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In Defence of 'Whataboutery'

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The Northern Ireland peace process is fraying at the edges. That is if you can call cultural and religious divisions and social hostilities "the edges" when they feed so powerfully the persistence of political problems at the centre.

I began to think differently about this issue after reading this year's Dunleath Lecture given at Queen's University, Belfast by John Brewer, Professor of Post-Conflict Studies in the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at the university. Professor Brewer described an ingredient of the recent deterioration as an outbreak of "whataboutery". What about these victims, our victims, their perpetrators, what about state collusion? Serious questions with damaging outcomes. One question that arises is the nature of the relation between governmental and social processes of peace building.

Brewer described it this way: "Advances in the political peace process are necessary to open up space for developments in the social peace process; societal healing first needs there to be conflict transformation through the ending of killings. But it is also the case that failure to progress in the social peace process can destabilise the gains made in politics". His message was that peace-making is "too important to be left to politicians; civil society needs to take back control of the peace process".

When religion is a significant dimension of a conflict this necessarily puts considerable responsibility on religious leaders as key agencies in civil society. Brewer's insight that a central area of conflict is contention over the morality of violence and the polarisation of moral frameworks, suggests a challenging role for religious leaders who are seen as privileged arbitrators on such matters.

What is the challenge? Professor Brewer highlighted a selective and partisan moral condemnation, asserting a hierarchy of victimhood, and the absence of a shared moral vision of what peace would look like in the positive sense of a just society. And this applies no less to other conflicts where religion plays a more dominant role. Muslim, Christian, or Buddhist leaders often struggle to rise beyond their natural commitment to their own community into a wider peace-making role requiring empathy and an ability to see the other's predicament (which is often a mirror of their own).

Though a number of front-line religious leaders played vital mediating roles in making possible the Good Friday Agreement, Brewer tellingly never referred to religion or religious leadership in an otherwise stimulating lecture. This notable absence is not uncommon though in this case probably deliberate. But writing religious leaders out of the preventative script does nobody any good. It absolves them of failures in social peace processes, from turning the R-word, reconciliation, from rhetoric into action, and, on the other hand neglects exemplary evidence of their successes. Sometimes this is necessary when interventions have to remain secret to be effective but often the lights need not remain hidden under bushels.

But not all "whataboutery", I would argue, is damaging. Much thinking about the role of religion in conflict confronts carefully guarded silos. And asking "what about this silo?", or "what about that silo" may play a positive role in dealing with key peace-building problems. Whether NGOs, or donors, or ministries of Foreign Affairs, you will likely get stuck in the box marked conflict prevention, another marked interfaith relations, another marked countering religious extremism, or humanitarian aid and development assistance. Many religious leaders are likely to be involved to some degree in all of these. Each box is likely to be relevant to any holistic approach to peace-building.

Sometimes this is recognised. For the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, the development of the economy of the West Bank was, and is, considered sufficiently important to be the principal task of the Quartet. Destitute and despairing people do not make reliable negotiating partners. Sometimes it is not. Some development agencies find the greatest difficulty in seeing harmonious interfaith relations as integral to successful development programmes. Christians burning down mosques and Muslims burning down churches are not ideal contexts for women's empowerment. And vice-versa, de-radicalisation is notoriously boosted by a future opening up with employment opportunities and, in the Saudi case, a shiny motor car.

To return to Brewer and the gauntlet he's thrown down, I would add - though he doesn't - a challenge to religious leaders which speaks to far more than the case of Northern Ireland. He asks finally how should civil society respond and ends with this: "By beginning to assert the essential unity of the experience of suffering, allowing us to empathise with everyone's suffering and to see this empathy as a moral virtue that unites us, rather than divides". Utopian? Perhaps. But very good religion. And not bad politics.