Religion: Friend or Foe? Event Blog by Sara Mena Greco

On Monday, October 21, Aird & Berlis LLP hosted the Canadian International Council – Toronto Branch’s event entitled Religion: Friend or Foe? R2P and the Syrian Dilemma. The name of this event was perhaps limiting as the dialogue included an exceptionally diverse array of topics. Naturally, religion and R2P, vis-à-vis Syria, were the foci of the event. However neither speaker was limited to these topics alone as both were comfortable going off script to include discussions on the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, the education and empowerment of girls, the impact of social media, climate change, Iran’s nuclear weapons program, Nairobi and the rarely discussed Kurdish populations, to name just a few. Throughout the night, the incredible intellects of Dr. Peter Denton and Mr. Omer Aziz were on full display.

Dr. Denton first expressed his appreciation to the CIC – Toronto Branch for its willingness to create a forum to discuss the elephant in the room, religion. Dr. Denton delved directly into his central claim, that religion is erroneously identified as the cause of conflict both among and between states. Particularly thought provoking was Dr. Denton’s assertion that conflicts are about goats. To expand, Dr. Denton ascertains that a conflict merely stems from an individual’s desire to obtain something, such as a goat, from someone else. He notes that simple desire or greed is insufficient grounds for taking something from someone, and thus, individuals and groups implement religion as the scapegoat. Therefore the term “religious conflict” is falsified by ill-equipped and insincerely altruistic states within the international community. In closing, Dr. Denton articulated his sentiments concerning the prospective use of R2P in Syria candidly by simply stating that the Syrian conflict is a civil war and civil wars do not invoke R2P.

Mr. Aziz largely jettisoned the original material he prepared in order to speak directly to the points made by Dr. Denton. In contrast to Dr. Denton, Mr. Aziz maintains that the conflict in Syria is not just a simple civil war. Instead, he argues that the conflict in Syria cannot be understood without the recognition that the region has a bearing on the conflict and the acknowledgement that religion also plays a role in the conflict. To that end, Mr. Aziz advocates for humanitarian intervention, but not in the conventional, militaristic sense. Rather he encourages humanitarian intervention in the form of open wallets and open borders for refugees. Mr. Aziz also intrigued the audience by asserting that Iran’s current willingness to negotiate with the United States and the rest of the international community, regarding its nuclear weapons program, stems from its excessive spending on Syria. Mr. Aziz ended with optimism for the diplomatic options available to the West concerning Syria, specifically the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons by the United Nations and other independent bodies.

The discussion portion of the event led to a provocative dialogue of today’s most pressing issues. For example, Dr. Denton was challenged by a member of the audience who argued that the influence of religion extends beyond domestic conflict and reaches into all other facets of life, citing economics as one example. In response, Dr. Denton posed the question: why didn’t a sectarian conflict ensue from the mall attack in Nairobi? His response to his own retort was that religion does not directly cause conflict. To expand, Dr. Denton articulated that during the Kenyan conflict, both Christians and Muslims worked together to maintain a peaceful resolve to this catastrophe. Despite the two speakers contrasting opening remarks, Dr. Denton and Mr. Aziz did agree often during the discussion portion of the evening. For example, when the topic of R2P in Libya arose, both individuals maintained that the Libyan revolution was hugely different from the current conflict in Syria. As evidence, Mr. Aziz pointed to a number of dissimilarities including, the organization of the Libyan rebel faction, the lack of domestic and international support for Gaddafi, the relative geographical isolation of Libya and the cost-effectiveness of the intervention in Libya.

Each speaker took the time to articulate the value of collective action to ameliorate the international community’s greatest perils. For Dr. Denton, this took the form of his discussion concerning the need to recognize the presence of the world’s largest issues, particularly climate change. As for Mr. Aziz, he spoke of the need to mobilize efforts to ensure that we are not idle witnesses to another Rwanda or Bosnia. Mr. Aziz also spoke of the current, neglected conflict in the Sudan, where an oppressive regime is endeavouring to halt an emerging opposition movement by gunning down its citizens in the street and disconnecting itself from the rest of the world.

In closing, the speakers at the Oct 29th event covered a surprising amount of topics expertly, especially during the question and answer period where the audience became highly involved in the whirlwind discussion. One topic unexpectedly covered was girl’s education and empowerment. Join us on October 29th to continue this discussion with our event, Girl Rising: The Role of Education to Create Change and Break Barriers Globally.

Sara Mena Greco – Guest Blogger

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