Avoiding Pitfalls in Responding to Religious Conflict

Foundation Update

Avoiding Pitfalls in Responding to Religious Conflict

06 May 2015

The political engagement of religion in a globalising world poses numerous dilemmas for academics, practitioners and public policy professionals. Global societies are now experiencing enhanced threats to religious freedom through the rise of politicised religions and hard-line forms of secularism. Philpott and Beaman illustrate a growing polarisation in academic debates over religious freedom advocacy. In designing policy, civil society and governmental sectors seeking to foster religious freedom need to carefully consider the concerns brought to light by these diverse accounts, writes Daniel Cere for our Global Perspectives Series.

Avoiding Pitfalls in Responding to Religious Conflict

By Daniel Cere

Modern religious traditions are in the midst of major transformations. Globalisation is rapidly constraining, compressing and reconstructing local and particular textures of religion through processes of disembedding and de-territorialisation. Amongst religious actors these processes are legitimated as purifying returns to the fundamentals of faith. The last few decades have witnessed a resurgence of politicised forms of fundamentalism across all regions and religions. In the 1980s, Roland Robertson argued that processes of globalisation tend to aggravate 'identity' issues, concluding that 'politico-religious' concerns would become "sites of potential religious, ideological and religious-ideological conflict." R. Robertson and J. Chirico, 'Humanity, Globalization and Worldwide Religious Resurgence: A Theoretical Exploration', Sociological Analysis, Vol. 46, No. 3, 1985, pp. 239-240. Likewise, Manuel Castells sees religious identity concerns as central to global modernities. M. Castells, The Power of Identity, Wiley Blackwell, 2009.

Modernisation is fluid, ambivalent and potentially volatile. In religiously charged contexts, even carefully crafted policies with commendable goals towards modernisation can produce unforeseen blowbacks. After a decade of efforts towards regime change and democratisation in Iraq, today the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham zealously advances a bizarre form of religious totalitarianism wedded to Sadeian-like obsessions with violence and submission. The global resurgence of religion is forging a world full of paradox and unpredictability that requires policy responses capable of charting a course through its quantum-like uncertainties.

For Daniel Philpott, proactive international commitments to religious freedom define the road forward. His evidence would suggest that these foster greater democratisation, reduce religious conflict and activate the social and political capital of religious diversity. Indeed his emphasis on the historic significance of religious freedom in international human rights discourse and his call for constructive responses to current threats to religious freedom need to be heeded. However, these priorities need to be advanced with care.

From its inception in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR), two distinctive features have marked the evolution of international dialogue on religious freedom. First, it began as a uniquely international achievement. To disparage the UDHR as an extension of Western ideology overlooks the dynamics of a drafting process that forged an overlapping consensus by an international working group from Asian, Middle Eastern, Latin American and Marxist contexts. It also overlooks the considerable opposition to critical aspects of the declaration by influential constituencies within Europe and North America.

There is a lesson here about the decisive importance of international dialogue and collaboration. Philpott highlights the need for action, but seems to take the position that religious freedom is primarily a Western responsibility that can be promoted through multilateral alliances between North American and European states. This strategy might wound rather than nurture the uniquely inter-cultural and inter-religious effort required to engage this human rights challenge.

Second, major contributors to the UDHR, like Jacques Maritain and John Humphrey, were acutely aware that its establishment was a notable beginning to a living and evolving international conversation. Subsequent United Nations covenants and declarations have offered substantial enrichments of the initial UDHR articles on religious freedom; far more robust articulations of those rights than can be found in most Western constitutions.

The debates around these developments continue to raise difficult and unanswered questions about the just limits to religious freedom. Lively debates continue on the extent to which an unqualified 'right to change' religion gives license to aggressive and perhaps abusive forms of proselytisation; on whether free speech and expression can be limited if it defames or ridicules the religious other; on how and if concerns for social harmony and security can or should limit freedom of religion; and on how the claims of religious freedom are situated in relationship to other core human rights such as women's equality. Insistence on a basic minimum or 'floor' of religious rights will be problematic if it is perceived to be part of a strategy for excluding these concerns and enforcing a particular vision of religion. Religious freedom policy must be responsive to an increasingly rich array of concerns if it hopes to accommodate the challenge of religious pluralism.

It is this problem that lies at the heart of Lori Beaman's view that power and regulation lurk beneath Western discourses on religion and freedom. Operationalising 'religion' as a global category for policy responses to domestic or global conflict, along with religious freedom as its legal handmaid, can work to control and override the lived and local realities of religious diversity, exacerbating religious divides.

There is a need to attend to the local or lived experiences of religion that often negotiate and accommodate diversity in more complex and hybrid ways than envisaged by religious, political or academic pundits. It is this assessment of fairly monolithic and condescending Western conceptions of the religious 'Other' that leads Beaman to argue for a paradigm shift towards a 'deep equality' model. This will be important if we are to engage the lived experience of religious adherents and counter rather than reinforce elite discourses and extremist narratives on religion.

Beaman is right to turn our attention from the 'problem of religion' to the richly textured fabrics of ordinary religious practice. But in turning from one solution to another we must not disengage altogether. We should be cautious about marginalising discourse on religious freedom as mere ideology and sidestepping important features of our post-secular condition. While modern conceptual constructions of religion do have Western origins, they have indeed become global and are reshaping the self-understandings of non-Western traditions that now define themselves as 'world religions'. They are transforming lived experience of faith traditions in powerful and, at times, volatile ways. As the sociological 'Thomas Theorem' states, "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences." W.I. Thomas and D.S. Thomas. The Child in America: Behaviour Problems and Programs, New York, Knopf, 1928, pp. 571-572. Much blood has been spilt over modern ideological constructs, including theological ones.

Dark forms of 'strong religion', movements of hardened fundamentalist fervour, religious nationalism and apocalyptic expectation, and hard anti-religious forms of secularism mark the modern religious field. Pew Research Center, 'Religious Hostilities Reach Six-Year High', January 2014, [ http://www.pewforum.org/files/2014/01/RestrictionsV-full-report.pdf]. The history of the 20th century teaches us that modernisation and globalisation processes can take violent, even totalitarian turns. We should not assume that modern religious imaginaries will be immune to these dangers if we simply deny them the attention for which they hunger.

In Abraham Lincoln's words, "We cannot escape history." A. Lincoln, 'Concluding Remarks', Annual Message to Congress, December 1, 1862. Nor can we escape our global condition, however painful some of its dimensions might be. Deeply embedded in the heart of Islam is an exhortation to fight the good fight. Within the modern Muslim community a tradition of 'civilian jihad' has emerged, namely social forces waging a focused non-violent social struggle against forces of repression M.J. Stephan (ed.), Civilian Jihad: Nonviolent Struggle, Democratization and Governance in the Middle East, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.. The protection of religious pluralism requires such a complex and evolving struggle in the ever-changing context of our global condition.

Governments across the world do need to be held accountable to international commitments to human rights including the fundamental right of religious freedom. However we also need to recognise that civil society sectors working on the ground with faith communities are better placed to engage this critical work than the blunt and often counter-productive instruments of governmental intervention. Grassroots civilian jihads that are genuinely international and inter-religious, sensitive to global challenges yet embedded in local contexts, supported rather than impeded by governments, with weapons forged from the most humane resources of our diverse religious and secular traditions, may provide pathways responsive to the concerns of both authors.

This article is taken from the Global Perspectives Series (Volume I): Religion and Conflict: Responding to the Challenges. Find all the articles from the volume here.

The views expressed by this author remains solely their own and may not necessarily be the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.
Copyright © December 2014 by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Edited by Daniel Cere and Thomas Thorp.
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