Deep Pluralism: A Practical Approach to Religious Particularism in Conflict Transformation Processes

Lailatul Fitriyah

May, 2014

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.

A peacebuilder in a conflict area may discover that the specific cultural context “on the ground” is in conflict with the liberal peace paradigm to which she adheres. The liberal peace paradigm is a theory about the processes which need to take place to achieve peace. Thus, “peace” itself is the final destination in conflict resolution. The processes which need to take place should be based on a mix of self-determination, liberal democracy, neoliberal economic reform, human rights, humanitarian law and human security (Korppen, 2011, p.80). In other words, the liberal peace paradigm says that the achievement of peace depends on the construction of a liberal democratic socio-political order in the conflicted society. This transformation would be in accordance with the Western liberal model of state-building which aims to transform political cultures into modern, self-disciplining and self-governing entities (Korppen, 2011; Jabri, 2007; Duffield, 1998).

The dominance of the Western liberal model of state-building means that peacebuilding strategies are characterized by technical and institutional-building discourse (Korppen, 2011, p.80). A tension typically results from attempting to force this dominant liberal peace paradigm onto the local context. Just like any other “one size fits all” framework, the strict application of the liberal peace paradigm, with its distinct logic, undermines the local capacity for peace. This, in turn, poses a new problem for the peacebuilding process, as the local capacities for peace are the main component of a conflict transformation process. And, at the same time, the models and theories in peace studies are generally concerned with how to solve the conflict, rather than on how the peacebuilder properly engages with the respective social groups (an exception being Mary Anderson’s Do No Harm (1999)). Therefore, a model that focuses on providing guidelines for the peacebuilder in dealing with the problem of cultural particularism is needed. This paper will put together a set of principles to be considered by peacebuilders in order to engage better with specific cultures.

In this paper I will focus my analysis on the problem of religious particularism as one of the most diversified and contested social contexts today. The rich differences in religious traditions and their purported transcendental foundations comprise some of the most notorious factors rendering conflicts seemingly intractable. The analysis will be derived by way of consideration of, first, Charles Taylor’s third sense of secularism, and second, William Connolly’s idea of multidimensional pluralism. The first is a form of societal structure in which the options to believe or not to believe in God are both acceptable (Taylor, 2007, p.3). And the second is a concept which translates Taylor’s third sense of secularism into a set of principles to conduct meaningful conversations among society members in which no single paradigm plays a role as the ultimate source of moral values (Connolly, 2000, p.154). It is important to note that this absence of any ultimate source of moral values is to be seen as an open-ended inclusivity toward humanity’s subjectivity, rather than an expression of chaos.

I will then show how these principles can be applied by peacebuilders in engaging with the deep pluralism they face in the field. The second section will convey more about the two ideas and invite us to see a meaningful dialogue in practice which took place in Nepal as a part of the application of the khat method. The khat method is derived from the local wisdom in conflict resolution and consists of the principle to respect all the deep differences among individuals.

Cultural Particularism

Drawn from the ideas of cultural relativism and historical particularism of Franz Boas, the concept of cultural particularism is the notion that the culture of any one society should be understood in itself, that it has its own unique history, and cannot be viewed from just any theoretical frame (Boas, 1920). The practice of conflict transformation, while a step forward from an earlier conflict resolution model that focuses its effort only on reaching a negative peace, suffers from a tension between the cultural context on the local level and the generic model of dispute resolution that the peacebuilder brings to the situation “on the ground” (Lederach, 1996, p.4).

Cultural particularism is important for the whole conduct of the peacebuilding process because any sustainable peace arrived at as the pinnacle of all peacebuilding processes can only be built upon the local capacities for peace. “Local capacities for peace” refers to the individuals and local institutions that work to sustain some sort of harmony or intergroup peace in social systems (Schirch, 2013, p.82). An innate quality of the local people to harness their capacities to forge peace, the concept reflects the ideal goal of peacebuilding, in which a society is able to bounce back from any form of violence or conflict, returning to the pre-conflict/violence condition – or even to a better state – without being dependent on external assistance.

There are no effective ways to find local capacities for peace except through a kind of facilitation that does not impede the local people from developing their own initiatives (Lederach and Lederach, 2010, p.211). This level of facilitation is hard to achieve because peacebuilders are usually constrained by the program mandate from donors, or are driven to reach a “governed-peace” (Richmond, 2007, pp.4-5) rather than to nurture the local capacities for peace which will take time and may even appear to waste energy. The task is particularly daunting because of the hegemonic linearity and sequentiality paradigm that exists in the field of peace studies. By hegemonic linearity and sequentiality I mean that peace is seen as a result of processes that are performed in linear fashion rather than a result of locally-initiated processes which might not be running in such a linear fashion. In fact, “... linearity is not adequate on its own to fully penetrate the nature of social healing” because “... humans construct meaning around our response to past, present and future, not as a linear concept but as lived multiple realities that are simultaneously present in the ways we make sense of our lives, our place and our purpose, particularly in the context of protracted conflict” (Lederach and Lederach, 2010, pp.8-9). Thus, cultural particularism is useful to analyze the nature of diversity among societal groups because it allows us to treat every group as something unique that deserves to bring its own capacity for peace to the table.

