Religion and conflict: from macro level to micro level

It may be related to religion, the main motivation may be religion; it can be justified by religious doctrine, the actors of the conflict may have a religious discourse but… a conflict is the result of an interaction between several social, political, economic, psychological (and religious) dimensions.

First of all, let’s agree on one point. I do not think like 19th-century philosophers or like current authoritarian regimes that conflict is bad and must be avoided at any price. On the contrary, I think that conflict is essential and compulsory to societies. Societies where all forms of conflict are silenced by force cannot develop and evolve. Human ethical, technological and political development is the fruit of endless conflict and it will also be so in the future.

Second, conflict is not always related to violence, at least physical violence. All forms of domination can be qualified as “symbolic violence” (Pierre Bourdieu) and, to be precise, conflict is the main tool to restore balance. The domination of a boss over his worker is violence, as is the domination of men over women or of a majority over a minority. Often, active parts of dominated groups that cannot answer the symbolic violence with equal symbolic violence can be tempted by physical violence. Or, a group or a person who considers themselves dominant but who cannot impose this domination may use physical violence.

Therefore, a conflict qualified as religious is also the fruit of a lack of the intellectual, economic and political capacity to answer a social and/or sociological conflict. Naturally, the social inequity and unfairness in which diverse Muslim communities in the Western world live at the micro level cannot explain, much less excuse, terrorist activities. Having said that, a de-radicalization process is condemned to fail if it does not consider the micro level and this social disquietude. When I have talked with young Muslims in several peripheral neighborhoods of European metropolitan areas, while, at a discursive level, the first concerns are Islam and/or the Middle East (macro level) the real anxieties emerge very quickly: fear about the future, an education, a job, one’s family, discrimination or at least the perception of discrimination, and so on (micro level). In other words, concerns about the macro level and the importation of Middle Eastern conflicts to European suburbs are relevant only if they play the role of a catalyst at the micro level. Muslims are not just Muslims…

At that point, physical violence may become one of the ways to take revenge by self-justifying it in the frame of a religious dogma. The life stories of the Paris attack Islamists are very instructive.

“Brain team” (?)

Abdelhamid Abaaoud (Belgian, 28 years old, killed in St. Denis)

Fabian Clain (French, living in Syria, 37 years old)

Stade de France team:

Bilal Hadfi (French, 20 years old) and two other young persons whose nationality and age are unknown

Bataclan team:

Omar Ismail Mustafaï (French, 29 years old)

Samy Amimour (French, 28 years old)

A third person, as yet unidentified

Restaurants team:

Salah Abdeslam (French, 26 years old)

Brahim Abdeslam (French, 31 years old)

St. Denis team:

Hasna Aït Boulahcen (French, 26 years old)

one other unidentified person

The majority of them are European Muslims; they are not “immigrants.” They are not so young, and almost all were converted from the inside (reborn Muslims). For the “brain team,” the radicalization seems to have been a long and complex process, while for the others, who are NOT teenagers, the same radicalization was very recent, taking place between six months and one year ago. There is no doubt that religious Salafi discourse played a crucial role in this process and some of them spent time in Turkey and Syria, where they acquired know-how and especially a “certainty.” But again, it was very quick. The speed of the radicalization can only be explained by adding other social, psychological, economic and educational dimensions. Religious brainwashing alone cannot explain this quick changeover, nor can the Syrian conflict.

And finally, all religious texts, as the fruit of their context, include at the same time both violence and peace. And in all religious texts, one can find whatever they want to find. The question to ask is not why Islam is violent. The question to ask is why some Muslims prefer to find violence in it instead of peace.


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