Tackling Conflict in a Religiously Diverse World 6 December 2016

adobestock_72971771-aiThe UK has seen a remarkable increase in the number of people describing themselves as non-religious. They now make up nearly half of the population – up from just an eighth in 2001. Despite this dramatic change, religious beliefs have rarely in recent times played a greater part in our national discourse, international discourse, or in our lives.

Living in our interconnected world it is impossible to distance ourselves from debates and conflicts on our doorstep or in other parts of the world. At the same time, especially in urban areas, what may appear a diverse society according to statistics are actually ‘parallel lives’ – where individuals never encounter other communities. There remain significant barriers, which prevent interaction and mutual trust. For example, since the Paris attacks in 2015, measures by the French authorities have been implemented that show differentiation along ethno-religious lines. In these circumstances, it is relatively easy for extremists, of whatever persuasion, to stir up race and religious hatred.

The changing religious landscape is made more complicated by the growth of fanaticism and violent extremism. Conflicts easily become ‘religionised’ and people can seek to define and sharpen differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’ to rally support for themselves. On the one hand, there is suspicion that religion is a primary source of all the world’s ills but on the other, a blanket denial of the legitimacy of non-religious approaches to life. Nonetheless, religion can provide a harmonious link between different communities, even in times of violent conflict.

In circumstances of anxiety about national identity and cohesion, religious or ethno-religious based identities may also be perceived to be inappropriately assertive. The decision to ban burkinis in Cannes is an example of a reaction to what is perceived as an ‘over-Islamising’ of the public sphere.

Religion is a both unifier and divider.

Religion operates not as a static bloc with set beliefs but is adaptable and in flux, shaped by and shaping its surroundings. Understanding the changing religious landscape is not an option but essential for it epitomises today’s complicated, fragmented and multifaceted world. Understanding how religion interacts at local, national and international levels is key because religion and society are engaged in a two-way encounter, influencing each other both for good and for ill.

Tactics exist which can tackle tensions and outbursts of violence, which may incite religious hatred and intolerance. It is noticeable that Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin, as well as Western politicians, are more and more vocal in this area.

Increasing levels of religious literacy, including within faith communities, may be an obvious tactic but is fundamental. Developing cross-religious partnerships, including formal interfaith dialogue groups, joint political and/or social action initiatives, and using the influence of diaspora communities can also have impact.

Interfaith dialogue and engagement between people holding different beliefs and belonging to different backgrounds can strengthen the bonds of civil society. Participants seek to understand each other, discover the common ground underlying their differences, resolve their differences when possible, and learn to live with them when it is not. It is no surprise that interfaith dialogue is seen by politicians and policymakers as important for fostering social cohesion.

Another tactic to tackle tensions which may incite religious hatred and intolerance is to develop cross-religious partnerships. Interfaith dialogue and engagement between people holding different beliefs and belonging to different backgrounds can strengthen the bonds of civil society, and help people feel involved and integrated. Interfaith dialogue can also play an important role in conflict situations and the successful delivering of humanitarian aid.

A final tactic is to leverage the role of dispersed communities, brought together by globalization and social media, as the local is truly global and diaspora communities have become a significant non-state actor. Nonetheless, residual conflicts, arbitrary boundaries and ethnic and tribal differences can quickly resurface in different parts of the world. In the UK, localised, deep-rooted historical differences in Kashmir, for example, re-emerge quickly in the streets of Bradford and damage local communal relations.

The Woolf Institute, has studied and taught the encounter between religion, civil society and foreign affairs for two decades. Currently, the Institute trains staff at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Diplomats face a complicated and multifaceted world and must recognise that religions have many deep similarities, overlaps and commonalities but also significant differences between them and within them. No tradition is monolithic, none is unchanging and none exists independently of specific cultural, historical and political contexts and circumstances.

The challenge faced by diplomats is faced by us all. The pattern of religious affiliation around the world has not only changed but continues to change. The challenge today is to enhance our capacity to read this most potent sign of our times.

This article is from Issue 14 of On Religion. Intelligent thinking about religion and society is needed now more than ever, help us and subscribe for £19 a year. Subscribe Button

About Edward Kessler

Dr Edward Kessler is founder director of the Woolf Institute, an independent, academic institute in Cambridge which addresses the encounter between religion and society with a focus on Jews, Christians and Muslims.

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