Thursday, February 07, 2013

Conflict: The Role of Religion in Civil Wars

Source: ISN

The Role of Religion in Civil Wars

Religion often plays an important role in civil wars but is it ever THE precipitating cause behind them? As he explains in today’s Questions and Answers, the CSS’s Owen Frazer doesn’t think so. He sees (and describes) an interplay of factors that drive civil conflicts.

By Owen Frazer for the ISN
Is there such a thing as a ‘religious’ conflict, or are there simply conflicts with a religious dimension?

If by a ‘religious’ conflict you mean a conflict that is primarily about religion, I think the short answer is no. Of course, in the sense of disagreement or debate, there are “conflicts” within religious movements over interpretation of religious doctrine, etc. However, in the context of civil wars and intrastate conflicts, religious issues per se may indeed be factors in the conflict but they will be just some factors among many. When talking about conflicts there is often an overemphasis on trying to reduce the conflict to one main “root” cause. Doing so only obscures the dynamic and complex nature of most political conflicts.

Religious issues that are part of what the conflict is ‘about’ are only one way in which religion can play a role in conflict. For this reason it can be misleading to speak of conflicts with a religious dimension. It gives an impression that religion is just one part of, or issue in, a conflict and that it can be separated from the other parts. The interplay between religion and the different elements of a conflict is more complex.

When analyzing any conflict it can be helpful to break it down into the three main categories of actors, issues and context and to look at the dynamic interaction between these three categories. Religion can have relevance for each category. Conflict actors can be religiously-inspired (just take for example some of the rebel groups fighting in Mali at the moment), issues can directly relate to religious questions (e.g. to what extent should religious law form the basis of national law), and the wider context can be in part shaped by religious considerations (for example, a history of animosity between different faith groupings or overseas support for particular parties to the conflict based on a shared faith).

In short, conflicts are never only about religion but in some conflicts religious considerations can play an important role at many levels.

Are conflicts where religion plays a role more severe – or harder to resolve – than other conflicts?

There is definitely a particular complexity to conflicts where there is a significant religious discourse or where religiously-inspired actors play an important role. Religion is intricately tied up with questions of identity and value-systems. Conflicts where religious identities are threatened or where conflict parties adhere to different value-systems or worldviews (whether religiously-inspired or secular) are likely to be harder to resolve than simple interest-based conflicts. Value-systems or worldviews are not simply a collection of preferences or interests with regards to economic, political and social issues. They affect how actors actually make sense of and interact with the world. When parties’ worldviews differ they may have real difficulties in understanding each other and the potential for misinterpreting actions and statements is very high. This makes negotiations difficult and requires much greater efforts to be put into building relationships and understanding between parties before a conflict can be resolved.

To what extent is it possible to generalize across religions in assessing their role in civil wars and intrastate conflicts? Do some religions ‘behave’ in distinct ways?

To some extent it is possible to generalize about the role of religion in conflict and to identify the many possible ways in which it can affect the actors, the issues, etc. However, its exact role in any particular conflict will always be context-specific as it is determined by how it interacts with all the different elements in a particular context. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to generalize about the “effect” of particular religions.

To speak of religions “behaving” in distinct ways could also lead to confusion as religion is not an actor. Parties to the conflict can behave in distinct ways and their behavior can be influenced by their religious beliefs and traditions. However, every religion is subject to so many different interpretations, and so many other factors are at play, that it is impossible to make general predictions about an actor’s behavior based on their religious belief. It would not be hard, for example, to point to cases to show that all of the major world religions have at one point or another been used both to justify violence and to preach peace.

One of the implications of the infamous ‘Clash of Civilizations’ thesis is that conflict is more likely along so-called civilizational fault lines, which have clear religious components. What do you make of this argument today?

One of the problems with the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ thesis is that it characterizes major religious groupings as homogenous blocks and ignores the diversity within these so-called “civilizations.” To suggest that conflicts are occurring along civilizational fault lines is to ignore the host of local and regional factors at play in any conflict and the complex web of divisions and alliances that characterizes international politics. If we look at the conflicts occurring in the world today where religion could be considered to be playing a role, it requires a serious stretch of the imagination to characterize them as being instances of some larger civilizational conflict such as “the West vs. Islam”. The Arab uprisings we have witnessed in various countries were primarily internally-driven revolutions against autocratic regimes, the constellation of alliances related to Syria’s internal conflict are certainly not dictated by a calculation of “the West vs. Islam”. Even in Mali, where the recent French invasion gives scope for Islamist fighters to argue they are taking on the West, the conflict has until recently been an internal affair between separatist and Islamist groups in the north and the central government. Furthermore, there are plenty of ongoing conflicts where religious or civilizational considerations would seem to play no role whatsoever: eastern DRC, Colombia, Central African Republic to name but a few.

This is not to deny that some discourses such as those around the “war on terror” and “global jihad” have encouraged the notion of a civilizational clash but such discourses serve the agenda of a minority looking to legitimize and gain support for their belligerent positions rather than necessarily reflecting the complexity of the situation on the ground. There is a certain attractive simplicity and power to the “clash of civilizations” thesis and it is important to continually highlight the over-simplifying nature of discourses that seem to confirm it in order that it does not become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

From a resolution perspective, would you say that the involvement of religion in a conflict represents more of a challenge or an opportunity?

As I suggested earlier, where religion shapes the identities and value-systems of actors that are in conflict, this can add to the complexity of a conflict and make its resolution more challenging. At the same time one could say that with every challenge comes an opportunity. If, for example, a conflict is permeated by a strong religious discourse there will also usually be religious leaders one can identify to work with to try and positively influence this discourse. We should not fall into the trap of viewing religion always as a negative and divisive factor. Religion can also play the role of connector, bridging other divisions within society. Religiously-inspired concepts and religious actors can often also be important resources for peace. One can think of many instances where religious leaders have been at the forefront of efforts to resolve the conflict. In South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu played a prominent role as chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The commission itself was in large part inspired by Christian notions of forgiveness and reconciliation and the approach gained widespread acceptance because of the prevalence of Christian beliefs across the whole of South African society. The Kenyan peace activist Dekha Ibrahim Abdi, tragically killed in a car accident less than two years ago, was a well-known and successful mediator and conflict resolution expert. She explicitly acknowledged the role of her Muslim faith as a motivator of her efforts and in her work she consciously combined Islamic values and approaches to conflict resolution with traditional and other approaches. In Cambodia, the Buddhist Monk Maha Ghosananda, famous for his annual peace marches known as Dhammayietra, was a key figure in the post-communist era who helped to revive Cambodian Buddhism (which the Khmer Rouge had done their best to eradicate) and rebuild the nation state.

Owen Frazer is a program officer in the Culture and Religion in Mediation program at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich.