An important part of understanding conflict and the role of religion in conflict is appreciating the cultural, political, and historical context in which conflicts arise. When looking at contemporary conflicts and trying to understand why religion seems to be so much more a part of conflict today than previously, we must take into account the significant changes that have been taking place regarding the structure and stability of the nation-state, the shifts in global geo-political structures, and the challenges to ideas of secular statecraft that these changes bring with them. When examining the structure and role of the nation-state in contemporary conflicts, there are four key factors that are important to consider.
Firstly, as many new states exist in areas of the world that are underdeveloped, poverty and resource scarcity are significant problems that can undermine the security and stability of the state. Different communities and people groups may compete for access to and control over basic necessities such as water, as well as luxury resources such as gold, diamonds, and oil, contributing to the possibilities for state failure. Secondly, many post-colonial states are plagued by corruption. This is often a residual influence from the colonial era, when colonial masters would accrue vast wealth and assets from the country’s natural resources and retain it for themselves rather than redistribute them to the people in the community.
A number of scholars argue that current corruption in post-colonial states is a result of this inherited model of poor governance from the colonial era. A third factor is that, as these states are relatively young, they’re still developing systems of law and governance, including the right to a fair trial and free and fair democratic elections. In the absence of a robust legal system and clear lines of authority and accountability, state institutions can have limited legitimacy and often are in competition with other actors, including warlords, criminal organisations, and religious leaders, amongst others, for power and influence in the community.
This may also contribute to a lack of adequate punishment for criminal activity and human rights abuses, leaving many people within the population vulnerable. A fourth element in this equation is the role of dictatorships and authoritarian regimes. For complex geo-political reasons, Western powers, in particular the United States, have often provided material support for authoritarian regimes at the expense of championing the development of human rights and democracy. Examples of this are Iran and Egypt. What is interesting here is that these regimes, the Shah of Iran in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and Nasser through to Mubarak in Egypt have been largely secular regimes.
These regimes were often harsh, suppressed the people and denied them their basic rights, such as food, health care, and education. As a result of the corruption and authoritarianism associated with the secular regimes in these countries, the populations have become suspicious of secularism to an extent. This, in part, explains why religious parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt are so popular with people. Indeed, it was in part as a result of fear of what would happen in a democratic election if the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, or another political party active in the Middle East won power that the United States continued to support secular authoritarian regimes, fear of what would happen if an Islamic party gained power.
What occurs in part as a result of these and other factors that contribute to state failure is competition over the future direction, identity, and even the borders and geography of the nation-state. This can include secessionist fighting, such as we’ve seen in Sudan in recent years, resulting in the creation of the new nation-state of South Sudan. It can also contribute to political coups to oust unpopular governments, or even governments that are popular, but that other key players disagree with. We’ve seen several such coups take place in Egypt since 2011, as well as in a number of other Middle Eastern countries. Sometimes these coups are relatively peaceful, but, sometimes they can lead to violence.
In the midst of this competition for power, legitimacy, control, and influence over the identity and future direction of the nation-state, religion can emerge as an important player. Religious leaders are often very powerful in their communities, carrying significant authority because their followers respect them. Several scholars have also noted that religious symbols, narratives, and worldviews can provide a sense of security and stability, despite the immense civil and political unrest that people may find themselves in when a state collapses. This can contribute to religion becoming a feature of a conflict. Religion is, after all, a highly important marker of identity for many people.
What is important to bear in mind, however, is that despite the significance of religion as a marker of identity, conflict and state failure are rarely solely or even primarily about religion, particularly not in the way that we often understand it in the West, as a competition over competing theological doctrines and beliefs. Conflict and state failure are more frequently over power, authority, control, and access to resources, and over competing visions for the future identity and direction of the nation-state, some of which may include the preservation or promotion of particular ways of life that include religion. We must remember, however, that the whole idea of state failure is a modern construct.
It is based on the assumption that there is an ideal form of what we understand as a state, and that there is a perfect part for attaining a stable state. What is narrated as state failure by many political scientists and policy analysts may not in fact be failure, but a rejection of one kind of political structure and societal organisation in favour of another, or at least in pursuit of another. Many post-colonial states, for example, seek to establish their own identity, political structure, and societal organisation unique to their history and culture, not simply replicating the structures that their colonial masters bequeathed to them.
In the short term, this may lead to greater instability and violence, but in the longer term can produce a more stable political community that more people within the community feel invested in and that they have ownership over. The main point here is simply that there is more than one way to interpret the appearance of instability in different parts of the world than just a state failure.