Headlines about religion and violent conflict again dominated world attention in 2014, with no major faith exempt. The predominantly Christian Antibalaka militias in the Central African Republic committed atrocities against Muslim communities in the worst violence in that country's history; fighters with ISIS in Syria and Iraq committed atrocities against Shia Muslims, Christians, and Yezidi communities; forced conversions by Hindu nationalist groups were reported in Indiaduring the year; and Buddhists nationalists targeted Muslim communities in Sri Lanka and Myanmar.
Other conflicts with religious undertones included the summer war between Israel and Gaza, the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria, as well as conflicts in Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and many others. A quick look at the 2015 Fragile States Index (FSI) indicates rising "group grievance" in all of these states. In the face of such trends, xenophobia may seem like a rational response, but evidence suggests that this is not the case.
Fragility tends to beget fragility, and stability tends to beget stability.
The Fragile States Index posits that even in cases of extreme sectarian violence, religious identity is not the primary cause. Rather, when the system that is the state becomes fragile, subnational and transnational identity groups become more salient as stakeholders seek to position, protect, or promote themselves and the people they trust and care about.
Where people are religious, it is inevitable that us/them fault lines will be religiously defined. Where society is organised by ethnicity, class, region, or occupation, polarisation will occur along them. The fragmentation that is happening in a place like Ukraine (one of the most dramatically worsening conflicts in the FSI this year) is not different in kind from that which is happening in the examples listed above, even if religion is not at the forefront of the Ukrainian discourse over interests, grievances, and vision.
This is not to say that the religious dimension to conflict dynamics should be ignored, but just to put religion in its proper context, so the diagnosis is linked to the root of the problem and not to its symptoms. The theoretical framework underpinning the FSI looks at pressures on the state that can lead to fragility. When social, economic, and political pressures are very high, it puts a strain on the state's ability to manage those pressures. If a state gets into a vicious cycle of pressures begetting more pressures, then in the event of a shock, the system could unravel, often along group lines.
In Nigeria, which worsened considerably in the FSI last year, the religious dimension of conflict is very much in the foreground, with a steady drumbeat of heated rhetoric and a long series of terrorist attacks by Boko Haram and tit-for-tat violence. Heavy security details are regularly deployed to protect churches and mosques from attack. In the Middle Belt of the country (Plateau, Nasarawa, Benue, and Taraba states), sectarian violence between Christian communities and Muslim communities seems intractable.
But the conflict may also be described as pastoral versus agrarian interests, or ethnic/inter-communal disputes that get whipped up by spoilers, especially around election season or dry season, depending on the local and national dynamics at play. Indeed, upon taking a deeper look at the variations across states and over time, it very quickly becomes difficult to reduce the analysis to a simple diagnosis of Christian versus Muslim tensions.
Still, understanding how religious groups are organised and their ideologies is critical for an effective stakeholder analysis and peacebuilding strategy. It is equally important to do a proper analysis of the roles, interests, and constituencies of traditional rulers, political parties, community leadership, civil society, and business membership associations.
Understanding religious ideologies is crucial for an effective peacebuilding strategy.
If there is one thing we have learned from a decade of producing the Fragile States Index, it is that the world is not deterministic. Although it does seem to be the case that fragility tends to beget fragility, and stability tends to beget stability, people can defy the odds. And in places where religious identity is important to the structure of society, then religion is going to have to play a role in the solution as much as it sometimes plays in the problem.
In the run up to the 2015 elections in Nigeria, most observers were convinced that it was going to be a disaster. As reflected in the most recent FSI scores, the economy was struggling, insurgents were on the offensive, and political tensions were at an all-time high with the emergence of a strong opposition for the first time in Nigeria's history. And yet people came together to say no to election violence.
In the Niger Delta, for instance, a network of over 3,000 faith leaders, traditional rulers, women leaders, youth, and civil society organisations came together as Partners for Peace in the Niger Delta (P4P) for conflict early warning and prevention. They identified hotspots and mobilised in those locations for youth sensitisation, mediation, and peace messaging on the basis of their own participatory conflict assessments - looking at religion as a factor, but also beyond.
Religion is undeniably an important factor in how conflict plays out in many countries around the world, and one that is all too often by-passed by many in society. The real issue now is to ensure that policy makers and practitioners treat the role of religion on equal terms with other factors. There will only be a greater understanding of religion's role in conflict if we examine it together with the other complexities that exist alongside.