Religion and Conflicts


Richard Rubenstein

Professor of Conflict Resolution and Public Affairs at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: Is there a special role for religion in conflict generation or conflict resolution?

A: Yes, I think there's probably a special role for religion in both conflict generation and conflict resolution. It's a very complicated subject, the question of why religion has become so important, especially since the late '70s, because the emergence of religion as a major feature in conflict has been really almost entirely unexpected, both by the academy and by policy makers.

The Iranian Revolution was the first major shock, and since then it's become clear that religion as a factor in conflict is playing a major role in generating, or maybe it would also be better to say "expressing," conflict around the world, in the West as well as the East, in more advanced and less advanced industrial countries. I can talk about that if you want me to.

Q: Yes, please.

A: We're investigating lots of factors. The study is still really in a way in its infancy. There've been a few good books out on the subject, but not that many. At ICAR now we have a religion and conflict working group and we're also creating a center for the study of religion and conflict that Mark Gopin is going to head up. I'll talk first about conflict generation. I suppose most obviously religion is associated with certain conflicts as a badge of ethnicity. It doesn't seem to have much independent positive power. I mean, if you have Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, they're not arguing about the Eucharist. They're arguing about their historically opposed communal roles and recent discrimination and so forth.

At the opposite extreme are struggles that are seriously doctrinal, that involve religions doctrine as a major feature of the struggle, like the struggle between those who we call these days "extreme" Islamists and more moderate Muslims or non-Muslims. That's the sort of conflict that I've been particularly concerned with in my books, doctrinal conflicts. Then in the middle there are all sorts of combinations, issues of ethnicity, issues of social class and nationality that blend with religious issues or fuse with religious issues in ways that sometimes make conflict more protracted and more violent. I don't agree that religious conflicts are particularly violent or particularly intractable. I think there are conflicts that don't involve religion that are just as intractable.

But religion is playing a very important role now, and one of the features that interests me very much, and interests the institute too, is what you might call the "religification" of conflict. That is conflicts that start out looking like religion doesn't have much to do with it, like the Bosnian conflict, for example, or even the conflict in the Middle East, the Palestine-Israel conflict.

These clearly began with secular forces on either side, and as time went on religion became more and more involved with those conflicts. Why that should be so is a very important question and one that is hard to answer, but some suggestions that I've been working with are that religious mobilization is a way of defending threatened identities when nationalism has failed or when socialism has failed. So religion is what's left, in a way. There's some sort of process of elimination.

Q: In terms of developing a communal identity?

A: In terms of developing a basis on which to defend a threatened communal identity. Another factor that I think can be very important, which has a little more to do the peculiar functions that religion plays in a community, is that religion is one way in which people in a particular community can reform themselves morally, or come to feel better about themselves, and deal with senses of guilt and shame. Because of the way modern politics, especially modern imperial politics, is played, you have people all around the world who are feeling quite humiliated and guilty about their own implication in imperial domination of their nation.

Q: Like somehow enabling imperial dominance?

A: Exactly. Enabling either through passivity or actually getting paid off, taking money. It's not necessarily a religious phenomenon. I mean there's some evidence that at the time of Fidel's revolution in Cuba people were feeling mighty guilty about letting their island be taken over by the mob, and selling their sisters, as it were, into prostitution. And Fidel promised them an ability to clean up Cuba. It wasn't just socialism because Fidel wasn't even a socialist to begin with. It was purification which he was offering.

I've been writing some things, most recently an article on the cycle of political causes of terrorism and religious terrorism, arguing that this urge to purify oneself and purify the society of some kinds of sins that people have been implicated in is a very powerful feature in promoting religious organization and also, in some cases, in promoting religious violence. There's been a lot of talk also, I think some of it very useful, about the role of religion in helping to satisfy a need for meaning.

When things are changing very fast and traditional ways of life are being undermined, and people feel lost

Q: In other words, modernization.

A: Yes, modernization is taking place and people kind of don't know which end is up. You can call it modernization or you can call it capitalist domination, it doesn't matter. Either way people feel as if in a way the old gods have failed them. Very often one of the things that's interesting about religious conflict is that although it's sometimes portrayed as a get-back-to-basics fundamentalism, you know, going back to tradition, it really is not. It's almost always the creation of a new form of religious expression which covers itself with an appeal to traditionalism; which portrays itself as tradition, but which really very often represents a radical shift in religious sensibility, belief, practice.

Q: Can you give an example?

A: Sure. I mean, most Muslims don't consider Wahabism traditional Islam, and certainly not Osama Bin Laden's brand of Wahabism. Hindu nationalism in India - many of the traditionalist Hindus consider it an abomination, even though they may sympathize with it in some ways. And a very strong parallel to that is religious Zionism.

There were groups

in Israel that were anti-Zionists. If you want to talk about Jewish tradition, go back to the Book of Kings or the Books of Judges and listen to the prophet Samuel warning the people against the king and then listen to the prophets later on warning them against empire and against putting their faith in chariots and horses. So the original Zionists were secularists. The religious Jews wanted to have nothing to do with it. They were waiting for the Messiah to come. They were following the prophetic advice: wait and God will deliver you; you're not going to deliver yourself. So this post-1967 fusion between religiosity and Zionism is something new which both religious Jews and traditional Zionists consider a monstrosity.

