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Religion matters in global conflict May 24, 2005
Surprised at academia's reductionist understanding of the link between religion and violence, McTernan seeks to bridge the gap between current theory and the practice of conflict resolution. Prior to teaching at Harvard, McTernan worked globally to promote peace. This work is a continuation of this interest, and is structured into six steps.
First, McTernan provides a background to three current sociological theories on the cause of conflict: creed, greed, and grievance theories. The creed theory, or clash of civilizations theory, first argued by Sam Huntington, proposes that religion is the most profound difference between cultures and over time belief in different gods enhances the likelihood of conflict. The greed theory, outlined by Paul Collier, argues that civil strife is caused primarily by economic factors. The likelihood of conflict increases with a population in poverty, a dysfunctional economy, and a `lootable' commodity or natural resource. Grievance theory, summarized by Ted Gurr, assesses the ethnopolitical climate of a situation and proposes that conflict is likely when a constituency feels resentment towards governmental discrimination and repression. Each of these theories is ultimately unsatisfactory in explaining the link between religion and violence, but all three suggest a part of the larger picture.
In his second step, McTernan argues that religion is a salient factor in global conflict and should be regarded as such. There is a current trend in academia to reduce religion to a surrogate for grievance, greed, protest, and ambition. To reduce religion to this level proves myopic as religious terrorists attempt to use violence to create a new social order. Therefore, according to McTernan, religion needs to be seen as an `actor' in conflict in its own right.
The author's third step surveys the history of the world's major religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) to show the violent history of each. At the threat of extinction or with the need to expand its borders, each tradition justifies the use of violence. Within each of these faith traditions, the ambiguity of the sacred texts provides justification for using violence in the name of the Transcendent. McTernan also seeks to emphasize that current use of violence in religion is based on past ambivalence towards violence: one can find sufficient models in history where violence was used for religious purposes.
Fourth, McTernan highlights contemporary examples of religious violence: Northern Ireland, Israel/Palestinian, and Sri Lankan conflicts. He recognizes that within each of these conflicts there is a complex interplay between such factors as politics, economics, ethnicity, and colonialism, but religion shapes and defines the dynamics of each conflict. The author opines that in order for durable solutions of peace to be found, religion must be addressed as part of the problem.
McTernan's fifth step focuses on poverty, tolerance, leadership, and the role each can play in exacerbating or resolving religious violence. Poverty is not the sole cause of religious extremism, but a strong political will to resolve poverty on the global stage can reduce the threat of faith-based terrorism. Freedom of conscience and religious liberty are rooted in the tenets of each faith, and should be used to recognize and instill an environment of tolerance. Absolute truth claims, according to the author, should be resisted and the sacredness of human life should be top priority in order for people of divergent faiths to exist harmoniously. Political and religious leadership should not view conflict as a `technical problem' with quick-fix strategies but should use `adaptive leaps' to resolve tension. Religious leadership should be anti-clerical and should allow the whole community to help make decisions.
Finally, McTernan provides his own insight into resolving religious conflict. In order to find durable solutions for religious conflict, strategies should not be top-down resolutions, as these view the conflict as a mere technical problem. He suggests that in order to make an adaptive leap, a bottom-up strategy must be employed. In order to build an environment of tolerance, places of worship on the local level should be enlisted to create programs for inter-religious understanding. Religious leaders should be proactive in addressing their own communities' responsibility in perpetuating violence, and a reexamination of beliefs is necessary in order to avoid absolute truth claims.