Small Wars Journal

Religion: Shaper of the Century

Thu, 11/04/2021 - 2:56am

Religion: Shaper of the Century

by Yvan Yenda Ilunga and Thomas G. Matyók

            A constrained view of religion as a spiritual and cultural element of the political environment alone has long passed. In fact, it was at first wrong on the part of social scientists to disassociate religion from our understanding of the construct and building of nation-states. The debate of the need to separate religion and states demonstrates further how societies have ignored the foundation of social organization (Durkheim, 1995) within its structural and systemic evolution. The world has always been religious, and societies, even when they claim to be non-religious, always carry within their core principles aspects of religion (Smith, 2008). Civil society and military actors engaged in humanitarian and peace operations will benefit from an awareness of how religion shapes individuals’ values and ideas regarding the nature of the state. Religious traditions act as foundations upon which secular society rests. Without an understanding of religion awareness of society remains limited.

            From the earliest days of humanity, religion has proved an important influencer of people (Wade, 2009). Humankind initially relied on religion and religious actors to provide answers to the most difficult philosophic questions; life and death, the nature of reality, on-being, etc. Over time, reference to religion changed from primarily acting as a provider of spiritual and emotional answers to serving as a guide of how society should be structured and governed. Principles of peace, reconciliation, justice, truth, equality are characteristics of Wisdom Traditions. This trajectory from philosophic inquiry to political foundation has not changed over the preceding centuries, instead it has become steeper accentuating the complexities embedded in current cultural, political, and economic conflicts around the world.   The 21st century is regarded as religiously driven where notions of law, politics, peace, and security are informed by religious beliefs and practices (Stark, 2015; Toft, et al, 2011). Awareness of the connection of religion to politics is important for political and security leadership (Micklethwait & Wooldridge, 2009). In many operational environments outside of the West, general populations, including political leaders, refer to themselves as religious people, and arguably determine their actions upon either individual or common belief.  Religious arguments which were foreign in politics and peace operations have become an integral part of our daily challenges and solutions (2009). Unfortunately, many thinkers and military organizations have yet to effectively integrate this recognition in their strategic thinking, planning and tactical operations. In Professional Military Education, there is little recognition of religion and its role in peace and conflict (Matyók, 2015).

Failing to view religion as integral to human activity continues to fragilize peace operations and efforts of stabilization in remote rural communities hidden in the mountains of Afghanistan or the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Brazil, as well as in major cosmopolitan cities and societies such as Tripoli in Libya or Pittsburg in Pennsylvania in the United States. In fact, the trend of religious organization in the Northern Hemisphere, especially in the United States, has been shifting from traditional evangelical views to more complex progressive non-denominational Christian organizations, as well as many other minorities, yet growing, religious groups. This increase in number and diversity of religious organizations implies that we have additional views and values that one thinks are important for their society. Such additional views could either bring peace or fragility. With such religious increase, we are on the fine line of peace or violence. Therefore, it is critical to establish and bring to the front line of peace and security studies the truth and pressing urgency that this century is and will continue to be shaped by religion as spiritual belief and as provider of normative values around which society and politics turn. The world is more religious now than ever, and up to 85% of the global population reports being religious or spiritual (PEW 2012). This is a huge number and downplaying such an observation would only be detrimental to global security and efforts of peace operations and stabilization around the globe.  

God’s Century

God’s century will be known as a century of return to religion and highly religious belief in the global leadership spaces (Toft. et al, 2011). Theologians and those studying divinity push further with the view that the spiritual dynamics of the century will continue to increase and frame the way politics and policies are designed and conducted. This is not like the forced practices that occurred during the time of the Crusades, in the first century, however. The uniqueness of this century of return to religion is that it brings forward multiple, diverse, and sometime competing religious ideologies and practices in the construct and sustainability of interpersonal social dynamics, as well as concepts of the institutional fabric of governments, governance, and global order.

For instance, the Middle Eastern countries are known as predominantly Muslim countries and societies. Their religious alignment continues to have a strong influence on their national laws and policies, as well as their governance models. Religion influences both either extreme interpretations of their religious doctrines, or it softens their stances on some important issues such as women’s rights and political liberties. In both instances, their actions and decisions are filtered through the interpretation of religious books and wisdom tradition. The same argument is also true for the legitimization of government decisions within local communities where people assess their legality and legitimacy based on their general understanding of such common belief.

