Religion and Conflict in Global Perspective

Foundation Update

Religion and Conflict in Global Perspective

01 May 2015

The resurgence of religion in the latter days of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st has seen religion increasingly used as a form of symbolic empowerment to justify violent resistance and give meaning to protest groups. Despite the persistence of religious terror and extreme violence, the popular protests of Tahrir Square and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa have instigated a significant paradigm shift that not only has implications for violent religious extremists, but also for how governments should engage with religious actors in the pursuit of counter-terror and democratisation policies, writes Mark Juergensmeyer for our Global Perspectives Series

Religion and Conflict in Global Perspective

By Mark Juergensmeyer

For centuries in Europe, America and other regions of the world, the nation-state provided a secure sense of identity, accountability and security for stable societies. The nation-state format was spread throughout the world in the wake of European colonialism, especially in the era of nation-building in the 20th century. But this vision of social stability and justice was also a fragile one, certain to come crashing down on the shoals of reality as new local governments used the instruments of power for their own personal greed and ethnic privilege. No wonder then that a great loss of faith in secular nationalism has swept across the world.

This sense that the nation-state has lost its legitimacy has become increasingly widespread in the global era. Transnational economic systems undercut national structures of authority and control; new communication networks make instant contact viable across the planet; and massive demographic shifts mean that increasingly everyone can live everywhere, and many do. The idea of a homogenous national cultural identity is becoming a relic of the past.

The era of globalisation has brought with it three enormous problems. The first is identity: how societies can maintain a sense of homogeneity when ethnic, cultural and linguistic communities are spread across borders and the world. The second problem is accountability: how the new transnational economic, ideological, political and communication systems can be controlled, regulated and brought to justice. The third problem is one of security: how people, buffeted by forces seemingly beyond anyone's control, can feel safe in a paradigm increasingly without cultural borders or moral standards.

Religion, its ideas, values, symbols and rites, provides answers to all three of these problems. Traditional definitions of religious community provide a sense of identity and belonging to those who accept that fellowship as primary in their lives. Traditional religious leadership provides a sense of accountability to moral and legal standards inscribed in code and enforced by present-day leaders who are accorded an unassailable authority. And for these reasons, religion also offers a sense of security that, within the community of the faithful and uplifted by the hands of God, one has found safe harbour and is truly secure.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, when religion enters the picture in times of crisis. The current era is certainly one of those moments of social crisis, although one experienced on a global scale. This is why the response has been virtually global as well.

Critics of religion may observe that these religious solutions are illusory. It is an elusive sense of identity, accountability and security that religion offers, not concrete solutions that are grounded in an enduring reality. The critics may be correct. But where the nation-state seems to have failed, the religious imagination provides a way of coping with the extreme problems of globalisation. It also gives a motivation for engaging in conflicts related to global pressures. Images of cosmic war that enlarge social conflict into the realm of the transcendent give meaning to those who struggle, not just as rebels, but as sacred soldiers. To enter into such global conflicts transcends all of the complications imposed by the new realities of a globalised world.

Understanding the role of religion in providing a sense of empowerment might help to explain some of the more puzzling features of modern acts of terrorism and religious violence: assaults by extremist groups on opponents who are infinitely better armed. These attacks, including suicide missions, seem destined to fail. It is hard to take seriously the notion that these are rational efforts to achieve power, at least by ordinary calculations. Yet to those undertaking them, there may be something exhilarating, perhaps even rewarding, about the struggle itself. This sense of empowerment may make the effort seem worthwhile. It can also, at times, lead to real political change.

"To die in this way," through suicide bombings, the political head of the Hamas movement told me, "is better than to die daily in frustration and humiliation." In his view, the very nature of Islam is to defend "dignity, land and honour." He then related a story the prophet had told about a woman who fasted daily yet was doomed to hell because she humiliated her neighbours. The point of the story, he said, is that dishonouring someone is the worst act that one can do and the only thing that can counter it is dignity, the honour provided by religion and the courage of being a defender of the faith. In a curious way, both religion and violence are seen as antidotes to humiliation.

Countering dishonour with piety, struggle and empowerment through religion is a theme that runs through many incidents of contemporary religious violence. A Jewish extremist in Israel, Dr. Baruch Goldstein, felt compelled to kill innocent Muslims in the shrine of the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron because he felt Jews had been dishonoured. Sikh militants were so angered by the actions of the Indian government that they turned to violence in order to force the government to take them seriously. Shoko Asahara, the leader of a Buddhist new religious movement who ordered the nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo subways, wanted to be not only 'like a king', as one of his former followers told me, but also 'like Christ'. A fiery Buddhist monk in Myanmar, Ashin Wirathu, told me that his diatribes against the Muslim minority in his country were meant to preserve the honour and integrity of Buddhist culture.

By describing this feeling of strength as 'symbolic' empowerment, I do not mean to imply that the empowerment is not real. After all, a sense of power is largely a matter of perception and in many cases the power that activists obtain has a very real impact on their community, their relationships and themselves. It also impacts the political authorities who fear them and grant them the respect of notoriety. But symbolic expressions of violence are empowering in a special way, for they do not lead to conquests of territory or personnel in the traditional definition of military success. For most of these quixotic fighters, success exists simply in waging the struggle, in the heady confidence they receive from being soldiers for a great cause, even if the battles are not won, or even winnable, in ordinary military terms.

By calling these violent acts 'symbolic', I mean that they are intended to illustrate or refer to something beyond their immediate target: a grander conquest, for instance, or a struggle more awesome than meets the eye. As Mahmud Abouhalima, the Muslim activist involved in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, told me in an interview in prison, the bombing of a public building may dramatically indicate to the populace that the government or the economic forces behind the building are seen, and have been targeted, as satanic foes. The point of such an attack is to produce a graphic and easily understandable object lesson. Such explosive scenarios are not tactics directed towards an immediate, earthly or strategic goal, but are dramatic events intended to impress through their symbolic significance. As such, they can be analysed as one would any other symbol, ritual or sacred drama.

Hence, acts of religious violence are about religion as much as they are about violence. They are about religion because religion provides a way of thinking about the world that generates a sense of ultimate order. It takes the messy uncertainties of life, the dangers and the nagging sense of chaos and gives them meaning. It locates disorder within a triumphant pattern of order.

Before the protests at Tahrir Square that toppled the Mubarak regime in Egypt in 2011, many Muslim activists were convinced that bloodshed was the only strategy that would work against such a ruthless dictator. They imagined that their acts of terrorism against the regime and the American 'far enemy', which they assumed was propping up the Mubarak system, would eventually lead to a massive revolt that would bring the dictatorship to an end. They also thought that only the jihadi ideology of cosmic warfare, based on Muslim history and Quranic verses, provided the moral legitimacy for the struggle. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, self-proclaimed caliph and leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), has revived the work of ideologists such as Abd al-Salam Farad and Ayman al-Zawahiri who wrote as if violent struggle, including ruthless attacks of terrorism on civilian populations, was the only form of struggle that was advocated by Islam.

These assumptions have been challenged, however, in another way. The dramatic popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria since 2011 have demonstrated that non-violent protests, non-violent at least in their inception but becoming violent only in response to bloody attempts to repress them, can also be effective. Importantly, they are also supported by a more widespread moral and spiritual consensus.

What brought down the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, as it turned out, was about as far from jihad as one could imagine. It was a series of massive non-violent movements of largely middle class and relatively young professionals who organised their protests through Facebook, Twitter and other forms of electronic social networking. No doubt the passivity of the Egyptian military was also a critical factor; the army did not forcibly resist the protests, as the military did in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Syria.

Yet one cannot underestimate the importance of Tahrir Square and similar protests in Alexandria and throughout Egypt. Clearly they constituted the catalyst for change. Perhaps not since the peaceful overthrow of the Marcos regime in the Philippines has the world seen such a dramatic demonstration of the power of non-violent resistance. The protests were not the weapons of jihad, nor were the voices of opposition in the strident language of Islamist extremism.

There was also a religious element to the protests. The peak moments came after Friday prayers, when sympathetic mullahs would urge the faithful into joining the protest as a religious duty. But theirs was not the divisive, hateful voice of jihadi rhetoric. In a remarkable moment when the Muslim protestors were trying to conduct their prayers in the Square and Mubarak's thugs tried to attack them as they prayed, a cordon of Egyptian Coptic Christians who had joined the protests circled around their Muslim compatriots, shielding them. Later a phalanx of Muslim protestors reciprocated, transforming an urban intersection into a massive inter-faith sanctuary.

The religiosity of Tahrir Square is far from the religion of radical jihad. Rather than separating Muslim from non-Muslim, and Sunni from Shi'a, the symbols that were raised on impromptu placards in Tahrir Square were emblems of inter-faith co-operation. In my own visits to Tahrir Square during the 2011 demonstrations, I saw displayed the cross of Coptic Christians together with the crescent of Egypt's Muslims, an expression of a united religious front against autocracy.

Does the new politics of Muslim mass protest mean that religious violence is finished and the radical struggles of jihad will fizzle into history? The answer to that question is 'no'. In 2014, the astonishing growth of ISIS brought the Syrian conflict over the border to Iraq, where huge swathes of land were seized. This and the rise of radical movements in Mali, Nigeria and Algeria demonstrate that extremist Muslim ideologies have not been abandoned. Furthermore, Buddhist and Hindu extremism in Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India, and right-wing Christian groups in the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States of America demonstrate that these radical and violent religious responses are not confined to Islam.

