Religious conflict: more than meets the eye

1.8.2017 | Throughout history and down to the present day, religion has been used as a pretext for conflict and violence. Indeed, too often religion and conflict appear inextricably linked. Dr. Meron Zeleke Eresso from Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia takes another view: in her research on the role of religion in society, she finds that religion plays an important part in promoting peace and reconciliation—and that, in many cases, conflicts that are regarded as religious actually have social and economic causes.
Dr. Meron Zeleke Eresso
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(© Meron Zeleke Eresso)

Dr. Meron Zeleke Eresso

Dr. Eresso, a major focus of your research is the ways in which religion may promote peace. Unfortunately, in today’s world we see numerous examples of religion being used as a pretext to encourage conflict. Do you see religious conflict as being inevitable?

It is true that we often hear stories about how much religion has become a source and/or catalyst of violent conflicts. But in my opinion, the role of religion in conflict should be depicted in binary terms: we can see it either as a source of conflict or as a source of reconciliation. However, starting from the premise that religion is the cause of most conflicts leads to oversimplification and obscures the complexity of the conflicts framed in religious terms. I argue that establishing a clear-cut model or theory for understanding the relationship between religion, on the one hand, and violence or peace, on the other hand, is quite problematic. Religion can play a significant role in preventing and solving conflicts so we need to analyse the complex interplay between religion and conflict/peace in each individual context. Besides, we need to pay attention to who frames conflicts as ‘religious’. Often wars that are considered ‘religious conflicts’ have social, economic or political roots.

Furthermore, there is no religion which provides a theological justification for violence. If at all, they all preach peace. We always need to consider for what reason individuals, religious or political leaders draw on religious discourse, symbolism or institutions as a way of justifying violence. All in all, each case has to be unpacked on an individual basis in order to understand the complexity of the phenomenon that is labelled as a religious conflict, and to get a comprehensive understanding of the multiple factors leading to a particular conflict.

In the past, you have studied the religious conflict between Christians and Muslims in Ethiopia. However, before the outbreak of violence, these two religious groups lived side-by-side for centuries. What enabled the two communities to peacefully co-exist? What eventually led to the breakdown of their relationship?

Well, actually, the relationship between the two religious groups is not generally characterised by tensions. In fact, there is a very robust tradition of religious tolerance and peaceful co-existence as well as socio-cultural and economic exchanges between the two religions. Of course, there are some parts of the country where there are growing tensions and where some episodes of violent conflict have occurred. But in those instances, the factors underlying the conflict are often non-religious in nature.

What have you learned by studying religious conflict in Ethiopia? What elements are specific to that conflict and what are the lessons for the rest of the world?

Some of the main insights that have emerged from my study of the actors and factors involved in religious conflicts—or conflicts framed as religious—in Ethiopia, are the dynamic nature of religious-based conflicts and the need to go beyond the triggers. We rather need to study the specific circumstances of each conflict and ask: Which crosscutting structural factors contribute to the conflict, both directly and indirectly?

Additionally, analysis of conflicts over time can help us to understand the underlying issues. These might not necessarily relate to religious differences but rather to politico-economic issues, for example, competition over resources. All these factors are relevant to other contexts and other parts of the world as well.

We also need to consider that tensions and conflicts within a religious community can affect conflict between different religious communities. This is a topic that is often ignored in the literature on religious conflict, because social cohesion within the religious communities is taken for granted.

While addressing conflicts in each setting we often tend to overlook external actors and factors which might have great significance in shaping the overall phenomena. For example, I have found that the young generation in different religious establishments, as well as their diaspora, their clerics, and the government all play an active role in religious conflicts. This is a finding which I believe is relevant to contexts beyond Ethiopia.

A further surprising outcome of my research is that educated young people are increasingly religious. This finding challenges the conventional wisdom that in a secularised environment and in an era of globalisation, religion is losing its relevance.

How do you see the role of women in the prevention and resolution of religious conflicts in general, and in Ethiopia in particular?

Previous ethnographic works on Ethiopian women were mainly preoccupied by depicting women’s everyday forms of religiosity. I have tried to rather understand the role of women both in conflict and in peace to emphasise the need to look beyond the marginalisation thesis of women. This is important because the significant role that women play in customary institutions of conflict resolution or in conflict resolution in general, often goes unrecognised and undervalued.

Do you see any effects of the blending of religious beliefs, such as the syncretism that has developed between Christianity and Islam in Ethiopia, on the incidence of inter-religious conflict?

Syncretism and socio-cultural integration across the religious boundary has performed a de-escalating role during times of conflict and has served as a tool for peace building after conflict. One of my main research sites in Ethiopia is well known for religious syncretism and intermarriage among different religious groups. These social ties have in one way or another promoted the compatibility of religious concepts and peaceful interactions.

How did you become interested in these areas of research and where did it lead you?

I strongly believe that any scientific research needs to be relevant and contribute to addressing societal problems. My research interests in gender, migration, religion, and conflict are thus mainly related to the themes and problems I witness in everyday life.

My ongoing senior postdoctoral research focuses on transit migration and the experiences of Ethiopian female migrants destined for Europe and the Middle East and who are currently living in transit in Djibouti. I aim to understand the profile of the female transit migrants, their perception about migration, their pathways of incorporation, the various challenges they face in transit, their coping strategies and their prospects of mobility or settlement.

  (© Neysan Donnelly / AcademiaNet /
Questions were asked by Neysan Donnelly for AcademiaNet and

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