Religion and conflict
December 2, 2006
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At the dawn of the Twenty-First Century, a casual glance at world affairs would suggest that Religion is at the core of much of the strife around the globe. Often, Religion is a contentious issue. Where eternal salvation is at stake, compromise can be difficult to be arrived at, or even be sinful. Religion is also important, because as a central part of many individuals' identities, any threat to one's beliefs is a threat to one's very being. This is a primary motivation for ethno-religious nationalists.
Although not necessarily so, there are some aspects of Religion that make it susceptible to being a latent source of conflict. All religions have their accepted dogma, or articles of belief, which followers must accept without question. This can lead to inflexibility and intolerance in the face of other beliefs. After all, if it is the Word of God, how can one compromise on it? At the same time, scripture and dogma are often vague and open to interpretation. Therefore, conflict can arise over whose interpretation is the correct one, a conflict that ultimately cannot be solved because there is no arbiter. The winner generally is the interpretation that attracts the most followers. However, those followers must also be motivated to action. Although almost invariably, the majority believers of any faith hold moderate views, they are often more complacent, whereas extremists are motivated to bring their interpretation of God's Will to fruition.
Religious extremists can contribute to conflict escalation. They see radical measures as necessary to fulfilling God's Wishes. Fundamentalists of any religion tend to take a Manichean view of the world. If the world is a struggle between good and evil, it is hard to justify compromising with the devil. Any sign of moderation can be decried as selling out, more importantly, of abandoning God's Will.
Many religions also have significant strains of evangelism, which can be conflictual. Believers are called upon to spread the Word of God and increase the numbers of the flock. For example, the effort to impose Christianity on subject peoples was an important part of the conflict surrounding European colonisation. Similarly, a group may seek to deny other religions the opportunity to practice their faith. In part, this is out of a desire to minimise beliefs the dominant group feels to be inferior, or dangerous.
Religious fundamentalists are primarily driven by displeasure with modernity. Motivated by the marginalisation of Religion in modern society, they act to restore faith to a central place. There is a need for purification of the religion in the eyes of fundamentalists.
Recently, cultural globalisation has, in part, become shorthand for this trend. The spread of Western materialism is often blamed for increases in gambling, alcoholism, and loose morals in general. The liberal underpinning of Western culture is also threatening to tradition in prioritising the individual over the group, and by questioning the appropriate role for women in society.
Religious nationalists, too, can produce extremist sentiments. Religious nationalists tend to view their religious traditions as so closely tied to their nation or their land that any threat to one of these is a threat to their existence. Therefore, religious nationalists respond to threats to the religion by seeking a political entity in which their faith is privileged at the expense of others. In these contexts, it is also likely that religious symbols will come to be used to forward ethnic or nationalist causes. This has been the case for Catholics in Northern Ireland , and the Serbian Orthodox Church in Milosevic's Yugoslavia .
In the eyes of many, Religion is inherently conflictual, but this is not necessarily so. Therefore, in part, the solution is to promote a heightened awareness of the positive peace-building and reconciliatory roles Religion has played in many conflict situations. More generally, fighting ignorance can go a long way.
Interfaith dialogue would be beneficial at all levels of religious hierarchies and across all segments of religious communities. Where silence and misunderstanding are all too common, learning about other religions would be a powerful step forward. Being educated about other religions does not mean conversion, but it may facilitate understanding and respect for other faiths. Communicating in a spirit of humility, and engaging in self-criticism would also be helpful.