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T.B. Nsubuga: Examining the Role of Religion in the Sudan Conflict


Religion and violence have been linked together in humankind and history. Various religious beliefs have justified violence or failed to condemn acts of violence and many have found themselves enmeshed in long-prevailing violent conflicts. Religion played a role in the colonial expansion in Africa. The process in many cases resulted in violent confrontation between the colonizers and the colonial territories. Even in modern state–formation struggles and separatist movements, religion has been identified as playing a leading role in exacerbating violent conflict. Religion is still being used by extremist or radical groups to justify their obligation to violent action through acts of terrorism.

In core regions of the world economy, religiously framed conflicts became displaced in the nineteenth and twentieth century by social struggles that played out along class lines and, in the latter part of the twentieth, between superpowers. However, these conflicts themselves often had “religious” overtones (Gopin, 1997: 2).

Religion has facilitated violent conflict, hatred and intolerance, and has played a “central role in the inner life and social behavior of millions of human beings, many of whom are currently actively engaged in struggle” (Gopin, 1997: 2). Scripture passages have been “cited to encourage participation in warfare and increase animosity” (DRDC CR Report, 2010: 1).

However, whereas many conflicts may be regarded as religiously motivated, they may not actually be rooted in religious antagonism and differences. Certainly in some non-secular societies with deeply rooted religious observation and loyalty, chances are high that other factors, ranging from economic, social and political marginalization, and groups with long-running grievances and desires can invoke religion to unify resistance against perceived injustice and oppression. In some cases radical groups use it to fuel armed violence, as we have witnessed today in some parts of the world. “Religion can contribute to grotesque ideologies of domination, death and destruction that are dangerous and combustible” (Little, 2007: 430.).

In this paper I will examine some theories and explanations linking religion and conflict, whereas there is no specific or clear theory to date that strongly supports the link between religion and violence. The theoretical basis and explanations below are part of the continuing debate on the definition of religion, its features, characteristics, and how it has been used and interpreted by various actors in conflict situations.

In this paper, therefore, I will also examine the role played by religion in the Sudan “conflict between the Muslim Arab North and the Christian South” (Verney et al., 1995), indigenous ethnic groups. Though much of its role may have been interpreted to trigger the conflict, I will as well highlight its positive role during the conflict.

Theoretical analysis

Understanding religion and conflict is a complex undertaking. However, theorists, academicians and thinkers have put forward various theories to support the relationship between these two phenomena. The theories raised mainly put focus on the features and functional, structural and organizational nature of religion to explain and give an understanding to the link between religion and conflict.

    The Constructivist approach to religion

According to Religioscope, a research institute that “focuses on religion in its organizational form” (Mason & Kartas, 2010), Religion is able to organize and mediate beliefs and practices shaping norms and the way people behave in their day-to-day-life. It creates a framework in which its followers interpret the world around themselves and how they respond and adapt to situations and encounters in their day-to-day life with what they believe is righteous and justifiable action.

Conceptualization “of organized religion emphasizes its institutional, normative, as well as spiritual nature, which is crucial for the constitution of social reality. Hence religion may often play an important role not as a belief motivating violent behavior, but as a narrative justifying or even making validity claims intelligible” (Mason & Kartas, 2010: 40-41).

The way followers conceive and interpret religion plays an important role in how they understand their perceived role according to their religious interpretation and how they may react to situations of conflict.

Religion thus plays a constitutive role in “shaping the identity of actors (political or religious) and, thus, helps to understand actors’ behavior in terms of role play and scripts. A conceptualization of religion as a core element of identity construction assumes the presence of more determinant forces of structures on individual or group behavior” (Mason & Kartas, 2010: 41). However, despite religious conceptualization playing a major role in identity construction, the actions are much more individual decisions that rather may be influenced by other life circumstances.

