Religion and Conflict

Andrea Bartoli

Director of the International Conflict Resolution Program of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and Chair of the Columbia University Conflict Resolution Network

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: What are some of the other advantages that one who is openly, religiously partisan has in becoming involved in a conflict, and conversely, what are some of the disadvantages?

A: One of the disadvantages is that if the religion is a source of intolerance then clearly it can become a factor in fueling the conflict more than resolving it. If you are an intransigent Jew and you think that your Prime Minister is selling out your state then you may think about killing him in religious terms. If you are an intolerant Hindu and you think that Gandhi is bringing everybody to ruin, you may want to kill him, and so on and so forth. Religiously motivated peace makers killed by co-religioners is not an unthinkable thing, it is actually quite the norm, unfortunately. Religion can play both ways and I think it depends a lot on the individual and on the communities that they belong to, and the orientation that they belong to and assert. One of the advantages that I find consistently in religious actors is this sense of creative investment in peace. It is this idea that political processes are not ephemeral, but certainly not ultimate. In a way there is something beyond our structure, there is something beyond the reality that is seen in experience in the moment of conflict. Religious people do have that capacity, very often, to look beyond, to imagine things beyond the moment, and the reality that is in front of them.

Q: Can religious leaders play a role in peace making in multi-religious societies where religion could be perceived, or misperceived as a source of conflict? Is there a special way that they would have to tread in those situations?

A: I would say that religious diversity is the norm everywhere. I don't think that we can even think of Saudi Arabia as having this sort uniformity. Uniformity is only apparent, and I think that religious leaders won't necessarily respond to that particular context. If they want to be peace makers there is clearly the need to represent that reality carefully. I think that Mozambique is a good case because Catholics were just 10% of the population; diversity was very high. The capacity to play a role politically was less linked to religion per se, and more to the sociology of religion. In fact Catholics were in a way connected internationally. There was a possibility of intervening from the outside, and yet have an androgynous process that was truly Mozambiquans. I think that peace processes involving religious leaders will necessarily need to be highly owned by the people who are constituting the new political reality emerging out of the conflict.

Q: The church is not a governmental organization, and by definition it is a non-governmental organization. Those connections that you mentioned are interesting because there are none of the usual concerns about the violation of sovereignty relative to where there are other states that come in and act as a peace broker.

A: Absolutely, and this is where I think that we need to recognize the creativity of the Mozambiquans themselves that in a way found a way to resolve the very contentious issues related to intervention. The community of Sant'Egidio was clearly international enough for the movement to offer guarantee and to give a sense of oversight and neutrality, and so on. On the other for the government was no the state actor, was not intrusive in a way that an international organization or a state actor would be otherwise. That point is absolutely important there.

Q: What about maintaining trust between two different sides? The government might see religion as an interferer within their own confines but they can't kick them out like a state. Liberation theologists in Latin America were often seen as meddlers, or maybe seen on the opposite side as establishment status quo guards as in the church say in Argentina during the junta. How does the church manage to play a role that is maybe not neutral, but impartial?

A: I think it is important to realize that the church is not disembodied realities, it is always somebody, in this case it is a bishop within the community of Sant'Egidio. It is relationally constructed so it is completely contextual, it is in one reality, and I think that the more that we respect these types of relationships the more we will see how that role can be played out. I don't think that can be theorized or thought before, then planed, and then executed. It emerges in certain conditions and what we know is that in conflicts in moments of crisis, and moments of discontinuity, what people tend to look for in those moments are actually points of references. 

If political structures, if military structures, or if social structures are in flux, are in transition, or are in crisis, people tend to look for something that could give them a sense of stability, that could look like a point of reference. In that sense, very frequently as I mentioned before, Roman Catholic bishops tend to play that kind of reference point because they are perceived to be known enough, local enough, and close enough to represent instances that are significant to the conflict. You can clearly see how that could actually play differently if the leader would actually use that significance of relevance, in terms of referenciality, to fuel the conflict or to fuel intolerance. A religious bigot would start using the same language in the moment of transition and actually channel that in the direction of furthering the conflict.