M. Christian Green on... 'Religionising' Conflict
12 Mar 2015
M Christian Green speaks about what it means to understand a conflict as religious, and how this can help policy making and peacebuilding.
I have been looking into ‘religionisation’ across a number of different conflicts. The most recent one has been the Central African Republic, where for a very long time the conflict was described as political not religious. I became very concerned to look further into this and see when religion really was being identified as a dimension of the conflict.
I think that the one that we are dealing with most strongly now is the conflict around ISIS. This is one that seems incredibly religious; these are Islamist revolutionaries with a clear goal of establishing an Islamic state. I say it seems obviously religious, but it didn’t seem so at its inception. I remember hearing a very desperate plea by a colleague of Syrian descent in the Fall of 2011 saying that something terrible was happening in my country; the world needs to take notice. But at that time it was still being described as a civil war and I think most of the world was content to just see how that would play out within the borders.
That said, when ISIS manifested on the scene in the summer of 2014, that it really started to become apparent who they were and what their goals were, all of a sudden that conflict had a very religious dimension. It started as a civil war, then it became clear the overwhelming religious nature of the civil war.
The CAR conflict didn't begin in religion, but became about it.
Now a slightly different situation is the one I mentioned earlier, the Central African Republic. It started with a political coup in March 2013 by an alliance of rebel organisations [the Seleka] that were routinely described as ‘mostly Muslim’. When I read this very early in the description of the coup I wondered why they were telling us that they are ‘Muslim’ or ‘mostly Muslim’. To me, thinking about the role of Islamist politics in the world, it seemed to suggest that there could be a religious dimension to what these rebels did.
But this didn’t become completely apparent until there was an equal and opposite reaction to the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels, and this came about in the form of anti-Balaka groups, originally described as Christian militias but eventually described largely as Christian revenge killers, taking revenge on the Muslim Seleka.
So the whole CAR conflict really changed when this Christian group emerged; one year before it had been Muslim rebels, now there was a Christian counter-force. It was a conflict that didn’t begin in religion, but became about religion.
Part of the issue with people wanting to say it’s political not religious is in a sense to complexify it, to say its not all about religion. There were definitely some other grievances: the Muslim group in the CAR was relatively better off financially, they were the traders, they were the economic upper level of CAR society. There’s said to have been resentment of them by Christians for that reason. Muslims, however, felt they were discriminated against by the government. So there were obviously issues but it was when the coup happened that the real religious dimension and divergence on difference took over. That was a case where a conflict became ‘religionised’ very quickly.
In some conflicts, religion can be an early warning system.
To go back to this CAR conflict I’ve been studying so intensely, one of my fears is this mantra of ‘its political not religious’, may have diverted attention away from how religion could have been used as a positive force in addressing the conflict if it had been seen early on. In fact there are three clergy from the CAR, a Catholic, a Protestant and a Muslim, who have been going around the world describing their religious leaders platform and what they’ve been doing to try and bring about peace in the country. But what’s very interesting about it is that they didn’t begin when the ‘religious conflict’ began, they started far before that, before even the Muslim coup. They say they began when it became apparent that the government in power was not meeting the needs of the people, and they could see this would eventually lead to other problems developing and some of these religious differences coming out.
In that conflict in particular, religion could have been an early warning system. The CAR politicians were non responsive, but if policy makers around the world had been able to see that this conflict was likely to develop in this way, there might have been attempts to address it earlier on. There might also have been attempts that made strategic use of those CAR clerics themselves as well as religious and interfaith groups around the world, to come in early and to try to bring peace and ensure that the war would not develop as it did.
So that’s my concern. As I mentioned in the Islamic State example, there was a terrible civil war going on, these create all kinds of social destruction, they bring other issues to the fore, so Western policymakers know they missed something in not identifying ISIS coming about, but I think they could have paid more attention to what was happening religiously on the ground and maybe have seen that sooner. That’s the thing that haunts me, the great fear of declaring a conflict to be political, not religious.
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