No Single Cause of Conflict
03 Feb 2014
The argument rages between supporters of a religious analysis of 21st century conflict and those who believe socio-economic factors still drive contemporary geopolitics. Ian Linden argues for an analysis that takes both into account:
There is a Punch and Judy quality to the argument about the cause of violent extremism: is it religion or socio-economic factors that drive conflict? Why this passionate need for mono-causal explanations? One process certainly stands out: the manipulation of religious explanations and ideology to "religionise" conflicts that, initially at least, may have little to do with religion: for example, the challenge of socio-economic change on honour cultures, feelings of humiliation and alienation, the experience of social deprivation and injustice with no hope for the future. Each can be channelled into violence by religious symbols and language.
But a yearning for justice isn't imported. It lies at the heart of most of the world religions. The terrorist recruiter and the extremist website reformulate fundamental religious concepts, symbols and stories to reboot behaviour. For them, violent change becomes the only solution to personal, national and global ills and discontents. A systematic distortion of the core content of faith takes place, designed to appeal to a simplistic idealism, heroics and a desire for belonging. Radicalisation is about re-shaping religious identities.
Thinking on countering violent extremism (known as CVE) has moved on today from seeking root causes - the roots and routes to extremism are too varied for that - into better religious education, critical thinking and interfaith action, alongside muscular law enforcement. Soft power matters: religious leaders engaged together in conflict transformation, and the effective teaching for pluralism in schools and universities. More challenging is the promotion of powerful counter-narratives, for example about Islamic teaching on martyrdom, fidelity, and unbelief. These cannot neglect local situations in all their particularity: for example, rapid socio-economic change, specific injustices, corruption, police and army brutality, international military interventions, and so on.
Yes, a purely religious response to radicalisation will only get so far. The foot soldiers of jihad need hope: the ability to redress injustice another way, and real opportunities for employment. There have to be alternatives on offer, realistic expectations that things can be different without violence. Extremism is never only religious in motivation, but the leaders can rarely be bribed out of violent religious ideology.
So, the argument about whether violent extremism and conflict is, or isn't, religious should not be a quarrelsome binary opposition. Serious analysis of the forces in play is needed. Different factors lead to, and interact with, the other. Each may play a part in promoting violent extremism. Changing minds, hearts and economic circumstances at the same time is a huge challenge. But a beginning has to be made somewhere.
Ian Linden, Senior Advisor at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation