Between Terror and Tolerance: Religious Leaders, Conflict, and Peacemaking
by Timothy D. Sisk, ed.
(Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2011) 280 pp.

Reviewed by Ms. Rachel Winter, M.A. Candidate, University of Iowa, