Shared Stories, Rival telling: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims

Book Review

Shared Stories, Rival telling: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims by Robert C. Gregg

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are often referred as “Abrahamic” faiths due to their common ancestral heritage and their belief in one God.  But do these religions worship the same God? Six years ago, Stephen Prothero, a professor of Religion at Boston University, wrote: “for more than a generation we have followed scholars and sages down the rabbit hole into fantasy world in which all gods are one…but this idea of religious unity is wishful thinking and it has not made the world a safer place. In fact, this naïve theological groupthink – call it Godthink – has made the world more dangerous by blinding us to the clashes of religions that threaten us worldwide.”[1] This argument is gaining grounds in some recent scholarly works that emphasize differences in religions as a foundation for interreligious dialogue. Gregg C. Roberts’ new book, Shared Stories, Rival telling: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims is an example of a work that seeks to explain how “Abrahamic” religions have developed different interpretations of their shared stories.  Gregg, a professor of religious studies at Stanford, observes the overlap of these religions with the aim of exploring “how interpreters told the stories using story expansions and noticeable twists in order to advance their communal interests.”[2]

The book departs from the usual narrative common in some interfaith dialogue literature that seek to show how common religious traditions can join hands and enhance each other by demonstrating that Abrahamic religions bear in common the potential of mutual understanding due to their shared stories.[3] Gregg shows that these religions have difficult and irreconcilable differences in beliefs and practices. He reasons that understanding and appreciating these differences instead of romanticizing similarities will enhance mutual understanding.[4]

Gregg advances his argument by tracing five shared (scriptural) narratives as they were later understood by Jewish, Christian and Muslim interpreters. They include: Cain’s murder of Abel, his brother; the clash between Abraham’s two women, Sarah and Hagar; Joseph the young Hebrew slave in Egypt, tormented by the sexual advances of the wife of his master; the disobedient prophet Jonah and the whale, and finally the saga of Mary, Jesus’ mother. Through exploring sacred scriptures (Bible and Quran), text interpretations, sermons, and artistic works such as paintings and sculptures, Gregg shows that these religions “shared sacred stories but lived by rival interpretation of them.”[5] He further reveals how interpreters deliberately sought to build and sustain their own religious society’s identity, purpose, and confidence in their uniqueness as God’s special people.  In order to accomplish their objectives, interpreters often employed combative and satirical techniques to discredit the other religions. This is manifested in the manner in which they twisted the five stories to enhance the development of their tradition and to lay claims to a unique identity. They used shared stories to draw lines of exclusion and distinguish “us” from “them”. Gregg’s book exposes major points of contention and how interpreters fashioned their commentaries around this points, thereby developing unique identity.

All stories except Mary’s (the Hebrew Bible does not have the account of Mary) seem to follow the same pattern – Judaism tells the story of the one God, the creator and his holy people, Christianity takes up that story but incorporates Jesus as a bridge between God and his holy people and finally Islam recapitulates some basic components of the same story, affirming Judaism and then Christianity, but taking the story onward to another climax where they assert their superiority. It is through such interpretations that the core theology of these religions is revealed. For instance, Jewish interpretations of the story of Cain and Abel portray their belief about the world – it is based on God’s justice and equity. Thus, their interpreters sought to examine whether the world works in accordance with God’s judgment of what is right, or in accordance with God’s (unjust) favoritism. Their conclusion – Cain is punished and Abel considered right – help us understand their belief that God is a deity whose dealings with his covenant people are fair and equitable. This further explains why they tended to make Cain’s crime and his criminal nature the chief point of the story. Their working system finds its dynamic in the struggle between God’s plan for creation – to create a perfect world of justice – and man’s will.[6]

On the other hand, Christian interpreters sought to demonstrate that followers of Jesus were on the side of God-approved Abel, the righteous brother, and were called upon to battle Cain-like people who threatened them both within and outside their own church communities. These early Christian interpreters strove to creatively enhance the shared stories in order to educate and build up the faith of believers. They understood their religion to be anchored in the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ who is God became human.[7] At the center of their religion is Jesus – who is a fulfillment of the prophecy told in the old Hebrew Bible and also as a fulfillment of Gods promise to David. Hence, the Christian interpreters whose work Gregg analyzed tried to present their commentaries in a manner that reinforces the centrality of Jesus in God’s covenant with Abraham. For Christians, the story of Abel, Sarah, Jonah, Joseph and Mary points to Jesus and his mission.

Saint Matthew was concerned with linking Christ with Old Testament prophecies. Therefore, his account followed a formula explanation (e.g. all this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the lord) with a strategy of proving to the believers that indeed Jesus was the promised messiah. On his part, Saint Luke was preoccupied with filling gaps in the Jesus narrative through using versified speeches declared to be inspired by the Holy Spirit.[8] Neither the Jews nor the Muslims bought this idea of Jesus being the messiah for it sought to contradict the very foundations of those religions.

