Religious leaders inspiring greater peace in Bangladesh

By involving religious leaders and using their influence in the local community, a Saferworld project in Bangladesh has been able to more effectively address safety and security issues and promote peace, write G.M. Shoeb Ahmed and Bibhash Chakraborty.

The influence of religious leaders in Bangladesh

In Bangladeshi society people will typically use religious norms to guide their day-to-day actions, and as such religious leaders can be highly influential members of a community, who tend to have a deep understanding of the needs of their communities. Their unique positions of trust and respect enable them to provide feedback on any changes at the local level, and communicate local priorities to government officials and development professionals.

Harnessing this influence to promote peace

Realising their potential, the Saferworld community security project in Bangladesh made the decision to involve religious leaders from Muslim, Hindu, Christian and Buddhist faiths as voluntary agents of change. Throughout 2014, Saferworld and partner BRAC jointly conducted five district level workshops with religious leaders in Bagerhat, Jessore, Satkhira, Gopalganj and Faridpur. These workshops highlighted common local safety and security concerns, and clarified the religious leaders’ important role in society, motivating them to use their influence to address these issues. As many as 347 religious leaders participated in the workshops, from different locations and faiths.

In the inter-faith workshops they reviewed the results of their ongoing community work. For example, every Friday after prayers the Muslim leaders would use their sermons to offer advice to their communities, such as the negative effects of early marriage, drugs and eve-teasing. By using their influential platform these religious leaders were able to safely and effectively address these local concerns.

The Imam of Bagerhat (Kachua) was very positive about the progress his community had made:

“After establishing the inter-faith group in our areas, we are regularly able to coordinate peace messaging and incorporate it into our religious services to help reduce tensions within our religious communities.”

Commitments to further peacebuilding

The religious leaders all agreed that addressing such safety and security concerns is an important part of building a peaceful society, and ensuring its sustainability for future generations. The workshop environment encouraged lively discussions, through which the religious leaders committed to a range of activities, including carrying out voluntary work with youth groups; giving sermons to people at mosques/temples/religious gatherings which challenge harmful activities; coordinating activities with local government and police officials to take necessary action; conducting awareness raising activities through religious action; and emphasising religious teachings which focus on building morality and communal harmony. These religious leaders are now more than ever determined to build a society based on justice and peace, and through participating in the inter-faith workshops have the tools and a network of support with which to do so.

Inspiring our partners

The innovative decision to involve religious leaders as agents of change inspired Saferworld’s partner BRAC to replicate the strategy in their own work. BRAC’s Community Empowerment Programme used the approach for an Ending Child Marriage project in Rangpur, where peer learning and the actions of religious leaders were used for the benefit of the community. This project has been a great success, and further demonstrates how the influence and respect of religious leaders in a community can be used to create positive social change.

These examples show how religious leaders can play an active and valuable role in their community’s peace building process, and we hope that they will inspire other religious leaders to take part.

Find out more about our work in Bangladesh

See photos from our community security project in Bangladesh here