Don’t blame religion for political conflicts, Mr Blair

Colleagues at the University of Manchester kindly invited me to re-write an earlier post to be featured today on the Manchester Policy Blog. Those of you who read my earlier post, ‘Northern Lights‘, will be intrigued to see how the suggestions of a modern policy-focused editor have changed the tone of a somewhat whimsical ancient history professor. And note the rather different choice of title and illustration!

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Just because wars are justified by reference to religion doesn’t mean they are religious wars – organised religion can also bring people together to resolve conflicts, argues Prof Kate Cooper.

As an ancient historian, I am surprised by the easy causality which commentators think they find between ‘religious motives’ and modern social conflict. Take the latest remarks from former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

“At the root of the [Middle East] crisis lies a radicalised and politicised view of Islam, an ideology that distorts and warps Islam’s true message. The threat of this radical Islam is not abating…. It is in the Middle East that the future of Islam will be decided. By this I mean the future of its relationship with politics. This is controversial because the world of politics is uncomfortable talking about religion; because some will say that really the problems are not religious but political…”

Though the warnings about continued and escalating conflict in the Middle East are probably justified, the words Blair used may do as much harm as good. His view that Middle East conflicts are essentially religious reinforces traditional stereotyping and even bigotry. In short, he may be contributing to the very problem he claims to want to solve.

The Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, for example, was not a movement based on religion, but on ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity. I have previously written about the attempt of Tunisian moderates to keep a ‘justice revolution’ from being appropriated by far-right religionists as a ‘religious’ revolution.

Social justice movements are often fragile and unstructured, depending on spontaneous outpourings of energy and goodwill. The publicity and excitement associated with political conflict can serve as fuel for religious organisations that have powerful communication networks and strong social structures. When such an organization claims a cause as its own, it introduces religious rhetoric to justify its involvement, harnessing the power of righteous indignation to reach new audiences and foster growth.

Even well-intentioned institutions and individuals can make matters worse by failing to condemn extremists who claim to act in the name of religion while pursuing dubious aims. But Western commentators can also make matters worse by accepting the claim that ‘religion is at the root of the problem’. So it’s important to consider carefully whether religion is central in a given situation – and if it isn’t, it’s important to say so.

The same holds true with violence. Religious narratives are often used to justify social conflict, but the justification for violence and the cause of violence are not necessarily the same thing.  The real root of the problem is often social, political, or economic – or all three.

Earlier this year I was with a group of colleagues on an evening when the Aurora Borealis was said to be visible, and we tried and failed to catch sight of the famous Northern Lights.

But the theme of looking for light remained as a motif in our conversations, since we had been brought together by a workshop sponsored by the Open University and the Research Council UK’s Global Uncertainties scheme, as part of John Wolffe’s ‘Religion, Martyrdom, and Global Uncertainties’ project. Our task was to gain a deeper understanding of the role played by religion in modern social conflict by comparing ‘flash-point’ cases in Europe and the Middle East.

Our group included scholars and religious leaders: members of the Christian and Muslim communities working for peace and reconciliation in Great Britain, Ireland and abroad.  There were also historians (myself included) who study the role of religious identity in fostering both conflict and reconciliation.

I found old friends – Anjum Anwar MBE, the elegantly veiled Dialogue Development Officer for Blackburn Cathedral, known for creating a forum for youth voices in Muslim and Christian communities, and workshop organiser and historian John Wolffe, author of important studies on the sources of conflict in Northern Ireland.

It was a privilege to meet remarkable people like Norman Hamilton OBE, a long-standing voice for reconciliation and former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, and Jenny Taylor, the founder of Lapido Media Centre for Religious Literacy in World Affairs.

Our theme was ‘Religion and Security’, and so we considered how different religions – and different communities within the same religious tradition – understand both faith and conflict in different ways.

Most traditions have ideas about the importance of peace and reconciliation, and religious institutions can be a powerful force for good when they sponsor reconciliation initiatives, especially when those initiatives cultivate ecumenical partnerships.

One of the outstanding contributions to our workshop was from Gladys Ganiel, the author of Evangelicalism and Conflict in Northern Ireland, who helped us to understand how ECONI (Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland) was able to support – and establish credibility with – ecumenical partners working from a Catholic faith commitment at a crucial stage of the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Even as specialists, we had difficulty agreeing what we mean when we discuss ‘religion’. Do we mean beliefs? Possibly, but not necessarily. Some religions are low on ‘beliefs’, and some world-views that most people don’t think of as ‘religions’ have very strong beliefs – take atheism, for example!

So hard-and-fast conclusions were as elusive as the Northern Lights. Aside, that is, from the obvious one that religion is many things to many people – and that often when people believe they are talking about the same thing, they actually aren’t.

And we did discover how terribly charismatic religious leaders can be – never more so than when they are making an effort to understand someone else’s point of view.

In January, Blair published an essay in The Observer with the provocative title, Religious difference, not ideology, will fuel this century’s epic battles.

In response, I offer my own provocation: Religious differences will fuel this century’s epic efforts to achieve peace. Sadly, I can offer no more conclusive evidence for my prediction than has Blair for his – but it’s a possibility to bear in mind.

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