Charles Taylor’s 3rd Sense of Secularism

Taylor’s third sense of secularism defines a society in which both belief and disbelief in a God are equally acceptable. In this paper, this type of a pluralistic society will serve as a “model” for the peacebuilder where they should be able to see the religious, sociopolitical and cultural differences of the societies that they encounter as something that is as “natural” as the whole sociopolitical and cultural context of the liberal peace paradigm that they bring in-to the field. Rather than presenting God as the only reference for a human’s sense of fullness, the third sense of secularism opens up other possible references of fullness in a human’s life, including the reference to themselves (Taylor, 2007, p.3). Thus, it presents a new form of society in which an individual’s belief system is no longer a defining rule for intergroup dynamics and therefore extends the inclusivity of the society into something that knows no boundaries.

The first and the second senses of secularism from Charles Taylor are not relevant to peacebuilding for several reasons. First, both senses represent a form of conventional secularism where the societal dynamics centralize around denial of religious forces. Instead of building inclusiveness upon the acceptance of deep pluralism, conventional secularism tries to present a so-called plural society based on exclusive humanism. Second, for peacebuilding, with much of its work taking place in non-secular communities, a promotion of plurality which accepts everything but God will have a detrimental effect on those societies. And third, the strong connection between conventional secularism and a governed peace, where societal stability is associated with a form of linear progress, will be a hurdle to the growth of local capacities for peace.

In A Secular Age (2007), Charles Taylor describes the conditions of the third kind of secularism, but does not talk much about how to achieve those conditions. The third sense of secularism that Taylor presents has a limited applicability because it comes in the form of conceptual abstraction rather than in a concrete mechanism. This is understandable because Taylor proposes the concept in an attempt to give a historical description of the development of secularization (Taylor, 2007, p.3). In other words, the concept is not aimed to be a prescriptive explanation of how to shape a society based on a thick inclusiveness. Thus, the principle contained in the third sense of secularism must be expressed in another conceptual form that can translate those principles into a step-by-step mechanism so that it will be more practical for the realm of peacebuilding processes. William Connolly’s deep pluralism is just what we need for this.

Connolly’s View of Pluralism

Although he only presents his ideas as a form of critique toward conventional secularism, Connolly presents an elaborate explanation of how to achieve the ideal condition described in Taylor’s concepts. Thus, the two concepts are complementary to each other since one of them serves as the conceptual foundation while the other functions as the conceptual elaboration of the ideal found in the foundation. William Connolly presents the concept of deep pluralism as a critique of conventional secularism which constrained the acknowledgment of differences by setting religion aside from the public sphere. Connolly’s idea is to rework the secular problematic by exploring layered conceptions of thinking, ethos, and public life as an expression of multidimensional pluralism (Connolly, 2000, p.4). This is supposed to generate a form of society that does not contain any foundation that could potentially be an ultimate source of moral values.

Connolly’s critique comes with a set of conceptual mechanisms that must be employed to conceive of this specific form of society: acknowledgement of the multiple registers of subjectivity and intersubjectivity by embracing the most marginalized differences in the society; management of the personal relationships in which no ultimate source of values exists; an ethic of cultivation, which generates a sustainable ethos that is internalized by all members of the society; and a positive ethos of engagement. These conceptual mechanisms need to be translated into the “real world” to be practical for peacebuilders engaging with diversity “on the ground”.

Connolly’s concept serves as a practical translation of Taylor’s third sense of secularism and enables us to distill the normative suggestions in it to be applied in the peacebuilding process. The acknowledgement of the multiple registers of subjectivity is the first step in engaging with deep pluralism that Connolly suggests. The “registers of subjectivity” refer to thinking at the individual level. This kind of thinking is indispensable to improving one’s intersubjective ethos of generous engagement between diverse constituencies or to harden strife between partisans (Connolly, 2000, p.3). Thus it is important to acknowledge the multiple registers of subjectivity since they are at the core of individual differences which eventually comprise the rich diversity in a society.

