Violent conflicts with religious characteristics - such as the religious self-identification of stakeholders, religious appeals and justifications used by them, and self-declared religious aims - attract substantial attention in public debates. While it is clear that the religious aspects of these violent conflicts cannot be ignored, a myriad of particularly popular explanations have tried to link the causes behind such conflicts to religious beliefs themselves. There has also been a tendency, particularly among scholars and practitioners of conflict and prevention, to ignore the deep relationship between religion and violence beyond highlighting religion as an effective mechanism utilised by elites in conflicts triggered and sustained by material factors.
This Briefing challenges such views by arguing for the fundamental place of both religion and violence in human experience of the world. It seeks to point out reasons why religious actors and visions easily occupy a central place in failed states and violent conflicts. Through a comparative analysis of Boko Haram, Al Shabaab and ISIS, this Briefing notes the dynamic nature of such groups, their appeals to local populations and often ‘on-the-go’ theologies. This Briefing makes the case for a re-focus of the discussions: first on the conditions that enable violent conflict; then on decoding how religion plays an intrinsic role in enabling violence due to its ability to give meaning and order to extraordinary and chaotic conditions. Some of the key points put forward in this briefing are:
● For most people in the world religion is not simply an issue of personal belief but the very template through which reality is understood, (individual and communal) identities are formulated, and personal and social moral boundaries are drawn.
● Violence is a human potential that shows itself under certain conditions, as the history of Homo sapiens demonstrates. No people group, or followers of particular religions, are more violent than the others.
● Religious networks and frameworks often emerge as platforms for opposition against corrupt rulers, pursuits of a new moral and legal order, and social welfare support network in the absence of a state.
● Religious militant groups evolve. Many began as non-violent communities and their journey into extreme violence is fostered by the violence they are exposed to, and the violence they come to normalise.
● Such groups appeal to people living in ungoverned spaces and conflict zones as they provide security, stability, moral and legal order, as well as financial backing and a sense of achievement and agency.
● Religious militants adapt their behaviours according to local demands and approval, and follow intentional strategies with use of violence, even when it is grotesque.
● Religion’s powerful place in experience and execution of violence is also why religions and religious actors play a key role in peace, stability, conflict prevention and reconciliation. Ultimately, religions are ambivalent on violence and conflict, neither ‘peaceful’ at their core, nor ‘war promoting’. Religions do not exist, but human beings who hold beliefs and exercise them under particular conditions do. Thus, context shapes their beliefs and experiences and practices.