Religion and Politics: Initiatives and Applied Research

The programme "Religion and Politics: Initiatives and Applied Research" was located at the Graduate Institute until July 2011. Afterwards, work on two elements of this programme - the Islamic Charities Project (ICP) and the Sri Lanka Dialogue Project (SLDP) - was continued at the Centre for Security Studies (CSS) of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zürich. More information about their activities under the title "Culture and Religion in Mediation" can be found on this website.

Programme Brief and Projects Undertaken:

This programme was initiated in September 2005 by the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, Political Division IV (DFA-PD IV). It was based on one of the thematic areas of focus of Switzerland's human security, namely initiatives aimed at contributing towards the transformation of conflicts that arise as the result of different values and social orders. ‘Religion & Politics’ was co-directed by the Swiss FDFA and the CCDP with the aim of bringing together the political, operational and academic ‘savoir faire’ of both institutions to facilitate and conduct research on dialogue processes in conflicts with a religious dimension.

Main objectives:

  1. Contribute to the transformation of conflicts with religious dimensions by means of initiating and facilitating diapraxis projects which consist of engaging in dialogue with the aim of removing obstacles to political solutions.
  2. Contribute to the understanding of these conflicts and to the development of methods to approach such conflicts (with a focus on conceptual tools and on the epistemological question of how different conflicts are perceived, assessed and studied);
  3. Networking, exchange and sharing of experiences, combined with a capacity-building effort that reinforces a general methodological reassessment of tools to approach conflicts with religious dimensions.

As a policy-oriented research domain, Religion & Politics—and in particular the role religion plays in political processes, conflict mediation and transformation, as well as in the international community’s engagement in conflict-affected and fragile states- have all been of growing interest in the fields of political science, development studies, comparative politics, sociology, anthropology and legal studies. Since its creation, CCDP has used its competence as a leading multi-disciplinary research centre in the fields of conflict studies and peacebuilding to consolidate on the position of the Religion & Politics programme as a focal point for cutting-edge, policy-relevant initiatives on the subject. Individual projects have been strategically advanced and updated with a more conceptual reflection and a research backbone, thereby helping to strengthen the programme’s capacities to review its approach and conceptual underpinnings critically.

The underlying assumption of this programme is the conviction that religious concerns need to be taken seriously in conflict transformation and resolution efforts.

Religion, although probably not a causal factor for conflicts, plays a crucial role as intervening variable, potentially exacerbating and prolonging conflicts. Conflicting parties tend to establish mutually exclusive discourses which construct ‘the other’ as an existential threat. Moreover, there is “often minimal understanding of the other ‘world’ and how to engage constructively with it. The interests expressed by one party often do not make sense to the other party, as they are framed in a different ‘world’ logic” (Bitter & Mason).

Conceptually, the programme’s approach considers religion as constitutive of social reality in the societies under study. The programme’s understanding is based on a cultural-linguistic understanding of religion, “viewed as a kind of cultural and/or linguistic framework or medium that shapes the entirety of life and thought”. Religion, according to this understanding, “is similar to an idiom that makes possible the description of realities, the formulation of beliefs, and the experiencing of inner attitudes, feelings, and sentiments. Like a culture or a language, it is a communal phenomenon that shapes the subjectivities of individuals […]”(Lindbeck 1984, 33). Religion can be conceived as an a priori that shapes individual and collective perceptions. It thus has “both cognitive and behavioural dimensions”.

Based on this cultural-linguistic understanding and the experiences gained through operational activities, the programme developed innovative methods to address conflicts with religious dimensions. One instrument tested in operational activities was the facilitation of diapraxis processes. The concept of diapraxis, or "dialogue through practice" advocates an approach to conflict transformation that engages actors in joint work on concrete issues. In fact, dialogue on religious and cultural values tends to exacerbate conflicts as attempts to impose worldviews are often felt as oppressive. What is more, mediation through dialogue bears the risk to increase mistrust if words are not followed by concrete actions. ‘Dialogue through practice’ is a strategy to circumvent these caveats, by engaging actors with political responsibility in concrete, problem-solving activities, thus building up mutual trust. The principal and most central idea is to let each actor in the co-operation on concrete projects enjoy their own interpreations and meanings based on their own worldview, hence without forcing a common interpration of the conflict or reality. In short, the ultimate objective is to reach reconciliation without capitulation.

This process is itself as important as the results it produces: finding joint, practical, compromise solutions to specific problems can bring about new partnerships and show that differing religious views and interpretations of conflicts are not necessarily an obstacle to finding common political solutions that are acceptable to the actors concerned. In this way, diapraxis processes can have a constructive impact on the relationship between the conflict parties.

Religion & Politics has pooled a series of operational and research activities listed below and out of which it aims to develop a set of more general theoretical, conceptual and epistemological conclusions in the near future. The operational activities that focus on the facilitation of confidence-building through diapraxis projects comprise a variety of projects, as seen below.

Below is a conference report for an event held in Zurich in April 2009 as part of the R&P programme. The report provides a thorough presentation of the conference, the papers presented by the participants, and an example of the dialogue carried out by two participants. It offers a detailed analysis of the participants' conceptualization of religion and conflict and the impact that it can have on the approach to conflict resolution.

Tajikistan Dialogue Project (2003-2009)

The Tajikistan Dialogue Project was a multi-track program which included dialogue initiatives and projects aimed at confidence-building. It involved Secular and Islamic constituencies from the district level up to the national level.

An end-of-project report on the objectives and outcomes of the project, as well as the opportunities and challenges faced, have been published and is available online.

ICP: Islamic Charities Project (May 2005- JULY 2011)

The aim of this project is to remove unjustified obstacles for bona fide Islamic charitable institutions by arguing for more nuanced interpretations of their role in general and that of zakat committees in particular. One of the areas of focus of the project is the occupied Palestinian territories, where research was being undertaken on zakat committees (social welfare committees charged with the collection and distribution of Islamic legal alms). A working paper was published in 2009, Role and Governance of Islamic Charitable Organizations: The West Bank Zakat Committees (1977-2009) in the Local Context, written by Emanuel Schaublin and translated to Arabic.

Complementing this working paper, another paper was published in 2012 on Role and Governance of Islamic Charitable Organizations: Gaza Zakat Organizations (1973-2011) in the Local Context. An Arabic translation is also available.

For a more thorough presentation of the ICP and its outputs, visit the project's page, or read the ICP project brief presenting our research.

SLDP: Sri Lanka Dialogue Project (September 2005- JULY 2011)

The “Sri Lanka Dialogue Project” (SLDP) was initiated both to study interactions between religion and politics in Sri Lanka (and their consequences for a political solution to the conflict), and to explore the possibilities of setting up a confidence-building process between representatives of different religious communities.

According to this twofold objective, the project aims at contributing to conflict prevention and transformation with long-term effects in Sri Lanka. The SLDP engages members of the Buddhist clergy (Sangha) as well as members of the Tamil (Hindu and Christian) and Muslim community in order to rebuild confidence and relations between communities, overcome mutual stereotypes, fears and threat-perceptions, and aims at changing attitudes and behaviour with regard to political settlements.

At the same time, research is conducted on the project and its context. This research seeks to reflect on the operational part of the SLDP, establish lessons identified as well as methods for integrating research into operational processes, and to develop theories on how to conduct conflict prevention and transformation projects with religious actors. For more information about the project, read the SLDP project brief.

SEND: Swiss-Egyptian NGO Dialogue (November 2006- OCTOBER 2011)

The pilot project brings together a Swiss and an Egyptian NGO, both inspired by principles of faith. The encounters, meant to test the feasibility and modalities of cooperation, leave room for disagreement and differences, especially in terms of the relation between faith, charity and social work. Through the development of a joint activity, the two organizations engage in a Diapraxis process – a dialogue through action.

For more information on the project, read the first SEND project brief summarizing the objectives and outcomes of the project. The conclusions of the research have been published in October 2011 and are also available online.


Past publications and databases:

From 2005 until 2008, the programme was hosted at the Programme for the Study of International Organizations (PSIO) at the former Graduate Institute of International Studies (HEI) in Geneva. A number of events and research activities were held in the framework of the projects at the time, in addition to relevant past publications and background literature:

  • From Confidence Building Towards Co-operative Co-existence - The Tajik Experiment of Islamic-Secular Dialogue, Edited by Jean-Nicolas Bitter, Frédérique Guérin, Delia Rahmonova-Schwarz, Arne C. Seifert. Published by Nomos, 2004.

Background Literature: