Skip to main content

In the post-9/11 era, numerous scholars and commentators attempted to explain and theorize the relationship between religion and violence. One of the most controversial arguments that was yet again reiterated and heatedly discussed after the 9/11 events was Samuel Huntington’s “the Clash of Civilizations” thesis (1993, 1996). In his 1993 Foreign Affairs piece, Huntington argues that the post-Cold War would be marked by civilizational conflict; future conflict would occur along “cultural fault lines” since human beings are divided along cultural lines—Western, Islamic, Hindu, Confucian and so on. He argued that “differences among civilizations are not only real, they are basic. Civilizations are differentiated from each other by history, language, culture, tradition and, most important, religion.” 1 Huntington’s argument is novel in that he specifically argues that there will be a ‘shift’ in loyalties; individuals and groups will shift away from the nation-state and identify more with and mobilize based on larger identity groups that transcend national boundaries. Huntington essentially argues that the Islamic civilization will conflict with the Western world because people in the Arab world do not share the same values and loyalties like that held by people in the West. Their primary loyalty is to their religion, not to their nation-state, and he argues that their culture is incompatible with liberal ideals such as pluralism and democracy.

Despite the significant scholarly evidence and debates that followed Huntington’s “Clash” thesis, which basically disproved his global theory that post-Cold War would be marked by civilizational conflicts based on, most importantly, religious differences, Huntington’s work is valuable mainly because it served as a catalyst for many thoughtful, interdisciplinary responses and conversations among scholars about the important role of religion in international relations. What is clear from these conversations is that religion matters. But how does it matter? The problem with grand theories like Huntington’s “Clash” thesis is that the actors engaging in action are invisible. Huntington’s unit of analysis is the state, which is less useful when we are trying to understand how differences in religion lead to and facilitate conflict. As a scholar who examines culture and interactions in conflict settings, I understand religion as playing a complex role in conflict. Based on the historian Scott Appleby’s argument about religion’s ambiguous nature, the question I discuss in this article is, ‘How does religion exacerbate conflict or promote peace and justice?’ This is a question that we should continue to wrestle with in the twenty-first century in our academic, policy and religious circles of discourse.

Huntington’s Thesis

Huntington’s “Clash” thesis was influential; it stimulated debates and discussions not only among religion scholars but also among government officials, leading figures in foreign policy and popular news media. Many critiques emerged in scholarly circles in response to Huntington’s “Clash” thesis. Atalia Omer effectively articulates the main critique:

While the “clash” thesis does take religion seriously on its own terms as a causal factor in international relations and global politics, it renders religion as an ahistorical, monolithic, and unchanging essence. This lens produces an overly simplistic, belligerent, skewed, and deterministic picture of religion and conflict in the post-Cold War era. 2

Works of other scholars of religious violence such as Bernard Lewis (The Roots of Muslim Rage, 1990) and Mark Juergensmeyer (Terror in the Mind of God, 2000) are also in the same camp as Huntington. Similar to the “clash” thesis, their works are characterized by an overly simplistic picture of religion and conflict in the post-Cold War era. For example, Juergensmeyer is criticized for “skimming the surface and conflating different types of religious (and non-religious) actors… [his book] reinforced the impression that religious violence is an ubiquitous and particularly lethal threat to world order and security.” 3 While theorists of religious violence often struggle with the analytical challenge of what to count as ‘religious’ and differentiating religious motivations from other motivations, works by scholars like Juergensmeyer and Huntington are appealing because they clearly draw the lines to demonstrate how religion contributes to violence; “it consequently functions as a self-fulfilling prophecy with both Islamists and xenophobic Western commentators, rendering their objectives in terms of ineradicable and irreconcilable differences between civilizations.” 4 Therefore, Huntington portrays a reductionist account of religion, which views the role of religion through a lens that fails to take context into consideration.

In terms of empirical evidence, many scholars quantitatively tested the plausibility of the “Clash” thesis and found that existing data on conflicts do not support the argument. Consistent with findings of other scholars, Giacomo Chiozza 5 found that inter-civilizational dyads—pairs of two countries from different civilizations—are not more likely to engage in international conflict, not even in the post-Cold War period when civilizational conflict dynamics should be more prominent. They are actually less conflict prone than dyads consisting of countries of the same civilization. Neither is Huntington’s thesis supported in studies of civilizational conflicts that occur within national borders. Of the three kinds of civilizational conflicts that Huntington categorized, these are conflicts within states between groups that are members of different civilizations. (The two other kinds of conflict are 1) conflicts between the dominant states of different civilizations and 2) conflicts between states from different civilizations that share a border). Jonathan Fox studies ethnic conflicts—defined as conflicts between minority and majority groups of different or same civilizations within states—in the post-Cold war era, and finds that 37.8 percent (104 out of 275) of the conflicts comprise conflicts between groups of different civilizations. Compared to these civilizational conflicts, almost half of the conflicts are noncivilizational (47.6 percent or 131 out of 275 conflicts), or conflicts between groups of same civilizations. The rest (14.5 percent or 40 out of 275) are indigenous conflicts. The numbers vary little from the proportions of civilizational and noncivilizational conflicts in the Cold War era. Fox concludes, “Civilizational conflicts constitute a minority of ethnic conflicts both during and after the Cold War” and “the largest percentage of ethnic conflicts occur within civilizations” instead of between civilizations. 6 Interestingly, he also finds that civilizational conflicts between culturally different groups tend to encourage higher levels of protest instead of violent rebellion. These empirical studies and many others (Kader 1998, Russett, Oneal & Cox 2000, Henderson & Tucker 2001, Tusicisny 2004, Neumayer & Plumper 2009) support the argument that post-Cold War conflicts are not “particularly civilizational.” 7

