Religion as the letter h

A note on interreligious dialogue.

Originally published at The Woolf Institute Blog:

In the eyes of its many critics, religion in modern societies should have the same fate as the letter H in French – it should be preserved for historical reasons, but not pronounced. In part, this is due to the conviction that religion has lost (or it soon will) its social relevance, due to the unstoppable juggernauts of modern science, rationalization, political freedom, and socio-economic development. There is another approach, however, the one that acknowledges religion as a potent political factor, which is at the same time deeply irrational and dogmatic. Here, the letter H is a symbol of something else – intercommunal hate, exclusion, and division. At the same time, it cannot be neglected that religious actors played important roles as peacebuilders, mediators, and advocates for human rights around the world. How to reconcile these apparent differences?

Between 2015 and 2017, I conducted two rounds of in-depth interviews with Orthodox, Islamic, and Catholic religious leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I primarily focused on the positive potentials of religion in peacebuilding. The aim was to discover the ‘inside’ views of religious leaders, to see how they understand peacebuilding and their role therein. In the following paragraphs, I will broadly outline three forms of engagement during three time periods: 1) before conflicts, 2) during conflicts, and 3) in a post-conflict phase. In those scenarios, religious leaders play preventive, reactive, and transformative roles, respectively.

The preventive roles comprise all those activities that are performed in anticipation of possible conflicts. These can include direct references to violence, but not necessarily. One thing that was often mentioned in my interviews was the importance of religious knowledge and character-education. How are those two elements, one might ask, in any way relevant to peacebuilding? The idea is the following: if members of a religious community are not educated about their religious tradition, if they do not feel empowered to have a say in religious debates, they could be easily swayed by those who claim to possess religious truths. One must understand here that religious traditions are complex and open to different, even opposing interpretations.

According to Sead, one of my interviewees, the lack of proper responses to certain religious misinterpretations was caused by insufficiencies of religious education and a general absence of religion from the public sphere during the Communist period in the former Yugoslavia:

"We came out from under a glass bell in which we protected ourselves from external influences (…).[D]uring the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Muslims, unfortunately, met other and different interpretations of the faith in very bad circumstances (…) People who possessed very unstable personal religious experiences met[foreign] individuals who, in their eyes, had perfect answers for an extreme situation and then quickly fell under their influence. Consequently, the balance in one’s own traditional faith experience in Bosnia and Herzegovina was disrupted(…) There was an encounter with the most radical teachings of Islam because the conditions were the most radical. Today, people reflect [about faith] completely differently."

The reactive role (2) includes activities related to humanitarian assistance, spiritual and emotional accompaniment, denunciations of crimes, the delegitimization of religiously-based propaganda, and promotion of alternative social visions to those of group-separation. Those activities are therefore reactions to perceived crimes or deprivations during periods of conflicts. A common criticism of religious leaders is that they remain passive and silent, all that while confessing adherence to religious principles that condemned violence and crimes. To understand that lack of ‘reactive’ engagement, one needs to consider that religious leaders during wars often experience the dissonance between their theological principles and their pastoral obligations, the dissonance between what they are ‘supposed to do’ and what their community expects from them. In the most extreme cases, they receive direct threats that aim to silence their criticism. More often, they fear losing reputation and, consequently, influence in their communities. The way how these dissonances are resolved will determine the behavior of religious leaders – some don’t see any issues in their disengagement (they don’t feel any dissonance), some engage in self-censorship and stay silent (thus subordinating theological principles to community obligations). Finally, very few of them decide to speak up, putting not only their existence at risk but also the existence of their families. Arsenije was one of those religious leaders who were targeted because of their criticism of crimes committed by members of their ethnic community. He recounted the episode in the following way:

"During the war, I was twice exposed to a situation where they wanted to [kill me]. A man admitted that; he is still alive. His hand shook, he said. I told him: “You can kill me, but there will always be someone to warn you. Your conscience will warn you one day. You cannot kill the truth. You cannot kill God. God is the truth."

In the period of conflicts, the reactive role of religious leaders is particularly important because religious communities are often among the few organized institutions that still have an influence on the public at large. If they side with political leaders – and in the absence of visible political opposition – the space of public deliberation becomes monopolized by the group in power.

Finally, the transformative role of religious leaders refers to activities that deal with the legacy of conflicts and violence. In most cases, those include spiritual assistance and providing a sense of security and support. One of the main advantages of religious communities is their stability, both in terms of motivation and geographical placements. Unlike mainstream NGOs, religious communities do not frame their activities as ‘projects’ but rather as lifelong missions. In that sense, the establishment of religious centers gives a message of stability: “we will be here for you; we will not go away.” This is particularly important in those areas that have been ethnically cleansed. Ivan’s testimony can be illustrative in this respect:

"When I arrived in [place censored], my previous parish, everything was overgrown, destroyed, or burned. (…) You feel some discomfort, some anxiety, something…you don’t know…you would prefer not to be there, not to see that at all (…) But then, soon after those first moments, something happened to me, something that I perceived as a challenge. I said: ‘I am not leaving this place!"

Through his talks with returnees, Ivan realized that his presence was sometimes valued more than direct material assistance. Moreover, in divided communities, religious leaders can initiate gestures of rapprochement and friendship that can be easily imitated and implemented in everyday life. Tarik, another interviewee, explained to me that it had taken him three years to convince representatives of three major religions in his city to come together for a coffee in one of the popular local venues. However, the message they sent was very important to ordinary citizens because they felt encouraged to do the same with their neighbors.

Finally, it needs to be mentioned that religious leaders do not understand their peacebuilding role only in terms of being opinion makers, community representatives, mediators or advocates. What is most often forgotten in the social analysis of their activities is precisely their core vocation – spiritual development. This remains one of the main points of misunderstanding between scholars who ‘externally’ asses the impact of religious-inspired peacebuilding, and religious leaders (or believers) themselves. While the first group focuses on concrete activities such as interreligious gatherings, public appearances, official letters and declarations, caritative actions, they rarely (if ever) acknowledge regular, everyday activities of prayer, ritual, conversations with community members. On the other hand, the principal conviction of religious communities is the existence of a transcendent, spiritual reality that is integrally bound to the world in which they live and act. For that reason, practices such as daily prayer or spiritual service constitute something vital in their visions of peacebuilding. It is, therefore, crucial to recognize that understandings of what peace means, how it is constructed and sustained are to some degree domain-specific and require a high level of research sensitivity.

In his research about the history of the letters we use, Michael Rosen described the letter H as “the most contentious of all. No other letter has had such power to divide people into opposing camps.”[1] A similar thing can be said about religion. While some see it as intrinsically negative or outdated, others perceive it as a rich source of wisdom, pro-social values, and profound truths about central concerns of human existence. I tried to present, in broad strokes, how religious leaders see their roles before, during, and after conflicts. I also emphasized certain differences in understandings of both peace and peacebuilding that often remain overlooked. One thing needs to be reiterated – religious traditions are ambiguous, and one can never say for sure how their followers will articulate them in a specific situation. Sometimes silent, sometimes strongly articulated – religion, just as the letter H, remains an intriguing phenomenon.


Rosen, Michael (2013) "Why H is the most contentious letter in the alphabet," available at:

shortcuts/2013/nov/04/letter-h-contentious-alphabet-history-alphabetical-rosen (access: Dec. 16th, 2019).