Completed Research: The Paradoxical Role of Religion and Spirituality in Conflict, Peacebuilding and Governance
This project was completed with the publication of three articles associated with this project which discuss the role of metaphysical principles, religion, and spirituality in global governance, peacebuilding and post-conflict justice:
‘From Dystopia to OURtopia: Charting a Future for Global Governance’, International Affairs, Special Issue on the United Nations at 70, vol 91, No 6, 2015.
‘Integral Justice for Victims’ in Inge Vanfraechem, Antony Pemberton and Felix Ndahinda (eds.), Justice for Victims (Oxford: Routledge, 2014).
‘Curse or Cure? The Role of Religion in Violent Conflict’, Global Governance, vol. 18, no. 1, 2012.
Senior Research Associate, CIS
Context and Aim:
Religion and governance were inseparably linked for centuries, even millennia of human history. Religion provided the basis and justification, the mandate and limits of just and peaceful governance. Governance turned to religion for its legitimacy and authority. And since religions claimed to establish peace on earth and between men, there was a natural and legitimate role for religions in establishing the foundations of sound governance and just peace. Sovereigns were imbued with divine authority in cultures across the diverse continents for a reason. Yet, today, although 87% of the world’s population still claim to have a religious affiliation, religion and governance have long since been torn asunder. The erstwhile aptitude of religions to unite and dissolve disputes has been overpowered by the capacity of religious institutions of various faiths and denominations to divide, oppress and conquer.
Why is this so? Is this inevitable? And can it be changed? Can the latent potential of spirituality to act as a factor for peacebuilding be unleashed? Can the spiritual wisdom drawn from the world’s diverse religions contribute to deepening the foundations of sound and peaceful governance, rather than uprooting them? This research project examines critically the controversial and paradoxical role that religion has played in both fuelling conflict and feeding peacebuilding, and uncovers the largely untapped potential of spirituality to contribute to peaceful governance.
The project is primarily based around the ongoing research of Dr Rama Mani, Senior Research Associate at CIS. This research builds on a number of lectures and keynote addresses Dr. Mani has given on this subject over the past two years and responds to the intensive and animated feedback and discussions elicited by her lectures on this subject, due to the high interest evoked by the subject. Research will be primarily conducted at the Social Science Library and other University libraries at the University of Oxford. It will also include discussions and interviews with experts, feedback received at lectures, and input from the two events proposed below.
The aim of this project is to foster wider debate and stimulate deeper thinking around this timely issue. This is particularly relevant today at a time of great upheaval in the Arab world, and of social and political mutations in other societies that challenge prevailing assumptions about the role of religion in politics.
Summary of the Research Project:
This research project examines critically the controversial and paradoxical role that religion has played in both fuelling conflict and feeding peacebuilding, and uncovers the largely untapped potential of spirituality to contribute to peaceful governance.
The project pursues three areas of investigation:
- First, it examines religion’s role in contributing to peacebuilding and peaceful governance;
- Second, it investigates the underlying reasons why religions cause division and violent conflict; and
- Third, it explores how this negative relationship can be transformed, so that the potential of religion and spirituality to build peace and establish the foundations of just governance could be tapped.
These three components are briefly described below.
(1)Religion and Peacebuilding: The research project starts with the positive side of the ledger. It first examines religion’s peacebuilding record and performance. It uncovers the important role that religious leaders have often played in crystallizing peace processes – in Mozambique, Liberia and Sudan. It also highlights ongoing but as yet unsuccessful initiatives which have nevertheless helped incrementally to build trust between opposing sides, such as in the Middle East and Uganda. It also traces the growth of the interfaith movement, the impact of its charismatic leaders, and the influence of this movement on peace and governance. It notes that there is a general rise in the expressed desire and manifested attempts of religious groups of diverse denominations to contribute to peace, whether at local, national or global level, even if ‘success’ is hard to evaluate in each case.
(2) Religion and Conflict: The research project then moves to the more negative reality. Despite their ostensibly peaceful aims and potential, the world’s leading religions have ceased to serve as remedies for violent conflict, but have become a malady fuelling conflict. Religion has been instrumentalized as the convenient crutch or cudgel for belligerents of all faiths. The project examines the different kinds of violence fostered or tolerated by religions and the underlying reasons for the pernicious nexus between religion and conflict. Religions of all hues and shades, and especially the major religions which hold sway over the vast majority of the world’s faithful, have variously condoned, incited, financed, sanctioned, or exhorted violent conflict. Nor is religiously incited violence restricted only to violent armed conflict. Beyond overt violent conflict lie all the other forms of violence within society associated with religions. There is violence within religions, between religions and between the religious and secular; between believers and heretics. There is the structural violence, the ‘negative peace’ of injustice, exclusion and discrimination that religions birth and breeds or fails to condemn and eliminate: the distinctions between ‘believer’ and ‘non-believer’, between high-caste and untouchable, between ‘saved’ and ‘heathen’ souls, between ‘pure’ and ‘infidel’.
