By Nathalie Al-Zyoud
Religion as a unified system of beliefs and practices, is a worldview that incorporates a moral compulsion for action and meaning-making with respect to one’s earthly existence. Within a conflict, religion can take on multiple roles that can in essence be broken down into three different categories: (1) a mitigating role; (2) a latent force, and/or (3) a driver of conflict.
Religion as a Source of Resilience
Religious institutions play a conflict mitigation role when religious leaders act as connectors and use their position to convey messages that bridge divides between communities, strengthen social cohesion and inter-group convergence. The use of sacred texts as a point of reference to compel adherents to act beyond their community of believers can counteract drivers of conflict and work to lower local tensions. Religious systems of beliefs provide hope, a sense of belonging and meaning to one’s life, elements of the peace architecture needed for vital communities. Leaders modeling inter-group cooperation and peace-making, can play a powerful role in a community’s decision to opt-out of violence or to overcome and recover when faced with an outbreak of violence.
Religion as an Identity Marker
When religion is a cultural identity marker in a conflict it means that the parties’ identities break-down along religious lines but there are no ideological or convictional reasons that drive the conflict with the other group. Instead, grievances may be political, social or economic, but not necessarily religious. Religion may have the potential of becoming a driver as conflict dynamics shifts and fault lines deepen. As groups seek to reinforce their identity, deepening “us vs. them” cleavages, religious beliefs may be exploited to further exclude and/or dehumanize the “other.”
Religion as Ideological Domination
Religion becomes a driver of conflict when conflicting aspirations by one or both parties are of a religious nature. However, religious ideological domination can be displayed in many forms. Explicit religious demands can be the central concerns of one side or a peripheral part of the conflict when overt religious demands are present but not the primary political demands.
The interaction between religious institutions and other groups within a community can create social patterns that determine if fragmentation or group convergence ensues. As within the workings of any other belief system, if a religious actor of change has the motivation and the means to exploit grievances or strengthen resiliencies, he or she either deepens a conflict or strengthens social cohesion.
Nathalie Al-Zyoud is a Senior Mediator with Communities in Transition, a conflict management consulting firm that seeks to empower communities to resolve conflict-related challenges in sustainable way.