More recent empirical evidence from the Arab world counters Huntington’s argument. Waves of demonstrations and protests that began in 2010 in North Africa and the Middle East, specifically in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Syria, seriously question Huntington’s argument that people in dominantly Muslim countries are, at their core, not nationalistic and do not share “Western” ideals like pluralism and democracy. 8 David Brooks, a cultural commentator and writer for The New York Times, argues that the repressive political context is what is problematic: people in these nations—under certain political, economic and social circumstances as well as ripe conditions for change—will mobilize to demand for democracy, pluralism and more freedom. While the influence of religious and other cultural identities and values are inevitably present, these largely nonviolent protests of the masses demonstrate the fact that people in the Arab world are immensely attached to their national identities, and they can unite to pursue different aspirations based on universal political values.

The Ambiguous Nature of Religion

As a sociologist and peace studies researcher studying culture and interactions in conflict settings, I understand religion as playing a complex role in conflict. Scott Appleby, a historian and scholar of global religion, best demonstrates the complexity of religion. He theorizes the relationship between religion and violence in his “ambivalence of the sacred” thesis. Citing the theologian Rudolf Otto’s work on religion (The Idea of the Holy 1923), Appleby refers to religion as the experience of the sacred (the mysterium tremendum or numen) and emphasizes the ambiguous nature of religion. He states, “Religion is a far more ambiguous enterprise, containing within itself the authority to kill and heal, to unleash savagery, or to bless humankind with healing and wholeness.” 9 He argues that militant religion can be a force for both good and bad. Religious militants can be either “extremists” or “peacemakers” depending upon their convictions. 10They have different types of religious commitment that motivate them to employ either nonviolent means or violence in order to achieve their goals. Religion can be a powerful source of not only violence but also nonviolent peacebuilding (Appleby 2000, 9-15, Omer 2012, Appleby 2012). Appleby demonstrates the underlying assumption that supports this view: that religion is not a cultural monolith:

Religious traditions are internally plural, fluid, and evolving, responsive to new interpretations by gifted religious leaders and capable of forming individuals, social movements, and communities that practice and promote the civic and nonviolent tolerance of others. 11

The well-known example of the Community of Sant’Egidio in the early 1990s that mediated the complex negotiations to end the civil war in Mozambique is one of many examples that Appleby cites to demonstrate the creative and transformative role that religious actors can play in conflict environments.

Based on Appleby’s argument about religion’s ambiguous nature, the question I address in this article is, ‘How does religion exacerbate conflict? Or promote peace and justice?’ To answer these questions, I turn to scholarly work in sociology and the interdisciplinary field of peacebuilding in the next two sections of this article. In the first section, I examine how religion may facilitate and exacerbate conflict through its affinity with ethnicity and nationalism as well as its close relationship with political authority. I also discuss religion’s rich cultural resources that can be used to build a strong collective identity and sustain collective action among religious actors. In the second section, I examine religion’s potential to build peace through creative hermeneutics and theological resources for peace, peace education initiatives that emphasize common ground, and rituals and symbols that promote reconciliation. After discussing how selected works by sociologists and scholars of peacebuilding contribute to the conversation regarding the intersections between religion, violence and peace, I offer a brief assessment of the current state of scholarly dialogue on religious peacebuilding. In the final section of the article, I attempt to contribute to the conversation on the complex role of religion in conflict settings based on my ethnographic observations of peace activists in Mindanao, southern Philippines. Understanding complexity requires the researcher to observe the sphere of actors and action up close, at the level of individuals and interactions. I elaborate on two specific issues that highlight the complex role of religion in conflict settings. While the Mindanao conflict is a case of Huntington’s civilizational conflict within a state that contains groups of different civilizations (Christianity and Islam), the two issues I explain are case-specific and should not be understood as generalizations regarding religion’s role in other civilizational conflicts.

Religion’s Resource for Conflict

The first resource for conflict is what a number of scholars of religion and conflict have theorized: the interplay between religion and politics. For example, David Little demonstrates how religion can fuel ethnic conflict by underlining the complex role that religion plays in conflict due to its interdependence to nationalism and ethnicity. He examines the connection between these three elements, making the claim that “the national” or “the ethnic” interlinks with “the religious” in which religious sensibilities, symbols, and images permeate a group’s understanding of “nation” or “people.” Religion’s deep ties with ethnicity and nationalism may cultivate religious intolerance and “illiberal nationalism” thus revealing the harmful side of religion’s political influence. 12 In his observation of religion as the key determinant of national identity in the cases of Sudan, former Yugoslavia, Iraq and Sri Lanka, Little questions this predominant pattern: “Why does the assertion of ethnic and national identity so frequently involve intolerance and discrimination in regard to religious and other forms of fundamental belief?” 13 In his study of Sri Lanka, Little discusses how the word ethnicity carries religious significance and meaning by introducing Weber’s notion of ‘chosen people.’ 14 Little demonstrates that ethnic membership not only signifies various markers of common descent such as physical appearance, lineage, and language. Religion can also help accentuate the superior status and ‘chosenness’ of the ethnic identity of a people. An ethnic group’s inclination to appeal to this “special belief” will increase especially as it competes with other groups in order to acquire political control of a given territory.