Given the significance of Jesus to Christians and their claim that he was the promised messiah, Jews interpreters were obliged to challenge devotion to Mary and her child and to annul their places in the divine scheme of things. They mocked writings or interpretations that reinforced the idea of Jesus as a messiah, and insulted Mary, his mother as a whore. They portrayed Jesus as an illegitimate son – fathered by a Roman soldier (Joseph Pandera), hence discrediting the immaculate consumption of Mary.[9] The interpreters argued that Christians misinterpreted Isaiah’s prophecy – they pointed out that Isaiah prophesied about the birth of King Hezekiah and not Jesus. Since the story of Mary and Jesus is not contained in the Bible, Jews interpreters were generally reacting to Christian interpretations. In fact, they managed to use the real events of Jesus’ life against him. This reality of being aware of the other interpreters’ works perhaps explains how Muslim commentators approached their interpretations.

Gregg demonstrates that Muslim interpreters had knowledge of both Jewish and Christian doctrines, hence they did not have to retell the five stories in their entirety – even the Quranic narrations gives the indication that the audience was familiar with some of these stories. They retold the stories, filled the gaps and offered extensions that reinforced their beliefs that Muhammad is God’s prophet and that the world order is based on God’s justice and omnipotent sustenance of the universe.[10]  Their major goal was to prove that Islam was the true religion. For instance, Gregg presents the Qur’anic instance where the Muslims fault Jews for claiming that they killed Jesus.[11] He also presents a Quranic verse that demonstrates that Jesus was not God.[12] All these reinforce the Muslim interpretation of Jesus as just a Prophet, hence reinforcing the claim that Muhammad was the last prophet of God and there is no such thing as Jesus being God.

These shared stories though different, are connected through their intended outcome – to show that these religions had different beliefs and they did not necessarily care for the same things. Stephen Prothero developed four-part approach for distinguishing religions whereby he argued that at the heart of every religion is a problem, solution, technique and an exemplar. For instance, Christianity has the problem of sin, hence their solution is salvation, which can only come through a combination of good works and faith through the examples of saints and ordinary people of faith.[13] Islam unlike Christianity does not believe in the concept of original sin, thus their problem is different. Prothero’s approach though simplistic, can actually help us understand the differences in the five stories Gregg has presented.


Gregg has demonstrated how “Abrahamic” religions interpreted five shared sacred stories to reinforce their beliefs and position themselves as God’s chosen people. For instance, through the story of Cain and Abel, we saw how they focused on those elements that defined their belief in and about God and through the story of Abraham and his two women, Gregg demonstrated how the narratives of these women were fashioned to serve each community, resulting in their becoming mothers to three families – three diverging religions.

Gregg’s book is unique in that it goes beyond the textual interpretations to incorporate artistic works such as paintings and sculptures. These include archeological works going back to second century. Gregg’s exploration on its own does not help peacebuilders or practitioners trying to promote interfaith relations. However, it does help counter the notion that the way toward interreligious understanding among the Abrahamic faiths is through emphasizing similarities in the religions. Stephen Prothero’s work goes a step further to suggest a new path for interfaith relations – Interfaith Dialogue 2.0. [14]  This path open to all religious traditions and its foundation is the genuine recognition of the existence of boundaries and fundamental differences in religions.

Perhaps the major weaknesses in Gregg’s book are that he does not explain how the differences in the religions can utilized in interfaith dialogues. Even Prothero does not comprehensively explain how this can be implemented. This could be area peacebuilding scholars and practitioners can do more research.

[1]Prothero, S (2010). God is Not One: The eight rival religions that run the world and why their differences matter. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

[2] Gregg, R.C. (2015). Shared Stories, Rival telling: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. London, UK: OUP.

[3] James L. Heft, S.M (2006). Passing on the Faith: Transforming traditions for the next generation of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. New York, NY: Fordham University Press.

[4] Gregg, R.C. (2015). Shared Stories, Rival telling: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. London, UK: OUP. Pg. 598

[5] Gregg, R.C. (2015). Shared Stories, Rival telling: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. London, UK: OUP.

[6] Neusner, J., Chilton, B., & Graham, W. (2002). Three Faiths, One God: The formative Faith and Practice of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Boston, MA: Brill Academic Publishers.

[7] Ibid. Pg. 16

[8] Gregg, R.C. (2015). Shared Stories, Rival telling: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. London, UK: OUP. Pg. 463 – 472.

[9] Ibid. Pg. 517 -518.

[10] Neusner, J., Chilton, B., & Graham, W. (2002). Three Faiths, One God: The formative Faith and Practice of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Boston, MA: Brill Academic Publishers. Pg. 27.

[11] Gregg, R.C. (2015). Shared Stories, Rival telling: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. London, UK: OUP. Pg. 543

[12] Gregg, R.C. (2015). Shared Stories, Rival telling: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. London, UK: OUP. Pg. 545 – 546.

[13] Stephen Prothero (2010). God is Not One: The eight rival religions that run the world and why their differences matter. New York, NY: Harper Collins. Pg. 26 – 27.

[14] Stephen Prothero (2010). God is Not One: The eight rival religions that run the world  and why their differences matter. New York, NY: Harper Collins. Pg. 434.

The burden of the native family

My interest in working with children and youth is well known among my peers, friends, and even teachers. But I don’t think I have ever explained why and how I became interested in children. It is unlikely I would have ever deliberated on this issue had I not volunteered with Rabbis for Human Rights, an Israeli NGO based in Jerusalem. I think knowing why you do what you do is important especially in peacebuilding where our personality and background can easily encroach the decisions one makes. As far as I can remember, I have always had a great love for children and a passion to work with them.  This may have something to do with my upbringing.

I was born at a time when my family was battling challenges of living with wanton neighbors. We occupied a piece of land some our neighbors considered theirs despite my grandfather genuinely acquiring it from his friend.  The idea that our neighbors could hurt us (children) made my parents extra careful. They only relaxed when we went to boarding schools far away from home.

When you are young and have to largely depend on the generosity of other people other than your parents your life changes. At least mine changed. At school, I was with teachers who probably had other responsibilities beyond teaching but they took care of me and nurtured me into a boy my mother was proud of. They did not owe me anything beyond their classroom duties, yet they took it upon themselves to ensure that I never missed anything. That sense of duty and devotion to people you do not have blood ties with was to influence my later life and career. I think this is partly the reason why I was in the first place drawn into the field of education, and perhaps the reason why I have mostly worked with children. So, you can imagine my excitement when the Comboni sisters, and Rabbis for Human Rights requested me to design some programs for the summer camp they had organized. I was looking forward to such kind of opportunities!

I was convinced the education I had received at Kroc and in other institutions coupled with my experience working with refugee children in Kenya and New Haven was more than adequate to help me pull through the task. But I was to learn a week later, sometimes when it comes to running projects in a conflict zone, no experience or education is ever sufficient. At times the best one can hope for is “Say yes to the mess” and that is exactly what I did a week later when a single technicality rendered all my projects useless (more of this later).

Here is how I prepared for the summer camp: I spent hours poring over articles on the internet and on World Vision website, which has excellent materials on building a peace culture among children. I designed some activities patterned along the world vision model. I honestly felt that I had done enough and the children will be pleased. On the morning of the summer camp, we drove from Jerusalem to the West Bank where we were to have the camps in three different villages. It was my first time traveling through this road and I enjoyed observing how beautiful Jerusalem is and how ugly it gets as one drives further south. Except for the well irrigated settlements whose greenness stand out like an oasis in the middle of a desert (which is true), it was difficult to understand why people fight over such dry pieces of land. I understand when people fight over land in my village or in my country; they probably want it for farming or to accommodate their ever expanding families. But here was I, driving through a desert on a road surrounded by huge rocks on both sides, and on a piece of land which may or may not have significant economic value to Bedouins who happen to be shepherds, or Israelis who already have enough land, yet that piece of land has become the reason for so much bloodshed.

I was very much aware of the kind of schools we were visiting because my supervisor had informed me about their condition – they were not permanent structures.  But I clearly did not understand the gravity of that statement for I walked into structures in worse conditions that I have never seen anywhere. Before that day, I was pretty convinced that the wretched of the earth are only found in the poor villages of Africa. As I observed those shanties, and contrasted them with the magnificent schools I had seen in Jerusalem, I began to understand the inequality that is eating our societies. How can some sections of the society live in affluence when others are wallowing in abject poverty?

There was no road connecting these villages with Israeli highways. It is as if somebody did not expect them or never wanted them to travel anywhere beyond their caves and shanties.  We had to use a strong car to access the place despite the fact that there is a settlement nearby with a dedicated road that Palestinians aren’t allowed to drive on. In fact, as I would later observe, for every ‘unrecognized village’ I came across, there is an Israeli settlement nearby. In my home city of Nairobi, we have something similar; we call them slums – informal settlement near developed and high income residential places. I imagine there are theories explaining this phenomenon but in Israel we needn’t a theory. It is complicated. In most cases the Bedouin were there first to inhabit the land. They were living in caves and leading their semi-nomadic life till Israeli tried to modernize them by sending them to urban areas. When they refused to go, their land was seized and their homes became unrecognized villages.

The beautiful first impression I wanted to make was already ruined when I finally met the children. What followed was the disappointment of my life. I discovered that I could not communicate with the children. We did not have a common language – none of them spoke English and I did not speak enough Arabic to even make sense of their greetings. The only person in our group who could speak English and Arabic, the Comboni sister was working with a different group. I was really ashamed and for the first time since arriving in Israel, I felt helpless. I had made all preparations except the one that mattered most. I felt that this was one of those moments when a person must expect nothing short of a miracle. I asked myself so many questions: how come I did not think about language? Why did I assume I would meet people who speak English? I suddenly realized that even the activities I had prepared, all those materials I had have no place in this context. The children were between the ages of 4 and 12. Very young kids who would rather play than engage in the kind of peacebuilding activities I had prepared.

