The Challenges Inherent to Religious Conflict
The Center for Security Studies (CSS) and ETH Zurich recently published a short policy paper titled, "Rethinking Mediation: Resolving Religious Conflicts" (2018). Though the focus of this paper is armed conflicts in an international, political context, the core concepts are also applicable to conflicts on a comparatively "micro" scale: within families.
How is religious conflict different from other forms of conflict?
The authors highlight the unique nature of religious conflict, stating that
"In order to better understand the role of religion in conflict, there are two basic aspects to consider: religion as the identity marker of the conflict parties, and religion and its influence on the issue the parties disagree about."
As an "identity marker," religion serves to differentiate groups from one another, even for those within the same faith. In conflict, parties often divide along religious fault lines as a means of defining who is "in" and who is "out" and, therefore, who is "for" and "against". On an international political scale, it is easy to see these fault lines worldwide. Yet within and between families, dividing lines can be just as pronounced. Conflict can cause individuals to identify with their faith more profoundly than they had pre-conflict, as it provides them with a sense of community, identity, and belonging.
As an "influence," religion can determine the very issues that families fight about-- and the relative priority of each issue. Through the lens of faith, parties may identify specific items/issues of value that might seem irrelevant to the other party, or to the mediator. However, viewed through the meaning-making scope of religion, their significance is undeniable.
Why are religious conflicts particularly difficult to resolve peacefully?
Family, workplace, and civil mediators, are used to working within the framework of interest-based negotiation. The process of "getting to yes" is reliant upon separating the person from the problem, and the position from the interest. In the context of religious disputes, however, that process is not always possible. Why?
Different Languages. As eloquently stated in the paper, "For actors with diverging worldviews, it is harder to communicate and understand each other. Words not only do not mean the same, but the way sense and meaning are created in the world differs. This results in miscommunication and misunderstanding, and creates challenges to classical conflict resolution approaches which rely heavily on voicing one’s values and interests by putting them into words."
The Intimacy of Faith. Every mediation contains a degree of emotion, particularly those involving families. Despite that, parties are usually able to soothe those emotions in an effort to reach a mutually-satisfactory compromise. When religious belief and practice are brought into the mediation, emotions are often exponentially more intense. Religious commitment goes to the heart of a party's character, culture, and identity, and those foundational commitments are difficult (if not impossible) to compromise.
The Problem of Indivisibility. The authors describe this problem as follows: "... parties aspire to the same set of sacred resources. One aspect of indivisibility refers to the impossibility of exchanging an issue for something else of equal value.... The second aspect of indivisibility is the parties’ perception that an issue would lose its value if it were to be split." As a mediator, how do you encourage negotiation when the issues being negotiated (the faith of children, religious observances, participating in specific rituals, etc.) are of incomparable significance?
Time Horizons. Religious individuals and communities often view the world-- and the concept of time-- in a unique manner. In comparison to secular parties, a religious person may embrace beliefs about eternity, rebirth, or an "end time". Consequently, as mentioned in the policy paper, "[religious actors] have longer (sometimes even eternal) time horizons and may therefore be more willing to bear higher costs in the short term in order to achieve their goals."
Where do we go from here?
ETH Zurich and the CSS propose two options for resolving the complex religious conflicts:
1. Remove the Sacred from the Conflict.
"[D]esacralize the religious dimension of the issues parties fight over. The goal of this process can be to change an actor’s priority ranking of the various conflict issues, ultimately aiming to remove the religious issues from the conflict or otherwise lower their importance relative to others... Alternatively, the aim can be for actors to re-frame the religious message by focusing on the more moderate and cooperative aspects of religion."
2. Adapt the Process.
"[T]he focus of the conflict resolution process should not be on negotiating the differences in the religious beliefs. Instead, the idea is to create a 'safe space' in which convictions and beliefs are not questioned or challenged. The process is instead structured so as to allow actors to reinterpret the practical implications of their beliefs themselves.
While both of these options offer creative possibilities for managing religious conflict, I would add a third option to this list: narrative mediation. Blending the principles and methods of narrative therapy with more traditional mediation processes, narrative mediation is able to address the emotion, the expanse, and the uncompromising nature of religious belief and conflict within families.
Please stay tuned for my next post, in which I will discuss narrative mediation, and the two options mentioned above, in more detail. A future post will also discuss my experience completing the Certificate in Ethnic and Religious Mediation at the International Center for Ethno-Religious Mediation (ICERM).