            Moving from the Middle Eastern countries to the Western societies, these same realities apply, but with different tonality. In fact, over the past decades, many western societies have seen a huge increase in travel, tourism and migration which continue to establish a culture of religious cosmopolitanism. In economically advanced cities, embracing such a diversity and transitioning from a mono-religious view of cities to a more complex one seems the way to go. Such a transition continues to be promoted in key sectors such as politics where the idea of representation has fast moved from the former debate of the ratio between men and women, or based on race, toward a religious representativeness. Many big cities are succeeding to this progressive transformation. However, there is still concern of whether such a representativeness is truly accepted in the daily social interactions of common citizens. Contrary to the move big cities have been making, the most resistance comes from either small conservative communities or from conservative leaders who believe that such change in values and spirituality establishes a permanent danger to their societies and cultures. Here we are not aligning our argument with the promotion of any political views, instead we are blowing the trumpet about the significance of such dynamics in the framing of global security mechanisms and the promotion of peace at home and abroad. It would be unwise to think security and peace in this century without considering a deep consideration of these elements.

Apart from the rooting of religion in the local culture and its increasing visibility in decision making spaces, there is also an unquestionable increasing influence of religious groups throughout the whole of society. This influence comes in the form of membership in organizations or the massive practices of an ideology in local communities. For instance, although not a religious belief, the followers of a non-violence ideology as promoted by Gandhi continue to believe that such practice should be dominant in political and nonpolitical spaces. The same is the influence of the “Ubuntu” ideology promoted by Archbishop Desmond Tutu from South Africa, and many other Pan-African activists and peacebuilders. The force of religious and community ideology and the influence of their groups are current peace catalysts. Religious groups are at the same time forces of good and evil, depending on their ideological foundation.  In fact, disruptions in religious groups which lead to multiplication of their identities with distinct appreciation of social and cultural values also constitute a major risk to peace. Either they work for the global good or they fragment the whole of local peace. The main concern is to develop a clear understanding on how religion is included and considered in the governance system; but most importantly how religious leaders are either excluded or included in the effort of promoting peace and security.  

Global and national governance’s dynamics

The multiplication of religious organizations, and the problematic of their regulation, does not only cause concern regarding societal changes and changes in group values. The multiplication and the influences of religion on leaders have been facilitated by the dynamics of globalization. Religious ideologies and philosophies are used to oppose the trend and influence of globalization. Those opposing globalization through religious argument, do not oppose trade or the technology that comes from the exchange of ideas and innovative minds. Instead, they oppose the globalization of values and beliefs. The homogenization of belief and values is viewed as detrimental to individual and group survival, governance, and peace. In fact, the pioneers in such a movement believe that the openness of borders and the increasing influx and outflux of people and transfer of ideologies facilitates the spread of unorthodox values and beliefs that threaten local morals, faith, and governance. Some go even further to stipulate that the formation of a coordinated international system established around the United Nations progressively lead to the formation of a world government, one governance system and one religion, which is a threat to the dynamics of their local and national governance, to their values and beliefs. Therefore, globalization must be stopped.

Since globalization is not a systemic, organic, and controllable evolving pattern, its trends should therefore be stopped by injecting into the global system some views that work against the accepted global trends. Globalization and its patterns are therefore seen by those opposing it in the name of religion, as an orchestrated dynamic used to exterminate, condition, and dismantle the core values and religious belief dear to many indigenous communities; hence replacing them by the views of those carrying the means of influence.