So I had more than two hours to spend with these children and I had no idea what to do. Worse I had no language to communicate with them or even let them know that I was clueless. I remembered the hours I had spent at Kroc learning on conflict mapping, and conflict analysis as a prerequisite to designing projects. Had I carried out this analysis I would have known that language barrier is a big issue in working with children in the West Bank. It dawned on me that in peacebuilding, if one has a chance to prepare, the basics should be taken care of first and I think language is the first fundamental. Those projects we assume we know enough to implement are the ones we end up not doing so well. My experience and attitude had blinded me, it had given me an illusion that I was overqualified for this job.  I learnt the hard way that having experience is good but every conflict context calls for a different kind of experience. Thus, one can never truly say that he has adequate experience to intervene in a certain context. In conflict zones, no experience is ever enough and embracing uncertainty is highly recommended. One must always be willing to learn. I could not escape thinking about Severine’s Peaceland and her critique of thematic knowledge vis-à-vis area knowledge. As I stood in front of those children trying to figure out what to do, I realized that an excellent mastery of area knowledge could have come in handy.

It was time to play the “Say yes to the mess” card. I had to improvise. Through a combination of signs and demonstrations, I managed to put the boys into two teams and have them play soccer. As the game picked up and my presence became less important, I sat on a bench beside a donor bill board. It read in English: ‘The European Union’ and below it ‘Humanitarian Affairs’. Given that I was yet to meet any person who can read English in this village, I assumed the billboard was meant for people like me. It was like a code for those in this thing we call “Humanitarian Affairs”? In fact, I was not sure whether ‘Humanitarian Affairs’ referred to a department of the European Union or to another organization. But I got the sense that they were informing me that they had done their part by putting up the structure that the children called ‘school’, now it was my turn to do my part.

I became so engrossed on what being a humanitarian worker really means. I have used that title several times, in fact, even on my bio at the Kroc website indicates so. But did I really understand its meaning? What does it really mean to consider oneself a humanitarian worker? Does it involve working with children in the middle of a desert, in informal settlements where people live in tents overlooking mansions that are surrounded by super irrigated olive trees? Does it refer to a worker who cannot even speak the language of the children he is working with and he is forced to let them play football by themselves? For the first time since 2008 when I first volunteered with a peacebuilding NGO, I questioned my mission. How has my presence made the world better? Was I really useful? Actually, was any of us, the so-called foreign workers in Israel/Palestine, useful?  I visualized the Kroc peacebuilding wheel and saw my spot (structural and institutional change) and thought that it must be the least of all!

My stream of thoughts were interrupted by a loud thud, the ball had hit the billboard I had been staring at. The boys were signaling me to pass the ball. I hit the ball and was about to sit and continue my reverie when a thought occurred to me, why not join them for a while? I trudged myself into the field and became the player without a team. As you would imagine, my lack of allegiance to any team meant that I would have few instances of hitting the ball (if any) because all teams tried to wrench it from me as soon as I laid my feet on it. It was really fun. Doing all that running around the field and probably burning some calories and laughing on top of my voice and behaving like a boy among boys. For a very long time I had wanted to do this but I never knew how. To go back to boyhood where all that mattered was what was at the table – no need of scratching your head so much for the past or the future.  You just played your ball and kept your happiness and in the evening you went home to your parents. My adult life has been enveloped in many challenges. In fact, weeks before I legally became an adult, I lost my mother and overnight I transitioned from a boy to a young adult with responsibilities not only to myself but also my younger siblings. That life had been a fruitful but equally challenging marathon – never having to stop or knowing when it will end. But now here was I, so happy running on rocks playing with boys. By all means I could tell that we were all happy. It made me wonder whether peacebuilding can just be for the present. My approach has always been to geared to designing programs with the future in mind. That is why I was so much concerned with the lessons and activities I had prepared and it had not occurred to me that playing soccer can actually be ‘the main activity’.

The two hours went fast and the first day of the summer camp was over. I had survived. I could not speak even a single Arabic word, yet I organized a soccer team and also took part in it.  As we drove back to Jerusalem I reflected on the events of that day and how relevant they were to my training and growth as a peacebuilder, and discovered that I have been looking at my role in Israel/Palestine in a role way. My takeaway was that it is easier to overvalue the things we can measure and undervalue the ones we cannot measure. Perhaps the little things one does, like bringing a ball and helping children play does really matter. I would later learn that the children have never seen a black person, so it was a wonderful opportunity for them to have me play with them. Given the Israeli policies that do not permit them to travel and see the world, we have to somehow bring the world to them – that is what my presence achieved.

