A review of Christian-Muslim conflict and a modest proposal to counter it

At a Christian-Muslim conference in Geneva this week, participants agreed to build a network for “peace teams” to intervene in crises where religious differences are invoked as the cause of the dispute. The idea is that religious differences may not be the real problem in a so-called religious conflict, but rather a means to mobilise the masses in a dispute that actually stems from political or economic rivalries.

If outside experts could help disentangle religion from the other issues, the argument goes, that could help neutralise religion’s capacity to mobilise and inflame, in the hope of leading to a de-escalation of the crisis.

Is this idealistic? Maybe. However, given the number of crises throughout the world that have religion factored into the equation, it certainly seems worth the effort. Many of these conflicts are not simply battles between religious fanatics, as they may be presented, but calculated agitation by one group against another, usually for political or economic advantage. Some smokescreens are easy to see through, others almost impenetrable.

(Photo: Prince Ghazi, 1 Nov 2010/WCC-Mark Beach)

In his speech to the conference, Jordanian Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal sketched out the problem facing religious experts who undertake such peace missions. “Before considering what to do and how to do it, we are faced with a series of complex social, political and religious puzzles which we must fully understand in order not to make things worse,” he said.

He then offered a brief tour d’horizon of Christian-Muslim tension and conflict in the world. It’s not complete and readers may disagree on specific points (that’s what the Comments section below is for!), but it’s a useful overview worth posting verbatim to highlight the problems and invite debate on them.

Ghazi said there are:

  • “places where Christians are clearly severely oppressed by Muslims (such as Pakistan, Iraq and Sudan), and places where Muslims are clearly severely oppressed by Christians (such as the Philippines);”
  • a lot of other places where it is not clear who is oppressing who (such as along the Muslim-Christian ‘fault line’ in Sub-Saharan Africa);
  • “places where we know both Christians and Muslims routinely wrong and kill each other (such as Nigeria);
  • “places where Christians and Muslims are both oppressed by others (such as Palestine, Burma, Thailand and India on occasion);
  • “places where our knowledge of the religious oppression there is limited (such as China);

  • (Photo: Children urge Philippine army and Muslim separatists to stop fighting in Mindanao, 2 Oct 2008/Romeo Ranoco)
  • “places where foreign missionary activity is exacerbating local relationships and causing communal violence (such as Indonesia) albeit that this does not justify the oppression there;
  • “places where the cause of violence is not religion but irredentism (such as Chechnya, Kashmir and Sudan) although again this does not justify the oppression there;
  • “places where there is no violent oppression as such but legal or social discrimination (such as in parts of the Arab world and Europe, and right here in Switzerland — where Muslims can no longer build minarets);
  • “places where Christians are oppressed by Muslims but Muslims oppress other Muslims even more violently (such as Pakistan and Iraq) due to sectarian violence (though the governments do their best to stop this);
  • “places where we as Christians and Muslims are not likely to agree on who is wronging who;
  • “places where Muslims and/or Christians will never agree among themselves — let alone with each other — on who is doing what to who and whose fault it is;
  • “and, finally, places where individuals regularly exaggerate their religious plight to their co-religionists abroad due to their own individual myopia, or simply to exploit them for personal financial benefit. This in turn is then seized upon by the international proselytism ‘industry’ to solicit more and more donations from their own popular bases which then fund more and more attempts at foreign proselytism and this makes the situation yet worse.”

(Photo: Office in Lahore where moderate Pakistani Sunni imam Sarfraz Naeemi was killed by a Taliban suicide bomber, 12 June 2009/Mohsin Raza)

On top of that, Ghazi added, religious leaders have varying degrees of political power or social influence in different places and different levels of access to information about what is really going on and how best to help.

What do you think? Can outside religious experts help defuse conflicts that are religious or partly religious in nature? And what do you think of the list of Christian-Muslim flashpoints presented above?