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An Inside Perspective on Religious Peacemaking in Iraq

by Peter Maki

The Executive Director of the Center for Conflict Relief and Reconstruction describes how a non-governmental organization led by a trusted individual who understands Middle Eastern culture has facilitated religious reconciliation in Iraq and thereby contributed to the recent sharp decline in sectarian violence there. Diplomats and soldiers can also profit from the focus on techniques described in the article. — Contrib. Ed.

As the conflict in Iraq drags into its fifth year, many Americans have come to believe that reconciliation in Iraq will not begin and that the incremental improvements from last year’s troop surge will not have a lasting impact until the Iraqi government takes several legislative steps commonly known as “benchmarks.” From personal experience — working with the Center for Conflict and Relief and Reconstruction — I can testify that reconciliation has already begun, though often in less formal and bureaucratic ways.

Religion is a fundamental element of Middle Eastern society, and Westerners unfortunately underestimate its importance to the peace process. What I propose here is an alternative methodology to peacemaking in the Middle East, one that incorporates the religious and tribal nature of Asian culture at the highest levels in order to make an impact. I am not naïve enough to assume that there are not other current religious and tribal reconciliation efforts in Iraq. In fact, in the last few years, there has been an explosion of efforts to reach out to those groups. All these efforts have undoubtedly helped turn the situation around in Iraq. What I offer below is my firsthand experience in working in a private organization presently enjoying very high-level support but built upon the unique methodology I will later describe.

Discussions w/ Gen. Petraeus (second right) and FRRME staff on religious engagement and MNF-I

With the backing of General David Petraeus, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, and Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, the Center helped set in motion a process last year of engaging previously unreachable senior Iraqi religious leadership, and that process has begun to make a difference. Known as the Iraqi Inter-Religious Initiatives, the process rests on the expertise and relationships of Anglican clergyman Canon Andrew White, who has spent nearly two decades in the Middle East. He has remarkable levels of trust amongst senior religious leadership all around the Middle East, and he has been working in Iraq since 1998. The Initiatives is a process mediated by his organization, the British-based Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East (FRRME), which seeks to draw the highest Iraqi Sunni and Shia religious leadership into the peace process. As FRRME’s former Director of Operations, I began working in secret partnership with the U.S. military and the Iraqi government just prior to the U.S.-led surge of troops in Iraq to implement amongst religious leaders a methodology to reduce religiously motivated violence.

Though originally funded by the British Foreign Office following the 2003 invasion, FRRME’s reconciliation work with religious and tribal leaders had no long-term funding, and the process ended after one year. The general lack of support or understanding for religious and tribal engagement undoubtedly contributed to the subsequent flare-up of violence in Iraq that exploded into sectarian conflict along religious lines.

Shia clergy from Najaf sign the Baghdad Inter Religious Accords in June 2007.

After a slow and painful learning process, U.S. government civil and military authorities in Iraq came to the conclusion that they must engage with religion. Since then, they have been very supportive and began funding the process from the beginning of 2007. What is unique about this reconciliation initiative is that the U.S. military has participated directly in the entire process by working through the religious dynamic. By using the Office of the Command Chaplain, the engagement has military involvement and reports directly back to Commanding General David Patraeus. Relying on a shared identity as religious leaders, the Command Chaplain is able to work with Canon White’s FRRME and the senior Iraqi religious leaders to help advise the process in support of U.S. military campaign objectives in Iraq.

The results have been electric. In June 2007 at the inaugural meeting of this process in Baghdad, more than 60 religious and tribal leaders attended from every corner of Iraq, including Baghdad, Basra, Tikrit, Sulimaniyah, Fallujah, and other regions, some traveling several hours with intensive security. Participants varied from across all Iraqi religious divides — Sunni and Shia as well as minority groups such as Christian, Yazidee, and Mandean — in what became the most diverse gathering for a reconciliation initiative in Iraq in over six decades. With transport and access facilitated by the U.S. military, the delegates met in the Al Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad for several days to begin discussions on how to reduce religiously motivated violence in Iraq. The Minister of Human Rights, members of the Iraqi Reconciliation Committee, representatives of the National Security Council of Iraq, and various Iraqi Parliament members attended the sessions. All delegates showed tremendous courage amidst threats of violence and regular power outages on days in which the temperature rarely dropped below 115 degrees Fahrenheit.

