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Religion and Conflict: Beyond Clichés and Stereotypes

Date:02 April 2015
Author:Religion Factor

Religion and conflict seem to be more prevalent than ever in contemporary global politics and society. So often in public debate we hear that religion is either violent or it is peaceful, that it is oppressive or it promotes justice. But are these the only two ways of thinking about religion and conflict? In today’s post, Marjo Buitelaar, Kim Knibbe and Erin Wilson consider some possible alternatives and invite you to join them to explore these issues further in a free online course.

“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” – Blaise Pascal

“The whole purpose of religion is to facilitate love and compassion, patience, tolerance, humility and forgiveness.” – Dalai Lama

“Religion is like a knife: you can either use it to cut bread, or stick it in someone’s back.” – Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu

Religion and conflict seem inextricably bound together in our contemporary world. From actors and groups such as Anders Breivik, Boko Haram, ISIS, Christian Identity and the Army of God, to issues such as freedom of religion and belief, gay marriage, ritual slaughter, euthanasia and circumcision, there seems no end of examples that suggest that religion inevitably produces conflict.

At the same time, there are equally as many examples of religious individuals and groups working for peace and justice in the world – Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King Jr, Desmond Tutu, Love Makes A Way, Pope Francis, the World Council of Churches,Islamic Relief, Religions for Peace… the list goes on. How are we to make sense of such seemingly contradictory phenomena? Is religion inherently violent or is it really about peace? Does religion contribute to oppression and exploitation, or is it a powerful influence for achieving justice and emancipation?  Is this the only way of looking at this problem? Are we stuck with the same old stereotypes of religion as good or bad, peaceful or violent? Or are we asking the wrong questions…? If we ask whether religion is violent or peaceful, we are only ever going to get one of four answers – either it is violent, or it is peaceful, or it is both, or it is neither. It doesn’t take us very far beyond the existing stereotypes and clichés that dominate political decision-making, news coverage and public debate about this important issue. Yet there are a number of problems that inhibit our capacity to understand this problem when we focus primarily on whether religion is violent or peaceful, or oppressive or emancipatory. In the following, we will discuss four of these problems:

  1. How we understand concepts like “religion”, “conflict”, “violence” and “peace”
  2. The context (or lack thereof) in which we examine the relationship between the two
  3. The normative values and assumptions we ascribe in asking such questions
  4. The question of who or what has power and agency in relation to religion and conflict.

If we want to really understand the interconnections between religion and conflict, we need to move past these clichés and start asking different questions.

1. Understanding

When we ask a question such as “Is religion inherently violent or is it really about peace?” there are a lot of definitional issues that come up. Firstly, the question seems to assume that there is one thing that we can identify and define as “religion” – but what exactly do we mean by that? Ask ten different people what religion is and you will get ten different answers. How do we take account of the many different “religions” in the world – are Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, New Ageism, Zoroastrianism, etc etc all essentially the same? It is almost impossible to maintain such a claim in the face of the immense diversity that exists across these different traditions. Further, how do we factor in the vast differences that exist within the various religious traditions, across the plethora of denominations, sects and sub-branches that have emerged over time? This suggests that simply asking if “religion” is violent or peaceful is not going to produce an answer that adequately accounts for this wealth of plurality in religious beliefs, experiences and practices.[1] This raises an additional definitional issue – what exactly do we mean by violence and peace? Is all violence physical and direct, such as that which takes place in a war, when someone loses a limb, or is shot, or can it also be systemically produced and indirect, when a person lives in abject poverty there entire lives, through no fault of their own? Is it only violence if a person is physically harmed, or also psychologically? And what then is peace? Is it simply the absence of violence, or is it, as Jane Addams, Martin Luther King Jr, Johan Galtung and numerous others have asserted, the presence of justice, “the nurture of human life”? Thinking about the kind of “peace” that we mean and want when tackling these issues is another important part of developing alternative approaches, analyses and solutions.[2]

2. Context

The second problem with the existing clichés and stereotypes about religion and conflict is the lack of consideration of context. They assume that you can determine whether religion inevitably leads to conflict or not without taking into consideration other important factors like political dynamics, prosperity and poverty, pre-existing societal traumas and suspicions from previous injustices, environmental degradation, access to education, healthcare, water, food, the basic necessities of life. The problem of religion and conflict when thought of as part of daily, lived, messy reality cannot be analysed in isolation, because it is entangled with other issues and problems that also impact on whether and how religion becomes part of the dynamics surrounding a conflict or not. We cannot adequately understand the phenomenon of IS, for example, without taking into consideration the complex political, economic, cultural, historical, environmental, as well as “religious” factors that have affected the emergence of this group. We cannot adequately understand the conflict over Freedom of Religion or Belief in the Hobby Lobby case in the United States without understanding how religion and religious freedom feature as part of US national identity. Context is critical.

