As the militant group calling itself “Islamic State” stormed across northern Iraq and Syria in recent months, prominent imam Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah and more than 100 other Muslim leaders flew into action, drafting a condemnation of the insurgent group’s actions with an appeal to Islamic jurisprudence. In Burma (Myanmar), as Muslims have faced persecution from Buddhist extremists, some Buddhist monks offer shelter in their monasteries. In Nigeria, the kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls by Boko Haram this year prompted Muslim and Christian leaders like Pastor Esther Ibanga to organize peaceful demonstrations to oppose extremist violence.
The ongoing conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR) is not a ‘religious’ war. As in other cases, it is a politically-motivated conflict between people that happen to be members of different religions. And behind this all-too-familiar, opportunistic and now uncontrolled misuse of religion stands Michel Djotoda, a key leader of the Seleca rebellion, which lasted from December 2012 through March 2013, and the CAR’s beleaguered president from 24 March 2013 until 10 January 2014.
The crisis in the Central African Republic (CAR) has left humanitarian organisations, international peacekeepers and observers frantically searching for solutions to stop the conflict. Now, to make matters worse,the Afghan Taliban and the notorious al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – which, together with its allies, occupied northern Mali in 2012 – have denounced what it describes as the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Muslims in the CAR. AQIM also issued a warning against France for its alleged complicity in the violence, saying the ‘supposed peacekeepers’ have launched a ‘crusade against Islam’ and that France will be punished for doing so. Given that ordinary Muslims in the CAR are clearly being targeted and tens of thousands of Muslims are fleeing the country, should this threat be taken seriously?
David Zounmenou, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) believes that AQIM is still smarting after its defeat against France in Mali last year and that their warnings are not to be taken lightly. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) also met last week to discuss the situation in the CAR and has pleaded for dialogue and national reconciliation – another sign that the crisis has now taken a decidedly religious turn. Yet, Zounmenou strongly warns against casting the conflict in the CAR in the same mould as other crises in Africa that are rooted in conflict between locals and radical Islamist groups, such as in Mali or Somalia.
How can policymakers and conflict mediation practitioners effectively engage with religion? Indeed, how can practitioners mainstream such engagement with religious actors and organizations? And, what do we even mean when we ask these questions? These were just some of the questions posed at Religion, Foreign Policy and Development: Making Better Policy to Make a Bigger Difference a recent conference held at the UK Foreign Office’s Wilton Park that brought together policymakers, academics and practitioners for two days of wide-ranging and intense discussions.
Opportunities to engage with fellow practitioners are undoubtedly important for a number of reasons. Like gender and other cross-cutting themes, religion also runs the risk of being compartmentalized by experts and given little systematic consideration by colleagues in the same institution working on other topics. This is a challenge that those of us working in the field of mediation and conflict transformation also face: how do we make sure that religion’s role is adequately addressed by those who are working to resolve and transform conflicts?
September marks the first anniversary of Muslim outrage over the anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims. The furor over the crude video clip depicting Muhammad as a womanizing buffoon was the latest installment in a series of disputes over Western depictions of the Prophet. As some liberal secularists think that Muslims who are reluctant to accept the principle of free speech are best dealt with by habituation – constantly exposing them to (possibly offensive) free speech -, further explosive incidences of giving and taking offence can be expected.
The problem of giving and taking offence is probably best illuminated by the ongoing struggle over blasphemy and hate speech in the legal arena. For over a decade, members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation have attempted to introduce binding legislation against the defamation of religions at the United Nations, only to be blocked by Western states. Muslims in Western countries have frequently lodged complaints against offenders under hate-speech or blasphemy laws, but have rarely scored a legal victory. The reason for their respective failures boils down to one major factor – competing values of free speech and respect for religion.