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Religion and Peacebuilding


Yvan Yenda Ilunga and

Thomas G. Matyók

Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters

Peace Operations (PO) have taken some serious hits in recent months. Great Power Competition dominates the security narrative. Peace and Stability operations seem ancillary activities receiving little focus. The drastic cuts to the Army’s Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute (PKSOI), located at the Army War College, communicate in bright detail the current level of interest in peacebuilding. Irrespective of an apparent easing of focus on PO, stability remains a desirable goal. Recognizing the need for stability in a world defined by competition, confrontation, and conflict[i] peacebuilders are still required.

There are unquestionable economic opportunities being developed through the internet and other digital means. This Digital Age has also proved to be a fertile era for high-speed global radicalization and recruitment of individuals by negative forces such as ISIS as well as other terrorist groups; this is leading to the development of global cybersecurity strategies and the securitization of the digital world. Securitization of the digital world is occurring with a simultaneous rise in the international recruitment of terrorists, based on ideology, and it is becoming a permanent challenge in the field of global and national security; as a result peacebuilders and national security experts are progressively shifting their security approaches toward the assessment of religious belief, believers, and messaging as potential threats to national and global security.

This focus on religion, writ large, is rightly justified since there is a large body of data showing that the use of religious narratives to recruit, mobilize, harm, or even establish governance systems, kalifate or sharia laws for example, are contrary to the western liberal model of governance and is a clear threat to global order.

From the practice standpoint, U.S. foreign policy and military doctrine does not strategically and operationally engage religious organizations and actors as peacebuilding partners; and military professionals are inadequately prepared, and lack the capacity, to advance peace and stability operations in a religiously informed environment.[ii]

Hence, with data proving that conflicts involving religion are increasing, we approach religion, not as a threat to peace, security, and stability, but argue that religion must be part of the solution. In fact, political accords and reconciliation processes that have neglected religious organizations or religion have mainly failed; while ones that have welcomed the latter in their peace framework have shown progress. As would argue Elliott Cohen, “if all authority structures collapse, religious organization is what remains.”[iii] The world is becoming a religiously informed world[iv] and religion should be part of the tool for peace, and its leaders must be active global actors even in the pursuit of peace through military operations.

Within local spaces and in developed countries such as the United States, New Zealand, and Canada, while the perception of the threats is on Islamic radicalization, there is a new wave in religious tension among Christian conservatives which is also fueling an extreme- right radicalization in the name of religion. Hence, social stability and national order become challenged by religious beliefs and practices from the right and left, leading to instability and state fragility.

Clearly, the social and security dynamics discussed in this paper are not new; nor are they exclusive to our time. Throughout history, religion has been used for good as well as evil. Religion was consistently used to justify slavery and human bondage as well as apartheid and colonization. These practices were based on ideology and specific interpretations of holy literature that supported the worst kinds of evil.

The rise and fall of the influential role played by religion is a result of using religious counter-narratives to enhance emerging leaders’ stature as well as constructing religiously informed organizations. This dynamic within religious communities has unique importance for PO and the advancement of human security. Positive governance and security are vital to the well-being of nations and states. Religion can eliminate the strong pillars of national and local stability, societies can be destabilized and destroyed by the introduction of violent religious ideologies into communities. This is also true for the promotion of peace and stability. Therefore, apart from the ideological approach that is often used to understand and articulate the role and place of religion in the creation of chaos, this paper presents a unique perspective; the positive dynamics of religion in peacebuilding and peace rehabilitation.

There are many reasons that could be used to justify the need for a detailed understanding of religion in peacebuilding. First, globalization continues to advance across the world at lightning speed increasing the processes of urbanization and massive urban-migration followed by the movement and concentration of religious ideologies to new and expanding urban spaces, influencing social and interpersonal dynamics. Changes in social patterns and values create new norms built on deep beliefs; leading to what we could safely call the rise of new religious cultures. Hence, considering such fast-growing changes and the risks they present to peace and harmony of social dynamics, an understanding of the religious dynamics can contribute to the shift of religion from negative to positive in the construction of peace and stability.

Second, mega-cities are the context within which future conflicts will occur. In these conflict-affected spaces, large alienated populations will engage. Historically, Rome and Constantinople demonstrate the rise and stability of mega-cities are key determinants to the growth and spread of religious ideology, mainly due to cosmopolitanism and the advancement of communication infrastructures. For instance, there was room of such consideration in the first century with Christianity developing and spreading rapidly in big cities such as Jerusalem. Christianity used the strategic positioning of these cities to reach many nations other than Israel; Jerusalem itself encountered social malaise and religious conflicts due to the confronting of ideologies between Judaism and Christianity. While we have yet to see such open forms of conflict in big cities in the US, the opposing protests that occur in Washington, D.C. between those for and against abortion, for instance, shows the urgency of such consideration. In fact, while those supporting abortion use concepts such as freedom and a progressive approach to life, many of those opposing it, mainly Christian, promote the incompatibility of such practices with their religious views and the dignity of human life, as defined by Christian theology, which has influenced America’s social structure.

Religious conflict is not war, where tanks and military aircraft are employed to intervene in remote places, such as those small villages held by the Taliban or ISIS. Rather, it is a dynamic that could destabilize the future and the constancy of developed countries such as the United States. Consequently, we speak to the need for students and policymakers interested in the study and practice of peace and stability to become religiously literate. We believe this literacy should be at the center of important national and global security conversations. Burgeoning mega-cities are the future of conflict and social alienation. Religion will step in where states are weak.

Third, while mega-cities create a suitable platform for religious interactions and expansion, religious dynamics also reinforce the breaking of communities into smaller units that can be run by actors adhering to outside ideologies. Outside ideologies can lead to extreme radicalization of certain religious practices either because of political, social, and cultural frustration, or survival mechanisms, and expansionism. This breaking into small groups centered around charismatic leaders allows them to become influential actors and spokespersons of the groups. Not only do leaders become important actors in their small groups, they are also viewed as representatives of their ideology to the larger community. Hence, the importance of bringing religious leaders into the peacebuilding framework.

Fourth, with such a growing influence, either small or large, religious actors are no longer passive, simple observers in modern peacebuilding processes and operations. They are new actors who operate using an old influencer: religions. This can be demonstrated by their role in political reconciliation in conflict-affected countries or communities. They often advocate for reconciliation from a religious perspective, which is a centuries-old activity.

Putting the question of religion in a more specific context for those engaged in national and human security, the number of conflicts possessing a religious and ideologic nature are increasing. For instance, according to PEW 2014, hostilities involving religion were at a six-year high. These conflicts are both intra- and inter-state in their nature. They are economically, politically, as well as socially motivated. Some actors intend to use religious narratives and conflicts to establish their economic claims and political agendas. For instance, while labeled as Arab Spring, with an underlying religious connotation, these protests communicate that human rights are a legitimate justification and should be at the center of foreign policy, especially when intending to articulate strategies for peace, stability, and meeting human needs.

It is also obvious that due to the nature of conflict, and the actors involved in them, governments alone cannot construct civil society. This particularly true within this age of intense global struggle, civil society cannot be legislated. It has become an uncontrollable beast that necessitates an unconventional remedy. And here the role of religion and religious leaders becomes critical. Their role is important, particularly, since over centuries religion has been instrumental in establishing normative values and social ethics. These sociological and legal contributions have been at the center of the construction of national and global governance systems with the unquestionable political contribution of the Judeo-Christian contribution to the current global legal system.

Not only has religion helped shape the modern governance system at national and global levels, but its impacts at the local level also continue to be visible and require attention. In fact, under the influence of religion and the interpretation of sacred literature by religious leaders, people act out of their values; for good and bad. In response to such belief and social influence, people approach religion emotionally, and less intellectually. Thus, exposing themselves to ideologic manipulation which can entertain conflicts and the status of fragilities. On the other hand, not only are people exposed to ideological manipulation, but there is also a genuine sense of trust in religious organizations; more so than all other types including governments, NGOs, INGOs, GSCAs, etc.

While religion is a permanent element in our daily lives, consciously and unconsciously, its study is left to be owned and articulated by fields such as sociology, anthropology, and theology. Within the broader theories and practice of security studies and international relations, religion has been ignored or undermined. More specifically, religion has been understudied and undertheorized as a part of peace operations, writ large. Some of the reasons is due to peace operations and security studies seem becoming more focused on systemic and structural approaches; while religion, at its essence, is ideological and does not make easy the quantification of its impacts and influences on the ground. The permanent nature of religion in the world requires we internalize it and place it into the discipline and operations of security studies, and learn to deal with the difficulties involved in understanding the motivating forces of religion, for good and ill.

About the Authors:

Yvan Yenda Ilunga, Ph.D. is an Instructor of Political Science at James Madison University, USA. He holds a Ph.D. in Global Affairs from Rutgers University, USA. His research agenda broadly focuses on international relations, security, peace and development; but more specifically, on questions related to humanitarian action, civil-military interactions, natural resources-based conflicts, peace operations, regional cooperation and security, economic and social sustainability. Dr. Ilunga is a member of the Joint Civil-Military Interaction (JCMI) research and Education Network. He is also a member of The Effectiveness of Peace Operations Network (EPON). Dr. Ilunga is the author of the book “Humanitarianism and Security: Trouble and Hope at the Heart of Africa” (Palgrave McMillan, 2020). He can be reached at:

Thomas Matyók, Ph.D. (Nova Southeastern University) is Director of the Joint Civil-Military Interaction (JCMI) research and Education Network and Senior Lecturer in Political Science at Middle Georgia State University. He has taught Conflict Analysis and Resolution at universities in the United States and Germany. Dr. Matyók has also taught conflict analysis and resolution in professional military education settings at Army and Air Force senior service colleges. He was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Konstanz in Southern Germany and a visiting research professor at the U.S. Army Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute. Dr. Matyók has written and presented extensively on conflict analysis and resolution as part of civil-military interaction. He can be reached at: or Notes

[i] Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World. (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2007). [ii] Thomas Matyok, Religion: A Missing Component of Professional Military Education. (Carlisle, PA: PKSOI Papers United States Army War College Press). [iii] Eliot Cohen, The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force (New York: Basic Books, 2016). [iv] Monica Duffy Toft, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy Samuel Shah, God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011).


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