Tag Archives: conflict

Can we please drop the debate about religion causing war?

The whole religion causes violence (and specifically large-scale violence between social groups, or war) argument has always irritated me because it implies that it is somehow possible to separate the religious aspect of one’s identity from the rest of that identity. I don’t deny that the way in which people represent their place in the world and their relationships to the rest of humanity can lead to violence and conflict, but I don’t think there is anything special about religion in this context. Granted that religion is often a massive part of identities which become part of the justification for war, for instance in the Balkans, but the few hundred years of secular society we have to draw examples from don’t exactly indicate that non-religious identities are less prone to violence. People of the same religion also often fight each other, and these conflicts can also shape the identities of the groups involved. For example, just look at the way in which the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 – a war between two nominally secular and predominantly Protestant nations – was recently celebrated (yeah, celebrating war is fine apparently).

Like democratic peace theory (which I wrote about here) the religion causes war argument often relies on defining terms so that they suit the proponent’s position. For example, Stalin is often presented as someone who have killed in the name of atheism as a counterexample to people killing in the name of religion. Atheists dispute this by either arguing that he wasn’t actually atheist, or that he killed in the name of communism not atheism. However Marxist-Leninism as an ideology is explicitly atheist – so killing priests and bishops is not just a political action against the power of the church but an action to free the people from the shackles of religious thought. A more nuanced argument is that in this context Stalin’s ideology is effectively a religion, but this smacks of a circular argument – religious ideology causes violence so if your ideology is violent it must be religious,  even if you explicitly say it is anti-religious. Another sort of argument which is like those used to defend democratic peace theory is to list all the horrific acts in history which could be called “religious” and say “look, there’s way more of these than secular or atheist ones” while not acknowledging that from a historical perspective the extent of secular/atheist thought is miniscule so of course there are less examples to draw on.

Another point which I don’t see raised often in these arguments is the place of those cases where religion causes peace.When I was researching my Masters thesis in Bougainville for instance I often heard from people there about the vital role church groups played in bringing warring factions together to negotiate peace terms. This was in a conflict which was sparked by resources and ethno-nationalism and later became a complex mix of inter-tribal violence, but where all concerned parties were Christian, and even where they were different sects of Christianity that meant nothing in the context of the war there. Other examples are the Latin American Council of Churches being actively involved in peace programmes in Colombia and Guatemala, Desmond Tutu in Apartheid and post-Apartheid South Africa, Muslim peace activists in America, and the work of conflict negotiator, academic, and Christian, John Paul Lederach. I could go on, but I’m guessing you’ve got the point now. Religious doctrine can just as easily lead to peace as war, so why focus on the negative side of it?

I recently perused some parts of a book called “The Myth of Religious Violence” by a Christian theologian called William T Cavanaugh. I enjoyed what I read because it articulated a lot of ideas I personally had about this subject. For a start he talks about how hard it is to define religion anyway, and that before the enlightenment the dichotomy between religious and secular did not exist and thus all arguments must be made in the context of Western thought from the enlightenment onwards, and then he goes on to argue that the debate about religion causing violence serves to legitimate the violence used by secular Western governments while deligitimating the violence used by other, non-secular groups (specifically Muslims). An article by him here summarises the book quite nicely. Here’s quote from it:

The myth of religious violence helps create a blind spot about the violence of the putatively secular nation-state. We like to believe that the liberal state arose to make peace between warring religious factions. Today, the Western liberal state is charged with the burden of creating peace in the face of the cruel religious fanaticism of the Muslim world. The myth of religious violence promotes a dichotomy between us in the secular West who are rational and peacemaking, and them, the hordes of violent religious fanatics in the Muslim world. Their violence is religious, and therefore irrational and divisive. Our violence, on the other hand, is rational, peacemaking, and necessary. Regrettably, we find ourselves forced to bomb them into the higher rationality.

