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Religious violence ‘not inevitable’

09 January 2015


Solidarity: a woman holds a candle as people gather in the Place de la République, on Wednesday evening 

Solidarity: a woman holds a candle as people gather in the Place de la République, on Wednesday evening 

RELIGION is as likely to promote peace as to promote conflict, a report by academics from the Open University suggests.

The researchers, Professor John Wolffe and Dr Gavin Moorhead, argue that, although insecurity around the world often appears to be provoked by religious extremism, there is no simple "cause and effect perspective whereby 'dangerous ideas' lead people to violent action".

"Religion plays an ambivalent role when it comes to threatening or promoting security. That is, in certain situations it can be a threat, in other situations it promotes security," says their report, Religion, Security and Global Uncertainties.

The main recommendation is that policy-makers, journalists, and academics dig deeper to understand religion properly and the part that it plays in various contexts before coming to conclusions about how it relates to violence.

The report, launched in Westminster on Tuesday, also states that governments should use religious leaders more widely to counter in-

security and terrorism, and to reach marginalised groups in society.

The researchers say that they want to combat the widespread assumption that, where different religious groups live side by side, there will always be conflict that threatens wider society.

Professor Wolffe writes: "There is no inevitable relationship between religious difference, conflict and insecurity. There are countless historical examples - from locations and periods as diverse as the ancient Middle East, early modern Europe, and contemporary London - of people of varied religious commitments living peaceful, albeit sometimes segregated, lives."

He suggests that interreligious co-existence breaks down often as a result of outside factors, such as rapid economic or social change, attempts to impose secularism, or the influence of nationalism.

The report also acknowledges, however, that religion can sometimes legitimise or inspire conflict and threaten security. One other contributor, Professor Robert Gleave, of the University of Exeter, suggests that society cannot properly comprehend and thus protect itself from contemporary Islamic jihadism if it does not understand theological debates going back to the 1970s and '80s within some branches of Islam.

Research for the report was based on interviews with 22 academics, and material from subsequent discussions and conferences. It concludes that most of the participants in this process believed that religion by itself was rarely a threat to security.

"Rather, problems arise when religion operates in tandem with other factors, especially political ones," the report argues. Governments and security forces need to look deeper when examining conflicts, which often have multiple causes, than simply ascribing the violence to "religion".

The MP who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on global uncertainties, John Glen, a Christian, said this week that the report showed why there needed to be greater religious literacy in Britain.

"I think there's a tendency to simplify and not to contextualise religion within other matters," he said before the launch of the report.

"It's easier to attribute motivation to a misguided theology or religious affiliation, rather than a more complicated mix of resentments and identifications that form motivation for an actor in an extremist situation."

In particular, he expressed caution about assuming that Islamic State's actions characterised "authentic Muslim faith".

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