Shia clergy sign agreement to work on reducing violence Cairo 2007 as Pete Maki assists.

On the final day after intensive discussions, the Iraqi Inter-Religious Accords (reprinted at the end of this article) were signed at the Al Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad in the presence of a wide-ranging diplomatic community including the U.S., British, Danish, and Italian ambassadors. The agreement was the first of its kind in many ways and received the personal endorsement of the Prime Minister and his directed signature on the Accords, which were signed by Sayyid Dr. Fadel Al Shara, his personal representative and advisor on religious affairs. It is the first broad-based religious accord to recognize the government of Iraq and call for integration and action by the Iraqi government on all previous and future tribal or religious formal conferences to achieve reconciliation. The Accords are the first religious document to publicly renounce Al Qaeda by name, and to declare the spread of arms and unauthorized weapons as a criminal act. Crucially, the document provides a way ahead for committed public action by religious leaders to denounce violence, deny terrorism, demonstrate support for democratic principles and the constitution, and display national unity. The event was the first religious conference facilitated by a non-governmental organization with the coordinated support of the U.S. Mission-Iraq and the Multi-National Forces-Iraq.

Despite the exciting developments in Baghdad, a single meeting even with substantial achievements does very little in the long term. Moreover, due to the nature of the situation in Iraq the most senior representatives could not attend because many lived outside of Iraq and were either involved in the former regime or at serious odds with the current Iraqi government and its U.S. supporters. In order to gain legitimacy and maintain momentum, engagement with the senior leadership was essential. Therefore, in August 2007 a highly select group of the most senior Iraqi religious leaders met in Cairo, Egypt, to build upon the gains made by the meeting in Baghdad in June. Participants included Saddam Hussein’s former personal imam and current head of one of the largest Sunni clerical networks in Iraq; the head of the Najaf office of Grand Ayatollah al Sistani; and other highly influential personalities of the Iraqi Sunni and Shia communities.

The meeting in Cairo proved highly successful, with major objectives reached. Most of those attending had never before met and harbored deep levels of distrust. Most seriously opposed U.S. occupation and had adamantly refused to meet with the U.S. military. Not only did the delegates meet and engage with the U.S. Command Chaplain; they also acknowledged and ratified the statement drafted in June 2007 and even drafted their own addendum strengthening the previous agreement for ending violence in Iraq. Though gaining senior religious legitimacy was pivotal, the major breakthrough occurred when all agreed to form an implementation committee to meet regularly and gradually expand to include other influential and active senior Sunni and Shia religious leaders in working to reduce violence. Crucially, they have agreed to work with existing efforts such as the Mecca Committee, which is involved in screening illegitimate/overtly pro-violence fatwas, or Islamic rulings with the force of law. They have also agreed to take forward the process of establishing a network of the top Iraqi religious figures capable of issuing senior level joint Sunni-Shia fatwas — an idea both completely innovative and previously unattainable.

The process continues, and the U.S. Department of Defense has committed to support another year of work. Currently, the Danish Foreign Ministry has also gotten on board by hosting a meeting in February bringing together in Copenhagen senior Iraqi politicians and the senior Iraqi religious leaders for discussions on whether religion should play an advisory or supervisory role in the developing Iraqi government. Most of those attending were from the implementation committee established in 2007 in Cairo, and this core group is now committed to working at the very highest of levels towards a reduction in violence. In the first major engagement since Cairo in August, religious leaders strengthened and expanded working relationships beyond the highly select circle of religious leaders to include the Danish government and Iraqi political leadership. The role of religion in government was openly discussed, with major attention focused on the impact of violence on Iraq’s religious minorities such as the Christian, Yazidee, and Mandean communities. With high-level Iraqi government involvement, several government recommendations were put forth and the stage was set for major discussions in March in Cairo.

