How can the religious texts, values and beliefs used to incite conflict be harnessed to promote peace-building and reconciliation? What contributions can faith-based actors make to conflict resolution? This chapter from the SAGE Handbook of Conflict Resolution examines the ways in which religion can be used to inspire both war and peace. The revival of religiously motivated conflicts, and the increasing involvement of religious actors in resolving them, requires understanding of their dynamics.
‘Ethno-religious conflicts’ refer to those involving groups where religion is an integral part of social and cultural life, and religious institutions are representative, possess moral legitimacy, and mobilisation potential. Where conflicting groups define themselves along ethno-religious lines, religious identity can create sharp distinctions between parties, and increase group mobilisation. Other distinguishing factors include the high incidence of civilian casualties (suicide bombing, ethnic cleansing) and action ‘legitimised’ by religious language, texts and images. Such conflicts are also often intra-state; in communities with long histories of tension and suffering from post-colonial deprivation or political or economic instability religious leaders may attack incumbent governments.
Religion may be used to contribute to violence or peace. Findings include the following:
- Rituals are a powerful means of communication, and allow for multiple interpretations. They can also reinforce commitment to values in times of crisis.
- Myths translate complex problems into manageable cognitive structures – by providing a deeper meaning to what is happening to the community, they can redraw boundaries of legitimate behaviour.
- Religious discourse can exert powerful truth claims: absolute, unchanging and unarguable. Such exclusionism delineates sharp lines between ethno-religious groups.
- Aspects of sacred texts may be simplified or de-historicised to support violent interpretation, legitimising war or fostering negative enemy images.
- Religious reinterpretation of political, social, economic and cultural factors can all serve to reinforce a particular perspective of conflict and the enemy.
- Mobilised through ethno-religious identity, the population may become a major actor in an economic or political problem, conscious of their role and abilities.
- Religious rituals provide for restoration, healing, reintegration, atonement and forgiveness after trauma; reconciliation processes can utilise these. Religious peace-building can provide a spiritual basis for transformation, compensating for mechanistic conflict resolution models.
- Virtually all religious traditions incorporate ideals of peace; positive interpretations of values, myths, texts and images can be woven into the fabric of peace narratives as religious actors attempt to mobilise people towards reconciliation.
Understanding how religious traditions, identities and religio-cultural elements contribute to a culture of violence is critical. Policymakers should note that:
- Identification of key events and analyses of how they are perceived are vital to understanding motivators for violence.
- Faith-based actors are well-placed to mediate, advocate, observe, educate and engage in interfaith dialogue. Perceived as legitimate and credible, they have a common framework for discourse, and access to financial, institutional and human resources within their faith community.
- Identifying religious institutional sites which uphold non-violent values, and empowering them financially, technically and through training can contribute to peace-building and outreach, both into the immediate community and to a wider network of initiatives across the social, political and economic spectrum.