Religion and the Pursuit of Peace – AIIA Presentation

Another fantastic presentation hosted by the Australian Institute of International Affairs. Professor James Piscatori is a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Arab and Islamic studies, Australian National University.

Previously, he was Professor and Head of the School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University; Fellow of Wadham College, University of Oxford; Research Fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London; and Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, New York. Professor Piscatori is the author of Islam in a World of Nation-States, Islam, Islamists, and the Electoral Principle, and co-author (with Dale F. Eickelman) of Muslim Politics. He is the editor of Islam in the Political Process and co-editor of Monarchies and Nations: Globalisation and Identity in the Arab States of the Gulf. He serves on the editorial boards of various journals, including the Journal of Muslim Minority AffairsIslam and Christian-Muslim Relations, and Middle East Critique, and has been inducted into the Society of Fellows of the Johns Hopkins University.


There are 2 entrenched assumptions: 1) secularism is the norm and 2) religion is a problem, and is inherently violent. The evidence suggests that religion need not contradict interest based cooperation, but it can also negatively impact and complicate situations. Religion is war/peace ambivalent, its function rather than its essence are what counts. It may not lead to peace but it can encourage ‘peaceability.’

The problem is that the inner logic to faith and its version of truth means that it is in opposition to other versions of truth. Injunctions in holy scriptures can legitimise violence but it can also legitimise peaceful behaviour. There are other drivers to violence related to religion including disaffection, peer pressure, and inequality.

Muslim states emerged in a post-imperial age and its elites have played by and large, by the rules of the international order. However, islamic radicals such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS contribute to the sense that basic norms of the Westphalian order are being rejected and viewed as deviating from their interpretations of their religion, e.g. the Pan-Islamic Caliphate, jihad and the focus on peoples not states (Mujahideen, kafirs – crusaders and jews). These groups also reject state labels, instead ascribing descriptive names to countries, such as Bilad al-Rafidayn (land of the two rivers) to describe Iraq and Bilad al-Haramayn (land of the two holy places) to describe Saudi Arabia.

The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is both geo-strategic/political and religious. There are religious tensions between Sunni (Wahhabi) Saudi Arabia and Shi’ia Iran. The devastating war in Yemen is a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

This type of conflict is not exclusively an issue for Islam. The sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, known as ‘The Troubles,’ has only recently ended with tensions still simmering. Tensions between Catholics and Protestants erupted into fighting in the 17th Century and devolved into guerrilla warfare in the 1960s.

Although the violence manifested as sectarian its main cause was political and nationalistic. Protestant unionists/loyalists considered themselves British and wanted Northern Ireland to remain with the UK. The mostly Catholic Irish nationalists/republicans wanted to leave the UK and join a united Ireland. The Catholic/nationalist minority began a campaign to end discrimination against them by the Protestant/unionist government and police force in 1968. This was met with violence, eventually leading to the deployment of British troops and subsequent warfare.

Religious authorities had a limited influence. It’s not that they didn’t try to end the conflict but that people didn’t care. The Good Friday agreement in 1998 was due to political influence not religious power. The economic problems for Northern Ireland are improving but there are still major problems, as well as the effects from the psychological burden of traumatised people.

The turning to violence comes from societies over time through:

  • Framing – ideological transformation
  • Opportunity – failed states and turmoil e.g. opposition to policies deemed an assault on Islam
  • Organisation – proliferation of organised groups as well as floating membership (lone wolves)

‘Sociability’ and ‘peaceability’ provided by religion has some merit, especially the idea of community (we are all Australians), equality (equal partners) and communication as a means to tackle radicalisation. However, which community? Religions are often hierarchical, the effectiveness of interfaith dialogue is limited, intra-faith dialogue even more so.

Religion is an instrument, it can be used for peace but also for violence and war. Religion functions as an identity and socio/political instrument. There are critical positive variables, leaders can influence adherents but groups outside mainstream churches are more significant actors.

Leaders non the less are attempting to counteract radicalisation. For example the Kaduna Declaration – killing innocents is desecration and defames Islam, and the Amman message – excommunicating other Muslims is Haram (not permissible), which counters the Saudi Wahhabi position.

De-radicalising is not easy. It needs education through media not just through school. Reconciliation is very hard to do as it does not deal with the underlying inequalities or injustices. What is required above all is religious will and political authority. In the words of the Holy Quran 41:34 “the good deed and evil deed cannot be equal. Repel [the evil] with one which is better; then, verily, he between whom and you there was enmity [will become] as though he was a close friend.”


Ethnic identity is becoming conflagrated with religion. Fragmentation of authority is occurring due to the modernisation process, which has increased the number of people who are now literate and seeking legitimacy in society. The ISIS slogan of ‘Islam is the solution/answer’ is an expression of opposition and protest.

Hanz Koontz is seen as sympathetic to the idea or religion as peace builder because he argues that religion is central. However, religion will always be built on tension. Religion might be able to create an atmosphere that is conducive to peace but it will not lead to peace in of itself. It is a good ideal but is not realistic.

The crumbling world order is severely challenged but has not yet collapsed, however there is no appropriate replacement in sight. The Caliphate, which proposes a different type of world order, is one alternative but that is already crumbling. The world is moving into a period of great instability. “We are witnessing the death of the old order but not yet the birth of a new order” US President Barack Obama. With that in mind, we need to be focusing not on conflict resolution but on conflict management.

The Palestinian Israeli conflict is an important pivot point for the rise of Islamic radicalism, but there would still be radicalism in Islam event if the conflict was resolved. ISIS does not mention Israel but denounces Muslim leadership. Their priority is to control Iraq, spread out and defeat the US in the Middle East, and only then to move against Israel.

Religious wars can also be viewed as a problem of masculinity and marginalised men. In macho cultures, fighting is an affirmation of masculinity. Why then do women join? It provides agency to escape conservative family environments in countries that marginalise Muslims (doubly marginalised). ISIS m,markets Jihadis as handsome virulent young men, leading to the ‘Jihadi brides.’

Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are allowing the proliferation and spread of radicalisation because its serves their purposes. It is used to destabilise neighbouring countries. Pressure will be put on Pakistan by the West to combat terrorism. However, supporting Saudi Arabia is too lucrative for Western countries (arms and military industries) so they are reluctant to put any pressure on Saudi Arabia. The religious class in Saudi Arabia is not opposed to ISIS but the state leaders (King and Princes) are. There is a possibility that the royal family might issue a Fatwa against ISIS but this is made difficult by power struggles with the religious class.

ISIS is not just fighting other Muslims, they are fighting against what they see as American imperialism.

You may also like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.