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30 November 2018

A STORY in last week’s issue showed how, at its best, religion can be a means to address and overcome violence. Religious leaders came together with community representatives for a summit in Southwark Cathedral to respond to escalating violence in London among young people. Police could not “arrest their way out of this problem”, those present were told. Religious organisations had an important contribution to make to long-term prevention: more youth workers, and more community projects to tackle the problem at its roots. It is worth recalling that the blessing that Christ declares upon peacemakers is not for some special breed of white- or blue-helmeted professional — those are peacekeepers. Peacemakers are ordinary people who encourage community harmony, perhaps aware of the effort that it takes, but seldom party to the benign results of their interventions.

Given that peacemaking is a central tenet of all mainstream religions, it is depressing, though familiar, to see religion cited as a cause of violence. The President of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, who is in the middle of campaigning for re-election, writes in our pages this week that attacks by herdsmen in his country, in which hundreds have been killed, are caused not by religion but by “temporal” matters — essentially a battle over access to arable land for herds displaced from their traditional grazing areas by climate changes. The fact that the clashes are between largely Muslim pastoralists and largely Christian farmers is unfortunate but coincidental, the President argues: “When religion is claimed as the cause — and by those who know it is not — it only makes finding a resolution more difficult.”

We are not in a position to adjudicate between the competing narratives in this particular case. Our investigation shows that the balance of blame is placed variously by different Christian commentators, let alone Muslim ones. It is clear that environmental factors have created the conflict — as they will elsewhere, we fear. It is also probable that the violence might not have occurred, or would have been lessened, had the two sides shared a religion and an ethnicity. In the turmoil, it is as well to remember that few conflicts in history have been solved entirely by reconciling religious differences while ignoring such other factors as politics, economics, and unhealed memory. People are right, however, to expect better of communities in which a faith is observed. For both Christians and Muslims, religious texts exist that encourage them to turn from violence and self-interest. There are religious leaders on the ground to intervene when conflict threatens. Moreover, both sides have religious as well as political authorities to whom they can appeal, supposedly doubling the chance of reconciliation. The outbreak of violence in such circumstances is thus a failure all the more.

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