Religion and conflict in a global perspective

The EU is concerned about the rise in religious conflicts around the world, especially those involving political Islam. This does not mean that Islam or religion in general is inherently violent or that its followers are prone to violence. On the contrary, believers, including Muslims, generally find their religious expression benevolent and inspiring. Sometimes, however, believers and their faith have been linked to violence and conflict both between and within religious groups. Al-Qaeda's infamous September 11, 2011 ("9/11") attacks on the United States are one of the most prominent recent examples. Although 9/11 occurred more than 20 years ago, its long-term consequences have enormous implications for how the West, including the EU, relates to religion today.

Researchers and policymakers are increasingly interested in the link between religion and conflict. More broadly, this means that religion is making a remarkable comeback in sociology, political science and international relations. Contrary to the expectations of secularization advocates, religion has a strong - and, many believe, growing - importance as the primary basis of identity for millions of people around the world. Believers and religious organizations, as important carriers and conduits of religious ideas, play a significant role in many societies as well as internationally. This increased importance of religion comes against the backdrop of its role both as a source of conflict and as a tool for resolving tensions and restoring and maintaining peace. On the one hand, many see religion as a major source of hatred in society, underlying many political conflicts, but not only in the global South. However, there is also evidence that religious leaders, figures and institutions can play a very constructive role in helping to end violence and, in some cases, build peace - through early warning of conflict, good offices after hostilities have begun, and through advocacy, mediation and reconciliation processes aimed at restoring peace. In short, any discussion of the relationship between religion and conflict must necessarily emphasize that religion can contribute to both conflict and peace through the actions of people collectively imbued with religious ideals.

There is no simple and elegant theoretical model that would allow us to properly analyze all relevant cases of religion's involvement in conflict, peacemaking and peacekeeping, either in relation to the EU or in general. What we can note, however, is that religious involvement is increasingly seen as linked to what might be called "good governance" issues, in turn linked to the multiple effects of globalization on countries around the world. Recent and current globalization, characterized by its often destabilizing economic, political, cultural and technological effects, has brought to the fore the issues raised by religion, in particular by undermining various traditional value systems. One consequence of the impact of globalization is that many people seem to be increasingly disoriented and lost, and in response, religion is proving to be a means and focal point for resolving these existential anguish. These people may find in religion a source of comfort, peace, stability, and spiritual uplift. Others may also experience a new or renewed sense of identity, which not only gives meaning and purpose to the lives of believers, but may also contribute to interreligious competition and conflict.

Globalization has led to a significant increase in interaction between peoples and communities. Encounters between representatives of different religious traditions are frequent, although they are not always peaceful. Conflicts between peoples, societies, classes and nations are increasingly defined in religious terms. Such conflicts can take on "larger than life" dimensions, demonstrating the existential struggle between "good" and "evil." This evolution is taking place in several countries and regions, such as the United States, Israel, and Europe, through "culture wars" between religious and non-believers. While the origins of these culture wars are varied and often complex, religious perceptions of the world can foster commitments and standards that differ from those of secularists on a range of issues such as family, law, education, and politics.

In short, conflicts can have religious dimensions when real or perceived differences underlie the hatred and violence that accompany them. Religious actors can be both "angels of peace" and "warmongers". The inconsistent relationship between religion and warfare becomes evident when we think about the contemporary role of religion in conflict.


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