Religion and Violent conflict: A Practitioner’s Functional Approach

John Siebert

John Siebert

The Ploughshares Monitor Summer 2007 Volume 28 Issue 2

A workshop at the annual Peacebuilding Consultations of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in Ottawa in May 2006 focused on religion as a proximate or structural source of conflict. This article is adapted from a presentation given at that workshop.

The post-9/11 “war on terror” has created its share of difficulties and dilemmas. What is this war actually about and how should it be fought? Is it a holy war? A clash of Christian and Islamic civilizations? A contest for access to resources, particularly oil? Does it represent modernity confronting the frustrated remnants of pre-modern societies or democracies versus authoritarian regimes? Or is this “war” a complex mix of all these?

Whatever our answer to these questions, the role of religion in the motivations of the 9/11 terrorists cannot be disputed. The language and appeal of religious teaching were integral to their actions. This in turn has prompted public discussion about the nature of religion more generally as a driver of violent conflict—either as the igniting spark or as a deeper, structural foundation from which violent conflict inevitably springs.

These are deep waters. There is a risk of giving offense to the faithful, or ignoring the legitimate concerns of the non-religious who see danger in religion. Rather than attempt to give a theoretical response, I want to take a functional approach. Assuming the intent is to de-escalate violent conflict and build sustainable peace, how can practitioners—either in government or in civil society organizations—effectively address violent conflict in situations where religion is a factor?

A functional approach to religion and public policy

In trying to answer this question, it may be helpful to describe why I prefer a functional approach. While personal biography does not necessarily determine one’s views on divisive issues such as the role of religion in violent conflict, it can be important in assisting others in understanding why you make the particular mistakes that you will subsequently be told you made.

In that spirit, I will say that I am an ethnic and religious Mennonite, who was trained to understand the relationship of political philosophy to theology in a Roman Catholic setting, and who has worked on human rights and social justice issues for many years with The United Church of Canada.

As a Mennonite, my approach to the role of religion in society is indelibly marked by sectarian dissent. As someone who is secularly integrated, as opposed to a community-bound conservative Mennonite, I have gained a deep appreciation for the rule of law in the functioning of representative democracies with market economies. On the topic of religion and violent conflict this predisposes me to a pragmatic approach respecting the rights and obligations of citizenship, in line with certain faith-based principles, with prescriptions expressed in public policy rather than religious language.

There is no getting around the fact that, as in the case of al-Qaeda, religion can be a factor in starting or intensifying violent conflict. It also must be recognized that religion, even in a radical case such as al-Qaeda, is seldom the only factor, and considerable care must be taken to understand these other factors in grievances and disputes that give rise to violence.

It is also true that religion can be the social glue that binds societies when they are buffeted by momentous changes, providing cohesion and inspiring mutual support to weather violence and guide a society safely to the shores of sustainable peace.

I will start with a top 10 list of myths and misunderstandings about the nature of religion and its relationship to violent conflict. A brief description of how religion can contribute to peacebuilding and the particular problems of faith-state fusions will be followed by another top 10 list of practical steps for practitioners addressing violent conflicts where religion is a factor.