There might be part of the truth in this view, especially for communities that have seen their local governance system dismantled either through the process of democratization or violent conflicts fueled by outsiders. While in transition from the memories of the known religion, values, and governance system to the unknown mode of governance, there is a legitimate argument to be made to oppose the idea of globalization of values, which changes how way societies are and would be governed.  In addition to the anti-globalization movement and ideology based on religious views, the other position of religion in global and national governance dynamics is the substitute of religious organizations in functioning local institutions. This occurs in contexts of violent conflicts, failed states, or weak institutions. In these cases, religion steps in when governments lack capacity and legitimacy. It does not really matter if it is a religious conflict or not, and religious actors here do not intervene nor assist based on their religious ideology or with the idea of expansionism. But instead, as the call for corporate social responsibility is for Multinational companies, hence out of moral and societal obligations, religion steps up to be instrumental in-service delivery and sometimes in the harmonization of relations between community members. Against the limited view of separation between religion and the state, here it is evident that religious organizations and ideologies are an integral part of the nation-state and should therefore be considered as such. There is no way to do politics, provide security, promote governance, build institutions, and recover peace in this century by ignoring religion and religious leaders as influential actors for peace and stability.     

Radicalization and stabilization moments

Despite the many unpublicized positive roles that religion plays in the promotion of peace and stability, there is unfortunately an ongoing trend around the world that uses religion and religious ideologies to promote radicalization of values and ultimately leading to the spreading of acts of terrorisms and other destabilizing attacks. These behaviors and radical strategies are mainly used to serve two main purposes. First, as is the case for many other terrorist acts, they intend to send political messages and oppose targeted governance approaches and policies. Such cases are the acts of terrorism and the processes of radicalization conducted by extremist religious groups in places such as Afghanistan and Nigeria. Of course, these same tactics and motivations fuel the actions of religious and non-religious radical movements that target religious groups. Ideologically, the latter actions justify the views of extreme left or extreme right movements in Western societies who think that the threat to peace, stability and prosperity is the opposing group.

The second purpose is to increase their groups’ visibility and legitimacy for political positioning. For instance, in Central African Republic, armed groups used religious identity as their main argument to advocate for political negotiation and representation. Of course, their advocacy, their unquestionable visibility, and active presence in the life of the Central African Republic were the results of their strong radicalization campaign and processes, as well as their violent destabilizing acts upon local communities. While the groups managed to gain political legitimacy and positions of leadership, the societal impacts of their destabilizing acts will flow into future generations. The process of de-radicalization is much needed to avoid entertaining passive religious views in communities, which would constitute potential threats to peace and national stability. States should not ignore or minimize the impacts of such radicalization by armed groups (now political parties for some) in the process of restoring peace and designing effective national and global security mechanisms (Council, C. 2010).  Apart from the negativities that religion and its actors have brought into communities, it is important to highlight there are many positive roles that religious groups perform through their messaging and interventions in fragile settings.  Religion can promote freedom and restore peace. This political significance of religion and religious freedom is expressed through societies’ leaders and is recognized as a source of political and social stability. This recognition should be on the front page of the religious discourse in peace operations.

While bringing this discourse to the front of the conversation, it is also important to illuminate other fact that the turning points in the nexus of religion and peace would be the nature and mindset of the populations constituting religious communities. Apart from their career aspiration and cosmopolitan views of the world and urban cities, those below 34 years of age are more religious than those older. Additionally, religious people are the majority of all education levels; worldwide 6 out of 10 are religious. Africa and Middle East lead this with 8 out of 10 (Gallup, 2015).  With such a significant influence of religion among educated people, who also happen to be influential actors in societies deciding on war or peace; as well as among the age group of majorities of those composing the core of armed forces deploy in the field, it is vital that the idea, role, and place of religion and that of its actors be at the center of every discussion on peace and stability. And, moreover, it is crucial to bear in mind that such an influence of religion makes this century God’s where religious principles and ideology will continue to shape and influence political and policy decision across the world.




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Categories: religion

About the Author(s)

Yvan Yenda Ilunga, Ph.D. serves as Deputy Director of the Joint Civil-Military Interaction Research and Education Network, and Assistant Professor of Political Science at Central State University in Ohio. He is the author of “Humanitarianism and Security: Trouble and Hope at the Heart of Africa” (Palgrave Inc. 2020).

Thomas Matyók, Ph.D. (Nova Southeastern University) is the Chair and Director of Graduate Studies of the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He leads the university’s Civil-Military Interaction Research and Education Network housed in the department. His research focuses on the role of religion in peace and stability operations, changing global conflict antagonisms, and the widening gap in civil-military relations. Tom is currently a Senior Fellow at the U.S. Army Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute.