Over the years, I’ve often been invited to discuss the impact religion has had on our world. More times than not, these discussion lead to a discourse which charge religion for creating division, bigotry, and war.
With a historic reputation of oppression and violence it is often hard to plead any other verdict in the case of religion, except the most obvious, guilty. However in an attempt to broaden my own perspective, I decided to explore the scarcely told stories in history that offer a different perspective. On my conquest to broaden my scope, I came across Leymah Gbowee and the women of Liberia! These women forced me to look outside the box I had comfortably placed religion in. I hope their remarkable story will enlighten and inspire all who read.
Liberia was facing its second civil war. Women faced sexual brutality, mutilation and cannibalism, while their children and husbands were being recruited as soldiers. One night Leymah Gbowee, a mother of three had a dream. In that dream she was told to gather all the women from her church to pray for peace. So that Sunday Leymah did exactly that. As Leymah was rallying all her Christian sisters to pray, a Muslim woman by the name of Asatu Bah Kenneth got inspired by the initiative and decided to get her Muslim sisters involved. What started off as the Christian Women’s Peace Initiative became the Women’s Organization for Peace. It was the first time in Liberian history where Islamic and Christian women were united.
The logic behind placing their differences in beliefs aside was revolutionary, they thought:
if a bullet can’t pick and choose, if it does not know the difference between a Christian or a Muslim, why should they?
What happened next was remarkable. Thousands of women including the internally displaced went from praying and protesting in the fish market to marching to the Liberian Parliament demanding that President Charles Taylor (later to be indicted for war crimes), begin peace talks with the rebels.
On June 4th 2003 the Accra peace talks began in Ghana. However General Leymah and her army did not stop there. After several weeks of unsuccessful negotiations, the prospects for peace looked slim. The violence had reached its peak as the war had finally made its way into the capital city, Monrovia. In a last and final plea for peace these women sat on the floor around the peace hall where the talks were taking place, linked arms, and refused to let any delegate out of the room until a peace treaty was signed. Incidentally, this bold act of courage was just what was needed to get the attention of the international community. Immediately after the IMF threatened to cut of funding, the UN Peace Keeping Force entered into the capital, and Charles Taylor was forced into exile. On August 18th, 2003 the Accra Peace Agreement was signed. Liberia could finally start moving forward.
In a world where Muslims and Christians have often historically been at war, these courageous women provided their country, their continent and even bigger their world with an empowering example of the things that can be achieved when basic principles of respect are present. These women show us that it is a choice we as individuals make that either allow religion to be used as an instrument for division or unification, for war or for peace!
If it is true that we become what we focus on, we must begin to use these stories of religious tolerance to shape our world. We must set a new standard by fueling the stories in history that sing of solidarity and peace.
A police officer for over two decades, Asatu Bah Kenneth’s story is also incredibly powerful and interesting.
“Asatu’s position in the police service gave her access to intelligence about the war. On one occasion,
as the war was closing in on Monrovia, Asatu called a meeting with Leymah, Sugars and Janet
and other key members of WIPNET. After that meeting the women issued the all-important position
statement that they would eventually take to their meeting with Charles Taylor urging him to sit
down at the peace table with the rebels.
Her nickname is the “stabilizer” because she doesn’t take sides. After the war she became Liberia’s
Deputy Chief of Police and focused on bringing more women into the security sector. Recently she
was appointed the Assistant Minister of Justice for Administration and Public Safety.”
this is the first contribution from asha mattis. from here on out, posts by asha, will contain the signature, A.M.