Top 10 myths and misunderstandings

  1. Defining religion: There is no universally accepted definition of religion. In 2004 I spent three days with Canadian and international experts looking at the definition of religion for the purposes of the income tax act. Providing charitable status for religions, with the consequent tax benefits, hinges on being able to say fairly in public policy and legal terms what a religion is. To date this has proved impossible. All of the indicators of a religion that generally apply to the major world religions have their absence or exception in some religion that actually meets a commonsense approach to recognizing a religion when it says it is a religion.
    As a result, unless a religion is clearly fraudulent (e.g., the Church of Bob with drinking whiskey as the sacrament), it is probably best to accept the religious definition and identity that groups and individuals claim. It is not necessary to personally accept or even agree with the definition, but addressing conflict requires hearing and respecting the self-perception of those who are parties to the conflict.
  2. The universality of religions: An approach to religion that is a variation on universal humanism says something to the effect that all religions, or at least all major religions, are at their core the same, sharing essential truths in different words or stories. While this understanding is foundational to some religions, and has adherents in the liberal wings of all major religions, it is not necessarily true nor is it necessarily helpful when addressing conflict situations. Simply put, similar in parts does not mean identical in wholes. An equally valid argument can be made that applying this universalizing gloss to religions evacuates or neutralizes the specific content of all religions and is therefore disrespectful to them all.
    At a practical level, you can assemble liberal representatives of faith traditions and find a good deal of harmony and potentially generate shared action, which is all to the good, but the conservative or fundamentalist representatives of those same religions may not encounter each other. If a violent conflict involves the latter, those are the people who must be engaged.
  3. Absolute claims to truth are inherently violent:John Lennon’s imaginary world of “no heaven, no religion too,” says in pop song simplicity what some have concluded: religious claims to the truth have historically been the cause of wars. But absolute claims to truth, religious or otherwise, in and of themselves, are not a threat to peace and security. Such claims can exist without violent conflict among individuals and groups if those claims are not accompanied by the exercise of coercive power or the will to force others to adhere to those claims without their assent.
  4. Religions are inherently peaceful and/or violent:Some religions in teaching and practice are pacifist. Some are not. Factions within all major religions take pacifist and non-pacifist stances. By their words and, more importantly, their actions you need to understand the relationship of a particular religion to violent conflict.
  5. Fundamentalism is the problem: Apart from compounding the problem of defining religion with the challenge of defining fundamentalism, fundamentalists exist in all major religions (and arguably among secularists and rationalists) and not all fundamentalists advocate, sanction, or participate in violence. Like absolute truth claims, fundamentalism is not a driver of conflict unless it is joined to violent coercive power. The same is true of secretive sects.
    The word “fundamentalist” was embraced in the Christian community early in the 20th century by some who believed that certain fundamentals were being ignored in the wider community. Fundamentalism was a call to return to basic, uncompromising teachings. By being highly selective in adopting religious pronouncements and creeds, fundamentalists are often seen by mainstream followers in a religion as divisive or even heretical. Fundamentalism sometimes gets hitched to particular forms of political mobilization, and at this point we can distinguish its potential for aiding or abetting violent conflict.
  6. Fundamentalism is contrary to modernity: The tension between religious ideals and secular life can be a great source of anxiety for fundamentalists, although fundamentalists are not necessarily Luddites or traditionalists, but can use modern communications and weaponry against modern manifestations of threat. When secularism is perceived as an
    overpowering threat to one’s identity, the struggle to combat it can take on apocalyptic proportions, with no holds barred. Examples can be drawn from all major religious groups.
  7. Religion is declining:Advancing secularism or rationalism is not about to eliminate religion in any part of the world. Indeed, there is a great deal of demographic evidence to indicate that religion is becoming a stronger factor in peoples’ self-identity and actions. Even if religion as a force in human experience were on the wane, it still retains sufficient momentum to be a real and substantial factor with all too real an impact on conflict and violence in some situations.
  8. Religion should be private:It never has been and never will be. The real issue is how a religion influences the public realm, either by the accumulated practice of its adherents or by an intentional approach to influence and change public policy, law, regulations, etc., to correspond to the principles espoused by the religion.
  9. Proselytizing is the problem:Some religions see proselytizing as wrong; others have missionizing intentions from top to bottom. Do they in fact aspire to use coercion or force to persuade others? If not, the free flow of ideas in an open society cannot pre-empt the sharing of good news according to a particular religion’s teaching. Seeking converts in and of itself need not be a violent conflict-inducing act.
  10. The fusion of religion and the state is inherently a recipe for violence: This is one of the myths that, with my sectarian instincts, I badly want to believe, but it is not necessarily so. While the separation of religion and state has evolved in some nation states, many religion-state fusions are likely here to stay and must be addressed. Religion can be a key ingredient in the construction of a coherent and viable civil society that supports and makes possible a stable and viable state. Variants of Christianity have played this role historically in the formation of nation-states in the West, and continue to play official roles, but with strong limits. Thus, it should not surprise us that Islam and other religions are playing similar roles elsewhere.
    To sum up, religion is neither a neutral factor nor a driver of conflict or peacemaking. Neither violence nor peace flows from religion as such, just as neither flows from ideologies as such. The practices and institutions that arise from a particular religion or ideology must be examined when seeking a potential source of violent conflict—or conflict resolution.

How religions contribute to peacemaking

Religion has proven in many situations to be a contributor to peacebuilding. In a minimalist role, religious leadership can stand up and refuse to have religion used to demonize others in a conflict. A more substantial role for religion in peacebuilding is to harness the authority of religion to reduce tensions and resolve conflicts. Where religion is a significant factor in the identity of one or more parties to a violent conflict, religious leaders and adherents can be mobilized to facilitate peace because religion offers:

  • credibility as a trusted institution
  • a respected set of values or principles
  • moral warrants for opposing injustice on the part of governments
  • unique leverage for promoting reconciliation among conflicting parties
  • the ability to re-humanize enemies that have been dehumanized
  • an ability to mobilize community, nation, and international support for peace
  • an ability to follow through locally on commitments
  • a sense of calling that inspires perseverance in the face of obstacles.1

The trick for practitioners in resolving violent conflicts involving religion is simple: mobilize religion for peace and against violence. Of course it isn’t so simple, but before providing the top 10 list of practical steps for practitioners, let me return to the special case of faith-state fusions and violence.

The inherent problem of violence in faith-state fusions

One of the functions of the nation-state is to reserve to itself a monopoly on the legitimate use of force through the police (internal) and the military (external, but also internal). When a religion is fused with the state there is the inherent problem with state-sanctioned violence being closely associated with the religion with which it is intimately joined.

In these circumstances the religion can become closely identified with the coercive aspect of the state’s functioning (or with its economic program, or social welfare scheme, etc). As a result, excessive or illegal police or military violence can be closely identified with the religion. This could be an argument for a religion to resist too close an identification with the state, i.e., separation of faith and state, for the religion’s own reputation and preservation. On the other hand, it may be that the religion in a faith-state fusion can temper with mercy the furious exercise of state-sanctioned violence and thereby save the state from its own excesses.

Practitioners considering the role of religion in violent conflicts must distinguish between states where religion is fused with the state and states where it is not. In my view insiders and outsiders can and should use traditional diplomatic and other tools to address the obligations of faith-state fusions as states, with some sensitivity to the religious dimension and religious authority figures involved.

Where there are faith-state fusions, a state’s obligations under international human rights covenants and international law should be invoked. Much can be advanced through a review of the salient points of minority and majority relations. After all, there is no religious majority in one state that isn’t a minority in another. Communal self-interest would support broadly accepted laws, norms, and rules that tolerated minorities in all situations and offered them fair treatment, including concrete limits to state intrusion in purely religious affairs.

The human dimension of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe provides an example of how this can be negotiated at a regional level.

Top 10 practical steps for practitioners

Where the state and religion are not fused, but religion is a significant factor in a violent conflict, practitioners may be able to support dialogue within and between religions to contribute to peacemaking.

  1. Understand the basic facts: Religions have the observable and knowable manifestations of all human institutions. Practitioners must take the time to understand the religion’s basic practices and institutional expressions. Is there a clergy? What are the basic rituals observed? How many people adhere? They should learn the facts about the religion as they would learn the facts about an industrial sector of the economy, without expecting or pretending to know the most closely held trade secrets. A basic analysis can then assist in understanding how the constitutive elements of the religion—i.e., creed, cult, and code—relate to each other.
  2. Respect, and beyond:Practitioners, even if non-religious or secular, should respect the role of religion in other people’s lives. Beyond respect, they need to appreciate why the adherents of a particular religion find it appealing even if they don’t, and try to understand the highest and best expressions of religion.
  3. The nature of interfaith dialogue:To avoid heightening tensions, practitioners should promote interfaith discussion that is first and foremost a conversation, not a debate, for the purpose of understanding, not conversion, between representatives of the faith groups. Public officials and outside civil society practitioners can facilitate but should be respectfully distanced from the religious content except where religious is being used to justify or encourage violence. When religion plays a role in violent conflict, interfaith dialogue will be most beneficial when it adopts an attitude of mutual problem-solving before any programs or concrete steps are developed.
  4. Appropriate leadership and venues: It is important to identify the appropriate leadership, formal and informal, of the relevant religious groups and to properly structure interfaith encounters. Sometimes it may be necessary to forgo principles such as inclusion and diversity by not, for example, inviting youth or women or less mainstream sects within a religion. The goal of violence reduction and peacebuilding is primary. It may be a longer-term task to support excluded groups in these situations in finding ways to participate on their own terms and on their own timetable. It also is important to distinguish the relative roles that religious actors at different levels can play:
    Elites can legitimize traditional peaceful interactions and delegitimize violent options. They can also be formal players in negotiations to diffuse tensions or even discipline followers.
    Mid-level actors are at the primary organizing and contact point in a city or region. This group can diffuse tensions, respond to incidents that can escalate, and preside at solemn occasions where symbolic acts can assist in creating peace.
    At the grassroots level of the congregation, mosque, synagogue, temple, or local meeting place there can be discussion, and perhaps joint participation in practical projects. Identify a problem that can be simply addressed through a cooperative short-term activity, such as cleaning up a public commons or fixing a pedestrian walkway.
    Remember, even though the Pope, the Grand Mufti, and the leading Rabbi of Israel can and do get together, city-wide religious leadership in a conflict zone may be the necessary starting point for effective interfaith dialogue.
  5. Assistance without compromising moderates:Where possible, mainstream or moderate religious leadership should be assisted in advancing the discussion if it can be done without compromising their integrity among their own faithful. One attraction of violent religious factions is that they offer solutions to keenly felt problems. It is more likely that people will forgo this attraction to violent alternatives if their grievances are being addressed with the effective leadership of their mainstream or moderate leadership.
  6. Distinguish between causes of conflict:A range of grievances, only some of which are religious in nature, may be brought to the discussion table. Religion may provide insight on how to resolve political, social, environmental, or economic problems, but finally the solutions to those problems are not found in religion per se. Some non-religious grievances and their causes may legitimately be placed at the feet of Canada or neighbouring states. The international community cannot absolve itself of the creation of threats and grievances.
  7. Threats to traditional religious societies:The potentially corrosive effects of modernity on traditional, religiously based societies must be recognized as a genuine cause of grievance in some violent conflict situations, even if you do not believe this is true. While we in the developed world can be quick to point out the debilitating impact on women, children, and others in some traditional societies heavily influenced by religion, we can also be deaf to the complaints that open market economies, modern technologies, and unimpeded access for external media content can be very destructive to the cherished values and institutions of more traditional societies. Recognize that these traditional values and institutions may offer protection to the less powerful and marginalized from the damaging impact of modernity.
  8. The use of religious expressions:Religious ceremonies may be integral to the dialogue and the resolution of particularly religious dimensions of a violent conflict. Specific programming for interfaith dialogue and addressing religious factors in violent conflict may look a lot like traditional conflict resolution or peacemaking techniques and programs, but have specific religious elements that emphasize the spiritual realm or moral teachings.
  9. Isolate violent actors:Respectful interaction, addressing the sources of grievance and conflict whether religious or not in their origin, and engaging and mobilizing religious leadership for peacebuilding rather than inflaming conflict may set the stage for isolating the violent actors in a conflict.
  10. Maintain the rule of law: Where violent factions or individuals in religious communities must be apprehended, the strategy and tactics to accomplish this must be in line with legitimate policing actions, with respect for the rights of the individuals and due process such as fair trials. The modus operandi of some states in the so-called war on terror has been to suspend the rule of law, even to the point of suspending international laws of war such as the Geneva Conventions. This confusion of unlawful means and expected just ends is a recipe for breeding contempt for the rule of law, and potentially increasing the adherents to violent factions, religious or otherwise.


The effective practitioners’ response to violent conflict is to address the underlying factors in the conflict. Religion can be a factor in violent conflict and must be addressed appropriately by practitioners when it is. Religion can also be an important moral and practical source to counteract violence and facilitate peacebuilding. Practitioners should engage religious actors to that end.


  1. Abbreviated from D. Johnston, “The Religious Dimension,” unpublished paper quoted in Smock 2006.

Smock, David R., ed. 2006. Religious Contributions to Peacemaking. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace.

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