David Little is professor of religion, ethnicity, and international conflict, and director of the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life at Harvard Divinity School. Previously, he was senior scholar in religion, ethics, and human rights at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C. He spoke with Beliefnet news producer Ira Rifkin about the role of religion in international conflicts. Some excerpts follow.

Religion is supposed to be about harmonious living. Why, then, does religion seem to play such a prominent role in conflicts around the globe?

The historical record of religious involvement in conflict is pretty expansive. One reason is religions do concern themselves with defending their basic beliefs and their way of life, and many religions believe the use of force is acceptable in defense of the basic elements of the particular religious tradition.

So there is within the traditions a proclivity to use force, or to condone force in defense of their basic elements. Secondly, there tends to be a rather natural affinity between religion and governments. This is age-old, and it's clear in all sorts of cases. Certainly in the Jewish and Christian traditions, it's true in Islam, Buddhism, and more recently in Hinduism.

You mention Buddhism. That's one religion not normally associated with conflict.

There is a popular assumption that Buddhism is all about nonviolence, and it's certainly true it has a deep nonviolent strand. But there is much evidence as well of a reliance on the "sangha," that is the monastic tradition, in the defense of the kings. You can see that in Sri Lanka today in terms of Buddhist monastics backing a political-military defense of Buddhism's ability to control the situation there.

Religion as we're using the term refers not to a system of theology but more as an expression of a nation's culture. Correct?

Yes, that's where religion, government, and the nation come together, particularly under more modern conditions. Let's call it religion and nationalism. It's pretty clear, religion plays a special role for nationalists, if we understand nationalism as the impulse of a certain group, normally an ethnic group, to gain control over the engines of government. Nationalists also need legitimacy, and religion plays a very, very convenient role for that nationalist objective.

Some examples?

Israel is an example of this. Pakistan is an example. Iran is clearly an example, as are Sudan, Nigeria, Indonesia. Bosnia is full of this kind of thing, where Croatian Roman Catholicism, Serbian Orthodoxy, and Islam were all invoked as nationalist symbols of identity.

In Bosnia, weren't the people largely secular prior to the recent conflict?

Bosnia is a perfect example of, if politics needs religion, religion needs politics, because religion gets mobilized and energized in many ways by the nationalist imperative. So in Bosnia, where once you had secularists, you all of a sudden had self-conscious religious activists, because religion was a way to differentiate from the neighbor who was now the enemy. Therefore, it's very difficult to talk about causal connections as if one preceded the other. The two work together in some complex, tandem relationship.

We've spoken a lot about the negative role of religion in conflicts. What about the positive?

Unfortunately, it's hard to say that religion has played a comparable role on the positive side as it has on the negative. But individual religious groups have played ameliorating roles in many conflicts. An example is Rome's St. Egidio lay Catholic group, which was founded in the 1980s to preach the gospel and cultivate notions of friendship. One of its missions is peacemaking, and it did just that in the Mozambique civil war, where because it was a Catholic country and the group had many contacts, it was able to act as mediator, convener, and consultant. They were very effective in helping to end that conflict.

The Anglican and Dutch Reform churches were able to be effective in neighboring South Africa as well, in fostering forgiveness rather than retribution following the end of apartheid. Religious individuals are also able to make great contributions where governments or political figures cannot, because the former are more likely to have reputations of trust, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu showed us in South Africa with his handling of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Of course, religious groups and individuals are not as likely to be successful in conflicts where the participants are from differing religious traditions because one group would be suspicious of someone or some entity aligned with the other group. Religious figures even fail in situations, such as Rwanda, where everyone is of the same group [both Tutsis and Hutus are largely Roman Catholic]. There are many such instances of failure. But we're glad for the trying at least.

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