3 Roles Religion Plays in Conflict

3 roles religion

What role does religion play in conflict? Wide assumptions and presumptions rule the conversation. One of the real risks of discussing religion in conflict is that we easily confuse ourselves. The ACTION Support Centre participated in a Religion and Mediation Course, which sought to address these very issues.

Working with religion in conflict and mediation is a complex and contextual task. The University of Uppsala has defined conflict 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.” 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 course viewed through two lenses.

The first lens is that of religious identity, or, in other words, religious similarity or dissimilarity between the conflicting parties. Examples of this conflict would include 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’.

The course also names 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 African communities and are well positioned to serve as insider mediators and to shape a people-centred transformation.

With perspectives from 24 participants active in 17 different countries and 12 organisers/resource people from six countries, the learning shared through the course represented a broad array of perspectives, activities, and organisations. Through the framework, we merged practice and theory with role-plays, analysis, case studies, and reflection. We left with tools for analysis and action to understand and transform to the religious aspects of conflict.

This course was 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.


 Photo by Matt Katzenberger CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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