Five Questions on...Data and Religious Conflict


Five Questions on...Data and Religious Conflict

Brian J. Grim

07 Nov 2014

To mark the launch of the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics' data section we talk to Brian J. Grim, an expert on religious freedom and international religious demography, about how data can allow us to improve policy and our understanding of religion's role in conflict situations.

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Five Questions on...Data and Religious Conflict

1. Do relationships exist between religious freedoms and religious conflicts?

There's an amazing amount of connections between religious freedom and working for peace, where religions have made a choice that religious freedom's important we can see peaceful outcomes.

One example is Brazil. When you think of religious freedoms you often think of problem countries, but in Brazil they've had more religious change than any other country in the past half-century. The population used to all be Catholic, but today it is only 70% Catholic. People have become Pentecostals, Evangelicals, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and there has been no conflict. Can you imagine that same amount of change happening in Egypt if a third of the population shifted from Sunni to Shia, would that happen peacefully? It's hard to imagine.

The difference was that the Catholic Church, the majority faith there, after Vatican II had embraced religious freedom as a basic human right. They supported the religious change, even if they didn't like to see people leaving. But that connection between faith and freedom and peace was very clear.

2. How important is data and where do we risk misinterpretation?

Data about religion is really a brand new field. People have been looking for information about religion but most of it has been captured in anecdotes. So a number of the things I've been working on are to actually measure restrictions on religious freedoms, restrictions coming from both government and society.

"Religious freedom restrictions from both government and society lead to religious violence".

One of the findings that we have - once we have the data - is that it's the social regulation of religion, that is a push for a monopoly of a religion, which helps to drive governments to be prejudicial in their religion policy. When those two are in tandem that leads to religious violence.

Many people might think that given that there is a lot of religious violence in Muslim countries, that's because of Islam. But actually what we've found is that it's the denial of religious freedom that leads to violence and not Islam per se. So, you could make an assumption that it is Islam causing the violence, but it is the lack of religious freedom not the religion itself.

3. Why is data on the role of religion in conflict so sparse?

For many people, religion is a topic that you usually think of theologians engaging on, not a topic that people think of as hard science. So, because it's been mostly in the role of theology or philosophy, quantitative researchers didn't really try to analyse it in that way. But when you start looking at whether or not a country is very religious or not, you can measure that through surveys; what percentage are Christian or Hindu, you can measure that.

Likewise you can measure the level of religious hostilities by measuring whether there are acts of religion-related hate crimes or terrorism. And you can measure issues related to government policies, whether they prevent conversion or proselytism or penalise things like blasphemy. So all these things are measurable, and that's a new field with a lot of data now coming out.

4. Can big data help our understanding of the role of religion in conflict?

Big data has a lot of different definitions, so it includes whether or not you can pull things from YouTube and whether or not you can crowdsurf ideas; there are all kinds of ideas of big data so it's a hard concept.

"When informed by data you can make much better policy decisions."

But one very practical thing; you can start measuring hate speech and whether people are inciting others to violence through social media. That would give you some indication of the level to which a particular community is perhaps prone to violence.

At the same time you can be monitoring whether or not you see interfaith dialogue happening on the internet. There's also a positive side, there are many positive things faith communities do. So even to monitor some of these things is important, like the change in Brazil that I mentioned, as people may not be aware of these positive stories.

5. Has progress been made getting religious data incorporated into policy making?

Absolutely. One of the innovations that I did was to create measures of religious freedom, and I've been invited to speak before the United Nations, the European Parliament, and the US Congress. I was at the House of Lords yesterday, and people are interested in what these data have to say and what that might mean for policy.

So data itself doesn't tell you what to do, but when you're informed by data you can make much better policy decisions. I've been finding a great response from policy makers around the world to try to understand the data and what it might mean for policy."

This commentary was first published on 7 November 2014.

The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. 


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