Religion, Ethnic Civil Wars, and Peacebuilding

A guest post by Nicolas Rost and Mehmet Gurses

Does religion help or hinder peacebuilding in the aftermath of ethnic civil wars? Under what conditions can religion help reinforce and strengthen peace? What are the obstacles to religion playing such a constructive role in peacebuilding? We address these questions in a new article, recently published in Politics and Religion.

The large literature on the religion-peacebuilding nexus has identified a number of ways in which religion affects war and peace. While one group of scholars point to religion as the cause of deadlier, longer, and more intractable civil wars, others have argued that religion can help bring about peace and democracy, and can be used in conflict resolution and peacebuilding processes.

We can point to several examples where religion has brought warring parties to a war together and facilitated a negotiated end to conflict. The Catholic lay community Sant’Egidio, in 1990, famously helped broker an end to the 15-year civil war in Mozambique. Abraham Lincoln, in his second inaugural address, noted that both sides in the American Civil War “read the same Bible and pray to the same God.” With regard to the conflict with the Kurds, Turkey’s president Erdogan has repeatedly stressed that Kurds and Turks believe in the same God, read the same Qur’an, and face the same Mecca when they pray.

The underlying logic in these examples is that religion may be used to convince opponents to negotiate an agreement rather than continue the fighting, especially if the two (or more) sides share the same religion. If they share not just the same religion but also the same denomination or sect, such as Sunni Muslims or Catholic Christians, this should further facilitate peacemaking. How does this logic work? In the article, we discuss possible causal mechanisms that link religion to conflict resolution, including shared values and culture, reducing the risk of a security dilemma, facilitating communication, building trust, and providing moral legitimacy.

We examine this idea by looking at all 72 civil wars with a clear ethnic dimension, between 1950 and 2006. We distinguished between wars where the two sides (the group in power and the main rebel group) don’t share a religion, share the same religion, or share the same religion and the same denomination or sect.

In the civil war in Sudan in the 1980s, 90s and 2000s, for example, predominantly black African Christian and Animist Southerners fought against a government dominated by Muslim Arabs; in Chechnya, Muslim Chechens fought against a government dominated by Orthodox Christians. In both cases, the opponents did not share a religion. The conflict in Northern Ireland, Catholics versus Protestants, is an example of shared religion. And the conflict between Turkey and the Kurds is one of both shared religion and share denomination or sect, as both sides are predominantly Sunni Muslim.

We then looked at how long the peace lasted following each of these ethnic wars, to see whether war between the same opponents broke out again, and if so, how long it took. This is a measure of how fragile or stable the post-war peace is. We ran a number of different models and robustness tests using Cox regression survival analysis. But we could not confirm that sharing a religion makes it easier to end a war and then keep the peace. To the contrary, some results even indicated that the opposite may be the case (see the figure below), although these were shaky and not found in all models.Screen Shot 2017-02-16 at 12.46.04 PM.pngInstead we found that characteristics of the war itself (such as its duration), of the involved ethnic group (e.g., whether it is geographically concentrated), and of the country where the conflict had been fought influence the stability of post-war peace. These findings are roughly in line with the existing research on post-conflict settings. But we could also confirm one of our earlier findings, that government policies after the war play a crucial role: If the government discriminates against ethnic groups politically and economically, another outbreak of the war becomes much more likely.

Our finding (or non-finding), that sharing a religion does not seem to lead to a more stable peace following ethnic war, does not mean that religion doesn’t play a role in civil war. As noted above, some research indicates that religion can make conflict worse. Not all empirical researchers, however, agree with these findings. At the same time, even if this doesn’t seem to hold across a large number of cases, a skilled mediator may still be able to appeal to the opponents’ shared religious values and convince them to reach an agreement and stop the fighting.

Nonetheless, our findings show the weaknesses of the argument that a common faith can serve as peacemaker despite ethnic differences. Such an approach overlooks other important aspect of identity such as customs, language, and ethnicity. As one scholar has stated, religions and religious interpretations “are susceptible to different readings in different contexts and become entangled in or influenced by newer sociopolitical context.” Our study shows that if religion is politicized, a phenomenon most prevalent in ethnic civil wars in which fighters hail from the same faith, the conflict is more likely to recur. Instead, religion as the common denominator is often subsumed to national identities and interests, and loses its power as a peacemaker.

Nicolas Rost is an aid worker who has worked for the United Nations since 2005 in Geneva, Central and East Africa, the Middle East, and now in New York. His research interests include human rights, conflict management and early warning.

Mehmet Gurses is an associate professor of Political Science at Florida Atlantic University and editor of Politics and Religion. His research interests include ethnic and religious conflict, post-civil war peacebuilding, post-civil war democratization, and Kurdish politics.


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