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Mediation Perspectives: The Contested Power of Religious Narratives in Conflict

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Image courtesy of Wikicommons. The standoff between armed members of the Branch Davidian group and the FBI in Waco, Texas, descends into violence.

Mediation Perspectives is a regular series of blog contributions by the CSS Mediation Support Team and occasional guest authors.

To what extent do religious narratives shape conflict behavior? Many scholars agree that narratives are important: People get angry when they perceive injustice, they reach out for stories to help explain why that injustice exists, and then some of those stories propose or rationalize violence as a solution to the injustice. For this reason, peacebuilders should seek to understand religious narratives as possible framings of a given context of conflict.


Beyond a baseline sense that narratives matter, though, there is little scholarly consensus on how, how much, and why they matter. In scholarly research on the influence of religious narratives on violence in conflicts, responses to this question can be grouped into three broad categories. One widespread approach, which might be called the strong view, argues that religious narratives can become powerful templates or scripts for action. In this view, religious adherents are understood as true believers who read events around them as a cosmic drama in which they play a part, and in which violent action is justified based on their religious beliefs. Another, opposing approach, the skeptical view, treats religious narratives as tools that actors wield cynically and strategically. In this view, conflict entrepreneurs harness religious narratives to mobilize people and to rationalize their actions – all while pursuing material power and gain. A third analytical approach is the middle view. Articulations of the middle view vary. A common element is that they all treat religious narratives seriously, but focus on their interactions with other conflict drivers. Proponents of this view might, for example, treat religious narratives as a “force multiplier” of violent action, rather than as its cause or principal driving factor.

These various conceptions regarding the function of religious narratives in conflicts – whether as consciously held beliefs or as unconsciously absorbed interpretative frameworks – have an influence on peacebuilding policies and third-party interventions in conflicts. However, the lack of scholarly consensus about the precise relationship between narratives and action leaves peacebuilders with the practical question of what approach to adopt. The middle view is most useful for peacebuilding. It captures the interplay between narratives and all the other contexts and factors that drive conflict. Narratives (whether religious or non-religious) provide overarching frameworks that interact with all the other factors shaping any conflict.

The Strong View: Religious Narratives Determine Conflict Behavior

Proponents of this view treat narratives as determinative in prompting or sustaining violence. In this view, narratives structure the context in which violence unfolds. They not only supply perpetrators with justifications for violence, but actually motivate violence. The strong view takes the statements of violent religious actors literally, an approach that allows scholars to delve deeply into such actors’ writings and statements. Scholars such as Mark Juergensmeyer and Hans Kippenberg have conducted case studies of groups such as the Branch Davidians and the 1993 siege in Waco, Texas; al-Qaida and the 9/11 attacks; and Aum Shinrikyo and the 1995 attacks on the Tokyo subway. In their investigations of actors’ self-descriptions, these and other authors have shown how they fit events into narratives of what Juergensmeyer calls “cosmic war,” or what Kippenberg calls “script[s] for violence against unbelievers” that can be activated when communities feel threatened. Supporters of this view list factors such as afterlife compensation or community cohesion as key advantages of religious groups, explaining why religious narratives provide a unique framework to promote violence.

The literal reading of religious narratives and their rhetoric of “cosmic war,” however, can lead policymakers and practitioners to assume that these accounts are both inflexible and pathological. During the final days of the standoff with members of the religious group of the Branch of Davidians in Waco, Texas, the FBI was convinced that the “Bible babble” of their leader, David Koresh, had brainwashed his followers and had led them to take up arms, imagining themselves in an end-of-times struggle against their besiegers. Some conflict researchers have since criticized this approach, arguing that it might have been possible to de-escalate the situation if Koresh’s religious narratives had been taken more seriously. The tactics adopted by the FBI, they said, only reinforced the group’s perception of being in an apocalyptic confrontation. Ultimately, there are multiple versions of the strong view – some of which see religious narratives as decisive but also as avenues into peacebuilding, and others of which see those same narratives as proof of actors’ deadly irrationality.

In some situations – for example with al-Qaida and the Islamic State – policymakers sometimes appear to decide a priori that no negotiations are possible because of what is assumed to be total fanaticism on the part of those groups. However, hardline groups routinely display at least limited willingness to negotiate, and some groups and actors in the orbit of al-Qaida have in recent years pulled back from absolutism in favor of greater pragmatism and “mainstreamisation”. When policymakers treat stated ideologies and narratives as blueprints for understanding religious movements’ worldviews, they may miss out on the dynamism, internal contradictions and flexibility that such movements sometimes show.

The strong view appears best suited to understanding relatively small, highly insular movements where leaders and members demonstrate high levels of religious commitment. When applied to larger movements where leaders and members may have varying motivations and commitments, the strong view could brush over important aspects when assessing the power of religious narratives. The strong view risks reducing conflicts to the subjective perceptions of one group, rather than asking how these narratives developed in combination with other factors of the conflict and in relation to what the other sides in the conflict were saying and doing.

The Skeptical View: “Hard” Factors Are Key

In the skeptical view, religious narratives are a tool – a form of “cheap talk,” in the political scientist Barbara Walter’s analysis – that elites use to manipulate the masses. For skeptics, the leaders of violent movements are ultimately interested in money and power. Conflicts, and particularly mass conflicts and civil wars, arise from the interaction between the will to power and the emergence of opportunity structures that allow for rebellion.