In Pakistan and Yemen, the small group of people that comprises the inner circle of al-Qaeda has hardened its resolve. Like the followers of Christian millenarian movements, who become more extreme and entrenched in their beliefs when their prophecies of the end of the world are not fulfilled on schedule, the true believers in jihadi militancy soldier on. They have become more extreme in their rhetoric and more desperate in using acts of terrorism to draw attention to themselves and their increasingly impossible view of the world. Yet the inner circle of groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS have never been large and their organisations, though capable of conducting horrible acts of terrorism, have never been consistent and widespread threats. By late 2014 for example, in places like Mosul and Kirkuk, there were Iraqi Sunnis who had already grown weary of ISIS's rule by terror and demagoguery and it is questionable how long such an organisation can survive as a coherent regime.

So although the hardened activists associated with particular movements such as al-Qaeda and ISIS may wane over time, the fate of global jihadi ideology, or rather the worldview of cosmic war that jihadi rhetoric promotes, is a different matter. This view of the world as a tangle of sacred warfare is an exciting and alluring image. It has attracted large number of mostly young and largely male activists in Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh societies around the world since the turn of the 21st century and before, stirred by the glory of being soldiers in a cosmic war.

This image of sacred warfare provides moral justification for sporadic terrorist attacks by linking real acts of violence in the world with the divine struggle between the forces of good and evil, order and disorder, that lies within the mythology and symbolism of every religious tradition. It is this conception of cosmic war that provides a strategic legitimisation of violence by the implicit promise, as a leader of Hamas once told me, that if one is fighting God's war, one can never lose. God always wins.

Yet there is now an alternative model for change. As Tahrir Square showed, God does not always have to fight, at least not in the terrorist ways that the jihadi warriors imagined. In a few weeks of protests, the peaceful protestors demonstrated the moral and strategic legitimacy of non-violent struggle. They succeeded, where years of jihadi bloodshed had not produced a single political change. This is a profound anti-violent extremism lesson and the significance of Tahrir Square has quickly spread around the world. It ignited similar non-violent protests elsewhere in the Middle East and it may also have altered the thinking of activists in other cultures as well. The rise of a new non-violent popularism in the Middle East may seriously undercut the viability of the extremist image of violent social change.

A number of failures of non-violent resistance may lead to a violent backlash once again. Not all protests will end like Tunisia and Egypt. Others will be ruthlessly crushed, as was the Green Revolution in Iran and the Bahrain uprising in 2011, or claim victory only after non-violent protest turns to bloody civil war, as it did in Libya. Failure of non-violent revolution has, in the past, been the occasion for renewed acts of violence.

But Tahrir Square has become ingrained in the pattern of activist struggles in two ways that are as significant for states considering counter-terrorism measures as for the activists themselves. One is the discovery that autocratic regimes can collapse. The sudden fall of the Tunisian and Egyptian governments, and more recently the collapse of the Russian-supported regime in Ukraine, have revealed that political leaders and even ironclad tyrants are not as invulnerable as they may appear. The other is the power that can be released through popular uprisings. From the Occupy movement in the USA and Europe to the rebellion in Ukraine, activists around the world have discovered that individuals can have a voice and can make a difference.

These anti-authoritarian, decentralised tendencies are both good news and bad news for groups like ISIS. On the one hand, extremists like al-Baghdadi can try to exploit these sentiments and make it appear as if they are the appropriate channels for popular uprisings. On the other hand, this populism is difficult to control, especially as the masses are not enamoured by the heavy-handed authoritarianism that is the usual organisational pattern of groups in the al-Qaeda tradition.

For these reasons officials and concerned citizens who want to counter this extremism also have new ways to encourage the non-violent and creative side of anti-authoritarianism and quell the violent and destructive side. The old method of using massive military power may not work. Though military intervention might be essential to save lives in the short term, in the long term it could be counterproductive, providing a recruiting tool by creating the image of a militant enemy against which the troops can be rallied. More effective counter-extremist methods would respond to, and educate, the popularist support for resistance movements. Political solutions might be effective, such as helping to find a democratic alternative for the opposition to autocratic rule and a role for disaffected communities.

Religious-related activism has evolved in recent years, even as it continues to be a significant dimension of public life. It can enunciate a strident message but it can also articulate the need for acceptance and hope. Governments would be wise to engage this evolution. The new forces of popularism with which religion is associated can move in many ways, for after Tahrir Square, public activism has not been the same.

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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