The second important step, management of the personal relationships in which no ultimate source of values exists, is defined by the terms “relational arts” and “micropolitics”. These terms refer to the ways in which interpersonal relationships are managed in a society where no single paradigm serves as the ultimate source of moral values. Instead of being dependent on only one paradigm to give members of society guidance over the course of their lives, relational arts and micropolitics teach a plural constituency to honor different moral sources (Connolly, 2000, p.36). “Relational arts” involves a form of self-artistry that individuals attempt to do in their interpersonal relationships. Self-artistry is comprised of three things: “working on yourself in relation to the cultural differences through which you have acquired definition; doing so to render yourself more open to responsive engagement with alternative faiths, sensualities, gender practices, and so on; and, doing so to render yourself better able to listen to new and surprising movements in the politics of becoming without encasing them immediately in preset judgements that sanctify the universality or naturalness of what you already are” (Connolly, 2000, p.146). In fact, relational arts go beyond expressing what we already are or escalating our own values as the universal standard to which everyone else must conform. It is a move of selective desanctification of elements in our own identity (Connolly, 2000, p.146).

“Micropolitics”, on the other hand, refers to a spatial concept in which any tiny bit of self-artistry that an individual demonstrates could have significant implications for the network of relationships around him or her. It functions to stabilize an existing set of identities as well as to usher in a new identity or right into being. Self-artistry affects the ethical sensibility of individuals in relations to others, and micropolitics helps to shape an intersubjective ethos of politics. Both are used to be seen as two sides of the same coin, namely the management of personal relationships (Connolly, 2000, pp.148-149).

The next important part of engagement is what Connolly calls an “ethos of engagement”. It is basically a mode of democracy as a distinctive culture in which constituencies can contribute to model and move the identities that constitute them (Connolly, 2000, p.154). As mentioned above, there is no single authoritative source that serves as a foundation of moral values to govern the society. Instead, the foundation of moral values is continously negotiated between interdependent constituencies divided along multiple dimensions who appreciate the contestability of the source of morality they honor the most (Connolly, 2000, p.154).

In peacebuilding processes, these principles could be translated into ways peacebuilders attempt to engage with the deep pluralism they find in the field. The multiple registers of subjectivity will help peacebuilders be aware of the deep differences among society members, as well as the differences between themselves and the society, but at the same time does not elevate the peacebuilders’ paradigm to a moral standard to which the society should adjust itself. Relational arts would be a guiding principle for peacebuilders to conduct daily communication with society’s members in which the learning activity is conducted in a reciprocal pattern. Society’s members, as well as the peacebuilders, are learning from each other. Meanwhile micropolitics will help peacebuilders remain conscious of the ripple effect of every move that they make in that environment. More than that, relational arts and micropolitics will make peacebuilders stay aware of the non-linear process of healing that the society goes through, and accept that process rather than hold to an objectivist position by “staying out of it”. The final mechanism, ethos of engagement, will frame all parts of the peacebuilders’ steps in dealing with society and lift it up to a new level of social behavior in which the decision to accept, acknowledge, and respect everyone’s different moral sources will become a part of the peacebuilders’ daily communication and relationship building with the society.

The problem with this conceptual endeavor is how to find a balance between the demand of sequential peacebuilding methodologies and the fluidity of this engagement method. The fact is that the mainstream peacebuilding methodologies are still built upon the sequential peace processes and the linear metaphor of progress.

A Lesson from Khat Method in Nepal

Though it appears hard to achieve, some of the examples of dialogue-based conflict transformation around the world have used several values of the theoretical framework explained above. One of these dialogues is being conducted in Nepal by the Natural Resource Conflict Transformation Programme. The goal of the Programme is to assist local communities that are involved in conflicts over natural resources and to transform their adversarial relationships into constructive ones.

The khat approach is a dialogue mechanism that has been applied by the Natural Resource Conflict Transformation Programme under the initiative of Professor John Paul Lederach since 2005 (Thapa, p.1). Inspired by a population of Nepalis in the Terai region who use the traditional bed made out of bamboo and rope known as a “khat” as the central point of their daily conversations (Thapa, p.1). From time to time people will take the khat out of their home and put it under a tree to sit and relax while having an open conversation with their neighbors and friends. The beds may be set side by side creating a semi or full circle if the group is large. Taking note of this tradition and local culture the NRCTC began to adopt and develop this practice into a structure for supporting larger group dialogue. Part of a conflict transformation process the khat approach has now become a practical method used by the initiative to assist the societal forest, water and landless groups in finding a sustainable solution to conflicts over access to and use of natural resources.

