How religious leaders can help facilitate dialogue

The paradoxical relationship between religion, politics and conflict is a contentious issue within political science and has garnered much debate among policymakers and academics. Most of the existing literature within these discourses have often been led by the secularist paradigm depicting religion through a destructive lens and a major factor in causing and intensifying conflicts around the world.

Much of the analysis has therefore focused on negative aspects – religious extremism, religious incompatibility, religious dissimilarity and how religion is politicised and institutionalised in conflicts in order to legitimise violence.

Furthermore, religious institutions and their leaders have been recognised through a limited and declining spectrum that does not transcend an individual’s personal life. Consequently, for a long period, the literature on conflict and traditional diplomacy has been somewhat negligent of the religious approach to peacebuilding and, in particular, the role of religious leaders.

However, on the contrary, religion plays an extremely significant role in the lives of many people around the world. It is also entrenched in the political sphere in most countries in the Middle East, Asia, the Americas and Africa, and continues to play an important role in society and within the public sphere.

Therefore, a strong theoretical reassessment is required as events throughout the world have proven that religion, far from diminishing, plays a major role in many security issues, both for better and for worse.

Through the role of Ayatollah Ali Hussain al-Sistani, this article will seek to demonstrate the potentially beneficial role of religious leaders in peacebuilding.


Religion is a multi-faceted belief system and therefore it is conceivable that multiple mechanisms can exist that link religion to conflict and, by extension, to peacebuilding.

The process of peacebuilding involves a multidimensional approach involving various governmental and non-governmental actors. It denotes effort from various actors in support of institutional, political and social transformation needed to create long-term stability. In states where religious fragmentation is strife and a contributing factor to violence, strictly traditional diplomacy is arguably of little significance in peacebuilding.

Rather, the use of religious diplomacy can incorporate and bring about social, moral and spiritual resources which can serve as the basis of peacebuilding and conflict resolution (Abu-Nimer, 2001). Thus, religious institutions, and more specifically their leaders, have the potential to play extremely critical roles in fostering peace and resolving international conflicts.

Given the appropriate circumstances and contexts, religious leaders are able to play an unrivaled role in countering violent extremism because of their unique positions of authority as well as their sometimes humble aesthetic, credibility, legitimacy, neutrality, institutional resources and networks within communities. This is demonstrated, for instance, by the Quakers, the Pope and Ayatollah Sistani.


Kadayifci-Orellana (2008), draws on three unique qualities that religious leaders may possess that can enable them to yield a positive influence. These are: legitimacy and credibility, resources to heal trauma and injuries, and available financial, institutional and human resources.

Elsewhere, Haider (2016) lists other various characteristics associated with religious leaders that may enable them to engage in efforts to promote peace. Her list includes trustworthiness and credibility, impartiality and neutrality, presence and legitimacy in local communities, understanding of the local context, a shared and respected set of values with different sides of  conflict, strong networks, and access to various levels of power.


Fifteen years following the invasion of Iraq, the volatile state has experienced ethno-sectarian tension and divide, corruption, civil war, the rise of ISIS, terrorist attacks and collapse of basic services including water and electricity. Iraq is an example of where religious leaders can undermine peacebuilding if they do not possess the appropriate attributes outlined above.

Nonetheless, amidst this despondent backdrop, the actions and words of one religious leader have been extremely important in holding some form of morale together. Sistani, arguably the most influential man in Iraq, is one of the most revered Shiite clerics around the world. Like the majority of the traditional Shi’i clerics residing in Najaf, Sistani mostly subscribes to a policy of quietism which is contrasted with the “activist” Shi’i Islam often associated with Khomeini and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The “quietist” school was rooted in the Shi’i clerical tradition of refraining from direct engagement in political affairs. Thus, quietist clerics do not hold executive positions in the state and are thus able to maintain impartiality towards electoral candidates. In fact, Sistani had explicitly called for a civil state in Iraq rather than a theocratic state similar to Iran’s.

However, quietism does not necessarily mean a complete lack of political involvement, rather as Khoei (2016) argues, Sistani sees himself as somewhat above politics who plays a unifying role in Iraq but would make a number of powerful interventions during times of crises and when necessary.

Thus, during the American occupation in 2003, Sistani rose as a subtle but firm leader as he issued a fatwa stating that the policymakers of Iraq’s constitution had to be democratically elected and demanded UN involvement in overseeing the election process whilst emphasising all Iraqi participation in the elections. Later, during the height of Iraq’s sectarian civil war in 2006 when al-Qaeda militants bombed the holy al-Askari shrine in Samarra, Sistani publicly condemned sectarian division and called for the Shias to refrain from seeking revenge with hope to diffuse the situation and unite the Iraqi people under one humanitarian and non-denominational banner.

The public show of unity behind Sistani was a major step in easing the escalation of tension and violence that crippled the country. Furthermore, amidst growing protest against government corruption, Sistani has a number of times, through his representatives, issued calls to Iraqi political leaders to apply some much-needed reforms.

In June 2014, after the collapse of Mosul at the hands of ISIS, Sistani produced arguably his most famous fatwa, urging all Iraqi men, not only Shias, to join the security forces and defend the safety and status of Iraq’s religious and historical sites as well as the lives of all Iraqis regardless of faith and background.

Sistani’s famous call to action led to thousands of men joining forces to defend Iraq. The call instantaneously mobilised thousands of volunteers to join the Iraqi Security Forces. The fatwa has also helped Shia militias, Sunni communities and Christian and Yazidi armed groups to be regulated under one umbrella of paramilitary force estimated to have been comprised of between 60,000 to 140,000 volunteers.


Sistani’s infrequent yet acute political adjustments have so far presented many benefits for the state as he tries to steer Iraq away from decades of sectarian divide and towards a shared national identity. His peace efforts had even led to a number of political experts nominating Sistani for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Thus, as this article has attempted to illustrate, particular consideration should be given to the unique characteristics that religious leaders must possess in order to enable them to play a strong part in reconciliation and unity. Their often untapped potential in fostering peace has arguably never been more important than in the current global society, whereby religion plays a highly influential role in shaping the narratives of media and public perception on the world stage. The question remains: how do policymakers foster the type of positive attributes that religious leaders must possess in order to become beneficial to peacebuilding dialogue.



Abu-Nimer, M. (2001). Conflict Resolution, Culture, and Religion: Toward a Training Model of Interreligious Peacebuilding. Journal of Peace Research, 38 (6).

Al-Khoei, H. (2016). Post-Sistani Iraq, Iran and the future of Shia Islam. Retrieved from War on the rocks:

Kadayifci-Orellana, S. A. (2008). Ethno-Religious Conflicts: Exploring the Role of Religion in Conflict Resolution. In J. Bercovitch, V. Kremenyuk, & I. Zartman (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Conflict Resolution. London: SAGE Publications.

Haider, H. (2016). Religious leaders and the prevention of electoral violence (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 1366). Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.

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