Political science has awakened “from a long, secular slumber” and started to grapple with the question of religion in politics and conflict, giving rise to competing political science approaches on these questions. This has a direct impact on suggestions about ways to solve conflicts with a religious dimension, writes Sabina A. Stein (Center for Security Studies, Zurich) in an article published in Politorbis (Issue 52, 2011), a journal published by the Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs.
According to Stein, three theoretical perspectives on religion and conflict can be identified: primordialism, instrumentalism and social constructivism. Primordialism sees differences in religious traditions and beliefs as a key cause of conflict. Samuel Huntington has been the most prominent proponent of such views, seeing religion as central in the constitution of individual and collective identity. Threats to religious frameworks can thus provoke violent reactions. Current conflicts are seen as a resurgence of ancient hatreds.
Instrumentalism considers that the causes of conflict are material. Religion is instrumentalized by elites in order to mobilize support: it is the “opium of the warriors.” Religion is a tool for creating identity and for absolutizing conflict, thus rendering violence morally justifiable. Religion thus serves a legitimating function. Social constructivism admits that religion can play an important role in constituting identities, but insists on the fact that social actors are never defined by a unique identity. Similarly, religious cognitive structures can be manipulated by power-hungry elites as a tool of legitimation; but they cannot just be used according to one’s whims.
Indeed, religions contain resources that can be used for various purposes, promoting either conflict or peace. Religious beliefs do not “inherently push adherents toward violent conflict.” Identities are not fixed and can be transformed through the interpretation of religious doctrines.Stein insists that people involved in peace promotion in those contexts where religions play a role should be aware that a theoretical lens shapes our understanding of specific situations.
Various articles in the issue elaborate on lessons from specific cases (from contemporary Islam to the Branch Davidians in Waco) in order to understand the dynamics of religion, conflict and tools for transforming religious-political conflicts. These tools include innovative approaches such as arts-based approaches to conflict resolution (Michelle LeBaron, University of British Columbia). Bob Roberts, pastor of NorthWood Church (Keller, Texas) explains his work for connecting Evangelical Christians and Conservative Muslims, which he understands as “multi-faith” and not “interfaith” work.
But at least in its more academic expressions in the United States, much of political science continues to largely ignore religion, despite the fact of religious influence in politics, according to Steven Kettell of the University of Warwick. In an article in PS: Political Science and Politics (Vol. 45, No. 1), the official journal of the American Political Science Association, Kettell studied the importance of religion in the 20 highest ranking journals in political science and found that just 1.34 percent of them deal either directly or tangentially with religious themes; this figure is far lower than the proportion of articles dealing with more mainstream political science concerns, such as democracy and conflict. Those articles that involve religion usually are focused on a narrower range of issues, such as violence and Islam, and U.S. politics.
In contrast to a field such as sociology, political science fares poorly; Kettell compared the top 20 sociology journals with the top political science publications and found that in the case of the former, religion receives “primary” attention at the rate of two-and-a-half times higher than the latter. Although the total number of political science articles on religion has increased since 2000, the overall proportion of such articles has increased by just a quarter of one percent. Kettell concludes that political science’s origins, emerging during the creation of an “increasingly secular system of territorially sovereign states of the 17th century that has encouraged the discipline’s blind spot on religion.”
(Politorbis, Dept. of Foreign Affairs, Bernastrasse 28, 3003 Bern, Switzerland; PS: Political Science and Politics, 1527 New Hampshire Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20036)