I don’t deny that people who are explicitly religious sometimes commit violence for explicitly religious reasons, but to say that religious thought leads to violence, or even that religious worldviews have a tendency to be more violent than secular ones, is to take very complex sets of data and find the conclusion that you wanted. This is especially true when talking about large-scale violence or war – such events are the outcome of many different factors which include the  geographical, the historical, and the socio-cultural. Identity undeniably plays a huge part in this and for much of the world religion is a crucial part of identity, so of course we would expect it to be called upon as a reason for violence. However to focus only upon the religious aspects of identity is to obscure the deeper questions about how and why certain groups feel the need to commit violence against others.

By constantly rehashing the debate about the link between religion and war we risk discounting other factors from our explanations of violence at large scales. At a practical level too, the constant promotion of the idea that religion leads to war may risk excluding religious groups from negotiating peace terms and working towards reconciliation between conflicting factions. Finally, it risks creating a new framework where secularism, and to a lesser extent atheism, becomes something which because it is considered more peaceful can be violently promoted around the globe. Please, can we just drop this debate? There is no obvious clear link and the search for one is dangerously distorting of the way in which we view humanity, by splitting it into the enlightened, peaceful atheists and the deluded violent theists.Even if this is not what atheists are seeking to do such oppositional thinking will only serve to fuel fundamentalism as it aims to defend itself against the perceived attack of secularism.

If people really want to help create a more peaceful world they should seek to develop a social space where all beliefs and identities are respected and included, and where violence is condemned no matter what the cause. To say that any belief system is better than any other not only smacks of cultural imperialism but also just serves to deepen divisions and create more conflict.

Note: In case you’re wondering I don’t identify as either atheist or religious.


Syria’s civil war: time to call it what it is

I constantly see headlines which say something along the lines of “fears of Syria civil war” or “Clashes in Syria amid civil war warnings” which I have to say confuse me a bit. A quick search for definitions of the term “civil war” seems to suggest that it is “a war between political factions or regions within the same country.” Wikipedia states that the parties must be organised, but the general theme is the same – war between groups within a country. Surely then Syria is already in a civil war, so why won’t anyone admit that?

My guess would be that Western powers don’t want to say it because they would rather frame the conflict as the Syrian government cracking down on protesters, and that calling it a civil war could be seen to be legitimating government violence against its citizens. Russia doesn’t want to say it because then they would be admitting that the Syrian government is not as strong as they would like it to be. The news media in general reports what officials are saying, so they won’t call it a civil war until someone in power does. Obviously Al-Assad and co aren’t gonna say it – in their view the opposition are terrorists and criminals.

Calling the crisis a civil war won’t actually change anything the ground but it will allow for a more robust dialogue on how this situation can be resolved. However for now it seems as if the emperor has no clothes. Everyone can see that Syria is in the grip of a violent and nasty civil war yet no one will admit it…


Post-conflict trauma: who deals with this?

When I went to Bougainville last year to conduct research the region had officially been in a state of peace for a decade and yet the effects of the war were still obvious. A lot of this was physical: burnt out buildings etc;  several parts of the island where there are still warlords operating;  gun crime is common, even against aid agencies such as Oxfam (whose truck was stolen at gunpoint while I was there). Aside from these issues there was an obvious psychological aftermath as well.

The people who had been adults when the fighting started in the late 1980s seemed to have dealt with the trauma of the conflict through a variety of ways, including traditional reconciliation ceremonies (check out the documentary Breaking Bows and Arrows if you want to know more about this). However those who grew up in the decade of fighting have not been as able to cope and this has caused huge social problems. Violence, sexual violence, substance abuse, and anger and depression issues seem worryingly commonplace amongst the youth, and the older generation are painfully aware of this but do not have the capacity to deal with the scope of the problem. These children grew up seeing violence and suffering everywhere and now it has become part of their personalities.

