By Steven Leach
What role does religion play in conflict? Wide ranging assumptions and presumptions rule the conversation. One of the real risks of discussing religion in conflict is that we easily confuse ourselves.
Working with religion in conflict and mediation is a complex and contextual task. The University of Uppsala has defined conflicts as “a contested incompatibility that concerns government and/or territory where the use of armed force between two parties of which at least one is the government of a state, results in at least 25 battle-related deaths in one calendar year” (presentation by Prof Isak Svensson, 2014). While the validity and use of this definition should be discussed, it provides a lens through which to view trends in conflicts fitting this definition.
54% of conflicts in the database (which spans from 1975 to the present), for example, have no significant religious dimension. The theory that eliminating religion in the world would bring peace rings hollow. Still 46% of conflicts do have a religious dimension, which the statistics analyze through two lenses.*
The first lens is that of religious identity, or, in other words, religious similarity or dissimilarity between the conflicting parties. Example of this conflict would be Northern Ireland, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka. In these cases, “religion plays a role as an identity-marker to distinguish between in-group and out-group. 14% of conflicts in the database fit this category.
The second lens is that of worldview, or rather, incompatibility with a religious worldview. Examples of this include Al Shabaab and Boko Haram. In these cases, conflict parties have “different collective frameworks for making sense of, and acting in, the world.” Such worldviews may not permit coexistence with people who have differing worldviews. 15% of conflicts in the database fit into this category.
17% of conflicts have elements of both religion as an identity-marker and as a tension between worldviews. Identity-marker conflicts may deepen into worldview conflicts as positions harden.
These distinctions are helpful because they reveal what needs to be transformed and what tools are best suited for transformation. Religious worldview conflicts are often more difficult to transform because of the positioning that comes with such a stance. Religious identity-marker conflicts, however, often find two parties with similar worldviews, and it becomes easier to speak about attitudes and behaviors.
It is worth noting, however, that the vast majority of conflicts with a religious dimension are intrareligious conflicts, and not interreligious conflicts. That is, most religious conflicts occur within a religious tradition and not between two or more different traditions – religious conflict does not indicate a ‘clash of civilizations’.
There is also a third way in which religion is relevant in conflict: as a resource for peace. Religious leaders are often among the most trusted members in communities and are well positioned to serve as insider mediators and to shape a people-centred transformation. Faith-based actors and organizations are on the front lines with unique dilemmas, and big NGOs are often better known but less effective than local NGOs and local unregistered actors.
Two quick examples were shared at the “International Consultation on the global Anglican contribution to Promoting Peace and Prevents Violent Conflict”, hosted by Coventry University in partnership with Anglican Alliance. In Jos, women and youth were mobilized by a pastor and an imam to monitor their local neighborhoods and to report suspicious changes to community leaders, strengthening relations and building community resilience. In Pakistan a local church community sought government security for Easter celebrations, only to be told that the government could not provide security because of the Taliban. The pastor went to the local Taliban leader, who asked to see the church. After seeing the church, he said they should have their celebrations and procession, without any concern, and that when the Taliban comes to power he would make sure the government builds them a much nicer church. Relationships prevented conflict. Positive examples like these can be found in many places, demonstrating the power of religious inter-religious efforts to bring peace.
Both the presentation by Prof. Svensson and the lenses through which to understand the religious elements of conflict are based on materials presented at the 2014 “Religion and Mediation Course” offered by the Religion, Politics, and Conflict Desk in the Human Security Division of the Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs, the Culture and Religion in Mediation (CARIM) Programme of the Centre for Security Studies at ETH Zurich, the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers, the Centre for International Peace Operations (German), and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland.
Steven Leach is a peacebuilding practitioner and researcher currently based in South Africa. His work and interests include the use of religion to mobilize youth to violence or violence prevention as well as the many complexities of so-called “religious” violence, violent extremism, and religious terrorism. Originally from the US, Steven is engaged in PhD studies through London Metropolitan University.