Reconciliation Produces Results
Following the initiation of the Iraqi Inter-Religious Initiatives there have been several remarkable changes in the conflict. Though not directly attributable to any single action or group, the renewed commitment to working with religious leaders exemplified by the Initiatives has begun to make a difference. Below are some the more significant changes and connections with the process in the wake of renewed religious engagement:

  • The Shiite shrine in Samarra was bombed for a second time 13 June 2007, the morning of the Initiatives’ press conference. Unlike the first bombing in 2006, retaliation was largely limited to small outbursts of violence. General Petraeus sent a note of personal thanks for the success of the initial gathering.
  • Following public condemnation of Al Qaeda in the religiously sanctioned Iraqi Inter Religious Accords, the Awakening in al Anbar enjoyed a popular groundswell of support, and violence decreased in the west of Iraq by over 60%.
  • Following the August 2007 conference of the most senior clerics, Moktada al Sadr declared a ceasefire, now extended, and held his Mahdi Army largely to its conditions as violence began drastically to reduce. He later committed to sending Sheikh Salah Alubaidi, his chief spokesperson and a senior religious figure, to participate in negotiations in the next round of discussions.
  • The Danish Foreign Ministry, seeing the value of the religious engagement process, offered to fund an expansion of negotiations with senior clerics and senior Iraqi political leaders, and the Bishop of Copenhagen issued investigations to the conference that convened in Denmark in February 2008 and brought together previously irreconcilable members of the Iraqi government and Iraqi religious leadership.

What Must Be Done?
A simplistic, single-path approach to the problems in Iraq will not solve the violence that once ran rampant throughout the country. Though a major framing tool, religion is not the only source of the problems in Iraq. What is needed is a comprehensive approach which does not ignore the role of religion and instead incorporates its power in the process of peacemaking. This must be coupled with an awareness of the Middle Eastern mindset — only together can this methodology for peacemaking be successful. When Western governments understand that, conditions in Iraq may improve with greater speed. So, what are the procedures, insights, and processes that the West should employ?

When the Western world turns its eyes towards the Middle East, it seems perpetually blindsided with a maelstrom of intractable problems and a dearth of solid, permanent solutions. A region rich in ancient customs plagued by modern dilemmas, the Middle East is a complex blend of competing influences. Discerning the most appropriate solution for some of the more common problems such as religiously motivated violence, poverty, and corrupt governance is a daunting and difficult task to say the least.

Even though I worked for several years as a Center for Conflict Relief and Reconstruction Project Officer and Director of Operations assisting negotiations on religious reconciliation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iraqi conflict, I cannot even pretend to know the answer. Through my work for the London-based Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, I was able to see much of the inner workings of some of the more titanic problems in our world today. There is much more to be learned, but from my experience, a basic understanding of religion and culture is critical to success in the region.

Why Religion?
In terms of culture, history, and tradition, the Middle East is its own entity — an obvious understatement, yet so few really and truly comprehend this fact and its implications. A Gallup Poll conducted for the World Economic Forum in January 2008 ( noted that Muslims polled in both the Islamic and the Western worlds felt disrespected. Interestingly enough, most Muslims felt their world respected the West while most of those polled in the West felt their culture did not respect the Muslim world. In fact, most believe that the interactions between each culture are getting worse.

