Moving Beyond: Interreligious Dialogue in Lebanon

Hala Fleihan
May, 2006
This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.


Interreligious dialogue has offered a proactive outlet for all actors in society- elites and grassroots- of different faiths to come together and talk. Leonard Swidler describes interreligious dialogue as "a conversation among people of different faiths on a common subject, the primary purpose of which is for each participant to learn from the other so that he or she can change and grow." According to Swidler, this style of dialogue is a powerful tool when used to contribute to peace because it works to heal humanity, build trust, and mend relationships. Within the context of Lebanon, interreligious dialogue has proven an effective means for building peace. From personal experience as a facilitator and participant, I have witnessed the Lebanese society move beyond debate and ineffective talk to transformative and creative problem solving communication. This first-hand experience provides insight into the inner workings of interfaith dialogue that contributes to the ongoing process of reconciliation in Lebanon.

Lebanon is a land of great diversity, history, civilization and coexistence. With 18 officially recognized religious sects living together on 10,452 km2, it exists as a meeting place between Christianity and Islam. Fifteen years after the end of the civil war (1975-1990), the Lebanese public continues to struggle with defining their identity and rebuilding a unified and sustainable direction for future collaboration in civil society. Now that the country is undergoing drastic political, economic, and social changes, the Lebanese society, specifically the youth, are demanding an outlet for open means of communication, cooperation, sharing experiences and building a common history.

In this context, I argue that it is necessary to create a safe environment for dialogue where individual opinions can be voiced and respected and, more importantly, where the healing of misperceptions of the "Other" can take place. I will explore the dynamics of interreligious dialogue in Lebanon, specifically among youth, by examining the group dynamics of "forming, storming, norming, and performing" developed by Bruce Tuckman. I will also highlight the difficulties and successes of interreligious dialogue and conclude by arguing that dialogue is essential to building relationships and is therefore a key element in peacebuilding.

Prior to the war in 1975, important steps were taken towards Christian-Muslim dialogue. Some primary examples include, the "First Muslim-Christian Convocation", held at Bhamdoun in 1954 and the establishment of the Institute for Research and Training in Development (IFRED) in 1959. However, these meetings, directed by secular elites and excluding the voices of religious leaders, were focused on comprehensive socio-economic development in Lebanon. It wasn't until 1993 that religious clergies formed the "National Christian-Muslim Committee for Dialogue" to address sectarian issues among the major religious groups in the country. Due to the decline of secularist parties in post-war Lebanon, attention by religious leaders was increasingly focused on the multi-confessional system. Not only did religious leaders dedicate their time to promoting interreligious dialogue, but some of the country's academic institutions did as well, such as University Saint-Joseph, in Beirut. In 2002, the UNESCO Chair in Comparative Religious Studies was established to promote trainings and facilitation in intercultural dialogue, peacebuilding and tolerance.

NGOs across the country also took on an active role organizing programs specifically designed for interfaith dialogue. Among others, The Center for Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding (CCRP), an NGO I co-founded in Beirut (May 2003), is primarily devoted to promoting constructive, innovative and co-operative approaches for the management of conflict and the reduction of violence. Toward these ends, CCRP has brought together hundreds of young men and women from various regions in Lebanon to engage in interreligious dialogue. The training workshops vary in length from a weekend to a month, but the aim is always the same: to build long-term relationships.

My experience as a facilitator working with youth from diverse religious, political, and socio-economic backgrounds in Lebanon evokes the intricate aspects of group dynamics found in interreligious dialogue. To illustrate, I borrow Bruce Tuckman's theory of group formation. Tuckman identifies four stages that best characterize this process: forming, storming, norming, and performing. Understanding these stages in an interfaith dialogue can help determine what is happening within a group and how facilitators need to manage what is occurring. This cycle is an explanatory tool for the way dialogue unfolds and transforms relationships.