So I’ve been thinking: who deals with PTSD and other trauma issues in post-conflict environments? Ex-combatants were offered counselling by church groups and international NGOs in Bougainville but there was not the resources to help civilians at the same time. Without addressing this issue the long-term security and prosperity of Bougainville is at risk, and I imagine it is similar in other post-conflict areas. Trauma has serious long-term consequences yet addressing it is much harder than the reconstruction of infrastructure and so on. Specialist training and a lot of time is required. Also, as a long-term issue it is harder to get internaional funding. Sadly there are a lot of places where people are suffering in the world and high profile cases get more aid for obvious reasons. The general public donates to causes based on what they know of them, and NGOs, IGOs, and states operate where there is pressure from the public to do so or there are other gains to be had. This sucks, but it’s hard to see it changing any time soon.

This raises more questions for me: how did the trauma of war affect the civilian populations who suffered during the world wars? How have civilian populations in places like Vietnam coped over time since they endured war? Is Bougainville particularly bad because of the nature of the conflict there (which saw it cut off from the outside world for years by a naval blockade) or is it representative of most post-conflict states? Are there any NGOs or other groups dedicated to addressing trauma issues out there?

Does anyone know the answers to any of these questions? I’d like to think Bougainville will pull through because there are a lot of amazing people doing amazing work, but the scale of the problem is immense and the resources at their disposal are, well,  not so immense.


Good riddance, democratic peace theory

I’ve never had much time for the democratic peace theory. It strikes me as empirically suspect, overly simplistic, and ethnocentric. Now it looks like the spread of democracy itself will finally put an end to this nice but rather naive idea.

Put simply this theory states that democracies will not engage in war with each other and was most famously proposed by one of those Wise Dead White Men, Immanuel Kant, in 1795. In the last couple of decades it has gained in popularity despite some rather obvious flaws. While I think that there may be something to the proposition that democracies are less likely to go to war with each other than non-democracies the evidence for this is still not conclusive, and the idea that they don’t at all has already been disproven. I would suggest that over the next decade or two the democratic peace theory will be so openly refuted that it will no longer be a tenable position. The reason for this is simply the increasing number of democracies in the world.

It is important to point out that there are already several counter-examples to the democratic peace theory but these are usually cast aside by the argument that the countries involved aren’t actually democracies – the so-called “no true Scotsman” fallacy. Here’s a list of wars between democracies, and although the “not a real democracy” argument might hold for some (or most) of them, by narrowing the definition of democracy so much the proponents of democratic peace theory reduce the size of the statistical sample so much that their own conclusions can no longer escape being called a statistical anomaly, or explained away by other means. For instance, the vast majority of democracies are for historical reasons based in areas of European cultural heritage – Europe itself, North America, and Australasia, or what is commonly referred to as the West – and when countries outside of this implement democracy it is often taken to be “not a true democracy.” However an explanation of why these Western democracies have not engaged in war with each other (except for Britain declaring war on Finland during WWII… oops, don’t mention that!) could just as easily be their shared cultural backgrounds and the mutual interests they hold which significantly reduce the chance of war between them.

Now that more and more countries are becoming democracies counterexamples of the democratic peace theory will become more common too.  The obvious place to look for this is the Middle East – Egypt is in transition to becoming democratic and it  at least seems possible that something similar may happen in Syria in the future.  All that has to occur than is a conflict between one or both of these states and Israel and there is yet another example of democracies going to war with each other. Of course Palestine holds elections too, so there is already an ongoing conflict between Israel and another democracy, not to mention the tensions with Lebanon which is also a democracy. What these cases show is that when two democracies do not have mutual interests and view themselves in completely different ways then the fact they are democracies does not prevent them from fighting each other. As more states become democratic the number of states with contested borders or other reasons for disputes who both happen to be democracies will increase.

Having said all this, it is possible that being a democracy reduces the chance of conflict with other democracies but generating statistical proof of such a proposition means accounting for variables such as culture and mutual interests which are inherently qualitative. International relations is not a subject which is suited to statistical/quantitative analysis for this very reason.

