When religious affiliations feed “us versus them” narratives

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by Hans Dembowski

Faith leaders must emphasise peace

Last week, I attended the annual conference that Germany’s Protestant faith-based organisations hold on international development. This time, the topic was state agencies’ growing interest in cooperating with leaders of all major religions, for example, in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The problem, however, is that faith affiliations are somewhat ambivalent. They can be abused for violent identity politics, and it would certainly be counterproductive to support organisations that do so with funding earmarked for ODA (official development assistance). I’ll be posting an article about the conference on our website soon, but I’d like to discuss an interesting aspect of this discussion right away.

Some conference participants stressed that religious notions can be abused politically, while others emphasised that religion is not a reason of conflict. Obiora Ike was probably the one who took the latter stance most forcefully. He is a Catholic priest and intellectual from Nigeria’s Enugu State. He categorically states, for example, that Christendom and Islam are religions of peace so it is impossible to throw bombs in either name. According to Ike, Boko Haram violence in Nigeria’s northeast results from anger about being poor and marginalised and has “nothing to do with religion”.

Ike is a member of the inter-faith council in Enugu. He says that Christian and Muslim leaders of various denominations have been cooperating closely for a long time, and that one result of their efforts is that no one has been killed in the state in religiously connotated riots.

Ike is also involved in inter-faith dialogue at the national level. He told me that he has even talked with terrorists. The government is cracking down on them and refuses to engage in negotiations, but it appreciates people like him sounding out what the militants are thinking.

Ike reports that one terrorist told him that he was in it for the money. Fighting was the way he could earn a living for his family. So long as he was not killed, his family would be fine, but if he did not fight, it would live in desperate poverty. Ike recalls that this man was not motivated by the Islamic faith in any way.

Ike is appalled by how the media report tensions. If a Christian and a Muslim boy argue about football, he says sarcastically, journalists will interpret their dispute as a clash of their religious faiths. He vehemently insists that religions do not cause violent conflict.

At the conference, most participants agreed that religion is hardly ever the reason for conflict. People are much more likely to clash over access to scarce resources, especially, but not only, land. In such settings, however, narratives of “us versus them” can become quite powerful, and religious identities can be used to hound scapegoats. Deeply entrenched, such narratives become self-fulfilling. Religion may not be the cause of conflict, but religious affiliation defines on whose side one is, what interests one has and whom to fear. Moreover, manipulative leaders can refer to religion in order to incite others to violent action.

Narratives that are based on – and reinforce – ideas of identity can be devastating. Consider Northern Ireland, for example. Catholics have been pitted against Protestants for what feels like ever. The underlying issue is class divisions, but for a long time, the conflict has been coded in terms of what church people belong to. This part of the United Kingdom is only at fragile peace, and Brexit may yet make violence flare up again.

Today, historians tell us that the underlying reason of the 30 Years War that devastated Germany in the 16th century was poor harvests that were causing growing need among a growing population. The armies that fought in it, however, were either Protestant or Catholic. The war was coded as one concerning the correct understanding of the Bible. That was long ago, and today there is no longer any narrative of conflict that would pit Protestants and Catholics against one another in Germany (I’ll happily admit, though, that all sides sometimes make fun of the particular quirks of the other side).

As I see it, Ike’s stance on religion and conflict is not entirely accurate in empirical terms. To the personally uninvolved journalist, religious affiliations seem to cause more problems than Ike is prepared to acknowledge.

At the same time, I think that Ike’s stance is absolutely correct in political terms. He is a faith leader himself, so he must never fan the flames, but must always douse them as best he can. He is not an uninvolved observer of Nigerian politics, he is an important player. To fight the narrative of “us versus them”, Christian leaders like him and their Muslim counterparts must always deny the narrative’s validity. It makes a difference. In Enugu state, their attitude has proved most helpful. And it is true, at their root, both faiths are religions of peace and anyone who understands correctly cannot throw bombs in either name. It would be good if all people who call themselves Christian or Muslim saw it that way, and only faith leaders can make that happen.

P.S.: It turned out that Ike has been reading D+C for years. He said he is interested in writing an essay on inter-faith dialogue for us, and I am looking forward to publishing it.


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