To move ahead with long-term effectiveness and influence, Western definitions of diplomacy must be made flexible according to the region it hopes to influence. It must incorporate the core values that the society in question deems relevant. This seems basic enough, right? Enter here the role of religion. In the United States we have enshrined the idea of separation of church and state — and for good cause. For many, religion in the driver’s seat seems a bit like allowing the blind to lead the blind. Yet in the Middle East, this is a part of most people’s common identity from a very young age. Islamic history and tradition are among the few common denominators that bind together the rural Iraqi tribal leader with the sophisticated Kuwaiti oil sheikh. When partnered with the Asian values of hierarchy, family background, and respect for age and authority, senior religious leaders have a high level of influence, which trickles down with surprising authority to their disciples and wider following. Though all have their variations in sect and level of devotion, Islam is a common and deeply rooted identity which must be accommodated.

And religious leaders have more than just religious influence. I will never forget speaking with some of Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani’s people about how they felt things were progressing and what they thought about the new Iraqi government. Their reply was very matter of fact: “We are the government.” As the truth of the concept slowly dawned on me, it sent a slight shiver down my spine when I realized what was being communicated. With a revered status amongst the newly empowered majority Shia population in Iraq, millions of dollars in annual revenue due to zakat (the mandatory tithe all Muslims pay), and a vast and influential network of disciples in Iraq and Iran, who would not agree that this translates into real political and social influence?

Regrettably, there has been a very slow recognition or willingness within the secular governments of the West to understand the power and influence religious leaders possess in this part of the world and little eagerness to engage with these sources of real influence. One does not have to look very hard to see why. For all the common identity it brings, keeping a stable and reliable partnership with religion can be like trying to grasp deadly quicksilver. So many major conflicts of our time are rooted in religion gone wrong — Kosovo, Lebanon, Sudan, Nigeria, and now Iraq.

My mentor and one of the premier experts in this field, Canon Andrew White, always says, “When religion goes wrong, it goes very wrong.” This seems so true. Religion often appears irrational and unpredictably savage. Yet as Canon White says, “If religion is part of the problem, it must be part of the solution.” One of the mistakes of the Oslo Accords was a failure to comprehend or reconcile the religious dynamics of the holy sites of Judaism and Islam. Equally so, part of the success in resolving the riots in northern Nigeria between Muslims and Christians in 2004 was rooted in the ability to work with religious leaders on both sides to broker a ceasefire. Madeline Albright actually recognized the crucial role that religion can play in statesmanship in her book The Mighty and the Almighty. Why then, if religion has an acknowledged role to play for good or for bad, is it so challenging to even begin engaging with it? To shed some light on this, I offer a few insights and recommendations gleaned from my own personal experience in this area.

The School of Experience: Religious Peacemaking 101
The key to unlocking this mystery goes beyond simply knowing the role of religions involved; culture is also critical. Though both culture and religion are often quoted by experts in foreign affairs as crucial elements in the peace-making process, the challenges to working this out in real time are sizeable. Funding is very hard to come by — most Western governments do not have a budget line for “religious engagement.” In fact, many disdainfully brush aside such engagements as minor, impractical, or worse — irrelevant to the bigger picture of modern statecraft. Unfortunately, the United States has painfully learned that disregarding the influence of religion in the Middle East can come at a high cost even in a place as seemingly secular as Iraq.

Identification of Key Players and Bridge Builders
Identifying the key players and the persons who can gain access to them is the most important and the most difficult first step in incorporating the role of religion into peacemaking. Legitimacy in the Middle East is often based on family history and accomplishments rather than simply the education and accomplishments of the individual. In the Asian custom of respect and seniority, an elder religious leader always has tremendous influence over his disciples. When a disciple is ordered to do something in the presence of his leader, he must comply out of respect, even if he disagrees with him. Although the actualities of working this out in real time are a bit more complicated, this dynamic of power and submission has tremendous implications in a region where politics and religion are so intermixed.

Upon identifying the key players, the only proven way to work in this area of the Middle East is through trust and established relationships. Finding a widely trusted person who knows the key personalities and their particularities in the conflict is absolutely critical. Once identified, finding and accessing the few top leaders who possess real, tangible authority is difficult. Access to these senior figures typically can be granted only if:

1) the new person is introduced by someone they know, such as a close and trusted friend or family member; and
2) the person wishing to engage with them has a high enough status.

Negotiations w/ senior Sunni clergy on reducing violence with mediator, Canon White (center), and Pete Maki (right).

Here the bridge builders are worth their weight in gold if the proper connections can be made and arrangements result in a meeting. However, selecting your main working partners and then keeping them on your side is key. Going through other people to reach the senior leadership once the process gets going creates a perception of breaking trust. Once you engage with someone you are committed to them. If you stop working with them, not only will they stop working for you but they will start actively working against you.

Risk-Taking, Flexibility, and Realistic Expectations
Dealing with religious leaders in the Middle East is a risk-taking exercise. As previously mentioned, religion can often seem irrational, and results are difficult to measure. In addition, it is definitely outside of the traditional expertise held by most government officials and therefore a world of the unknown in many ways. In my personal experience, most diplomatic circles tend to be as risk-averse as possible, and something as seemingly ethereal as religious engagement can be a hard sell. In addition, such work requires immense flexibility and patience, both of which are virtues a massive, contract-based government focused upon immediate deliverables does not always understand. Step-by-step processes and outcomes rarely exist, which further complicates the traditional contracting methodology.

Expectations must be tempered by reality. Reduction in violence is never instant and must be done in the Middle Eastern way, which may seem circuitous and ineffectual to most. Middle Eastern culture seriously moderates deliverables by measuring them in incremental gains revolving around relationships built over numerous cups of tea and discussions of family history. In this landscape, nothing is accomplished by emails or telephone. These meetings must happen face to face, must be regular, and must keep the hot issues on the table to ensure implementation of agreements. Personal demands for attention, giving of regular gifts, and respect during this process often seem unreasonable and irrational to a Western mind. Yet for real long term solutions and change involving religious leaders this is all very necessary. A significant amount of trust must be gained before serious negotiation on hard line issues can commence — this can take years. Therefore once secured, support must be ongoing or else the majority of hard won gains will be lost.

Andrew White (second left) and Pete Maki (back) of FRRME meet w/ Ambassador Crocker (second right) and U.S. military to gain backing for Iraqi religious engagement.

Establishment of Religion and Function
Once relationships are secured and a process starts moving, a role for religion must be made in partnership with the government involved in the conflict. So many of the problems are based on the Theory of Loss. This can be loss of position/prestige, loss of land, loss of money. It all must be taken into consideration and incorporated into the process of finding a solution. This is not easy because many in opposition to the government view the ruling authority with a high level of suspicion. Once again, building relationships is the key. A special government liaison person must communicate the opinions of the council, or a special body within government must be fitted to work with the recommendations of the process. This is often easier said than done. In Iraq, the Ministry of Dialogue and Reconciliation initiated under Akram al Hakim is woefully understaffed and under-funded with very little local or political support. Creating an independent religious high council or working body is a positive way of maintaining relationships and keeping the issues on the table while restoring some of the loss of prestige and position. As we discussed earlier, part of the initial challenge was the lack of understanding of the role of religion. The concept of working long term is especially important here. A role for religion must be created and a mechanism for feedback from the religious leaders must be integrated into the solution.

Consistent Long Term Support
As previously mentioned, expectations must be based on reality, and part of this reality is long term support. This type of engagement is a multi-year process that must not be underestimated or forced. The most obvious need in order to maintain consistency is financing. Money is needed to pay for multiple trips to keep relationships functional and discussions ongoing. Without funding, this process will come to a halt and a second chance may never materialize again, as broken relationships and trust are very hard to restart. Additionally, there must be political backing to the process to ensure its legitimacy and the integration of recommendations into appropriate action. Note especially that consistent partners in government are very helpful, as the continual rotation of new faces and personalities adds complications to keeping trust and relational dynamics stable amongst the religious leaders. A consistent advisor also helps ensure institutional memory for the whole process and avoids having to retrain a new person every year or two, which slows the process down.

A simplistic, single-path approach to the problems in Iraq will not solve the violence running rampant throughout the country. Though a major framing tool, religion is not the only source of the problems in Iraq. What is needed is a comprehensive approach that does not ignore the role of religion and instead incorporates its power in the process of peacemaking. This must be coupled with an awareness of the Middle Eastern mindset – only together can this methodology for peacemaking be successful. Some knowledgeable advisors enjoying financial and government support are now at work in Iraq. With time and patience, they may assist the creation of a stable and representative Iraqi government. Their recent successes are cause for hope.

The Iraqi Inter-Religious Congress Accords

In the name of God who is Almighty, Merciful and Compassionate,

We clerics, intellectuals and political leaders gathered at this congress pray and appeal for the peace of Iraq and declare our commitment to doing all in our power to ensure to end all acts of violence and bloodshed which are in violation of the right to life, freedom and dignity. “We have dignified man” (a verse from the Holy Quran). We as Iraqis from different traditions have decided to endeavour to live together as one family respecting the moral and religious integrity of every individual and we call upon all to condemn and renounce the culture of incitement, hatred and the demonization of the other.

According to our faith traditions killing human beings in the name of God is a desecration of the laws of heaven and defames religion not only in Iraq but in the world.

We also declare to the world at large that:

1. We seek to rebuild our country, the country of Iraq.

2. The acts of violence, terrorism, corruption, and all forms of oppression are contrary to the lofty principles of all our faiths.

3. The traditions of faith from antiquity have created and nurtured Iraq as the Land of Holy Places. The sanctity of all our places of worship and religious sites must be protected and preserved by all. The freedom of religious worship and expression must be guaranteed for all. “No coercion in religion” (a verse from the Holy Quran).

4. While we acknowledge and encourage the efforts of the government towards reconciliation, peace, and security we remind the government of its commitment to the mandate it has been given by the people. We call on the political leaders in Iraq to support the principles of the constitution as they work for a just, fair and peaceful democracy, according to the divinely inspired commandments of messengers and prophets.

5. We as religious clerics are against the criminal spread of arms in Iraqi society and ask for the removal of unauthorized weapons to create a safer civil society.

6. We call on and urge the international community to assist in the positive spiritual, political, and economic reconstruction of Iraq away from violence and chaos and in line with the International Compact for Iraq.

7. We denounce Al Qaeda and other extremist groups and we commit ourselves to a new model of truth, openness and reconciliation which will enable the spiritual, political and physical reconstruction of Iraq.

8. We shall devote ourselves to continue our joint efforts for the unity of the people of Iraq and for the creation of a climate of togetherness in which our present and future generations may live with mutual trust and respect. We shall also educate our present and future generations to maintain this commitment while denouncing all forms of terrorism and extremism, political, religious, or otherwise.

9. We the clerics and intellectuals seek these goals of success, prosperity, fair governance, and religious freedom while denouncing the corruption and misuse of authority. We recognize these goals require us to preserve these efforts with the integrity of our mutual commitments through a continuing process of vested actions, committees, and meetings that produce the results of our message. We seek God Almighty’s help in this regard and pledge to recruit likeminded leaders and remain unwavering in our desires to live in a free and sovereign Iraq.

10. We implore the Iraqi Government and the Parliament to speed up and activate the recommendations of all national, tribal, and religious reconciliation meetings in order to achieve balance and fairness according to the capabilities and expectations of the Iraqi people.



While traveling the United States on speaking engagements, Anglican peace envoy Canon Andrew White met and recruited Peter Maki directly out of graduate school, where he was studying history and education. Working first as White’s executive assistant, he gained first-hand insight into inter-religious conflict resolution and later became his director of operations. Maki now heads the Charlotte-based affiliate of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East. (

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