Interestingly, later when I was preparing an evaluation plan for the summer camps, I discovered that Rabbis for Human Rights had started the camps with the sole aim of helping Palestinian children participate in recreational activities that they would not normally have access to due to the occupation. This should be a good reason to make me feel my work is indeed meaningful. But I still can’t help feeling that the kind of ‘happiness’ that I would wish the Palestinian children is one that lasts. We all deserve that! However, most summer camps in the West Bank run for a week or two. Assuming summer camps are the closest the Palestinian children ever come to having a normal school day, you can imagine what happens to them when the volunteers and NGOs leave.

Discovering a common language

After the shock of the first day, I went back to the drawing board and tried to learn all I could about the Bedouins and how they fit the Israel/Palestine conflict. I then spent more time on the internet searching for activities one can do with children they do not share a language with. I did not find any relevant or interesting  activity but the following day  in the morning, as we came out of the car, one little girl, her name is Yasmin, handed me a drawing of an elephant. For a split second, I felt that somebody has just pumped too much energy onto my body. I will forever be grateful to that young girl! Giving me an elephant, which is one of our national treasures, the girl was trying to let me know that she now understands where I come from. For the first time, it dawned on me that after all we have a common language: the painted word. We can draw and through drawings express ourselves.

I remembered Lederach’s Moral Imagination, and the idea of serendipity. I seized the moment and used drawing as a tool to talk about the conflict. The kindergarten had three roundtables and plastic chairs. I motioned the children to sit. Gave them pencils, crayons, and paper. Given that I could not give any further instructions, I let them exercise their imagination and come up with all sorts of drawings. During the first couple of days, they drew what I have come to call ‘images of conflict’ and as we progressed they drew less of those pictures and started drawing things like the sea.

I remember, one boy drew an unmanned riffle shooting women, who were running. Another one drew a military craft dropping a bomb on a mosque. Almost all images depicted a violent environment. Examining these pictures, I thought about the people all over the world who are dedicated to working for peace, holding high level meeting with parties they consider important in situations of conflicts. Often, they seek peace in the name of children and for children. But do they ever think about children as beings capable of expressing themselves? Why is it that we assume children must be spoken for? That they do not have a voice? Clearly, the pictures they drew spoke louder about their world view than volumes of words can. The drawings I was looking at carried some of the most profound critiques and insights about Israel government.

How well did the Bedouin children understand their situation? Very well to be able to draw it. I doubt words would have expressed these deep depictions of their tragedy. On that particular day, the painted word became a live and stronger than written or spoken word. I had no reason to feel ashamed any longer. Through drawing the children were able to speak to me the unspeakable. Their drawings displayed how Israeli violence permeates every aspect of their life.  The pictures of bulldozers razing down their houses and schools, demonstrated that the children understood the fear of living with a demolition order over your head. I could not help wonder how these children are able to bear the burden of knowing that while they are at school the military might be busy demolishing their houses or the same can happen to their schools while they are at home.

As a matter of fact, one of their schools was under imminent threat of demolition. The school, named Khan al Ahkmar, is one of those few schools in the West bank one can consider a sanctuary for children. Before its construction, children from neighboring villages used to commute for about 10 miles to attend school in Ramallah or Jericho. A dozen children lost their lives to road accidents as they had to cross many dangerous highways before getting to school. Some nuns together with Rabbis for Human Rights and international NGO from Italy came up with an ingenious plan to build a school made of mud and tires. Israel does not recognize the Bedouins living in this area and they do not allow them to build any permanent building. So the school had to be a structure that had the quality of permanence but with an appearance of a temporary structure.

The settlers harassed them daily as they struggled to build the school. They even sued and accused them of putting up permanent structures in an recognized village. The court ruled in their favor and ordered for demolition. In Israel where power dynamics is a key feature of politics, a demolition order is a very powerful tool. The state does not have to implement it immediately; it dangles it up over your face like the sword of Damocles. But in the case of that school, the settlers’ organization, Binyamin, sued the government for contempt of court. Hence, the government was compelled to demolish this school that has become an oasis of hope in a desolate land.

Local NGOs including Rabbis for Human Rights, and International organizations led by the UN lobbied top government officials and held week long demonstrations (I participated) protesting the government’s plan to demolish the school. On Friday, August 26, the Israeli government announced that the demolition would be postponed. I think they made the decision because of the international outcry against the demolition.