There are some ground rules that the organizer of the khat dialogue should attend to, including, (1) carefully negotiating an agreement on process and dialogue before the commencement so that all conflicting parties understand the khat approach; (2) identifying the specific sitting arrangement of the khat before the parties arrive; (3) ensuring that the seating arrangement fulfills certain non-biased criteria which have been decided upon beforehand; (4) negotiating an agreement on the duration of the meeting and any rules that are to be applied during the meeting before the meeting begins (Thapa, p.2). These requirements ensure a commitment to the egalitarian nature of the process. Given these ground rules, it is not a surprise that the level of ownership that the people show for the khat mechanism is significant.        

Two of the key features in this transformative dialogue are the total involvement of the society members, and the significant influence of local wisdom. To some extent, this reflects a higher level of ownership of the local community of the process itself.  When people are engaged with the activity, they build up their sense of belonging through the contribution that they give to the activity. Another important feature of the khat dialogue is that it emphasizes the process over the goals. Each voice is to be listened to and acknowledged by others regardless of their castes and other discriminatory factors. Each opinion is accounted for and each individual is actively seeking a common ground which can lead to a more sustainable process of conflict transformation.

Looking at the theoretical framework mentioned above, the engagement of deep pluralism that the khat approach shows is partly in line with William Connolly’s ethic of engagement as well as Charles Taylor’s third kind of secularism. The designation of the khat approach as a space in which people can voice their opinions is what Taylor’s third kind of secularism is all about. In this context, the once deeply segregated society was united by a common ground to build a transformative pattern of relationships that would enable them to manage common resources in the most effective and sustainable way. The most important thing is the focus on the process, which eliminates the goal-oriented tone of conflict resolution. It is also important that almost the whole process of the dialogue is conducted by the conflicting parties, with the third-party role limited to the function of facilitator. This new focus means at least two things: first, that the acknowledgement of multiple subjectivities is taken up seriously, and thus no voices are left unheard in the society; and second, that the peacebuilders involved in this initiative have committed themselves to a certain degree of relational arts by giving a significant amount of trust to the community to take over the process by themselves and to find a dialogue mechanism that suits them most. Thus, it is not too much to say that we can actually take the theoretical framework to the field and make meaningful conversation a part of the conflict transformation process.               


This paper argues that even the highly idealistic theoretical framework of dialogic conflict transformation can be translated into practice on the ground. I start the analysis by describing the theoretical framework derived from the realm of religious diversity to the field of peace studies. A conception of pluralistic society from Charles Taylor is described, in which the option to believe or not to believe in God are equally acceptable. This idea of a pluralistic society can serve as a “model” for peacebuilders, where they should be able to see the religious, sociopolitical and cultural differences of the societies that they encounter as something that is as “natural” as the whole sociopolitical and cultural context of the liberal peace paradigm that they bring on to the field.
The paper also presents the concept of “deep pluralism” that William Connolly proposed as a critique of conventional secularism. Connolly’s idea is to rework the secular problem by exploring layered conceptions of thinking, ethos, and public life as an expression of multidimensional pluralism. This is supposed to generate a form of society that does not contain any foundation that could potentially be an ultimate source of moral values. Connolly’s critique comes with a set of conceptual mechanisms that must be employed to conceive of this specific form of society.

An example from Nepal then takes this theoretical analysis onto the field. The khat approach, one of the dialogue-based approaches to conflict transformation, utilizes the power of meaningful conversation to achieve a more sustainable peace among different societal groups. Two important features from the khat approach that reflect the principles of secularism combined with deep pluralism are its focus on process, and a significant amount of trust between the facilitators and the groups involved. Thus, the realisation of meaningful conversation as a part of the conflict transformation process and the more holistic view of peacebuilders toward societies are possible. The only question left is how far peacebuilders will allow themselves to engage in dialogue with a society, to learn from them, and to see their differences as the foundation of reconciliation rather than as the root of the problem.


Boas, F. (1920). The methods of ethnology. American Anthropologist, 22(4), 311-321.

Connolly, W. E. (2000). Why I am Not A Secularist. University of Minnesota Press.

Duffield, M. (1998). Post-modern conflict, warlords, post-adjustment states and private protection. Journal of Civil Wars 1(1), 65-102.

Jabri, V. (2007). War and the Transformation of Global Politics: Rethinking Peace and Conflict Studies. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Korppen, D. (2011). Space Beyond the Liberal Peacebuilding Consensus: A Systemic Perspective. Retrieved from: http://www.b

Lederach, J. P. , Lederach, A. J. (2010). When Blood and Bones Cry Out: Journeys Through the Soundscape of Healing and Reconciliation. Australia: Penguin Books.

Taylor, C. (2007). A Secular Age. Belknap Press.

Thapa, C. B. (n.d.). ‘Khat’ Approach in Conflict Transformation Process. Nepal: Natural Resource Conflict Transformation Programme.

[1] Graduate Student, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies