Last weekend’s Observer carried an article by Tony Blair headlined, ‘Religious difference, not ideology, will fuel this century’s epic battles.’ Hmm, really?
The article itself doesn’t quite deserve the headline it got lumbered with. In fact, the second half of it is a plug for his Tony Blair Faith Foundation (write all your obvious jokes on postcards and mail them to the recycle bin, please) and an interesting-looking data collection project it is setting up with the Harvard Divinity School.
In the first half, when you read into it, Blair’s argument is less ambitious than that headline. He depicts the challenge of religious extremism as “one that could define the nature of peace and conflict in the first half of the 21st century”. The battles of this era “could easily be fought around questions of cultural or religious difference.” It’s not “will”, it’s “could”, it’s not the century as a whole, it’s the next three and a half decades.
But at it’s core – and this is what the headline writer saw and caught despite the cautious phrasing – this is an argument that religious difference is the most important cause of war in our time and well into the future.
The Clash of Civilisations
We’ve been here before. In 1993, the American political scientists Samuel Huntington wrote an article in Foreign Affairs entitled “The Clash of Civilizations?” Three years later he wrote his argument up in a book form – The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Despite the cautious question mark in the title, the article was unreservedly bold: wars and international politics used to be driven by ideology, now by nationalism, and next by differences of cultural identity at the broadest level – civilisational differences. He mapped out the great civilisations – Western, Orthodox, Islamic, Confucian, Hindu, Buddhist, Japanese, Latin American, “possibly African” – and argued they would be pitted against each other, sometimes in alliances such as the Confucian-Islamic alliance he saw emerging.
You can see the argument fraying as he goes through the list of civilisations. You can see it fray with its fake constructs and random exclusions – as between Confucian and Japanese civilisation, for example, where do the Koreans sit? And you watch it positively collapse under its own weight when you start to ask about actual wars and real politics within any one of these civilizational entities.
“Redux” means returned, brought back or even resurgent. It also sounds like reduced (and was once the brand name of a now withdrawn drug designed to aid weight loss). And that’s about right because Blair’s article is a case of Huntington coming back in reduced form and scope.
Blair’s briefer, less ambitious and more cautiously framed argument also frays when you start looking too closely. Let’s do:
- You could begin by asking, which war ever had just one cause?
- You could ask Tony Blair about his genuine and even great achievements in helping end armed conflict in Northern Ireland. This was often depicted as a religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics. But was it really religious in any deep sense by the 1990s? Did the negotiations his government took to a successful conclusion actually have to address religious issues? Wasn’t it basically about power, voice, exclusion and culture?
- There are plenty of wars in Africa that have little or nothing to do with religious difference. So you could ask if Blair’s thesis implies a prediction that there won’t be wars in Africa for the rest of the current half century.
- And if the response is to shift the focus in Blair’s argument from religion to culture, the right response is, so what’s new?
- You could also ask, why is there this concentration on the “epic battles”? The World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report pointed out how important all the other forms of organised violence are as well as war. Are the estimated 1.5 billion people living in countries threatened by violence and instability only of interest if their battles are “epic”?
- What about issues such as the denial of freedom, voice and rights? What about the impact of food insecurity and water scarcity? What about conflict over land? Have they stopped being part of the causes of conflicts?
- Syria is on everybody’s mind: did the war start in 2011 as a religious war?
- Does that give you a hint about how religion often becomes a factor in war?
To ensure legitimacy and to generate passion and self-sacrifice, conflict leaders often have to put a cultural, ethnic or religious mask on their cause and on their motivations. We who would understand and help build a more peaceful world should be careful not to go along with the logic of their rallying cries, even though those who are recruited to those causes believe in them whole heartedly.
Religious difference is often an important factor in war, sometimes even in being part of a diverse set of factors that cause violent conflict. But it sits alongside those other causes both in a broad overview of the global conflict horizon and in a detailed look at individual conflicts today.
One track analyses like Huntington’s in 1993 and Blair’s last week often appeal purely because of their simplicity. Unfortunately, the world they are trying to analyse is not so simple and that one track always goes astray.