Transforming post-conflict societies

The process of post-conflict reconstruction has drawn notably increasing attention from peace scholars and practitioners in the recent years. This may be due to the evidence that out of 103 countries that experienced some form of civil war between 1945 and 2009, only 44 avoided a subsequent return to war. This means that most current conflicts are a continuation of previous conflicts, which prompts the question, how can we make the last war the final one? Lisa Bagliane, in an analysis of six books on post-conflict state building, summarized the process of post-conflict reconstruction into two schools of thoughts: “Traditionalism” and “Reconciliationism”[1]

Bagliane described Traditionalism as an approach that focuses on state-capacity, hence, Traditionalists believe that the path to sustainable peace is through well-designed state structures, which have the power to act on the territory, and can assure fairness. She described Reconciliationism as an approach that focuses on truth-seeking, apology, forgiveness, and national redefinition.[2] Although both schools of thoughts tend to agree that building an effective state should be the top priority of a society emerging from conflict, they disagree on several important points namely: the centrality of institutional reform, the significance of reconciliation, and the definitions of peace, justice, and security.[3] Whereas Traditionalists insist that a war-torn country needs to build state capacity and transform its institutions first before focusing on other things, Reconciliationsts believe a war-torn should take deliberate efforts to address the horrific past in order to achieve “normalcy”. This essay argues that to be successful, the two schools must proceed simultaneously and must adopt the bottom-up approach as a feasible strategy for transforming a post-conflict society.

I begin with a description of the top priorities for transforming a society that has been devastated by violent conflict, discuss challenges involved in these priorities and then explain how bottom-up approach addresses these challenges. Drawing from Peter Wallensteen,[4] David Cortright,[5] and Lisa Baglione,[6] I identify state capacity, institutional quality and reconciliation as priorities for transforming a post-conflict society.

State capacity refers to the ability of a government to administer its territory effectively and to provide for its citizenry. High capacity states are able to provide public goods such as: security, health care, and social and physical infrastructure that promote human development.[7]  States emerging from a war will probably have a low capacity, hence their ability to provide for their citizens is limited. This might lead to low development levels or recurrence of a war. State capacity has three interrelated dimensions, namely: security capacity, social capacity and institutional quality.[8]

Security capacity is the ability of a state to secure its territory. Inability to protect territory may lead to an insurgency.[9] For instance, Iraq could not act on its territory after the withdrawal of U.S. military and this led to the Islamic State of Iraq and Al asham (ISIS) controlling large swaths of territory in Iraq. Security capacity is more effective when it is extended across the state to include rural or local areas. The recent terror attack at Garissa University in Kenya, may have been prevented or mitigated had the government stationed security forces in this region but due to continued government marginalization of the communities in north-east Kenya, a lot of social amenities are lacking.[10] The main challenge for post-conflict governments is the temptation to increase military spending and the use of military for selfish political ends. Reconciliationists argue that states should consider solving underlying grievances that caused the war in the first place, and then thereafter build a strong military. Failure to address grievances drives affected communities toward armed rebellion. It is therefore, obvious that security reforms alone are insufficient in building sustainable peace. Thus, the need for social capacity.

Cortright defines social capacity as the ability of a state to provide public goods and services. States that provide their citizenry with access to education and healthcare reduces the risk of civil war.[11] The main challenge is whether a government is capable of providing these goods and services equitably. Unless a state has strong institutions, the process of providing public goods and services will be mired by corruption, tribalism, and nepotism. Thus, institutional reform is a key element in achieving social capacity.

Institutional quality guards a state against corruption, and promotes the rule of law.[12] Fair, transparent, accountable, and inclusive institutions play a critical role in supporting peace.[13]  A state should build institutions that can win the support of the people. When people feel betrayed by their own institutions, they result to violence as the means to addressing grievances. For instance, a commission of inquiry on the post-election violence in Kenya found out that people did not trust the electoral commission, the police, and the judiciary.[14] This explains why the opposition took to streets to contest an election, instead of going to the courts of law.

The major challenge for transforming institutions in a country emerging from war is the tendency to centralize institutions.[15] Instead of a country building a national police, it should consider whether a local police, at the grassroots can do the job better. Why build hospitals in cities when patients are in rural areas? An approach that advocates for reconstruction from the grassroots to the national levels, would be more beneficial to citizens.

I will now talk about reconciliation as a top priority in transforming a society that has been devastated by conflict. Violence especially when it takes the form of civil war, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and state oppression etc., makes institutional reforms nearly impossible as people and communities do not trust each other enough to create a well-functioning state in which enemies share power. That is why Reconciliationsts argue that state capacity and institutional change cannot take priority over reconciliation “it will follow after everyone has the right to be accorded human dignity and treated fairly…society and individuals must be healed through a process that exposes truths about the past and encourages people to come to terms with their own victimization and brutality and with the ways in which society systematically privileged some and harmed others. Unless history is confronted, its wounds will fester and contaminate post-accord politics.”[16] Reconciliation, therefore, seeks a post-conflict society that defends human dignity and ensures security and justice for all. Only when progress is made in this that true state-building can begin.[17]

The major challenge with reconciliation is its institutionalization. Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) have become ‘normalized’ and are often an important component of post-conflict reconstruction.[18] By 2006, there had been 41 TJR commissions, most of them receiving endorsements from the UN, International NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.[19] There is no harm in receiving endorsements, but when organizations begin to write “tool-kits” for TJRCs as UNHCR did in 2003,[20] then the process becomes problematic. These commissions have become standardized, thus incapable of addressing local grievances. True reconciliation should start at the grassroots level, designed and implemented by local leaders in communities, churches, and associations etc.