The example of the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist identity demonstrates the special affinities between religion, ethnicity, and nationalism and how religion is used selectively to justify violence. Little reveals the way in which Sinhalas have based their subjective belief in their common descent and superiority—precisely Weber’s idea of “a chosen people with a providential mission”—on Buddhist myths whereby the belief becomes sacred and religious. 15 Studies and analyses of nationalist rhetoric and the development of Buddhist nationalism found that the emergence of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist identity is a recent phenomenon, developed in response to significant events in history. Moreover, traditional Buddhist beliefs do not serve as the basis for this ethnoreligious nationalist identity; rather, selective myths, legends and symbols are the fundamental religious instruments that reify the nationalist identity by bestowing it with substance and depth, thus making mythic knowledge seem objectively true for Sinhalas. In addition, bikkhu politics or the involvement of monks in politics significantly contributed to the formation of the ethnoreligious nationalist identity.

Religion’s affinity with nationalism and ethnicity help explain the roots of ethnoreligious conflicts (between groups of different civilizations) within countries. Moreover, Monica Toft, Daniel Philpott and Timothy Shah discuss two factors that influence religious actors’ political pursuits: political theology and the relationship between religious authority and political authority. 16 Variation specifically in the latter factor may create the conditions in which repression of minority religions might occur. Toft et al. note that the degree of independence between religious and political authority “vary in kind: consensual or conflictual.” 17 When the relationship between a religious actor and the state is consensual, each actor is content with the status quo and both have agreed to the nature of the relationship. Toft et al. subsequently argue that when religious actors “enjoy a consensually integrated relationship with their state,” then they are “less likely to desire religious freedom because they are cozily supported by the state.” 18 Leaders of such a religious group might enjoy special political privileges and access to economic resources. Nevertheless, it is possible that the level of repression against other religions is highest in this context because within the same country one religion (such as the majority religion) may be supported by the government while “religious minorities and dissenters are shut out from consensual integration and marginalized.” 19 The authors claim that due to majority-minority religious power dynamics, countries in which a majority religion has the status of state religion are likely to experience civil wars and terrorism. This is the case of the second civil war in Sudan in the 1980s and 1990s as well as the civil war in Sri Lanka between the Sinhalese Buddhist majority and the Hindu Tamil minority. Not only does strong state-sponsored repression exist in these countries but it is also highly probable that great levels of civilian-initiated repression also exist (also known as social repression), initiated by members belonging to the majority religion against those belonging to minority religions and vice versa.

Understanding the affinity between religion, ethnicity and nationalism and how this interplay may lead to conflict in certain contexts is crucial, yet is not accounted by Huntington’s approach. His reductionistic view of religion does not embrace the complex marriage between religion, politics and other identities; instead, his “Clash” thesis paints with a broad brush that reduces complexity and attributes different factors to religion.

Despite lacking in complexity, one way that Huntington’s “Clash” thesis has merit is that it highlights the cultural power of religion. Huntington argued that the world is divided along cultural lines—Western, Hindu, Sinic, Islamic civilizations and others—and that religion is at the core of these civilizational cultures. Huntington believed that people in these civilizations derive their most important values and identity from religion. But how does this precisely work? One of the most powerful ways in which religion can be influential, sociologists of religion and culture demonstrate, is at the group level, specifically in the formation of identities. A strong sense of group identity is crucial for any group to mobilize collective action or engage in conflict. Christian Smith’s development of a subcultural identity theory of religion highlights how religious groups employ identity in ways that form boundaries, which strengthen and unite their communities. 20 While Smith’s work specifically attempts to explain why Evangelicalism thrives in the way that it is, his concept of “embattled identity” can explain how a collective identity may be cultivated based on shared experiences of opposition. Smith explains that a religious group’s opposition or difference specifically against another religious group and generally against religious pluralism contributes to the formation of clear identity boundaries that build community at the micro level and further leads to opposition and conflict against the “enemy” at the macro-level. Embattled identity, or rather, a group’s perception of embattled identity, acts as a constant empirical reminder about the importance of sustaining its religion, its traditions, and its beliefs and values. 21 Threats or attacks against a group’s identity, in this case, religious identity, will further solidify the group’s identity marker that distinguishes them from other groups. Over time, group solidarity may build around the goal to fight against the threat posed against their religious identity. Thus, the oppressed group’s culture of resistance and its collective identity reinforce each other. Over time, a religious group’s oppositional culture may develop into a full-fledged oppositional consciousness. In other words, a group’s embattled identity and culture of resistance is built around the goal to respond to the threat posed against the group.

Moreover, religion can encourage mobilization for (violent or nonviolent) collective action in various ways through its cultural resources. For example, religious rituals and scriptures can be reinterpreted to create an insurgent culture. Through religious rituals such as prayer meetings, worship and funerals as well as the use of religious symbols, hymns and texts and religiously-inspired political ideologies, a religious community can foster a sense of collective consciousness about the illegitimacy of the repressive acts that its members undergo. 22 This type of consciousness may in turn encourage mobilization against the religious ‘Other.’ Participation in these religious practices may also generate solidarity and shared identity among members of a repressed religious group, which can play an important role in sustaining collective action. Smith also argues that religion “stands in the position to question, judge, and condemn temporal, earthly reality.” 23 Adherence to a sacred reality encourages one to adopt a higher standard from a transcendent source through which one evaluates the temporal. They practice a “politics of moral witness,” which compels religious individuals to act according to his or her own conscience. 24

As discussed, religion’s cultural resources can contribute significantly to conflict and violence through the strengthening of group identity and solidarity. However, this is only half of the argument. As we have witnessed throughout history, religion’s cultural resources can also be used for purposes of promoting nonviolence and peace, democracy and human rights. In developing his clash thesis, Huntington operates with the assumption that different religious cultures are fundamentally conflictual. Moreover, he essentially ignores the actors behind religion that have the agency and ability to interpret religion and use religion’s resources in a radically different way than for the purpose of cultivating conflict.