    Thin Constructivism

Another school of thought of the role of religion is the Thin Constructivism which focuses mainly on urgency. In this case the desire for identity and related interests become the influencing factors playing an important role in what is communicated and claimed to be valid. “An actor will express a validity claim referring to” (Mason & Kartas, 2010) religion to “legitimize specific acts or decisions, or to mobilize a certain group” (Mason & Kartas, 2010). Identity interests in this case may involve changing behavior of actors according to urgency. Social structures would then only transform gradually, and conflict analysis would focus “on the religion and political positions of the actors and on contradictory issues in their worldviews” (Mason & Kartas, 2010: 41).

    Thick Constructivism

However, the thick constructivism school of thought “emphasizes the importance of communication and focuses on the interpretation of validity claims. Interpretation is the mode by which religion as part of the social, cognitive background allows actors to act like players in the game” (Mason & Kartas, 2010). “Understanding the role of religion in conflict focuses mainly on the interpretative resources provided by religion for faith-based actors to give meaning to their environment and their actions” (Mason & Kartas, 2010: 41). A wide spectrum of the conflict is considered, analyzing both religious and other non-religious factors that support validity claims for any actions. It is necessary to understand the “struggle over interpretation within which more visible conflict between the actors and groups is embedded” (Mason & Kartas, 2010: 42). With the increasing influence of the Muslim brotherhood fundamentalist movement in Northern Sudan, the group increasingly demanded an all-encompassing religious system while the insurgents wanted a restricted role of religion in a secular state because their faith. Christianity clearly separates secular from spiritual, social and political systems from the religious (Assefa, 1990: 258).

    Functionalist understanding of religion

Hagen Berndt also borrows from the constructivist approach of “religion but sees religion as constitutive of both identity and source of interpretation” (Mason & Kartas, 2010) based on “agent and structure. He looks at the multiple roles and effects of religion on conflict” (Mason & Kartas, 2010). The role of religion differs according to a specific context. Conceptualization of religion is context-specific (Berndt, 2009). In other words, it’s how religion has been used in a given conflict that determines the role it will play. In the Sudan case we observe both the Northerners and Southerners using religion to unify and rally support for their political motives. Indeed, from this perspective we can see that religion is used for political motives: The North applying a Muslim and Arab cultural requirement for political and economic access, and a Sharia law to maintain political legitimacy and rally support from rich Islamic Arab states. In this way, these two parties used religion and this determined its role in this conflict.

Religion can be understood in both functional and non-functional perspec-tives. As a functional role it is used by actors for a specific purpose and therefore cannot work alone. “[I]ts role will depend on how it is used by individuals or groups. Religion in a non-functional role is understood as a certain type of knowledge, a body of principles, norms and rules which through their constant enactment shape the socially experienced reality of actors” (Mason & Kartas, 2010). It combines different complex, specific cultures of individuals or groups of people. Even societies that have the same cultural traditions but with different religions can have conflicting or different interpretations of their shared culture. In this case religion creates a framework that acts as a basis to legitimate or justify individual or group behavior and actions. Its role in the conflict is manifested through its structural effects. The Muslim Brotherhood, a more fundamental group in North Sudan, was increasingly determined and was pressuring the government to practice the interpretation of their faith in the appropriate way. Some of their actions and behavior during the conflict reflects the assertion that “Muslim fundamentalists give primary importance to elements of Islamic Unity in thought and in practice rather than accepting diversity in local custom. The primary unit of identification should be the community of Muslims rather than any ethnic, kin, or religious group” (Assefa, 1990: 258).

    Specific roles of religion

Religion is seen to play specific roles. For instance, Islam is understood to play a different function for Islamic followers in the Moslem world, particularly the Arab world, whereas Christianity may have a different function for many Christians in Europe. Islamic faith followers see religion as “a personal spiritual experience, a source of inspiration for the conduct and action of the individual, and a collective experience that provides a system of values and normative framework to the community” (Mason & Kartas), whereas there has been a high degree of secularization of the state in the west. Islam as a religion still plays an outright role in many Arab states and this perhaps determined how religion was conceptualized and assigned a role in the Sudan conflict. On the contrary, whereas the South Sudanese were largely comprised of different factions due to their ethnic makeup, religion united them to fight for a common political cause, not necessarily as a source of inspiration for conducting armed conflict against the north in a religious sense but rather as a collective experience with desired values and aspirations for the people, particularly the values of equality and non-discrimination. “These Christian values and loyalties not only strengthened Southern solidarity by transcending local ethnic differences, but they also inevitably strengthened the will and the capacity to resist Northern pressures both moral and physical” (Sanderson et al., 1981).

