Greetings to our friends and colleagues,
Since the dawn of documented history, religion has been used as a driving force both for war and for peace. From the crusades to witch hunts to the war on terror, there are ample cases that depict religious drivers of violence and conflict. But we have also seen photos of Christians and Muslims protecting each other while they pray, and read stories of religious leaders and followers coming together to declare, “we refuse to be enemies”. The relationship between religion, conflict and peace is a complex one, because religion overlaps and interacts with culture, identity, history, politics and other factors that shape our worldview and value systems. In this issue we have invited our contributors to help unpack these nuances, and share hopeful insights for a more peaceful world.
Defining the interaction
David Makwerere interrogates whether all conflicts labelled as religious are really due to religious drivers, or whether this is only the surface impression. Focussing on Africa, he argues that there are other, more likely drivers of conflicts that have commonly been labelled as religious. These include the legacy of colonialism, climate change, corruption and socio-economic challenges. Ian Linden amplifies this point, tracing the history and circumstances of conflict in Nigeria, and exploring the ways that religion overlaps with other drivers. The analysis is used to highlight the dangers of simplifying the causes of conflict, and the importance of asking questions that could lead us to a more nuanced understanding and more effective responses.
Experts have devised frameworks to help clarify the roles that religion can have in conflict, some of which are explored in the articles by Steven Leach and Nathalie Al-Zyoud. These include religion as an identity marker, a worldview, and as a means to promote peace.
If we are to truly understand the dynamics, we have to deconstruct the notion that each religion and belief system is a unified and internally coherent whole, that stands in clear, neat separation to other belief systems.
Firstly, there are as many disagreements within a religious tradition as there are between religions. Furthermore, those of different faiths may have common beliefs that facilitate unity. Medhat El-Banna uses Islam as an example of this, quoting a famous Imam, who once said “I found In Paris the teachings of Islam but I found no Moslems, and when I returned to Egypt I found a lot of Moslems but I couldn’t find the teachings of Islam”. He urges us to search for commonalities, rather than fixating on our differences. “In search of common ground”, by Kgalalelo Nganje, does exactly that, positing that all religions have teachings, scriptures or philosophies which promote peaceful relationships and non-violence. This is illustrated by examples of peace teachings and philosophies from 5 different religions.
Francine Ingabire argues that it is the principle of spirituality rather than religion, that can unite people in peace. She defines religion as a set of shared “macro” beliefs about the origin of the universe, God, etc. She sees spirituality as character ethics that can be derived from religion, but are more to do with self-searching and personal growth. They include selflessness, love, humility and honesty, which are conducive to peaceful co-existence. Edward Chinhanhu, on the other hand, suggests that values are what unite or divide us. He makes a clear distinction between religion and values, pointing out that shared beliefs don’t guarantee peace, but a community with different beliefs and similar values will thrive. He therefore implores us to look to shared values as a way to build a peaceful world, regardless of religious affiliation.
The way up – putting it into practice
Several of this issue’s contributors have sought to apply these principles to real world situations, thinking about how to turn the potential of religious harmony into a reality.
Ahmad Naveed Noormal looks at Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, giving examples of their potential both for conflict and peace, and emphasizing that believers can choose whether to focus on an interpretation that supports peace, or one that supports war. He calls upon all to be willing to self-asses and depart from teachings that can be used to justify conflict.
Philip Fungurai uses terrorism as his departure point, arguing that even though some say there are other drivers at work, there is evidence to suggest that religion is still a key motivation for terrorism. If religion is part of the problem, he argues, then it must also be part of the solution. He suggests that interfaith initiatives are needed to counteract terrorism and build peace, citing examples of interfaith approaches that have been adopted around the world.
However, we must also be diligent in ensuring that interfaith initiatives practice the inclusiveness that they preach. Joshua Heath highlights that many interfaith initiatives are dominated by monotheistic religions, making it difficult for those of other faiths to participate. He instructs us to “Take the time to see each other as people, understanding that you do not [need to] agree on this topic and that agreeing is not a requirement to accepting the humanity of those around you.”
The message that runs through all of these articles is to make a deliberate and conscious effort to really understand the dynamics of conflict and inequality, before jumping to any conclusions, and to be willing to evaluate ourselves, our beliefs, our relationships and even our peacebuilding methods. May we be on the lookout for common ground, shared values, and interpretations that propel us towards peace.
The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of the ACTION Support Centre or the ACTION for Conflict Transformation network movement.