Q: A religious conflict that is a doctrinal conflict versus a religious conflict that is more of an identity conflict would you approach them differently in terms of intervention?

A: Well the whole subject of intervention into religious conflicts is at the moment very confused. It's a kind of healthy confusion. I mean I think the answer to the question is probably yes, insofar as the religious conflict is in part an identity conflict, or at least fused with an identity conflict. Then very likely methods of conflict resolution that were developed to deal with identity-based conflicts may be useful. For example, problem-solving workshops. The more the doctrine enters into it, the more we have to start thinking about other alternative processes. And this topic is really the focus of Mark Gopin's work, particularly the recent book, "Holy War, Holy Peace," about the Middle East. First of all it's necessary to speak the language of the religious people, be able to communicate with them, know what they're talking about.

Second of all, to the extent that you deal with needs that aren't just the identity need, but a need for meaning, for example, or a need for self respect, or a need for purification, or even a need for community-bonding, it suggests that analysis is always necessary, but some of these processes may be less analytical and involve more ritual and symbolic elements.

Also, it raises the question of what it means to resolve or transform conflicts that are doctrinal, that have to do with opposed worldviews. There I could say a couple of things. One is that we're discovering that there are never totally opposed worldviews. There's always some overlap. You could speak of common ground, if you wanted to, between worldviews.

But to the extent that they are opposed, what you're asking people to do in a conflict resolution process is to think about the actual content of the worldview or the doctrine, whether it's the only or primarily necessary result of interpreting a text, or whether there are other possible ideas or shades of meaning in the doctrines. So, you loosen people up a little bit from the doctrinal point of view.

But ultimately,

the point of a conflict resolution process involving doctrinal conflicts is not to get people to abandon their doctrines, but to get them to possibly reframe them or to see other possible ways of expressing them, and/or to see that they can hold that doctrine and not either kill or be killed by somebody else.

Q: It's a form of co-existence, maybe.

A: Well, yes, to humanize the other side in the conflict. And this is very tricky because there are doctrines which are anti-toleration. There are doctrines which command the holder of a certain doctrine to proselytize for that doctrine. There are doctrines which command the holder of a certain doctrine to strongly oppose those who hold a different doctrine. So, to do kind of the Western trip, and say "live and let live," and "why can't everyone be tolerant like us?" is to really ignore the fact that under certain circumstances people just can't be so tolerant. So, one way to put the question then is, how can you be a militant supporter of your own doctrine and an opponent of others without being violently intolerant? It's tricky business, but I don't think it's insoluble. It's a practical problem. I'll give you an example.

There's some discussion now about what can or should be done about the Mel Gibson film "The Passion of the Christ." There's a very important article in this week's New Yorker about it, which makes it clear how far to the right Gibson and his friends are in terms of Catholic theology. They're in many ways looked upon as heretical or as verging on heresy by the more orthodox Catholics.

But when all that's said and done, what do you do when people disagree very strongly about interpretation of the gospels and the usefulness or destructiveness of doing a picture? They're doing a movie reflecting a particular view. I've actually communicated with some of the people involved in that to try to get into it to see if on a practical level we could help open up some discussion, some ways of dealing with this that haven't been tried yet. But if they said yes, I have to admit we would have to improvise because on the one hand, we don't want to be in the position of telling Mel Gibson to censor his movie.

On the other hand, he seems to have no understanding at all about the historical context in which he's presenting the movie, and why people are so terrified of it. And you could say the same thing about the other side, I mean the anti-defamation league, etc., just sees it as anti-Semitic propaganda, and are crashing ahead without much apparent recognition of the potential danger that they can do by being in the position of being the censor, especially in a town in which there's a lot of Jewish economic power, Los Angeles. So it's a very, very multi-dimensional and tricky business. And it would be very important under those circumstances, this is Gopin again, more than me, but it'd be very important under these circumstances to have people with you who were intimately familiar with the sensitivities of both groups, doctrinal and cultural, and then to help them think outside the box on both sides, and think about possible integrative solutions.

In that case, as in so many others, if you're going to do good conflict resolution, you've got to be exposing repressed or hidden conflict. And in this case what really almost nobody wants to talk about is the continuation of Christian-Jewish conflict in the West. It hasn't gone away and maybe it never will. Maybe it shouldn't go away. One side of the coin is the kind of foaming-at-the-mouth, anti-Vatican II religious conservatism of people like Gibson.

The other side of the coin is the new ecumenical orthodoxy, people who say, 'well, you know, we can all get along.' These differences are OK and aren't really important after all. But they are very important to a lot of people, and just sweeping them under the rug doesn't deal with the issue. So I think when you deal with that kind of conflict, you've got to have a certain respect for doctrine and the fact that these issues are very important to people and that they're not nuts for considering it important.


Q: We are talking about terrorism with the assumption that it is, you know, a legitimate and representative arm of people.