    The dual culture of religion

According to Adams (2008), religion is seen to have “two cultures, both the culture of violence and war and the culture of Utopian peaceableness. However, religion’s holy war culture” is very contentious and can easily be used for other motives, mainly political ones. These two cultures of religion overshadow the voice of peace. These two cultures can further be observed as producing tension in many cases. In the Bellagio conference, “church leaders from all the major traditions and distinguished members of the scientific community aiming at producing a joint statement on the threat of nuclear war, were unable to condemn the doctrine of deterrence” (Boulding, 1986).

According to Boulding (1986) the Church is still challenged by the belief in “holy war and the mystical union,” and yet there is still little attention given to mechanisms of negotiation, given the need to reference the “negotiated pact between God and God’s people which provides a precedent for operating in the middle ground.” However, this can be explained by the fact that “the holy war culture is a male warrior culture headed by a patriarchal warrior God. It demands the subjection of women and other aliens to men, the proto-patriarchs and to God or the gods” (Boulding, 1986: 503). In Sudan, whereas the Christian Southerners whose long faith tradition distinguishes the secular from the spiritual, and separates the social and political systems from the religious, their armed struggle against the Muslim Northern government initially was not against the Muslim faith but the oppressive, exclusionary socioeconomic and political polices of the north that particularly identified access and benefits to Muslims and Arabs (Assefa, 1990: 258). The increasingly religious dimension of the conflict influenced by fundamental movements like the Muslim Brotherhood, and the international support from Christian missionary groups, charities and neighboring countries to the Christian Southerners could have prompted justification for a holy war, and, to quote the Bible, “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Romans 13:3-͘4). For example, in the Islamic scripture, it is highlighted that “Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits, for Allah loveth not transgressors” (Qur’an 2: 190). “Those who believe fight in the cause of Allah, and those who reject faith fight in the cause of evil. So fight ye against the friends of Satan” (Qur’an 7:76). “Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the last day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and his Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the people of the book, until they pay Jizya (tribute) with willing submission and feel themselves subdued” (Qur’an). These passages, interpreted in conflict circumstances, would justify a holy war or armed violence.

    Absolutist, divisive and irrational

Cavanaugh (2007) urges that religion is seen to have a “tendency to be divisive and therefore violent. It focuses our ultimate concern, builds community and appeals to myth and symbols. Religion uses rites and ceremonies, such as circumcision” and baptism and requires “followers to behave in certain ways” (Cavanaugh, 2004).

Religion can put you in a position of “us” versus “them,” carries risks, and can be perceived by others as dangerous. It can cause all kinds of trouble in the public arena” (Cavanaugh, 2007). Perhaps religion could be perceived as what one group believes in and wants to maintain.

“Religion exacerbates the tendency to divide people into friends and enemies, good and evil, us and them, creating divisions” (Cavanaugh, 2007) and/or social strata. Religion interprets conflicts as important and rational; thus religious violence sometimes ends up being savage and relentless.

Religious violence is sometimes hard to separate from political violence. Religious terrorism can be linked to political violence, especially where the violence has an ideological and ethnic dimension (Juergensmeyer, 2000: 146). Whereas it may influence the trend of political trajectory in many parts of the world, it also has a pernicious influence as some conflicts are regarded as religious. Religion “is often absolutist, self-righteous, arrogant, dogmatic, and impatient of compromise. It arouses powerful and sometimes irrational impulses and can easily destabilize society, cause political havoc, and create a veritable hell on earth.” “It often breeds intolerance of other religions as well as of internal dissent, and has a propensity towards violence” (Cavanaugh, 2007).

