Central African Republic: What Turns a Conflict 'Religious'?

Central African Republic: What Turns a Conflict 'Religious'?

Central African Republic: What Turns a Conflict 'Religious'?


5 min read

Posted on: 10th September 2014

Much of the thoughtful analysis of the current conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR) is now coming to the conclusion that religion was not a dominant motivation in its inception. However, in a country where the "battle lines" have in some places become sharply drawn between the primarily Muslim Seleka and the primarily Christian anti-balaka, it is instructive to find out how such a situation has arisen. Especially as the CAR is a country in which 4.3 million people – half of which are Christian, one-third worshippers of traditional African religions, and 14 per cent Muslim – have lived together in comparative religious harmony for the 54 years of the CAR's independence.

Lotte Hoex, a researcher at IPIS Research in Belgium, which is currently compiling a report on the situation in the CAR, says that for the Seleka the conflict was certainly not religious in its conception. Rather, the group was disillusioned with the regime of former president Francois Bozize over perceived discrimination against the people in the north, claiming they were denied political power and that the region was unrepresented in the capital Bangui.

Hoex says, however, that though the initial violence was not religiously motivated, during their march from the northeast to the capital, the Seleka certainly killed more Christians than they did Muslims. "There seemed to be from the start a slight discrimination in terms of violence towards Christian people," she said, suggesting this may have been a result of both a desire to build an easy base of support amongst Muslims (who are dominant in the far north) and the basic fact that Christians greatly outnumber Muslims outside the northern CAR. The issue of government discrimination against the population in the northeast was repeatedly raised as justification for Seleka's initial actions, but it was not framed in religious terms.

The conflict was certainly not religious in its conception.

The response to Seleka attrocities while in power was the formation in the south of a disparate, de-centralised movement that came to be known as the anti-balaka, which targeted Muslims more explicitly. Though the anti-balaka had a clearer religious dimension to its attacks than the Seleka, it was local rather than national leaders using religious rhetoric in their statements, with the growth of the movement more tightly tied to the desire to fight back against the Seleka's violence and resolve their own deep-rooted frustrations. Though politically marginalised in the CAR, Muslims generally have strong socio-economic powers and control many businesses, notably the diamond trade and trading houses.

Deep-rooted social and economic tensions were catalysed by the initial Seleka violence. Although religious differences did not cause the fighting, these differences in many places deepened the fault line between the two rebel groups and motivated much of the subsequent violence. It is also well established that the anti-balaka in particular is not well organised, with a leadership in Bangui that has little or no control over its elements in the rest of the country, and would struggle to effectively implement a top-down strategy for framing the conflict religiously.

Religion is a latent source of conflict.

It was only after the anti-balaka became active that grievances concerning the discrimination against and protection of Muslims prominently came to the fore, Hoex says. The addition of another reasonably organised force in opposition to the Seleka resulted in religion becoming more paramount on both sides.

Professor Robert Bates of the Department of Government at Harvard University says generally the main reason for broadening the definition of a conflict to a religious battle is to gain potential coalitional partners. This theory would correspond with the Hoex's suggestion that the Seleka may have primarily killed Christians at the start of the conflict in order to build a more organised and clearly defined base in their heartlands. Yet the Seleka have looked for non-Muslim recruits in Bangui, and the anti-balaka claimed its recent violence in Bangui was an attempt to force the resignation of president Catherine Samba-Panza, who is herself a Christian, suggesting the conflict for the anti-balaka leaders at least is a political rather than religious one.

The truth, then, as to why the conflict has become more religiously based as it has proceeded, may be more to do with the subconscious of individual CAR citizens and less to do with overarching goals of the "political groups". Scott Bollens, Professor and Warmington Chair of Peace and International Cooperation at the University of California, says people and groups facing "existential threat" naturally seek "identifiers" as a means of maintaining, revitalising, and reinventing a sense of who they are.

"Religion and sect are potent and compelling identifiers, providing narratives of struggle, righteousness, and martyrdom that have great appeal," Bollens says. Although religious identifiers are generally applied by leaders to radicalise constituents during a conflict along an "us versus them" mentality, in the case of the CAR, with the state falling away and both set of protagonists having only loose control over their members, it seems this has been a bottom-up mentality born of a need for identity and kinship in a country that has fallen apart.

Writing back in 2005, Eric Brahm, now an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Arkansas, said religion was a "latent" source of conflict, that had the potential to play a role where an "unstable peace" existed between groups that have differences, though not ones serious enough to cause one side to act to alter the situation. In this situation, clearly evident in the CAR, he said "a triggering event can cause the conflict to escalate", with grievances, goals and methods often changing and the momentum of a conflict often giving extreme elements the upper hand.

In the CAR, a war that began for economic and political reasons has been recast through the need for strong bases of support and the desire for self defence and revenge, into a conflict where religion now seems to be an obstacle in the search for peace.

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