This paper has described the top priorities in transforming a society emerging from a conflict, namely state capacity, institutional quality and reconciliation. As noted, there are challenges associated with these priorities, the major one being the order of implementation. Every school of thought argues that theirs is more important, hence should take precedence. As I have indicated these priorities should take place concurrently. But post-conflict states lack the capacity to implement these priorities simultaneously. I have argued that capacity may not be a challenge if post-conflict states focus on reconstruction from the grassroots. There is so much resources at the local level that states have not tapped into.

Afghanistan, Somali, Iraq, Nigeria, Cambodia, and Philippines (only Mindanao) are a few examples of countries where the top- down approach failed to achieve its objectives. The structure of these countries favor a reconstruction from the grassroots level, and then the national level. Often, peacebuilders fail to notice that individuals or communities do not experience war the same way and that their realities in the midst of war and after war is different. It is therefore, absurd for peacebuilders or scholars to imagine that a uniform approach, tailored for a whole country, can have an impact at the grassroots.  People come in social packages and are greatly influenced by the communities of which they are members and their natural leaders. These communities have significant influence on what seem like individual choices, from participating in elections to food eaten and type of shelter.[21] Peacebuilders should therefore realize that the top-down (from the national government to grassroots) approach is unworkable, and that we need to build from bottom-up.

[1] Lisa  Baglione (2008) Peacebuilding: A Time to Listen to Learn from reconciliation, Palgrave Macmillan Journals, pp. 120-135

[2] Ibid 124

[3] Ibid 132

[4] Peter Wallensteen (2015) Quality Peace, London, OUP

[5] David Cortright (2013) Governance, Democracy and peace:  How State Capacity and regime Type Influence the Prospects for War and Peace, One Earth Foundation

[6] Lisa  Baglione (2008) Peacebuilding: A Time to Listen to Learn from reconciliation, Palgrave Macmillan Journals, pp. 120-135


[7] Besley, T and Persson, T (2008) State Capacity and Development, London: Economic Organization and Public Policy program.

[8] David Cortright (2013) Governance, Democracy and peace:  How State Capacity and regime Type Influence the Prospects for War and Peace, One Earth Foundation

[9] Ibid 10

[10] Jan Van den Broeck (2009) Conflict Motives in Kenya’s North Rift Region,  IPIS

[11] David Cortright (2013) Governance, Democracy and peace:  How State Capacity and regime Type Influence the Prospects for War and Peace, One Earth Foundation


[12] Ibid 12

[13]Bid 12

[14] Kriegler and Philip Waki (2009)  The Independent review Committee

[15] Amitai Etzioni (2010) Bottom- Up Nation Building, Policy Review, No. 158

[16] Lisa  Baglione (2008) Peacebuilding: A Time to Listen to Learn from reconciliation, Palgrave Macmillan Journals, pp. 120-135

[17] Ibid 131

[18] Hirsch, M, Mackenzie, M and Sesay, M (2012) Measuring the impacts of truth and reconciliation commissions: placing the global ‘success’ of TJRCs in local perspective.

[19] Ben-Josef Hirsch (2007) Agents of truth and justice: Truth commissions and transitional justice epistemic community in Heins V and Chandler D (Eds) Rethinking Ethical Foreign Policy: Pitfalls, Possibilities and Paradoxes. London: Routledge, pp. 184-205

[20] Ibid 187

[21] Amitai Etzioni (2010) Bottom- Up Nation Building, Policy Review, No. 158


Reflection on visiting a mosque as a non-Muslim

Visiting another religion’s place of worship and joining them for prayers can go a long way in fostering understanding among the religions. It can also help those interested in inter-faith dialogues to understand the practical similarities or differences in various religions and denominations. Thursday’s visit to the mosque took me down the memory lane to when I was a teacher and head of student life at a newly established school in Nairobi that mainly catered for Muslim students. I was young and had just graduated from college, thus, my experience with other religions was limited to the little I had observed in college. Interestingly, my first duty as the head of student life was to decide whether to allow students to pray during lunch hour.

My colleagues, like me, were Christians and had little knowledge about Islam, leave alone knowing anything about the daily ritual prayers. I convened a meeting with teachers and with the help of a local Muslim leader we set aside two rooms for prayers – for both girls and boys. This seemingly simple decision was to later change how we ran the school and consequently inspired so many Muslim parents to bring their kids to our school. I put teachers on a duty roster to supervise students during prayer time and accompany them to the mosque on Friday. For the two years I taught at that school, I learnt a great deal about Muslims and the importance of prayer in their lives.[1] Parents regularly invited me to their homes and I got to share meals with them. My take away from these experience is that we can coexist with other religions if we understood how they worship their God. Having a ‘beyond basic knowledge’, which comes from participating in their rituals goes a long way to foster mutual relationship.

