Religion – A Source of Conflict or the Path to Peace? Its Role in Preventing Violence


Abbas Aroua | Cordoba Foundation of Geneva – TRANSCEND Media Service

Dec 2017 – According to studies conducted by the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), conflicts involving religious incompatibilities have seen a sharp increase, rising from only 2 percent in 1975 up to more than 50 percent in 2013. There are no exhaustive explanations for this change, yet the phenomenon can be approached by looking at the prevention work undertaken throughout the last 30 years. While conflicts not involving religious incompatibilities have been addressed through active preventative methods and tools, there has been a lack of understanding and suitable preventive measures concerning the challenges faced by conflicts where religious incompatibilities are present. Meanwhile, religious organisations are considered a rich source for peace promotion. Whether as legitimate local or international peace actors and mediators or as providers of humanitarian aid, religious institutions have a role to play in conflict resolution.

On November 8th 2017, the Cordoba Foundation of Geneva co-hosted a panel discussion on the Role of Religion in Preventing Violence, in partnership with the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers (NRTP), the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), the Inclusive Peace and Transition Initiative (IPTI) and the World Council of Churches (WCC). This event was held in the context of Geneva Peace Week and the particular theme of this annual series of events was violence prevention. Among the panelists were Catherine Germond from the Cordoba Foundation of Geneva, Dr. Mohamed Elsanousi from the NRTP, Peter Prove from the WCC and Rev. Trond Bakkebvig from PRIO. The symposium was moderated by Thania Paffenholz from IPTI.

The following discussion is an extract from the cases presented by the panelists and the moderator, as well as members of the audience.

Religion is like an energy, explained Dr. Mohamed Elsanousi. It can be used for good or bad, peace or violence. Religion can promote and strengthen conflicts but it can also diffuse them. When political institutions fail or lose credibility, religion as a thorough and comprehensive social network plays a crucial role in preventing conflict and promoting peace. Therefore, the endeavor to promote enduring peace without including religious leaders is a rather fruitless enterprise. Peace promotion requires the inclusion of religious leaders in order to endorse the sustainability and inclusiveness of peace processes.

In addressing the role of religion and its relationship with conflict and peace, a distinction must first be made between religion and religious actors in order not to make sweeping assumptions, and therefore remain analytical. Religious actors are at the forefront of peace and conflict in communicating specific interpretations of a religion. Moreover, as Dr. Thania Paffenholz explained, there is no such thing as a religious conflict in itself. Rather, religions are manipulated and instrumentalised in political conflicts and become politicised. Indeed, the instrumentalisation of religious actors in conflicts for political purposes has become a global phenomenon more and more prominent in the news. Consequently, a new frame of reference is emerging from a growing association between religion and conflict. Manipulation of religion for political outcomes can be seen in a wide range of examples, from extremism to the so called ‘Arab Spring’ during which religious issues were largely instrumentalised. Currently, this negative connotation between religion and conflict is largely attributed to Islam. As Dr. Mohamed Elsanousi explained, such a label of violence and extreme ideology imposed on Islam and Muslims is very unfortunate, as Islam teaches, supports and engages in precepts of peace. Specifically, Rev. Trond Bakkevig explained how there is no violent or peaceful religion, but only peaceful and violent religious actors and interpretations.

In order for religious actors to prevent and diffuse violent conflict correlated to religious ideology, Rev. Trond explained how religious leaders ought on the one hand to contextualise the teaching of their scripture in a relevant and engaging way; and on the other hand, need to rise above their own religion and include the narratives of other religions to create understanding and tolerance. Such behaviour can be manifested in the freedom of access and position of religious buildings, communicating a sense of broad inclusion. Conflict prevention starts with social cohesion, explained Catherine Germond, and the inclusion of women is crucial to reach such goal. This process has been clearly observed in a project run by the Cordoba Foundation of Geneva in Morocco on the alleviation of tensions between Secularists and Islamists, where Salafi women were asked to participate in the process. Secular participants were surprised and impressed when a Salafi woman asked if they wanted the conversation to be conducted in Arabic, English or French. Their prejudices towards Salafi women as backward and lacking of education were directly addressed, allowing new considerations to emerge. In adapting the framework of a project, a direct impact on prejudices within the community can be at the root of bettering social cohesion.