People carry a baggage of mindsets (see the article on frames and framing) filled with emotions, needs, fears, hopes, expectations, stereotypes, and beliefs constructed and reformed based on their experiences. According to David Smock, dialogue participants are "likely to carry into the process a set of preconceptions and prejudices regarding the beliefs and practices of the other religious community in the dialogue." Therefore, the first encounter, or the forming stage is perhaps the most fragile. During this phase, questions of identity are the focal point. Feelings of insecurity, uncertainty and vulnerability are elicited. In a typical first session, it is interesting to observe the participants' body language. Most, if not all, are in defense mode and are generally reserved. Given that, in Lebanon, revealing your name provides basic information about where you come from, who your father is, what religious identity you carry, and sometimes which political party you are affiliated with, it is revealing to listen as people introduce themselves. Within these first few seconds, you have been instantly categorized. From a participant's perspective, I felt the fears of judgment and acceptance. I, like others in the group, was hesitant and reluctant to engage. A facilitator at this stage can take the initiative to "break the ice" and encourage initial engagement. First and foremost, before beginning the dialogue process, ground rules are set and agreed upon by all participants. The session then proceeds with a short reflection (background meditation music is optional, although it helps sooth tensions and create a more peaceful ambiance). We ask participants to close their eyes, take deep breaths and silently think about the questions that are asked. The reflection process addresses questions that range from personal level to community and national level inquiries. For instance, in your lifetime thus far, what percent of time is spent in conflict and in peace as experienced within yourself? Within your family? What are the percentages of conflict and peace your religious group encounters with other religious groups within the community and the percentages of conflict and peace your country experiences with its neighbors? The idea here is to get participants thinking about their own personal feelings about conflict and peace and slowly move towards national level feelings of conflict and peace within their country. This is a great thought/emotion provoking exercise to elicit sharing of personal perceptions and meanings of conflict and peace. The forming phase can thus be considered as the icebreaker of the group cycle and naturally invites participants into the next stage.

As participants begin to unload their baggage and become familiar with one another, interpersonal conflicts and differences begin to surface. In theory of conflict resolution, conflict involves a clash of ideas, perceptions and attitudes on a certain issue(s). The storming phase thus provides space for participants to confront and work through these clashes. The common storming issues in Lebanon would primarily revolve around disagreements and heated tensions about political and religious affiliations. On a deeper level though, the nature of the conflicts are essentially about repressed anger, fear of judgment, fear of exclusion, and mistrust. And there is often no real communication or listening going on during this stage. For instance, in heated dialogue sessions that took place after the assassination of Former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, participants were adamant about venting their frustrations and anger towards people of certain political/religious parties. People in the group were verbally attacked and political elites in the country were lambasted. The room was full of vengeance, blaming, resentment and exhaustion. As a facilitator, it was crucial to ensure the safety of the group and at the same time keep the focus on the primary issues in a constructive manner so that everyone was heard and voices were appreciated.

There are various ways a facilitator can do this. Initially, the facilitator will give space for participants to vent their anger, provided that ground rules have been set and no violence is permitted. The facilitator can exert some control during the storming phase by providing participants with useful communication and problem solving skills. In this case, the facilitator introduces basic conflict resolution skills in an interactive fashion. Participants are given a role play based on the current context and/or situation and work through the conflict according to their roles. The purpose of this activity is to observe communication styles, problem solving skills, and relational dynamics. After the activity is done, the facilitator encourages participants to share feelings, thoughts, ideas, and together as a group brainstorm alternatives to constructive problem solving.

Once the group has vented their issues, it can now begin to establish ways to move beyond turmoil and participate in effective dialogue. During the norming phase, participants articulate their expectations and work at clearly defining their goals. The most significant improvement I have witnessed is that the participants start to genuinely listen to each other. At this stage in the dialogue process, the facilitator demonstrates basic nonviolent communication skills in order to provide participants with tools to express their feelings, needs, and make requests in compassionate ways. The facilitator may also reframe what was said so participants genuinely hear what others are saying and ask others to do the same. In this way, participants practice listening and recognize their communication and problem solving patterns. In addition, the group begins to generate more productive and positive options. In my experience, participants listed their feelings, needs, and hopes for rebuilding the unity of Lebanon. The list clearly portrayed underlying commonalities among the various faiths. What they needed to see and understand was that at the core of their conversation were similar basic needs, fears, and hopes. Participants now become ready for transforming conflict into positive change and long-term peacebuilding.

At its heart, conflict transformation focuses on direct interaction between people and groups. In Lebanon, long-term peacebuilding requires interreligious dialogue as one method of direct interaction. Thus, in the final performing stage of the dialogue process, participants are able to move beyond small talk to transformative and creative problem solving communication by engaging in an honest exchange of thoughts, ideas, and opinions. In this light, participants begin to acknowledge one another's interests, needs, fears, and respective worldviews. They also have the necessary tools to engage in effective dialogue to attend to short-term needs and at the same time brainstorm strategies for long-term sustainable change.

Despite the scars and wounds left by the civil war, Lebanese society is ready to confront its past and participate in interreligious dialogue initiatives on all levels of civil society. NGOs like CCRP are especially vital for developing programs to promote sustainable peace. Training in conflict transformation and nonviolent communication can serve as a catalyst for interfaith dialogue. Such efforts, says David Smock, "increase mutual understanding and reduce the likelihood of widespread interfaith animosity and conflict."

Nevertheless it is not an easy process. Dialogue certainly comes with some obstacles and challenges, especially when dealing with sensitive religious identities. Because participants arrive with preconceived ideas about other religious communities, hostility and tension are common obstacles. Issues of fear and uncertainty prevail among most of the participants, which could result in impasse or an unwillingness to engage. Particularly, those that hold strong fixated opinions or beliefs are perhaps the most difficult to reach agreement with. "Sharing at the deep level of religious conviction can generate resistance and defensiveness?also runs the risk of inflaming stereotypes and prejudices against one's own group."

In my experience, I have noticed two types of people that are attracted to this kind of dialogue. First, individuals who are angry and feel strongly about their beliefs want to join the dialogue primarily to be heard. They tend to dominate the group by attempting to convince other's that their point of view is "right". Second, there are those that are curious to listen and learn about others' experiences and perceptions about certain issues. These people come to share, listen, and build relationships. As a facilitator, the most challenging task is maintaining control of the group and steering the dialogue towards a goal. As a participant, sharing personal perspectives and opinions about religious and/or political matters can be daunting, especially when there are strong opposing views. However, these challenges are surmounted by cooperation among participants and facilitator, respect and value for individual opinions, and applying acquired communication and problem solving skills both within the dialogue and in other relationships. The implications for individual and group identities for all actors in this process are extremely meaningful and complex.

But how do we know when an interreligious dialogue is successful? In general, success is when members of the group have moved beyond havoc to cooperation, beyond small talk to more fulfilling and meaningful conversations and from resistance to mutual understanding. When the dialogue aims at building relationships and spends time on storytelling and confronting fears, then the quality of the outcome is deemed positive. "Effective dialogue requires openness to sharing the suffering of the other side and to recognizing the sins and shortcomings of one's own side."

However, based on my experience, it was difficult to measure our theory of change based on a long-term scale because we did not conduct follow-up evaluations with the participants. The program was lacking an effective method for monitoring and evaluating. Nevertheless, what I can say is that, based on my observation,s success is indicated when participants exchange contact information after dialogue sessions are over, come back to visit CCRP weeks later to thank us for the changes that have happened in their life, and for the relationships they have built with one another. What I would recommend for evaluating future dialogue initiatives is to implement some kind of documentation for sharing whereby participants produce a compilation of personal testimonies that could be circulated among each other and also made available for the wider community. Qualitative documentations of experiences and learning processes are crucial for establishing sustainability in peacebuilding programs.

Evidently, the key to peacebuilding is creating space for dialogue because people have a need to be heard and accepted. In Lebanon, interreligious dialogue is a transformative tool that allows people of different faiths to understand and empathize with one another. The lessons I carry with me from this experience is that it is not about being a facilitator or a participant. It is about being human, connecting with another human who also has basic needs and similar fears. This for me is essential to building meaningful relationships within a community.