Preventing Violence in the Name of Religion


Preventing Violence in the Name of Religion

20 Mar 2015

Countering religious violence requires analysis that neither obsesses over nor neglects the significance of religious ideology, says a report from the UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Freedom.

To answer one of the pressing policy questions of our time, effectively combating religious extremism, a holistic understanding of the various factors involved in violence committed in the name of religion is urgently needed. This is among the recommendations made by Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, in his report to the Human Rights Council. His report sets out a nuanced and multifaceted strategy of how to prevent "violence in the name of religion," based around concerted action by government, religious communities and civil society organisations.

Bielefeldt reminds his readers that religion itself is a neutral, if powerful, force. Religious convictions have enormous power in driving people towards acts of charity, compassion and solidarity, but simultaneously have a significant potential to turn into a destructive force that can encourage narrow-mindedness and violence in its name.

The report emphasises the importance of religious leaders, as well as governments, educators and civil society, in promoting open-minded viewpoints that encourage tolerance, empathy and solidarity across boundaries. It also highlights that a culture of impunity and silence often legitimises extremist voices claiming to act on behalf of a "silent majority."

Religious violence is usually rooted in contemporary factors and political circumstances.

Rather than being rooted in apparently "perpetual" tensions and divides, religious violence is usually rooted in contemporary factors and actors and political circumstances the report says. However, while focusing on religion in isolation when analysing the problem is a mistake, it would be equally simplistic to reduce religious motives to mere "excuses".

The report points to the broad spectrum of religious motives in conflict, from the "Machiavellian strategists" who manipulate and play upon religious sentiments, to fanatics who sincerely believe that their violence "performs a service to God", very often seeing these acts through an apocalyptic framework.

Policy making against religious violence should be made on the basis of an adequately complex analysis of the problem, something that the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics sets out to do both qualitatively, through our analysis, and quantitatively, through our interactive data section.

The Pursuit of Nuance

One of the main emphases of the report is on the complexity of the phenomenon of violence committed in the name of religion, and in particular the urgent need to overcome simplistic interpretations of religious violence.

Bielefeldt identifies two traps into which analysis of religion often falls, warning of the dangers of both extremes. The first is that religion itself can be used as a complete explanation of religious violence. The second is that religious ideology has little or nothing to do with the acts of violence perpetrated in its name.

It is inadequate to isolate religion as a factor in conflict without placing it in the context of other drivers and factors. Religious violence is always multidimensional. As such using religion as an all-encompassing descriptor is unsatisfactory, leading to an inadequate understanding of the core problems that lead to the violence.

There is a danger in presenting religious conflict as intractable.

There is a particular danger in presenting religious conflict as resulting from an ancient and intractable sectarian division. This both exonerates individuals from responsibility for their actions and cultivates a sense of hopelessness that the root causes of conflict can be satisfactorily addressed.

Bielefeldt also stresses the importance of ensuring that we do not "essentialise" violence to religion, by claiming that either a certain religion or religion itself is by its very nature violent. This approach denies the importance of human agency and individual motivation. According to Bielefeldt "The relationship between religion and violence can never be an immediate one... it always presupposes individuals or groups who actively bring about that connection."

On the other hand, however, there is a parallel danger of engaging in what the report labels "instrumentalisation." Many question that religious motives can play a genuine role in incidents of violence, suggesting that perpetrators of such violence merely "instrumentalise" religion for political or economic ends.

Downplaying or trivialising the motivational power of religious ideology completely excludes a key identifying (and justifying) feature of the perpetrators of religious violence; that they are acting in the name of their faith. Instrumentalising religion to the merely political or economic is both "factually wrong and conceptually inappropriate" according to the Rapporteur. It also prevents religious communities and leaders from taking responsibility for the prevention of violence by communicating alternative religious narratives.

The Role of the State

The state's role in promoting or tolerating violence in the name of religion ranges from the passive to the active but is nonetheless a major factor. Policies of exclusion of a particular group, or conversely the privileging of another, often creates the conditions for religious violence, particularly where the state perceives itself to be the guardian of a particular religion.

Incidences of social and political exclusion can range from blasphemy and anti-proselytising laws to obstructing legal status for religious minorities. Often, particular religious groups are presented as undermining national cohesion or even acting as a 'fifth column' by state bodies, or at the least this narrative is not discouraged by the state.

Simultaneously, a loss of trust in public institutions, including traditional religious authorities, is also seen as providing fertile ground for religious fanaticism. Corruption and political cronyism often leaves people feeling disenfranchised, playing into the anti-state narratives of most extremists.

One of the report's closing recommendations is that states respect freedom of religion or belief when undertaking actions to contain and combat religious violence, something often compromised through security heavy handedness. Acting in this way will make it easier for governments to lead by example in using education and community outreach to promote a culture of respect, non-discrimination and appreciation of diversity within society at large. These conditions will help to build resilience in the event of societal shocks that often lead to religious violence.

The Special Rapporteur's report may be read in full here

This article summarises an external report, and is not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.


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