Religion is ideological and has practices that are secular in nature. Due to fear resulting from people’s own limitations, they tend to create absolutes and “react with violence when others do not accept them” (Cavanaugh, 2007) or their assertions. It is an unavoidable human characteristic possessed by even those who don’t believe in organized religion but have faith in things like technology, consumerism, or football fanaticism. Thus people end up doing “bad things in the name of religion” (Cavanaugh, 2007). These religious symbolic features of absolutism, divisiveness in every way, are bound to result in conflict which can take a violent dimension.

    The violence of religion

The relationship between religion and violence is symbolic of practices such as sacrifice, a ritual process of offering animal or human life. “Religion in-volves a practice of a community of believers who affirm both their idealized vision of society and their own social relations through ritual action in relation to positive and negative cults of the sacred” (Hall, 2003). Religious practices such as sacrifice, war and martyrdom can also be interpreted as sacred duties and therefore symbolizing how violence is fundamentally embedded in religion (Hall, 2001: 8).

“Sacrifice within a social group, and a group’s violence toward external op-ponents, is seen as a resolution of the cycle of violence that stems from an imitative rivalry centered on desire for the objects that the other values” (Hall, 2003). Ritual killings have been conducted in the name of religion be-cause victims are seen as representing evil in the community, but this is col-lective murder done with no retribution but all in the name of achieving the goal of sanctification, and establishing purity through sacrifice. “The ritual cleansing is widespread in religious ceremonies and originally takes the form of sacrifice that destroys a representative bearer of evil” (Mathew & Chakravorty, 2013). “This is physical violence, desecrating religious objects and shrines” (Hall, 2003), which has also been referred to as ethno-religious violence and religious terrorism while others have called it historical remnants or resurgence of archaic religion (Hall, 2001).

Whereas it has been noted that “violence will take different forms according to the circumstances of its expression” (Hall, 2003), historically violence associated with religion has been also been sighted in cultural structures.

Several theories have been put forward to give an explanation to religion and conflict, from the Thin Constructivist Perspective where “an actor will express a validity claim referring to… [religion to] …legitimize specific acts or decisions, or to mobilize a certain group” (Mason & Kartas, 2010), to the Thick Constructivist Perspective which focuses on the “importance of communication and the interpretation of validity claims” (Mason & Kartas, 2010). It would be “inappropriate to embrace a single general theory linking religion and violence” (Hall, 2003). However, we should be keen to examine the “institutional relations of religion to society and explore other alternatives under which violence occurs… [or perhaps] …identify alternative situational ‘cultural logics’ by which religious violence manifests” (Hall, 2003). This would help us in formulating a general theoretical model that would give clear understanding to religion and violence.

Sudan conflict

Sudan is among a few African countries where a long history of violent conflict has taken a religious dimension. Since colonialism, the northern part of Sudan experienced holy wars, in the name of nationalism, fought against the Turks by Mohamed Al Mahdi and his followers (Assefa, 1990). In this conflict, religious differences were understood to be the cause of the two civil wars between the Sudanese government and the southern SPLA rebel movement. Having examined some of the various theories and models presented in trying to link religion to conflict, some questions arise including: Was religion indeed the cause of conflict between the North Sudan, which is predominantly Arab and Muslim, and the south which is Christian? Could there be other factors leading to this conflict? Have there been moments of peaceful coexistence between these two societies in Sudan? Examining the historical events in this society should help us better understand the role religion played in facilitating this conflict and if indeed religion is seen as playing a key role, then this perhaps will present an example of a classic case of religiously driven conflicts in Africa.

