Phenomena of Faith: Religious Dimensions of Conflicts and Peace

Harvard International Review, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Phenomena of Faith: Religious Dimensions of Conflicts and Peace


Is religious conflict on the rise, or are we just beginning to focus on a phenomenon that has been going on for a long time?

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I think the latter, but let us consider ethnopolitical conflict in general, without reference to religion. Ted Robert Gurr reports, after reviewing some 275 minorities worldwide, that, as of 1995, there was a fairly sharp decrease in ethnonational conflict. Governments began to get the point that if you deal more accommodatingly with minorities and extend to them some degree of tolerance and nondiscrimination, there are fewer conflicts. Gurr is able to point to a number of new developments in that direction.

I would say that Gurr's conclusion probably applies to religiously influenced conflict as well. Jonathan Fox, whose studies expand on Gurr's work and apply it more directly to religious conflict, confirms the same conclusion. So on one hand, it appears there is a general decline in religious conflict, and that is very encouraging.

That does not mean that we have seen the end of long-term, intransigent forms of conflict that are religiously influenced. I use that term rather than "religious conflict," because I do not think conflict is all about religion; it is about politics, economics, nationalism, and a whole range of things. But conflict is religiously influenced in numerous cases, for example, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Israel-Palestine.

Religion plays a role in conflicts like these in three ways: legitimation, recruitment, and peace settlements. Any analysis of the Israel-Palestine conflict, for example, will have to take account of the way religion is used on both sides to justify armed conflict and to mobilize warriors. In order to work out a stable peace agreement, religion must also be accounted for in regard to the disposition of the holy sites and holy places. Religion is not the only question, but such considerations do show that religion plays a role.

My general point is that ethnonational conflicts and religiously influenced ones are on the decline, but that there continue to be a number of very difficult, rather intransigent conflicts in which religion plays an important role, such as Sudan, Sri Lanka, the festering situation in Tibet, and Israel-Palestine. There are two conflicts that I think have improved: Northern Ireland and Bosnia. Opinions differ as to how important religion is in these conflicts, but I believe a strong case can be made. So, there are two fairly recent examples of ethnoreligious conflict that are improving.

Are governments understanding the need for accommodation of minorities because of something that the international community has done, or is it a spontaneous development?

Gurr refers to this development as a "contagion," which leaves it a little bit unclear exactly how the message gets across. Gurr speaks in an earlier work, Minorities At Risk, of a contagion in the opposite direction, namely, toward increasing violence, and there he has in mind the importance of the Internet and other forms of communication as a way of spreading the message of minority rebellion. You can of course make a similar point with respect to international terrorism. So, up until 1995, according to Gurr, insurgent groups interacted internationally and influenced one another. In addition, diaspora communities worked in various ways to intensify conflict by providing money and adding encouragement.

After 1995, Gurr finds governments changing their attitudes toward minorities and discovering new, more cooperative ways of settling differences. The fact that governments and minorities share common interests in working out patterns of peaceful coexistence, then, becomes the new message that gets spread abroad by means of the internet, media, etc. Contagion works both ways.

The international community plays an important role in this process. For example, more and more attention has been given in human rights circles to the importance of minority and indigenous rights, as, for instance, in the Draft UN Resolution on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. …

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