Democracy is still a desirable goal for a whole bunch of reasons, but claiming that democratising the world will end conflict is just plain wrong. Trying to defend the democratic peace theory on the basis that counterexamples are not true democracies is pure ethnocentrism. Effectively it is saying that only Western powers are true democracies, and that they are somehow superior to other democracies from other parts of the world while ignoring such obvious problems with their own political systems as the shambles of the 2000 US Presidential Election. Clearly this is bulsh*t. Without the “no true democracy” argument democratic peace theory really doesn’t stand up, so can we please forget about it now?


Some reasons for people to chill out over North Korea

In an earlier post I explained why I think Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities are kinda scary. Continuing on this theme, here are a few reasons why I think North Korea’s missile test and possible nuclear test aren’t things to stress about:

  • North Korean leaders are not insane – they want to remain in power. When you are isolated and threatened by much bigger, more well armed opponents it can be useful to appear insane because people will be wary of you. Having nuclear weapons will mean that the North Korean regime will continue to be propped up by international (primarily Chinese) food aid because the world is scared of what North Korea will do if it starts to collapse. Developing a missile just means that the threat of North Korea going nuts isn’t as hollow, because they have a delivery system for their nukes now. Using a nuke as an offensive weapon would be suicidal on the part of North Korea’s leaders, and I really don’t think they want to be nuked themselves.
  • Following on from the previous point, this exercise is about the North Korean leadership maintaining internal control as well. Nothing like a missile test and setting off a nuke to get the people cheering for your weird Stalinist quasi-monarchy thing you have going on.
  • No one, least of all China and the US, wants war on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea knows this so it can push the boundaries knowing it is safe from retribution. Case in point, the torpedo attack on that South Korean naval ship a while back. Ballistic missile and nuclear tests are naughty, but definitely not naughty enough to go to war over.
  • Breaking a UN Security Council Resolution, as these tests will, doesn’t actually mean anything unless there’s actions the UN members can take to punish you. North Korea’s already diplomatically isolated and under economic sanctions, so what can the big boys do except cutting off aid or military action – neither of which they will do because they don’t want North Korea firing off a nuke as it is attacked and/or collapses because it can no longer feed its citizens.

North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are effectively a way of ensuring the long-term survival of the Pyongyang regime – something akin to a guy in a crowded room holding a hand grenade and threatening to pull the pin unless his demands are met. Odds are he won’t do it, but no one will want to take that risk.

It is important to note that China also wants North Korea to survive, as it provides a useful buffer between China and the liberal capitalist ally of the US in the form of South Korea. Having a land border with such a state is not something the Chinese government wants to have to deal with. At the same time, although the US and South Korea would both rather North Korea did not exist the cost of  making this happen would be far too high to contemplate.


Hold on, did Syria just invite a NATO attack?

Well it was only a matter of time until I wrote a blog about the Syria mess, so here it is.

Yesterday reports emerged stating that Syrian government forces had fired across the borders into Lebanon and Turkey. While Lebanon is probably used to its neighbours firing shots into its territory by now the situation with Turkey is potentially a game-changer, for a simple reason: Turkey is a member of NATO. If Turkey can claim that its territorial integrity is under threat (when another government starts shooting people inside your borders I’d say you’ve got a good case) then under the terms of the North Atlantic Treaty its NATO allies are obliged to join the fight. Furthermore, NATO has already established a precedent for just such an operation without a mandate from the UN Security Council, so those pesky vetoes from Russia and China could be rendered meaningless. A NATO operation in Syria would arguably be more legitimate than the Kosovo one because it would be the result of an attack on a NATO member.

As long as the violence in Syria remained contained within its own borders then arguments for intervention could always be countered by the principle of sovereignty, but the moment those shots crossed the border a new justification became available to those who want intervention. Of course a few gunshots over a border might not seem like much of a threat to Turkey’s territory and the Syrian government can deny that it was their troops who fired. Nonetheless, the spread of violence beyond Syria itself indicates a fundamental shift in the nature of the crisis and offers a potential way to approach it outside of the confines of the UN Security Council system.

Whether intervention would be a wise idea is not a question I am going to go into here. I just wanted to point out the implications of the attacks in Turkey as I see them. With the failure of Kofi Annan’s ceasefire plan (gee, that was unexpected…) the idea of a diplomatic solution seems dead and buried, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see some sort of shift in Western powers’ approach to the crisis. It might be a good time to buy shares in the companies that make those fancy drones and smartbombs.


Enough about Iran, lets talk Pakistan

There is a country which has well-publicised links to extremist Islamic terrorists, has a long-standing beef with one of its neighbours,  is dangerously unstable, and has around 100 nukes ready to go… and surprise, surprise, it is not Iran.

Leaving aside the question of whether Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons and what that might mean, Pakistan is still the number one risk for something unpleasant going down. North Korea might enjoy rattling its sabre and low-key showing off its giant-breeding programme but Pyongyang knows its nukes are effectively a bargaining tool and a defensive weapon, and are highly unlikely to ever use them. There is always a risk of a collapsing North Korean regime firing off its nukes in a final blaze of un-glory or selling nuclear secrets/weapons to other regimes/terrorists, and although these are scary scenarios they are not as pressing as the issue of Pakistan.

Pakistan is after all a country where a handful of militants can storm a military base and hold it for 16 hours, and where a terror suspect with a $10,000,000 bounty on his head can live in the open, taunting a government that is in theory an ally of his own. And don’t forget that the Taliban already have control over a sizeable chunk of Pakistan. Meanwhile, despite their leaders attending cricket games together, India and Pakistan are still an incident away from full-blown war. Overall then the risk of something scary and nuclear happening in Pakistan is probably higher than any other country by a considerable distance. Islamic extremists steal a nuke? Nuclear war with India? State collapse and lost nukes in the chaos? With so many potential scenarios it must be about time for a Tom Clancy novel on the subject. Maybe this is why Pakistan is stoking the fire in the Iran nuke debate – to divert the world’s eyes from their own impending sh*tstorm. Still, it is nice to see a nuclear power not being a hypocritical dickwad to Iran like all the others.

So why doesn’t Pakistan’s situation get more attention? I don’t recall it being mentioned at all during the recent nuclear  security summit in South Korea, which included Pakistan as a participant. My take on it is that Pakistan is almost too much of a threat to stability and security in South Asia to be told to buck up its act. It is, despite appearances to the contrary sometimes, a vital “ally” in the war in Afghanistan and is a big power thanks largely to those very nukes. Furthermore there is the very hard question of what can be done about it. Clearly stabilising the Pakistani state would help a lot but given the current political situation in Pakistan this seems unlikely. If India gave up its nukes there is perhaps a chance Pakistan would too, but I wouldn’t bet on it – regardless of whether India has nukes, Pakistan having them is a good deterrent against India. Plus India wouldn’t want to give up their nukes unless China gave up theirs, and China wouldn’t unless the US and Russia gave up theirs, and they wouldn’t until Britain, France, and North Korea gave up theirs and if all that happened then it might actually be useful to have some nukes because they could thaw hell out of its deep-freeze. At least Israel would still have some…

So yeah, its kind of one of those problems without an easy answer. Makes you just want to ignore it and go chasing Joseph Kony through the African jungle or something. Of course if it is ignored it might just stay as it is with a risk there but nothing actually happening. However, with US and Chinese aid and support Pakistan might be able to stabilise and stamp out the extremists, and come to some sort of long-term understanding with India to reduce the risk of conflict between them. This may be what will happen anyway, but until that day the safety and security of Pakistani nukes and the need to maintain peaceful Pakistani-Indian relations should be just as high on the international diplomatic agenda as North Korea or Iran, if not higher. Plus as a bonus for cricket fans like myself, if their country became more stable and peaceful Pakistan’s team would be able to play home games again without the hotel they and their opponents are staying at being bombed. That sucked.