Religion’s Resource for Peacebuilding

Appleby’s “ambivalence of the sacred” thesis serves as a theoretical framework for the growing pool of scholarship that explains how religion and religious actors contribute to peace. Works by scholars such as Mohammed Abu-Nimer, Marc Gopin, Lisa Schirch and Atalia Omer in the interdisciplinary field of religious peacebuilding emphasize the various theological resources for peacebuilding. For example, in Nonviolence and Peacebuilding in Islam, Abu-Nimer challenges “the stereotype of a bellicose and intolerant Islamic worldview” widespread in the Western media and among policymakers by arguing that Islamic culture and religion are not “inimical to the principles of peacebuilding and conflict resolution.” 25 In his article in the Journal of Law & Religion, AbuNimer argues that Islam is not monolithic. He states, “Islam is subject to diverse interpretations and perspectives that may be legitimately pursued by sincere and knowledgeable Muslim scholars from different nations, cultures and schools.” 26 He demonstrates this by presenting a comprehensive review of literature based on interpretations of Islamic religion and tradition that support: 1) war and jihad; 2) war and peace; and 3) nonviolence and peacebuilding. He shows support for the third category in his book by drawing out key passages in the Qur’an and the Hadith that support his argument, and also provides practical examples of how these Islamic teachings have been applied in Muslim communities. For example, in the last section of his book, Abu-Nimer argues that Palestinians who participated in the Intifada exercised restraint in employing the use of violence because of Islamic teachings that encourage nonviolence. Similarly, Omer acknowledges the important role that religious leaders can play through creative hermeneutics, specifically by providing theological resources for peacebuilding. She argues that the tool of critique is essential, defining it as “an analysis that is self-aware of the genealogy and historicity of its categories.” 27 In other words, Omer argues, “Without discursive critique, creative hermeneutics (a hallmark of religious peacebuilding) risks becoming overly backward-looking and reactionary, diminishing its transformative potential.” 28 Based on Omer, religious leaders have to actively practice the tool of critique in creative hermeneutics in order to contribute to peace in the conflict settings they and their religious communities are situated in. Moreover, in his book Holy War, Holy Peace, Gopin explains how religion can contribute to peacebuilding specifically in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He argues that what makes the conflict so intractable is not only because of the dispute about land, but also due to “competing myths of entitlement, chosenness, and religious authenticity or superiority” between groups in the same religious “family.” 29 Thus, in stating how the ‘religious problem’ intensifies conflict, Gopin describes how religion can hinder peacebuilding efforts. In response, he discusses specific ways that competing theologies can be reframed hermeneutically to emphasize peace, human dignity and shared community. Gopin also presents scriptural resources available in Judaism, Islam and Christianity that stresses forgiveness and reconciliation. Moreover, Gopin suggests concrete steps for integrating religious resources in peacebuilding initiatives for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For instance, Gopin proposes that Israelis and Palestinians conduct education and training for both adults and children “in a coordinated, bilateral way.” 30 The goal of these kinds of programs would be to disseminate values that both sides share rather than focus on the issues of conflict. Gopin also emphasizes the importance of sharing of myth, ritual and ceremony which include interfaith joint prayers and mourning of the victims of violence from both sides.

In her book, Ritual and Symbol in Peacebuilding, Schirch situates her work within the conflict transformation model and argues that the use of rituals and symbols in peacebuilding should be an addition to traditional “front door” approaches to conflict. She explains that ritual has three specific characteristics. First, ritual takes place in a social space separate from normal life; second, “ritual communicates through symbols, senses, heightened emotions” rather than direct communication through words; and third, “transforms people’s worldviews, identities, and relationships with others.” 31 Though she writes about the effectiveness of different types of rituals, she specifically acknowledges the usefulness of religious rituals in certain contexts, defined as “rituals based on relationship with supernatural powers and religious values.” 32 She argues that peacebuilders can create rituals that encourage groups of different sides “to see each other as fully human and find mutually satisfying ways of meeting their human needs.” 33 Similarly, Lederach emphasizes the importance of rituals in peacebuilding and specifically discusses the religious resources of the Catholic Church. He argues that symbols and rituals have proved extremely important when dealing with armed actors in majority Catholic settings. He explains that “the symbols, rituals, and even liturgical elements have served as points of connection and protection” as well as respect for local Catholic leaders. 34 Another key resource is the sacrament and the tradition of Catholic faith to view the world sacramentally, expressed through the Eucharist. The sacrament as ritual has the potential to “mobilize both the sacramental and the moral imagination in reference to reconciliation, restoring the broken community, and taking personal and corporate responsibility for the suffering of others.” 35 In these ways, peacebuilders can use symbols and rituals in their religious culture to communicate powerful messages of reconciliation and restorative justice.

