Religion’s role in extremism, conflict and peacebuilding

Gerard Powers says religious actorts do important work in peacebuilding around the world
Gerard Powers, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies

It is always stimulating to hear someone knowledgeable talk about an issue in a way that leads one to deeper understanding. Gerard Powers did that recently at Ottawa’s Saint Paul University in a speech regarding extremism, conflict and peacebuilding. Powers is the director of Catholic peacebuilding studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame University in Indiana.

“Wars of religion”

Powers made two basic points.  One is that the “war of religions” paradigm is frequently unhelpful and diverts attention away from other causes of conflict such as the role played by the foreign policy of nations, including those of the West. The second point is that religious actors are playing an important role on a daily basis in what Powers called the “peace of religion.” He described those efforts as “unheralded, under-appreciated, and under-analyzed.”

Some of the world’s conflicts, Powers said, certainly do involve religious extremists such as ISIS in the Middle East, but there are often multi-faceted dynamics at work which are not primarily religious in nature.  The rise of ISIS, for example, has included support from former secular Bathists in Iraq who were sidelined when the United States toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. As well, Iraqi Sunni tribes fear the Shiite-dominated Iraqi governments installed by the U.S. even more than they fear ISIS.

Powers said that Catholic and Protestant leaders in the U.S. had warned against military intervention in Iraq but the U.S government did not heed that advice.

“Peace of religion”

Regarding peacebuilding, Powers said, religious leaders and ordinary people motivated by their faith have do important work in conflict zones throughout the world, including Iraq, Syria, Uganda, South Sudan, and Northern Ireland. In many societies religious institutions are ubiquitous and can be present in places and situations where secular and government negotiators fear to tread.

In Colombia, for example, a local priest might travel in “no-go” areas and reach out to rebel leaders as a pastor who tends to both the victims and perpetrators of violence. He might even hear a killer’s confession.

The “track two” or soft power diplomacy provided by religious and other civil society actors, said Powers, supplements what he called the “track one” diplomacy engaged in by politicians and diplomats.

Powers said the “peace of religion” efforts would be even more widespread and effective if a greater number of people in leadership and in the pews understood peacebuilding as integral to their faith and to the vocation of their religious institutions.

Poor diplomacy

Powers added that there is among Western governments a secular bias which ignores religion, wishes it would go away, or that, at the least, it would remain a private activity with no influence in the public square. This lack of sympathy and understanding leads Western countries into foreign diplomacy that supports what they consider “good religion” while at the same time discrediting “bad religion” in foreign countries.

This, Powers said, is a self-serving approach that rarely works and often plays into the narrative of religious extremists such as those in ISIS.


5 thoughts on “Religion’s role in extremism, conflict and peacebuilding

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  1. We have been plagued in North America with the Right catering to the Religious vote. It has led to some really bad decisions like the invasion of Iraq.
    I would not like to see a Republican President in the U.S. Because again I would warn against ground troops in the Iraq/ Syrian region. Every nation in the region is saying the same thing. But those warnings are buried by the press. You might hear one little sound bite about this.
    There’s good reason for Western troops to heed this warning. ISIS followers believe that we’re on the cusp of Armageddon. To make their belief come true they need Western troops to join the fray. To them it would be the battle with the Great Satan. But they have been losing ground in the area where the great battle is to take place. So the multiple bombing that ISIS is responsible for are been used to draw ground troops in.
    In Canada we are not innocent when it comes to being influenced by the Religious Right. The Harper government consistently bowed to this pressure to keep the votes coming in. I’m glad that we are not going to have that influence with the current government. Hopefully our Defense Minister doesn’t cave to any kind of pressure because I’m pretty sure he understands ISIS goals. But the government has to start coming out and telling the public why they’re withdrawing the planes and focusing on training for the groups opposing ISIS.


    1. Thanks Greg for your comment. You imply that right wing politicians in the U.S. invaded Iraq to satisfy or appease the religious right. I am not at all sure that is the case. It is more likely that Bush, Cheney et al had their reasons for a regime change, which included access to oil and other geo-political considerations. It is true that once Bush et all beat the war drums, evangelical leaders, generally speaking, supported Bush while the mainline Protestant and Catholic leadership did not. I do not think of the Iraq invasion as a “religious war” and as Gerard Powers argues, to call it one is a paradigm which misleads more than it enlightens.


      1. Hey Dennis. I love your articles. It is nice also to opine on subjects in a civilized manner. And I mean nice.
        The Religious Right saw Bush as one of them. They celebrated that a born again was in the Oval Office and they would have a real voice now.
        I do not trust any of George Bush Jr. actions leading up to the invasion of Iraq. First he’s not going to invade. Then he’s going to invade. Then he’s not going to invade. He has all of these different people around him with different agendas and ideas. I find him not to be a very intelligent guy.
        When he became hawkish on the invasion he used references like crusade. That rang alarm bells with me. I think Cheney,Rove, Wolfowitz, Rice…etc. used the Religious Right agenda to push Bush into undertaking the invasion of Iraq. Groups consisting of Christian Zionists and Jewish Zionists saw the removal of Saddam Hussein as providing security for Israel. Some of the crazy zealots did see it as a holy war.


  2. Gerard Kroc is naturally an apologist for increased church activism in bringing about peace – a worthy cause for sure.

    However to blame secular governments for the world’s violent conflicts and their ambivalence to the roles that religious actors play in bringing about peace, falls short of the mark. What about the crusades and the role the RC church played in fomenting and rewarding Christian slayers of the Saracens? Or how about the American Southern Christian churches justification of and complicity in African American slavery which helped bring about the U.S. Civil War?

    I recommend R. Scott Appleby’s 1999 book “The Ambivalence of the Sacred – Religion, Violence and Reconciliation” as a great read on this overall topic. Seems some religious actors choose peace while others hearing the same message choose violence.


    1. Thanks for your comment David. You mention the crusades as an example of religion’s role in violent conflict. That’s true but it is a somewhat dated example, to say the least. You say, too, that churches were complicit in American slavery and many were, but the real drivers were the Southern plantation owners and the Jim Crow politicians who supported them. And when blacks finally did receive some rights in the U.s. the movement was led in great part by Rev. Martin Luther King and other people of religious faith. In any event, Kroc’s point is not to absolve religious actors of all culpability, but rather to say that using a “wars of religion” paradigm in many contemporary conflicts does more to confuse than it does to enlighten. I tend to agree with him.


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