Searching for solutions to the wars of our time

Mimmi Söderberg Kovacs is head of research at the FBA. In a new project she and her colleagues examine the world’s religious conflicts. “Eighty-two percent of the world’s civil wars today are Islamist. More knowledge about this is needed in order to build future peace”, Mimmi says.

Within the realm of the project “Resolving Jihadist Conflicts? Religion, Civil War, and Prospects for Peace” Mimmi is to work with an international team of researchers based at Uppsala University. The project has been granted funds for a five-year term, from 2016 until the beginning of 2021.

As of today, there are approximately 50 armed conflicts going on in the world. Both the number of armed conflicts and the number of casualties related to them were in steady decline. This has now changed. One of the reasons is the extremely violent war in Syria, with the Islamic State, IS, as one of the parties committing brutalities. The geographical expansion of IS is another reason. Last year IS was represented in 12 countries, among them Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, Nigeria and Chad.

– The most striking trend, however, is that the proportion of conflicts that are religiously motivated has recently increased compared to non-religious wars. The majority of the religious conflicts are Islamist. We want to find out why, Mimmi says.

The research project will result in a number of academic publications. The working definition of an Islamist conflict is that a conflict is deemed Islamist if one of the parties to the conflict defines its own political goals in Islamist terms, such as the fight for Sharia law. The boundaries, however, are not always clear.
– In reality, the conflicts are often about other issues as well. Some leaders talk about societal issues in religious terms. It is hard to tell what really is a religious conflict, Mimmi says.

According to one theory, the international community’s capacity for solving other types of conflicts has increased, leading to a disproportionately large part of the remaining conflicts being religiously motivated.
– Religious conflicts are seemingly difficult to solve using standard measures such as peace agreements and mediation. We want to know why and which methods are needed to solve those conflicts.

The team of researchers has already concluded that an Islamist conflict is easier to solve if it remains local. There are some examples of this, among them the peace deal between the Philippine government and Moro Islamic Front.
– But if a local conflict starts to spread across borders, and if the Islamist organization behind it joins the international jihadist movement, it becomes much more difficult to find a solution, Mimmi says.

She has specifically studied Boko Haram. When the group first emerged they were fighting for Sharia law in northern Nigeria. But when Boko Haram joined IS they begun fighting for the establishment of an Islamic state in large parts of West Africa.
– How are we supposed to negotiate with them about such demands? And who should we negotiate with, local representatives or someone else? It becomes much more complicated.

Another problem with local Islamist groups pledging allegiance to global Islamist groups such as IS or al-Qaeda is the risk of radical supporters of the global movements travelling to local conflicts in order to engage in combat.
– Local conflicts can become radicalized quickly due to the influx of foreign fighters. Those fighters also pose a threat when returning to their home countries. There is a risk that we will see IS fighters returning to Europe after the offensive against IS in Iraq. Of course it aggravates fear of terror attacks in Europe, Mimmi says.

Conflict prevention is one way of countering the risks; local efforts on a broad front may lower the risk of people joining extreme groups.
– We have to fight the mental legacy, the way of thinking. I do not believe that military action can solve everything. IS are under heavy pressure now in Iraq and Syria, but they can emerge in other places. The religious element in this type of conflict entails that a group which has been defeated militarily do not have to feel defeated ideologically.

Mimmi points out that neither religion nor Islam is divisive or belligerent in itself.
– Religion can be used to build peace. Both in Tensta (a Swedish suburb) and in northern Nigeria local religious leaders can use faith in order to have positive influence. Good religious leaders can undermine the extreme groups’ interpretations of Islam. We, as a society, need to build alliances.

– I believe that a number of important world events, such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has led to the radicalization of a minority of all Muslims. With the help of modern technology they have been able to create a global jihadist network. We have to prevent this network from gaining ground in local conflicts.

A particular feature of many Islamist armed groups is a deeply religious leadership, while the bulk of the people joining the groups are not ideologically motivated. They might for example be young men having difficulties finding a job and therefore going into battle.
– As a matter of fact, this could be a window of opportunity. You can find local military leaders of those groups willing to negotiate, local leaders who are not as radical as the top leaders. Maybe a number of small, local peace processes can help undermine an entire movement. You put military pressure on the group, and then you offer local leaders a way out through negotiations. I think we have to be creative in order to find solutions to these conflicts.

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To find out more about the FBA's research, click here. To read more about the agency's work on conflict prevention, click here.

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