It is important to note that whereas religion could be found as a motive for peoples’ behavior and actions, it’s very difficult to connect these two together, but examining key events will enable us to link religion to this conflict. Since the beginning of the Mahdi reign in Sudan, Islam became the foundation of Nationalism in Northern Sudan. This religion was practiced with strong attachment to the Arab language and culture, making no distinguishable difference between practicing Islam and belonging to the Arab ethnicity. This phenomenon created an identity that eventually became the basis for social, economic and political access and benefit in Sudan. This practice, once effectively implemented, became a measure of official exclusion, largely marginalizing indigenous southerners who were non-Muslim and non-Arab. This practice caused alienation from southerners who felt classified as second-class citizens or slaves in their own country. In resentment to this exclusionary practice, the southerners took up arms to fight against what they perceived as a Muslim religion and Arab culture.

The northern Sudan political class used religion to rally support in order to maintain their control of political power. However, in one way or another religion also became the rallying point for the Southerners who were predominantly Christian. They sought support from allies who understood their cause. The missionaries educated many southerners who were leaders of the insurgency. International Christian organizations and neighboring Christian states like Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia, all played a role in supporting the southerners in their cause. Though the southerners were largely disorganized in their struggle against the north, religion played a unifying factor as it placed them in a position of “Us” against “Them” (Northern Muslim and Arabs). It unified them in their fight against economic, political and social exclusion and treatment as second-class citizens.

In September 1983, Sudanese President Numeiry declared a Sharia law in Sudan, abrogating the Addis Ababa Agreement signed in 1972 that had called for political participation and religious freedoms in the country. This action led to the resurgence of the civil war. However, other factors like the desire to regain the political, social and economic rights that had been achieved in the Addis Ababa Agreement, prompted the southerners to rebel. The declaration of the Sharia law again brought religion into the conflict as Numeiry hoped that this action would help him gain political support from the Northerners amidst hard economic conditions in the country and the fear for the growing influence of the Muslim brotherhood that threatened his political support (Verney et al., 1995). He had also eventually developed a conviction for a creation of an Islamic State in Sudan and hoped to garner political support from oil-rich Middle East Muslim countries since the South enjoyed support from Christian international charity organizations (Assefa, 1990: 256-257).

The religious conflict in Sudan also took an international dimension as “Northern political leaders were under pressure from Islamic fundamentalists in Arab countries to continue with the Islamic Jihad” (Thyne, 2005) and bring it to a successful conclusion in Sudan as they considered Sudan as the gateway for Islamic penetration and consolidation in Africa. The Southerners, on the other hand, were determined to protect their religion, Christianity, as well as defend Africa from Arab Islamic Imperialism (Wakoson, 1988: 95).

Some have suggested that Numeiry was a convert to fundamentalism, though this was refuted by some of his close aides. The policies he adopted during his reign seem to confirm a religious motive on his side as they were largely religiously linked.

There were also some elements of the respective religious faiths that were directly contributing to the conflict. The increasingly powerful Muslim fundamentalist movement fueled the conflict by their unwillingness to work for peaceful coexistence with Southerners unless they converted to Islam. They wanted an all-Islamic state, yet the Southerners preferred a freedom of choice and Christianity. Whereas the Southerners regarded the policies of the North as geared towards Islamic imperialism to the south, the Northern fundamentalists wanted an all-encompassing religious system. They regarded the Southerners as stooges and symbols of western imperialism who adopted Christianity, and saw this as a reason to fight it through creating an all-Islamic state in Sudan (Assefa, 1990: 258-259).

Religion in this case was used to unite the Northerners to oppress the Southerners and vice versa. Both sides found their actions of cruelty, atrocities against the other, based on religious legitimacy or calling (Assefa, 1990: 259). Fundamentalists react primarily against the marginalization of religion; they seek to restore religion to its rightful place at the center of society, culture, politics and law (Appleby, 2006).