The advantage of the skeptical view is that it calls attention to several recurring features of mass conflicts. First, there are often observable inconsistencies between, on the one hand, the personal piety and rigor that religious traditions demand of leaders and believers, and the actual behavior of leaders and fighters in violent movements on the other hand – that is, leaders and fighters may prove to be personally impious, greedy, etc. Religious narratives sometimes appear to rationalize, rather than motivate, the decisions that violent actors take, and groups that profess hardline and inflexible ideologies often prove remarkably malleable even over short periods of time. Some of the most extreme spokesmen for violent ideologies, moreover, may behave very differently in public than they do in private; Boko Haram’s Abubakar Shekau, by one account, ultimately agreed to release some of the famous “Chibok girls” more out of self-interest than as part of a grand cosmic narrative. Meanwhile, within armed groups that claim to defend religion, the motivations of ordinary fighters may range from a desire for revenge against the security forces to a simple calculation about their individual options for short-term survival under a given set of circumstances.

The disadvantages of the skeptical view are, at a minimum, twofold. First, it can become self-contradictory to say that religion does not matter because movement leaders use religious narratives strategically – if such narratives are a powerful tool for recruitment, then they must matter to someone and therefore have a powerful role in conflict, even if no religious actor can be completely consistent in applying stated values to actual behavior. Second, skeptics are sometimes too quick to dismiss what proponents of the strong view say – namely, that there often appears to be a close fit between the religious explanations actors give for their behaviors and the actual choices actors make. That is, armed actors using religious narratives sometimes do demonstrate considerable willingness to sacrifice their lives, endure considerable hardship, decline opportunities for personal enrichment or immunity, and otherwise flout secular rational calculations in the service of their stated view of the world.

The Middle View: Religious Narratives and Other Conflict Factors Interconnect

The middle view represents something of a compromise between the two views described previously. Proponents of this view tend to accept the claim that actors who profess religious commitments take those commitments seriously, and that religious narratives have a certain influence on their conflict behavior, for example as a “legitimizing resource” for violence – but they neither foreground the analysis of religious scripts nor endorse cynical views of conflict as being completely motivated by materialistic impulses.

The middle view is particularly well-suited to peacebuilding in that it emphasizes the multiple causes that contribute to conflict dynamics and armed group formation. The middle view can also help to capture the multiple narratives that shape conflicts. Many armed groups have internal debates and ambivalent postures over different framings of conflict, e.g., whether to privilege nationalist, ethnic, or religious narratives. Thinking about the multiple factors that shape a conflict, and about the different narratives that give meaning to them, can help to avoid reductive approaches that either overemphasize religious narratives (e.g., by prioritizing ideological de-radicalization or pushing to dismantle extremist networks) or underemphasize religious narratives (e.g., by focusing only on “good governance” and “development” without attending to the specific grievances and stories that groups and communities consider important).

The disadvantage of the middle view is that it sometimes lacks the analytical elegance of the other models described above. Understanding the connection between religious narratives and other conflict factors requires careful attention to context, which needs to be taken into consideration in conflict analysis. Clarifying the weight of different religious narratives and their relative importance with a view to other factors of conflict and other narrative framings at play can be time-consuming and often require collaboration with local actors and researchers.

Conclusion/Outlook

As practitioners and policymakers choose among these views (or hold one of them already, as a preexisting set of assumptions and biases), the stakes for peacebuilding and conflict resolution are high. The strong view suggests that what matters most is changing or disrupting the script that violent religious actors are following. The skeptical view suggests that what ultimately matters are the material motivations and opportunity structures that propel conflict.

The middle view, in contrast, does not assume that these perspectives are mutually exclusive. Conflict actors can be genuinely committed to an ideology (or narrative) that motivates violence while also being concerned with the struggle for power or material resources. A narrative can help individuals make sense of their experiences, feelings, and observations, and can provide a framework through which group dynamics and decision-making can be elaborated. The middle view suggests that all of these factors can link up in different ways, depending on the context.

Adopting the middle view has a number of advantages for peacebuilding. First, the role of religious narratives can be rightsized and contextualized. Paying greater attention to how and for whom narratives matter can help peacebuilders to avoid one-size-fits-all approaches that assume that the role of narratives is the same across different groups, contexts, and points in time. Second, the interaction between narratives, events, and material factors can be approached with greater sophistication, allowing peacebuilders to focus on developing new narratives that are conducive to conflict resolution while also addressing some of the non-narrative causes of conflict.

Mediation Perspectives is a periodic blog entry that’s provided by the CSS’ Mediation Support Team and occasional guest authors. Each entry is designed to highlight the utility of mediation approaches in dealing with violent political conflicts. To keep up to date with the Mediation Support Team, you can sign up to their newsletter here.


About the Author

Alex Thurston is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Cincinnati. He received his PhD in Religious Studies from Northwestern University. He is the author of three books, most recently Jihadists of North Africa and the Sahel: Local Politics and Rebel Groups (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

For more information on issues and events that shape our world, please visit the CSS website.

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