On Thursday as I walked into the Mosque I wondered how many Christians have ever thought of visiting the mosque to attend prayers and possibly a sermon. Will they feel that they are in the presence of a different God? I don’t think so. Will they feel that their prayers will not be answered? I don’t think so. I want to believe that God accompanies His beloved to holy places and to wherever people call upon Him, hence we shouldn’t build walls around ourselves.  Visiting the mosque on Thursday clarified one important controversial thing: that there is a good reason why Muslims would prefer to wear Kanzu to the mosque and why they would probably recommend women to pray in a separate room. It is basically to maintain decency during prayer and avoid disruptions.

I asked the Imam on how he caters for his congregation given that they may have diverse backgrounds and come from different sects of Islam. He responded that in their community they are ONE. They do not relate along sectorial basis. This set me thinking on the unity of believers in a diaspora. How come this kind of heavenly thinking is lacking in many mosques especially in Muslim majority countries? I was interested to learn on the kind of sermons the Imam gives – whether they are anchored on any school of thought. My understanding is that a sermon is a powerful tool that changes and shapes how people think about issues. And here is where I think religious leaders can collaborate a lot. In times of crisis (like a terrorist attack), ministers and imams can use the sermon to pacify people and clarify misunderstandings.

Thursday’s visit was fruitful and I would like to do it again, perhaps stay for a sermon.

[1] Most of my Christian colleagues later got jobs at International Muslim schools. They were perhaps employed because they understood Islam by virtue of interacting with students.

A Table for each Gender

In August 2011, I was invited for dinner by my student but she never showed up in the dining. I was new in her school but I accepted the invitation because most teachers had also been invited to other families to mark the end of Eid celebrations.

I was received by my student’s dad, Abdul and we went straight to the dining. Abdul and his two brothers sat on my side of the rectangular dining table, three boys and another man sat on our opposite. We shared dinner. There were no different plates or forks or knives. We used our hands. From time to time, a woman who I later assumed was my student’s mother, filled the plates. They conversed loudly and almost entirely in Somali. When I attempted a conversation with him, because he sat by my side, he continually clicked. I thought he was being disrespectful. The meal was delicious but I did not enjoy it. There were a lot of things running through my mind.

I chose this encounter because it was new to me and because it served as my orientation to a new school community. I was first disappointed then angered. I thought I was being played. Why did they invite me? Where was the student who invited me? Whenever the men laughed, I thought they were laughing at me. They were all dressed in Kanzus and the woman who kept filling the plates was in a buibui and a hijab covered her head. I was in casual business clothes. I kept silent most of the time except when occasionally Abdul asked me a question. Only he seemed to understand my responses. At one point I thought he was trying to explain to his brothers what I had said. It then dawned on me that he could be the only one who understood English well.

I started thinking that to some of them I may have appeared as an intruder. Looking back, I now realize that they may have felt my silence the way I felt their loudness. We never introduced ourselves till tea time, which came much later when I was about to leave. I should have attempted to participate in conversations. After all Abdul could have translated. I had allowed the first impressions to crowd my judgment.

Later I was to learn the culture by interacting with my students. I learnt that boys and girls valued their different ‘spaces’. Surprisingly, I learnt that when one clicks, it means he or she appreciates what you’re talking about. It signifies understanding.

The culture seemed barbaric to me but I have since learnt to appreciate every bit of it. I do not subscribe to some of its aspects, but I am glad I understand them. The experience taught me how to be a better pupil in a new culture.

By the way, I never saw my student that day because she was with women in another room.

Strength comes from an indomitable will

I am proud of Kenyan Muslims for standing up to defend Christians when Al Shabaab attacked them. Standing up for fellow Kenyans of different religion is an act of bravery and a demonstration of a commitment to fight terrorism in Kenya. The Kenyan Muslim stood up for what we all should do – resist any force that seeks to divide us a long religious lines.

The fact that the Kenya Muslims refused special treatment by the Al Shabaab militants shows how far the country has traveled in the fight against extremism. It is an indication that the power to defeat the enemy lies with the people. How ironical that we have so much relied on the government to protect us yet it is us who have the powers!

By standing with Christians, the Kenyan Muslims risked their lives. They were ready to die for the right reasons. This selfless act reminds me of the last chapter of Philip Gourevitch’s We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families:

During an attack on a school in Gisenyi, students, teenage girls who had been roused from their sleep, we’re ordered to separate themselves – Hutus from Tutsis. But the students refused. The girls said they were simply Rwandans,  so they were beaten and shot indiscriminately.

While I do not wish for anybody to die in order for others to live or in order to send a message, I do believe that the fight against terrorism will require unusual sacrifice from all of us.

R.R. Vincent

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