When it comes to conflict, religion is part of the solution

How often do you hear the expression “religious conflict”? Pretty often, we bet. Every day, headlines use this term to talk about violence and destruction in different parts of the world. But is it true that religion is an inciter of war, an obstacle to progress, or an issue to be handled?

The answer is simple. When it comes to today’s crises, religion isn’t just part of the problem—it’s part of the solution.

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At Search for Common Ground, the world’s largest dedicated peacebuilding organization, we have learned this from working with communities of faith in five continents. We partnered with imams in Central Asia to prevent violent extremism. We worked with coalitions of Muslims and Christians to prevent atrocities in the Central African Republic. We joined forces with diverse faith leaders in the Holy Land to protect holy sites.

These experiences have taught us that religion can play an integral role in building peace. Now, it’s time for the international community to tap into that potential.

Last month, governments around the world had a chance to re-examine the role of religion in violent conflict. The U.S. State Department hosted the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, its first-ever global summit on this topic, bringing together dozens of countries to promote and protect religious freedom and tolerance. The event demonstrated a growing commitment to engage religious actors as partners for peace. The key question now is how.

The road ahead is filled with opportunity, but it also presents risks. In our experience, there are four key pitfalls undermining effective religious engagement in conflict settings. 

The cookie cutter mentality. The widespread perception that religion is a driver of conflict often prevents a deeper, context-specific analysis of its role in each particular case. It may seem that religious groups are driving immense human suffering, but religiously motivated conflict is actually quite rare. All too often, conflicts over land, power, or human rights play out along religious lines but are not truly based on religious differences. Tensions over where to graze cattle in Nigeria are perceived as a Christian-Muslim conflict. Violence over territory and ethnic identity is seen as a Hindu-Buddhist conflict in Sri Lanka. Religion does play a role in these conflicts, but a nuanced understanding is essential to identify real solutions and avoid mischaracterizations that perpetuate religious divides.

The relationship between religion and violent extremism. Our work in over 15 countries to prevent violent extremism tells us that theology rarely drives people to join extremist groups. In fact, ISIS and other terrorist organizations attract supporters who face uncertainty in their future, feel a lack of purpose, perceive injustices in their communities, have weak social ties, or seek opportunities for glory, adventure and power. Violent extremist groups recognize these factors and use religious narratives to respond to them. It’s essential that the international community understand the complexity of the relationship between religion and violent extremism, in order to avoid alienating religious groups and exacerbating resentment. This understanding will also enable actors to work effectively with those who do have credibility in this space - religious leaders, community members, youth leaders - to reduce the appeal of violent extremism

The secularist paradox. There is a belief among many Western governments rooted in the separation of church and state that it’s not their role to engage religious leaders. As a result, many diplomats and development actors lack the comfort and training to do it constructively. This limits the success of peacebuilding efforts and represents a huge missed opportunity. Rather than avoiding religious engagement, governments need to provide training for their foreign and civil servants on how to work with religious communities. Indeed, it’s not always the role of international actors to engage in religious issues, but it’s essential that, when devising strategies around conflict, they have the skills to understand the role religion plays and engage effectively and appropriately.

Problems with the representation of faith groups. Conversations on religious freedom and tolerance often take place with senior, well-known religious leaders in capital cities. While that’s important and can draw attention and support, working only with specific actors can generate exclusivity and risks instrumentalizing religious leaders, whose credibility in the eyes of their faith communities may suffer. Governments need to take a holistic look at religious engagement and work with grassroots faith actors as well. The international community needs to go beyond conference room conversations and engage diverse voices at the local level, including women and youth. These perspectives will result in new insights, solutions, and relationships.

If we are mindful of these risks and act accordingly, we can maximize the potential of religion to solve today’s crises and prevent tomorrow’s. This Ministerial offers governments and civil society alike the chance to shift the conversation in this direction. We hope they take it.

Sharon Rosen is Search for Common Ground’s Global Director for Religious Engagement, where she supports inter- and intra-religious work in 43 countries. Kimberly Hart is Search for Common Ground’s Senior Manager for Global Affairs and Partnerships, where she engages policymakers in the US and beyond on issues such as countering violent extremism and religious engagement.