The increasing influence of fundamentalists groups in Sudan, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, played a role in religiously fueling the conflict. The extremist elements saw the conversion, suppression or elimination of the enemy as a sacred right or obligation. They wanted to achieve their goal of a total Islamic state through political means and felt that violence was legitimate in pursuit of this goal (Appleby, 2006: 823). This is precisely what was increasingly observed during the conflict between the North and the South in Sudan. Religion was used to disguise ulterior motives but because religion is absolutist and divisive, such features in conflict circumstances are bound to produce irreconcilable positions of conflicting parties. During the negotiation process, the Muslim fundamentalists in Sudan perceived the role of Christian participants in the dialogue process as a means to influence the Adis Ababa peace agreement in favor of the Southern Christians and interpreted this as a blockage to the spread of Islam in Sudan. If this was true, then indeed it served to check the spread of Islam southwards given the determined ambition for an Islamic state by the Muslim brotherhood. In fact, both sides were unwilling to compromise on key issues, which explains the eventual separation of Sudan into two parts, the Sudan North (Khartoum) and South Sudan (Juba).

Indeed the events examined above illustrate how religion was used to fuel the conflict in Sudan between the Muslim Arab Northerners and the Christian Southerners. However this is not to say that religion entirely exacerbated the conflict. There were of course political, social and economic grievances in the society that compelled the southerners to unify behind religion to resist the Northern administration (Assefa, 1990: 258). The desire for equal treatment and an end to second-class treatment (oppression) from the North, the existing economic hardship during this time – high inflation rates resulting from a huge accumulated domestic debt, a slow level of economic development and general scarcity of basic essentials – fueled unrest. The fear of a loss of legitimacy may have forced Numeiry to promote an Islamic agenda to unify dissenting forces within Sudan. In other words, a declaration of the Sharia law would religiously unite Northern Sudanese, but underlying this declaration were political, social and economic conditions of hardship that could have empowered Numeiry’s opponents, the Muslim Brotherhood, to take over the political administration. If this assertion was entirely true, then it serves as a classic example of how religion can be used in a manipulative role in complex political situations.

Whereas religion has been a source of violent conflict, it “has also developed laws and ideas that have provided civilizations with a cultural commitment to critical peace-related values” (Gopin, 2000). The formation of laws, promotion of human rights, social justice, reconciliation and forgiveness emanate from the positive value chain of religion and many of the nation states in principle derive their constitutional mandates to govern from the basis of these values. The same religion therefore can be used to foster peace.

Positive role played by religion in this conflict

Religion was able to rally people together to oppose perceived injustices or oppression. It helped to mobilize much-needed humanitarian assistance during the period of conflict. Relief items were delivered and provided by international and local religious charities and organizations to war victims during the period of the conflict (Assefa, 1990: 259).

Religion also played a role in mediation of the conflict during both the first and second “civil war between the North and the South” (Verney et al., 1995). It created a conducive atmosphere to encourage dialogue between the conflicting parties and it encouraged the peacemaking process that eventually brought a ceasefire and a comprehensive peace agreement. Most notable during the negotiations were the “World Council of Churches, the All Africa Conference of Churches and the Sudan Council of Churches” (Nyuot Yoh, 2005). For instance, prayers and sermons from religious leaders at the opening of the negotiations, sermons referring to both the Qur’an and the Bible, were used which invoked empathy and self-criticism among participants from both parties for the human suffering and the urgent need to end it.

These religious bodies were accepted in the mediation process by both the government of Sudan and insurgents because of their religious background, sincerity, honesty and trustworthiness. Therefore they were in a much better position to encourage reconciliation in order to stop the dire human suffering that was being experienced then than an international politically strong mediator (Assefa, 1990: 260).

The combination of faith and loyalty given to religious institutions and their leaders by followers also was paramount in convincing conflicting parties to seek peaceful resolution to the conflict. This shows how religion influenced North and South Sudan leaders to accept face-to-face negotiations even when their beliefs were incompatible. The moment of agreeing to negotiate was a breakthrough since it gave an opportunity to the peace process even though there were counter-violations of ceasefire agreements by both sides during the talks.

Whereas indeed there are many religious scriptures in history that have been cited or used to justify participation in violence, there are as well scriptures that foster a peaceable coexistence. Religion can still be helpful to challenge extreme interpretation of those scriptures that condone violence, denouncing their inhumane nature and replacing them with those that promote a peaceful coexistence.

There are a number of religious texts that can be referenced to limit resort to violence. For instance, Christianity refers to actions of war as done with deep regret, and one should seek for peace before starting a war. Whereas there are scriptures that justify violence, there are also those that can be interpreted as decommissioning violence. For instance, whereas this scripture that justifies violence in Islam, “Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits, for Allah loveth not Transgressors” (Qur’an) can be replaced by one that condemns violence, “Nor take life which Allah has made sacred except for just cause” (Qur’an). Christian scripture such as this one, “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Bible: Romans 13:3-4 New American Standard Version) can be replaced by, “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, you shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of judgment” (Matthew 5:21-22). So these examples of the scripture show how religion can play both a facilitating role to conflict as well as conflict resolution.

However, while religion is seen to have fueled this conflict from the perspectives of both of the conflicting actors in Sudan, it is important for us to understand that religion has always “played a dual role in the history of humankind regarding violence and peace” (Ferrandiz & Robben, 2007). It “neither causes violence by itself, nor, by contrast, is it without influence, particularly in its extremist form, on the course and character of violence” (Flynn, 2007).

In any conflict, leaders or individuals are bound to use their discretion with hidden motives to mobilize support. By nature religion is belief to which individuals attach their strongest inner faith, so it becomes an easy rallying and unifying factor which can be manipulated to achieve political, social and economic goals.

“Religion is not just a source of violent conflict but also a source of peace” (Flynn, 2007). It can provide references for mediators, and just as it can be interpreted to justify violence, it can be a point of reference for dialogue to seek a peaceable coexistence.

“Proper religion exhibits a preference for pursuing peace by peaceful means (non violence over violence) and for combining the promotion of peace with the promotion of justice. Religion is dedicated to promoting justice and peace by peaceful means, though such means often prompt a hostile and violent response, at least in the short run” (Flynn, 2007).

In any religious conflict, mediators are encouraged to challenge extreme interpretations favoring “war by presenting alternative passages or interpretations that offer a more peaceful perspective” (DRDC CR Report, 2010).


“While at the same time recognizing the historical circumstances and micro causes of any particular instance of violence, it also acknowledges that any given religious phenomenon – for example, fundamentalism – may arise in different circumstances, and lead to (or defuse) different kinds of violence” (Hall, 2003).

“Religious practices that may be described as violent within one or another definition are legitimated within a given social order, and the violence does not typically become a basis for condemning the religious organization in which it occurs. Ideology either explains away violence or treats it as a deviant aberration (such ideologically normalized violence occurs in much the same way within deviant religious groups that have their own institutionalized social orders)” (Hall, 2003).

The Sudan case study is one of the classic conflicts of modern time where the protagonists of a Muslim and Arab culture became adversaries to the Southern Sudanese people because they perceived this treatment as oppression and second-class treatment. “However, it is often the case that motives other than religion – [for example,] the desperation of economically disenfranchised people – are central to conflict. Religious language and symbolism are critical ways in which human beings interpret reality” (Gopin, 2005). In most cases of conflict, even if the root causes of the conflict are economic discontent, the revolt against the status quo may in fact express itself in religious terms (Golpin, 2005).

The southern Sudanese people had genuine economic, social and political grievances. Religion became the mode of unification in the struggle against a common adversary, even though they were largely disorganized under multiple ethnic groupings and local religions. Christianity became a rallying point against the oppression and spread of Muslim and Arab culture. Of course as discussed above, both sides used religion to justify their intolerance, hatred and bloodshed towards the other. In the end, the comprehensive ceasefire that resulted with the separation of Sudan was a result of tireless and committed efforts by religious leaders to bring both parties to negotiations and compromise. Perhaps a reminder of how religion can yet “play a constructive role in conflict resolution” (Harpviken, 2010).


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