What about arguments that terrorists are an extremist bunch of people who have no constituency and in fact act on their own behalf and because of the disproportionate nature of their attacks are able to make it seem as if they had a larger constituency?

A: It is a historical question. The best thing about my old book, "The Alchemists of Revolution", was that I defined terrorism as violence by a small group attempting to become a big group or attempting to make good acclaim to mass representation. If you have masses of people who are willing to pick up weapons and use them then you don't have terrorism, you have a war or a revolution. If you have terrorism by definition you have a relatively small group with militants. But the question to what extent they have got mass support is an empirical question. It is a subtle question because we are not talking about any lecture. Did the IRA in the 1970's have mass support in Northern Ireland? Of course, I mean to call them a handful of terrorists is nonsense. Do they have mass support now? Not really, the have some support but it is much thinner, both in terms of quantity and in terms of intensity what people are willing to do for that cause now. And there are reasons for that.

So, you take Osama Bin Laden, does he have mass support? Sure. What is the quality and you know lots of people think he is standing up for the Islamic world against the Jews and crusaders, the Americans in particular. What is the nature of that support? And when I say he has got mass support I am not saying a vast majority, I am just saying lots and lots of people, one hundred, maybe tens of millions of people. Anyway, what is the nature of the support? At the moment it is very weak. At the moment it is very passive, you know when the two towers went down two years ago almost to this date a lot of people around the world said, "Good, the Americans finally got what was coming to them." Does that mean that they would be willing to finance or do the same thing themselves or get in a plane and kill themselves? No. So what you had was a kind of quite large basis of kind of passive sympathy, a fairly substantial financial network supporting it, still not very many people who are activists. Then the question becomes for people who want to be genuinely counter-terrorists and really not fools, how do you isolate those activists? I mean how do you cut the links aside from freezing bank accounts and stuff, how do you act so as to minimize the mass support and not to make it a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that they are going to get the mass support.

In my view the answer is you don't attack Iraq. You don't actually launch a war against Islam under the guise that you are in a war on terrorists. Maybe some of us are learning from that at least in Iraq that this is now counter-productive, this has obviously become a counter-productive activity. That is my view. Other people in conflict resolution may not share it and they don't have to share it.

The answer to people who talk about terrorists as being either an isolated handful of nuts out for their own or a mass movement to revolution in action is sometimes it is one and sometimes it is the other and our job is to how to prevent it from becoming a violent mass movement. Often the way to prevent it from becoming a violent mass movement is to recognize the legitimate claims of the non-violent mass movement.

Osama said he wanted the U.S. out of Saudi Arabia, he wanted us to stop attacking Iraq, and he wanted us to stop supporting the Israelis so one-sidedly against the Palestinians. As long as he is talking like that a lot of people are going to agree with him, not only in the Islamic world but even in this world, on this side. So you reveal your policy. Then people say that if you make any changes in policy in response to terrorism you are rewarding the terrorists and you are displaying weakness and all that. Well the alternative is would you say that we should have made some concessions to the Vietnamese left or should we have put ourselves in the position were going to kill fifty thousand Americans and two million Vietnamese and get driven out of the country anyway.

Q: So you are saying it is futile to keep on the same course and when people say if we change our course that just rewards the terrorists saying to keep on doing what we are doing is going to cause more terror.

A: Yeah. And when you say keep on doing what we are doing is we're for want, as a result of failure of imagination and political will we are falling into the pattern of the British Empire and ultimately into the pattern of the Roman Empire. At least the British were challenged by the French and by other powers, the Germans, and we are not challenged militarily by anybody. The Cheney-Wolfowitz-Rumsfeld crowd, if you listen to what they are saying and take seriously what the Heritage Foundation and others put out they think that the British Empire was the 'cat's pajamas', they think it was great. So they have to be engaged, we have to have a real national discussion which we haven't had about if you don't want to be the new Rome or the new British Empire then what can you be, what should our role be? It is back to Elise Boulding, it is envisioning alternative forms of world order that make sense and figure out how we can get there.


...Religion, in the broadest sense (and I include even "secular religions" that is, ethical movements), has a real role to play in conflict resolution, because if you look in western tradition, other traditions as well, but just to talk about western tradition for sources of, out of inspiration for having the kind of conversation that I am advocating, you look at the prophets for example. Look at Isaiah who says, "Woe to them who put their faith in horses and chariots." There is so much in the western religious traditions and definitely in Buddhist tradition and Hindu and other traditions, Confucian.

There is so much in religious tradition that says you ought not to play God in the world. You shouldn't try to play God on a global basis and if you do you are going to be cursed for it. You start taking that kind of stuff seriously and mobilizing the resources of religiously oriented people, which includes a hell of a lot of people especially in the United States, there is a potential there to do some things that we haven't done. When I speak about Iraq or this other kind of stuff around town, you know I do a lot of speaking here and sometimes out of town, the people who want to hear this are the churches and synagogues and mosques.

Q: They do want to hear it.

A: They want to hear it. This is how they want to talk about it. I think that is where the great audience for a lot of these ideas is, it is in the religious organizations.

Q: Fire with fire.

A: That is right. Fire with fire.

Q: Well thanks Rich.

A: My pleasure.