religious world views.
How can Jews, Muslims, and Christians in the Holy Land achieve peace if they cannot learn to live together? If they cannot be persuaded to come to the negotiating table, and to recognize and respect the other party’s point of view, we cannot expect any long-term solutions to conflict and violence. As long as people struggle to overcome ethnic, religious, and cultural divides, opportunities for conflict resolution will remain inhibited by deeply rooted historical tensions.
Can policy change this? Do new pieces of legislation make a difference? Does the image of political leaders shaking hands inspire local communities to do the same? Chad remained highly skeptical of such political attempts at reconciliation.
Perhaps a more effective solution is “Track Two” diplomacy—building trust from the bottom-up, supporting grassroots organizations, and gathering people together directly in their homes, schools, and community centers. In order to mend divisions, we must help people see each other as people, and debunk characterizations that demonize the enemy “other.” We can volunteer in local education programs, promote after-school activities, and arbitrate meetings between village leaders. This solution targets the very heart of the conflict and diffuses the distrust that can tear apart diverse communities.
Chad admits that this strategy seems a bit far-fetched and idealistic. After all, it is easier to sign a piece of paper than to fully transform local communities. But the easier option is hardly more effective. History is filled with examples of signed documents, cease-fires, and treaties—all received with much applause and fanfare—that are ripped apart when fault lines start to splinter again.
At the very least, bottom-up conflict resolution should be given just as much credence as official policy. Sometimes, the best solutions are found when you use a diverse set of tools.