3. Assumptions

A third problem relates to the normative values and assumptions that underpin the prevailing clichés and stereotypes about religion and conflict. When we ask “Is religion violent or peaceful? Does religion always lead to conflict or does it lead to peace?”, we are implicitly ascribing normative values to both religion and conflict. We assume that religion has to be either “good” – contributing to peace – or “bad” – leading to violence.[3] We also assume that “conflict” is “bad”. But neither religion nor conflict is inherently and always either good or bad. Peace studies scholars have highlighted that conflict can in fact have positive outcomes and is not always a “bad thing”.[4] It depends on how people respond to conflict as to whether it produces positive or negative outcomes.

4. Agency

And this relates to a fourth problem with the existing ways we think about religion and conflict – the issue of agency. Conflict in and of itself does not “produce” anything – it is the people involved in conflicts that have agency and are therefore the ones producing outcomes through the ways in which they choose to respond to conflict. The same is true of religion. In asking whether religion contributes to conflict or whether religion is violent or peaceful, we assign religion an agency, an essence or a force that exists externally from its adherents. Arguably, however, the question should not be about whether religion is violent or peaceful, good or bad, but should focus instead on how and why people in certain situations, contexts and times respond to both religion and conflict in the ways that they do. Why, in the case of the conflict in Bosnia, for example, did some actors turn to religion as a means to justify violence, while others used it as a way to build understanding, reconciliation and peace? Why in South Africa did some Christian denominations argue that Christianity justified apartheid, while others argued that Christianity promoted equality, peace, justice and reconciliation? Why are some individuals inspired to work for peace while others read the same sacred texts, for example, and are inspired to enact violence? Why do some groups, religious or otherwise, respond to conflict and tension by escalating to violence, while others engage in mediation, negotiation, reconciliation and peacebuilding? Such questions inevitably complicate this issue. And asking such questions means we will never arrive at a definitive answer as to whether religion is violent or peaceful. But then again, we hadn’t arrived at a definitive answer by asking the same old questions anyway, so maybe it is high time we tried a different approach, one that does justice to the complexity and nuance of these pivotal issues in contemporary global politics and society.

Interested to learn more? In our free online course, starting the 13th of April, we develop a step-by-step approach towards a nuanced understanding of the relationship between religion and conflict in the contemporary world. Watch the trailer and register here

Dr Marjo Buitelaar is Associate Professor of Contemporary Islam  

Dr Kim Knibbe is Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Anthropology of Religion

Dr Erin Wilson is Lecturer in Politics and Religion and the Director of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain (CRCPD), of which Dr Buitelaar and Dr Knibbe are also Fellows. They are all employed by the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen and teach the online course “Religion and Conflict”.

[1] For more on the issue of defining religion, see T. Asad. ‘The Construction of Religion as an Anthropological Category’ in M. Lambek (ed.) A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion (London: Blackwell, 2002), p. 116; Kocku von Stuckrad, ‘Reflections on the Limits of Reflection: An Invitation to the Discursive Study of Religion’, Method & Theory in Study of Religion 22 (2010), p. 156.

[2] See, for example, Galtung, J. 1969. “Violence, Peace and Peace Research” Journal of Peace Research 6(3): 167-191

[3] Elizabeth Shakman Hurd refers to this as “the two faces of faith” – “dangerous religion and peaceful religion”. See E.S. Hurd. 2012. “International Politics after Secularism” Review of International Studies 38(5), p947

[4] Brunk, Conrad G. 2000. “Shaping a Vision: The Nature of Peace Studies” in Fisk, Larry J. and John L. Schellenberg (eds). Patterns of Conflict, Paths to Peace. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, pp11-34


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