Assessment of Religion as Resource for Peace

The above review of selective literature in the field of religious peacebuilding clearly indicates the growing efforts to formulate a coherent, systematized understanding of religious peacebuilding. However, it is also apparent that the field is heterogeneous in nature, mainly due to scholars theorizing and explaining from the point of view of their specific religious traditions and based on their diverse experiences and interest in different conflict contexts. The field is also under-theorized; much scholarship in the field revolves around an explanation of how religion can be incorporated into peacebuilding efforts and whether and how certain religious resources contribute to, or do not contribute to, religious peacebuilding in specific contexts, as well as how they can potentially contribute to religious peacebuilding. In stressing the utility of religious peacebuilding, many of the real problems within the field are not examined through careful discussion. For example, significant literature in the field fail to address appropriately problems such as what happens when religious agendas get involved and contradict peacebuilding strategies. 36 They also fail to discuss issues such as when religious convictions come into sharp conflict and when religious differences cannot be tolerated and merely set aside. For example, while Gopin proposes interfaith initiatives in the grassroots level of Israeli and Palestinian society, it is insufficient to assume that Jews and Muslims can ignore their differences by focusing on their shared Abrahamic ancestry. Despite much needed efforts to incorporate religion into peacebuilding, much of the scholarship about religious peacebuilding leaves the reader with the impression that religion is an ingredient to add into a mixture—to identify selectively what is “good” in religion and mix it into the existing peacebuilding approaches in order to yield best results. This is a cherry-picking approach that is evident, for instance, in Hertog’s work, The Complex Reality of Religious Peacebuilding. She states that peacebuilders “must examine the respective religious traditions with an eye to identifying appropriate values, concepts, and practices as resources for peacebuilding in that conflict setting” (emphasis added). 37 This is a reductionist view of religion that Omer argues against. In her article in Practical Matters, Omer reiterates that Appleby’s “ambivalence of the sacred” thesis “is grounded in recognition of the internal pluralities of religious traditions” and emphasizes the importance of working within “a non-essentialist and non-reductionist constructive and contextually sensitive framework.” 38 She argues that we need to “rethink” our views of what consists of religious peacebuilding, which requires “moving beyond a simplistic and unreflective application of the idea that a supposedly ‘authentic’ religion (one that is not perverted by violent ‘alien’ motifs) is and can do good.” 39 Omer warns us against adopting the secularist framing of religion (that sees religion as a distinct variable) because an ahistorical and transcultural conception of religion “gives rise to the same kind of essentialism and ahistoricity that characterize the ‘clash of civilizations.’” 40 This is precisely why Omer claims that the tool of critique, defined as “an analysis that is self-aware of the genealogy and historicity of its categories,” is necessary for religious peacebuilding. In other words, scholars of religious peacebuilding should avoid making the same mistake as Huntington did by taking a reductionist view of religion. Moreover, it is crucial for scholars studying the role of religious peacebuilding in conflict settings to acquire a deep understanding of the particular setting’s historical context and processes in which religious values, practices and concepts were developed and used to promote conflict. This will serve as the foundation for the tool of critique that scholars and practitioners can use to effectively counter religion as violence and over time respond constructively with religion as peace.

Talk about Religion Among Peace Activists in Mindanao, Southern Philippines

In this section, I demonstrate the complex role of religion in conflict settings by discussing two specific issues encountered by peace activists in Mindanao, southern Philippines. As I have argued previously, Huntington’s thesis renders actors and their behaviors invisible. When we are trying to understand how religion facilitates conflict or builds peace, we need to pay attention to the actors behind religion and how they interact with religion and other actors around them to support the goal of violence or peace. Using the example of peace activists in Mindanao, I specifically demonstrate how actors interact, and in many ways wrestle with, religion in the context of working for peace.

In the summer of 2014 and most of 2015, I was in Mindanao conducting research on the interaction styles of peace groups and activists that have engaged, in various capacities, to bring peace to the region. The activists and their groups were part of the largest network of groups mainly engaged in peacebuilding and advocacy. In the course of 13 months, I conducted an ethnographic study of discursive spaces such as meetings and discussion groups attended by core members of this network. I also conducted semi-structured interviews with 65 activists in total. Individual peace activists that I met and talked to identified themselves as either Moro, Christian or Indigenous.

A Brief Historical Context of the Mindanao Conflict

The conflict in the Philippine islands of Mindanao, which has its roots in Muslim resistance to Spanish and American colonial domination, has evolved from an ethnonationalist struggle between a minority group and the national government to “a highly fragmented conflict with multiple overlapping causes of violence.” 41 Centuries of colonial experience in the Philippines bred feelings of deep mistrust and hostilities between the Christians and Moros of Mindanao, which continue to this day.

While the war in Mindanao is primarily ethnonationalist in nature, Islam is the central identity shared by the 11 ethnolinguistic Muslim groups, thus serving as a powerful symbolic means of recruiting people and mobilizing support for revolutionary action. The conflict has resulted in over 100,000 deaths and more than 500,000 displaced persons, and has left deep fissures across Philippine society.

After the successful mobilization of the People Power Movement to overthrow Marcos in 1986, many civil society groups actively engaged in efforts to resolve the Mindanao conflict. These groups, with the ultimate goal to end the conflict and achieve peace, organized collective efforts both in the grassroots level and at the policy level to influence the political peace process. Initiatives such as the establishment of ‘peace zones,’ the conduct of public consultations, interfaith dialogue, and all-women groups for civilian protection are excellent examples of grassroots efforts by civil society groups. Some of the peace groups also equipped themselves with the vertical capacity to engage with high-level political actors and institutions so that they can accompany political and military actors in navigating the peace process.

After 16 years of negotiations, the Government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) signed a comprehensive peace agreement in March 2014. The agreement promised to establish an autonomous Bangsamoro, a separate political entity for the Moro people in the southern Philippines. Despite high levels of anticipation among many peace activists and civil society groups, the proposed Bangsamoro Law failed to muster enough support in the 16th Congress of the Philippines in February 2016, and did not pass.

Issue 1: Prejudice Among Peace Advocates

In my ethnographic observations and personal interviews with Moro peace activists, I learned about the two main tensions they experienced due to religion. The first tension is the prejudice and biases that Christians and Muslim peace activists have about each other. In my conversation with Jeyyna, 42 the director of a Muslim women’s organization, she shared with me her experience of confronting the biases her Christian colleagues had of her due to her religion. She explained:

So there’s these assumptions that people have about each other. If you’re my friend, we would order pancit—it’s a noodle dish in the Philippines. And since most Filippinos are Christians, they would prepare pancit with pork fat. Sometimes they’ll add chopped pork in the dish because it tastes better. Then I would say, ‘No I don’t eat pork!’ And then somebody would pick up the pork pieces and then give it back to me and say, ‘Ok, now eat!’ But this doesn’t work, because the dish was already prepared with pork fat. See? Those little things are not given attention, this can end up creating some tension when the intention was [actually] not to create trouble. From your [Christian] point of view, it’s like, ‘What’s the problem? Just take the pork out!’ But for us, it’s, ‘No No! [Don’t you] See?’ And then sometimes my [Christian] friends are brutally frank and we sometimes just discuss the differences. She would tell me, ‘Jeyyna you should actually be thankful because I’m talking to you. Do you know that other Christians wouldn’t like to talk to Muslims?’ Then I say, ‘Why? What’s the reason?’ And she would say, ‘Because you’re dirty. Because you’re less educated. Because you will have all of these rough edges.’ And then she would say, ‘I’m representing the Christian community. You are representing the Muslim community. These are the reasons why we don’t want to talk to you.’ Then I would return the question to her, ‘Do you know that Muslims don’t want to talk to you? Because of our personal biases as well.’ Then she would say, ‘Why? What are the reasons? I’m clean. I’m educated. I’m good—I don’t have any rough edges.’ Then I’ll tell her, ‘Because you eat pork, which is haram, which is forbidden. Aside from eating pork, you wear that miniskirt, which is also haram for us.’ So we keep enumerating the things that we don’t like about each 283 other. Then both of us say, ‘We should tell what we talked about to the rest of the Muslims and Christians. Initially, it might not be very good, but we need to do this in order to understand each other.’ So that’s judging each other with each other’s standards. 43

Jeyyna uses these examples to make the point that peace activists—both Christians and Muslims—should self-critically examine the way they perceive and treat the religious ‘Other’ in order for Christian-Muslim partnerships for peacebuilding truly to strive for peace. She warned that due to the peace activists’ identity as actors working directly for peace as well as their willingness to partner with groups of different religions, they might assume that they do not have deep-rooted biases about each other. She commented:

We don’t want to be judgmental. Perhaps we’ve elevated ourselves to a higher level of understanding. Therefore, the mere fact that we have accepted the partnership [to work with the ‘Other] should remove all the biases. But the keyword is should have. As a person, I cannot be anybody else but me. So I have to honestly ask myself, What are my biases? But on the professional side, the very fact that we [my Christian counterpart and I] are partners means that we accept each other. [We’re basically saying] ‘We partner with you because we can work with you. We know that you’re different, and we’re assuming that you also understand us that way.’ But we go back from the professional side to our personal side because we are human. And this is a professional group of people, but still we can sense some of the biases. So can you imagine what it’s like if you go to the communities? This is what we have to work on. 44

Admitting her own biases of Christians, Jeyyna argues that in order to effectively work towards reducing biases and prejudices in the communities in which the peace activists work, the activists have to tackle this difficult issue in their own relationships. The process would involve engaging in a practice of continuous self reflection and critique of one’s own biases and prejudices of the ‘Other’. This will enable the peace activists truly to practice what they preach. Moreover, my conversation with Jeyyna demonstrates the point that civil society actors, even those that directly advocate for peace, are far from being ‘neutral.’ They often remain connected to their identity groups and networks before and during conflict. Since they are embedded in the conflict communities that they belong to, civil society actors often enact their cultural biases, political affiliations, religious memberships and clan-based loyalties. Instead of romanticizing the civil society sector, Keane describes civil society as a richly conflicted “haven of difference and identity” that is riddled with power relations. 45 The space “contains both strong traces of pluralism—and strong conflict potential.” 46 This suggests that while peace advocates—both Christians and Muslims—share a strong commitment to work towards peace, tolerance and understanding, many of them may experience the internal tension between adherence to such values and their attachment to their cultural and religious identities.

While Huntington is a grand theorist and has not studied micro interactions, he might still argue that Jeyyna’s reflections confirm his thesis: the prejudice and distrust between Jeyyna and her Christian colleagues demonstrate the power of religious differences, and these basic differences are what draw them apart. Jeyyna and her Christian colleagues might agree with Huntington that differences in religion as well as religious culture between individuals have the power to form enduring biases and prejudices about the ‘Other.’ Nevertheless, they would equally emphasize the power of face-to-face interactions that can break down religious biases and cultural barriers. These types of interactions gave Jeyyna and her Christian colleagues the opportunity to realize their own superficial level of understanding about each other’s religion and culture, and in turn the opportunity to engage in a deeper process of self-critique and questioning of one’s own biases. They also decided to use their reflections to initiate social change—to use their personal experiences to help people in their own communities to take the step towards breaking down religious and cultural barriers.

Issue 2: Diversity of Identities Within An Overarching Religious Identity

The second tension related to religion that I discovered in my conversations with Moro peace activists is the issue of collapsing other significant identities within an overarching religious identity. While the Moro peace activists I met actively supported the Moro people’s political struggle, some explained that they were uncomfortable with the idea that the diverse ethnic identities of the Moros were collapsed under the umbrella term “Bangsamoro,” meaning the nation of the Moros, which was created during the Moro struggle in an attempt to unite the 11 ethnic Moro groups. These activists identified themselves first and foremost with their specific ethnic identity before identifying with their religious identity.

When I asked how she identifies herself, May, a peace activist and community nurse, replied, “I am a Maguindanaoan, and I tell others that I’m a Maguindanaoan. I don’t say I’m Bangsamoro. I’ll correct them if they identify me as a Bangsamoro…most Moros would first identify themselves by their ethnic identity, not by their Bangsamoro identity.” 47 In addition to clarifying her primary identity, May was critical of the Christian peace activists collapsing these ethnic identities when referring to the Bangsamoro and advocating for the Moro people. She commented, “Yeah, they [Christian peace activists] don’t know us well. They talk for us and on behalf of the Moros, they talk about what we want, but they don’t really know us. There’s a lot of diversity among the Moros.” 48 May believed that collapsing the diversity within the Moros is problematic because the different needs and interests of the ethnic groups are ignored in the process of working towards political peace in Mindanao. Moreover, she is critical of the serious lack of understanding among Christian activists about the important identity dynamics and political affiliations by ethnicity that exist among the Moros.

The example of the activists’ resistance to their diverse ethnic identities being collapsed under an overarching religious identity also points to the danger that David Little warned us against—that religious sensibilities and symbols tied to ethnicity can be used to cultivate religious intolerance. Emphasizing the religious identity of the Bangsamoro over their ethnic identities reinforces the message that this is a religious conflict between Christians and Muslims when it is largely a political struggle for land and resources. Focusing attention on the Moros’ religious identity encourages groups and communities at the grassroots level to focus on differences, in turn cultivating negative stereotypes and prejudice based on religion.

Other identity divisions within the Moros also exist. Another Moro peace activist, Mohammed, explained the ways in which his identity as a member of the Moro political elite and belonging to the upper class affected his partnership with other Moro leaders and organizations that mainly operate within grassroots communities. When I asked Mohammed about his organization’s relationship with one of the biggest Moro network of peace activists and groups that work predominantly in grassroots communities, he awkwardly responded that his organization had not had the chance to work with them. 49 His identity as a political elite opened doors to partnerships with many organizations and key individuals, but it also closed doors to networks whose constituent base, for example, were dominantly grassroots and held different political affiliations.

My conversations with May and Mohammed demonstrate the possible effects that significant identities other than religion (yet, at times intimately connected to religion) can have on peacebuilding. The impact of intersecting identities—of religion and other equally important identities such as ethnicity, class and politics—is not something that Huntington takes into account in his thesis. Huntington’s grand theory allows him to draw clear lines that identify a conflict as caused by religious motivations. However, both scholars and practitioners have found that in many conflict areas, effects of religion are confounded by other factors that have a special affinity with religion such as in Israel-Palestine and Sri Lanka. Confounding effects also make it difficult for us to see a clear ‘shift’ in loyalties, contrary to Huntington’s argument. Thus, it is crucial for peace actors to examine the confluence of identities in conflict settings and the impact they have on conflict and peacebuilding efforts, instead of treating religion as the most important identity in all settings and scenes of a conflict. 50 Doing this will help peace actors to avoid taking a reductionist view of religion, a mistake that Huntington makes.


After 9/11, numerous scholars and commentators have attempted to explain the relationship between religion and violence. Many scholars in the social sciences and policy circles revisited Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis and argued that religion is a powerful force that can feed violence. In response, scholars in the emerging field of religious peacebuilding contributed to the discussion by theorizing the complex nature of religion. Appleby’s “ambivalence of the sacred” thesis argues that religion is always historically and culturally located, and can be a force for both good and bad. Both the extremist and the peacemaker can be a religious militant; they are situated at the opposite ends of a continuum and are religiously motivated to engage in either nonviolent or violence actions to achieve their goals. Thus, scholars of religious peacebuilding argue that it is crucial to acknowledge the creative and transformative potential of religious actors in conflict-ridden environments and especially emphasize the important role of hermeneutics and cultural resources in religious peacebuilding. In my attempt to contribute to the conversation about the complex role that religion plays in conflict settings, I used the experiences of peace activists in Mindanao, southern Philippines, to demonstrate two specific issues that they faced, both in relation to religion and identity. Investigating the problem of religion and identity in post-conflict settings is crucial for policy and practice because it has important implications for how civil society actors engage in peacebuilding. For example, issues of identity will influence the relational dynamics between peace actors of different religious groups. This may, in turn, affect the broader process of social reconciliation between members of different religious groups at the grassroots level. Moreover, the way in which peace actors from different religious groups understand and interact with each other will determine how they respond to opportunities—for collaboration, creating ties and sharing resources—as well as to conflicts, competition, and ambiguities that emerge from these processes. The issues I have discussed are only two of many possible ways in which religion can create and contribute to tensions on the one hand, and on the other hand, develop motivation to work for peace among peace actors within a conflict; I extend the invitation to other scholars to enrich this conversation.

Cite this article
Hyunjin Deborah Kwak, “Revisiting Huntington’s Thesis: A Peace Scholar’s Response and Conversations from the Peacebuilding Field”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 48:3 , 269-288


  1. Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs 72.3 (1993): 25.
  2. Atalia Omer, “Religious Peacebuilding: The Exotic, the Good, and the Theatrical,” Practical Matters 5 (2012): 2.
  3. R. Scott Appleby, “Religious Violence: The Strong, the Weak, and the Pathological,” Practical Matters 5 (2012): 3.
  4. Omer, “Religious Peacebuilding,” 2.
  5. Giacomo Chiozza, “Is There a Clash of Civilizations? Evidence from Patterns of International Conflict Involvement, 1946-97,” Journal of Peace Research 39.6 (2002): 711-734.
  6. Jonathan Fox, “Ethnic Minorities and the Clash of Civilizations: A Quantitative Analysis of Huntington’s Thesis,” British Journal of Political Science 32.3 (2002): 433.
  7. Fox, “Ethnic Minorities,” 418.
  8. David Brooks, “Huntington’s Clash Revisited,” The New York Times, March 4, 2011, A27.
  9. R. Scott Appleby, The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000), 29.
  10. Ibid., 10.
  11. Ibid., 281.
  12. David Little, “Belief, Ethnicity, and Nationalism,” Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 1.2 (1995): 289.
  13. Ibid., 285.
  14. David Little, “Religion and Ethnicity in the Sri Lankan Civil War,” in Creating Peace in Sri Lanka: Civil War and Reconciliation, ed. Robert I. Rotberg (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1999), 42.
  15. Ibid., 292
  16. Monica Duffy Toft, Daniel Philpott and Timothy Samuel Shah, God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2011), 26.
  17. Ibid., 39.
  18. Ibid., 41.
  19. Ibid., 44.
  20. Christian Smith, American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 89-119.
  21. Ibid., 120-153.
  22. Christian Smith, Disruptive Religion: The Force of Faith in Social Movement Activism (New York, NY: Routledge, 1996), 1-28.
  23. Ibid., 6.
  24. Ibid., 206.
  25. Mohammed Abu-Nimer, Nonviolence and Peace Building in Islam: Theory and Practice (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2003), 1-2.
  26. Mohammed Abu-Nimer, “A Framework for Nonviolence and Peacebuilding in Islam,” Journal of Law and Religion 15.1/2 (2000-2001): 220.
  27. Omer, “Religious Peacebuilding,” 11.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Sohail H. Hashmi, “review of Marc Gopin, Holy War, Holy Peace: How Religion Can Bring Peace to the Middle East,” International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 36 (2004): 510.
  30. Marc Gopin, Holy War, Holy Peace: How Religion Can Bring Peace to the Middle East (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002), 200.
  31. Lisa Schirch, Ritual and Symbol in Peacebuilding (Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press, 2005), 2.
  32. Ibid., 19.
  33. Ibid., 166.
  34. John Paul Lederach, “The Long Journey Back to Humanity: Catholic Peacebuilding With Armed Actors,” in Peacebuilding: Catholic Theology, Ethics, and Praxis, eds. Robert J. Schreiter, R. Scott Appleby and Gerard F. Powers (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 51.
  35. Ibid., 51.
  36. Works exception to this are, for instance, Peacebuilding: Catholic Theology, Ethics and Praxis, edited by Schreiter, Appleby and Powers (2010). Some of the authors in the book examine how real problems and challenges in conflict grounds affect and should inform the worldviews, theology and ethics of Catholic peacebuilding. Though the authors agree about the possibilities of Catholic peacebuilding, they also write about how violent conflicts are heightened due to divisions within the church. Similarly, Himes (2010) critiques that “failure to acknowledge the deeply conflictual nature of human reality has permitted Catholic social teaching to remain underdeveloped in strategies of conflict resolution, even though in practice the church is deeply engaged in such efforts around the world” (282-283).
  37. Katrien Hertog, The Complex Reality of Religious Peacebuilding (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010), xvii.
  38. Omer, “Religious Peacebuilding,” 2.
  39. Ibid., 3.
  40. Ibid.
  41. Fermin Adriano and Thomas Parks, “The Contested Corners of Asia: The Case of Mindanao, Philippines,” Asia Foundation (2013): xii,
  42. All names of activists in this article are pseudonyms.
  43. Jeyyna (director of a Muslim women’s organization), Interview Transcript 1, interview by Hyunjin Deborah Kwak, Dissertation Research, June 4, 2014.
  44. Ibid.
  45. John Keane, Global Civil Society? (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 208.
  46. Ibid., 14.
  47. May (peace activist and community nurse), Fieldnotes 2, fieldnotes by Hyunjin Deborah Kwak, Dissertation Research, September and October 2015.
  48. Ibid.
  49. Mohammed (peace activist), Fieldnotes 2, fieldnotes by Hyunjin Deborah Kwak, Dissertation Research, September and October 2015.
  50. Toft (2007) addresses this issue in her definition of religious civil war. She defines it as “a war in which religious belief or practice is either a central or peripheral issue in the conflict” (97). Toft’s criterion, for example, for identifying religion as a peripheral issue in a conflict is combatants’ identification with a specific religious tradition. While it is helpful for scholars to make the conceptual distinction between conflicts in which religion is a central or peripheral issue, these types are often lumped into the category of “religious” civil wars in grassroots communities in which prejudices and biases against the opposing religion is strong.

Hyunjin Deborah Kwak

Malone University
Hyunjin Deborah Kwak is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Criminal & Restorative Justice at Malone University.