Moreover, Rev. Trond Bakkevig expressed the importance of acknowledging that every religion has a strain of violence in its own history. The Bible for example is full of ethnic cleansing. Consequently, one must first interrogate these scriptural acts of violence in order to find solutions for peace and reduce violence. Unfortunately, violent groups are very keen on using the violent trends of religious history and scripture to fuel their own agenda. Therefore, focusing on the tradition of violence of one’s own religion sets an agenda for that morality to be addressed within religious constituencies. Being aware of one’s own prejudices is necessary in order to deal with diversity and adversity. As Catherine Germond explained, it is often heard that certain communities are self-marginalised and do not want to be part of a mediation project. However, they should be asked anyway in order to check these assumptions and to find entry points and explore conditions to start the dialogue.

Peter Prove, Director of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs at WCC, explained that effective and sustainable conflict and violence prevention is a long term project which can be greatly impacted by the inclusion of the younger generation. The more pluralistic a society becomes, the more defining one’s own identity becomes necessary. Finding an identity and a sense of belonging is particularly pivotal for young people turning increasingly towards secularism and questioning the legitimacy of their politicians. Furthermore, secularism should not be considered an anti-religious force, but an open place where religious and non-religious people could interact in a respectful and constructive way. On the religious side, many religious actors tend to deal in claims of truth and absolutist views. As a result, such claims contribute to fuelling conflicts and should be mitigated in order to create more space for dialogue. Inclusive dialogue will reduce conflict and violence in the same way that democratic nations tend not to go to war against each other. Young people joining ISIS are an example of the lack of such inclusion, as they are driven by the lack of a safe space and structure in their own community. Young people have a specific sense of purpose that they want to fulfil. Consequently, religious communities need to be proactive in providing young people with safer places to express themselves and to be taken seriously. As an illustration, Muslim actors have to answer difficult questions about identity and place attachment from young people. Dr. Mohamed Elsanousi explained how before the attack the Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev stood up in a mosque and argued against the imam, who was praising Martin Luther King. Tsarnaev was expelled from his community and later joined ISIS, attracted by the fellowship it offered. This example shows where the path into radicalisation may start; it is driven by community. Radicalised young people may find a community in ISIS when they are excluded at home. This illustration demonstrates the potential of religious communities as the cause of both peace and violence. Therefore, religious programs of dialogue for the youth should be a priority, as youth hold the prospect for a peaceful future.

Dr. Thania Paffenholz reaffirmed how the problem of conflict is rooted in a common denominator of exclusion. Moreover, psychological effects such as feelings of helplessness, injustice and violation might add themselves to the perceived or real exclusion and significantly increase its damaging effect. It is therefore the responsibility of all different constituencies and religious leaders to be able to identify and consider such types of despair in order to find solutions and build a society brought together around common issues. In fact, it has been observed that the rise of social media technology is correlated with the rise of religious extremism.

Consequently, bringing young people from different religions at a grassroots level to work on issues such as social media is an example of how new technologies and religion could prevent crucial violent issues and highlight a sense of belonging and participative inclusion. Indeed, social media are a good analogy to the problems faced by religion, as social media work as echo chambers created by algorithms based on our own prejudices.

Consequently, inclusion itself is not enough but participative inclusion strengthens the feeling of inclusion and engages the youth. The new initiative called “Women-Friendly Mosque” launched in the UK in 2010 by Faith Matters is an example of inclusive participation encouraging religious dialogue based on five criteria: separate prayer space for women, services and activities for women (i.e. childcare and women’s training or mentoring sessions), an Imam accessible to women (or a woman scholar), inclusion of women in decision making and women holding office on the mosque committees.

In conclusion, the potential for religion to be a positive factor in conflict prevention and peace promotion can be summarised in three main points. First, religious leaders, actors and constituencies need to perform a reflective inquiry into the tradition of violence embedded in their own religion before considering others. Secondly, a thorough work of inclusive participation especially with the youth must become a priority in order to defuse exclusion.

Finally, a constant and widespread communication process on religious reflection, inclusion and participation should prevail as a showpiece for conflict prevention, resolution and resilience. Doing good and promoting peaceful behaviour is not enough. Extensive inclusive participation and communication on the subject matter must be undertaken in order to provide a counter-weight to toxic conversations, the spreading of violence and extremism.


Abbas Aroua is a medical physicist and adjunct professor at the Faculty of Medicine of the Lausanne University, Switzerland. He is director of the Cordoba Foundation of Geneva for Peace Studies and Convener for the Arab world for TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment.

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