(3) Transforming Religion and Tapping Spirituality to establish peaceful governance
Despite the findings of component 2 above, the main thrust of this research is not to denigrate religions for their capacity for violence, but rather to demonstrate that they have a tremendous largely untapped potential to serve as a bridge for peacebuilding and just governance, and to indicate how this transformation could be effected.
Delving behind the commonly cited recommendations for enhancing religion’s peacebuilding potential, this research will enumerate seven ways in which religions could shift from their current detrimental role as warmonger to assume positive roles as peacebuilders, and to provide the foundations for sound governance.
Methodologically, this research does not seek to undertake particular case studies to establish its arguments, as case study based research on religion and conflict has already been widely undertaken and some very interesting results by leading authors such as Jurgensmeyer and Gopin are widely available. This research project aims rather to address the gaps in our understanding and lacuna in existing research, which case studies cannot reveal, by adopting a comparative, thematic and philosophical approach. The aim is also to provide material for discussion and debate, and to stimulate further investigation and research on this topic.
Relevance and Impact of the Research Project:
The projection in the mid 1980s that with modernity the world would undergo an inevitable secularization has been proven largely wrong. As we have witnessed since 1989, religion has again become an increasingly important factor in shaping the lives and influencing the decisions of innumerable people across all continents. This includes the USA and much of Europe, which were believed till recently to be secular. Religion claims the hearts and minds of 90 percent of our population (Gallup Poll of 2000), with 75% of them belonging to the 4 major religions - out of the bewildering plethora over 10,000 religions or religious denominations that claim to exist with smaller bodies of faithful. All four major religions and many of the others, particularly those harking back to the earlier periods of human history – the cosmotheandric or so called ‘animist’ religions – preach notions of compassion, love for fellow beings, peace and harmony as normal and desirable goals, and exhort both the individual believer and religious leaders or teachers to pursue these tirelessly. Yet, religions continue to be more often associated by design or default, by intent or accident, with violence and conflict, and it is becoming increasingly important to understand why this is so and how it can be changed.
The fields of International Relations and Political Science largely overlooked the role of religion for the last several decades. Huntingdon’s Clash of Civilizations, and the terrorist attacks of 9.11 marginally increased attention to religion in politics. Since then, it has become less credible to ignore religion’s impact as political events have unfolded on national and global stages. Yet, despite a spattering of popular books examining religion and violence, and particularly examining the role of Islam - tapping into the 9.11 phenomena, there has not yet been sufficient attention afforded to the underlying reasons for religion’s violent potential across major religions, and to the levers to transform this violent nexus. It is well accepted that it is fallacious to only associate Islam with violence, as all major religions and several minor religions or sects have been associated with violence, oppression and conflict, and yet this dangerous presumption prevails unspoken and unchallenged. There is today an urgent need for IR and Political Science to reopen the doors to serious investigation of the role of religion and even seek the contribution of spiritual wisdom in dealing with imminent challenges and conundrums of governance.
Today, it is of pressing importance to understand the underlying causes for the nexus between religion and violence, and to seek to transform it to a positive relationship between religion and peace. It is also essential to establish a healthy relationship between religious wisdom or spirituality and the foundations of governance. As existing institutions and processes of global governance are being challenged for both their legitimacy and their effectiveness, and are losing credibility due to their inability to predict, prevent or mitigate violence, there is an urgent need to examine how the time-tested wisdom of spirituality might contribute to enhanced peaceful governance of human societies.
So far, despite some academic studies, neither policy makers responsible for decision making on governance and peace, nor the public has a deep understanding of the complex and contentious relationship between religion, violence and governance, and how it might be changed. The views of both public and policy makers are largely shaped by media reports, hearsay and generalizations, and this is hardly a sound basis for policy making. There is an urgent need to move towards a deeper understanding and begin the work of transformation.
The upheavals in the Arab world demonstrate in good part the great changes are afoot in the world, whose dimensions, contours and consequences cannot be predicted. Relationships and assumptions, such as the role of religion in politics, once regarded as irrevocable are shattering. This is a ripe moment to conduct this research and undertake the seminar and conference proposed in this project, in order to contribute to the critical debate on the future role and contribution of religion and spirituality to peace and governance.
The ‘Paradoxical Role of Religion and Spirituality in Conflict, Peacebuilding and Governance’ project report for 2015-2016 is available to read in the CIS Annual Report here.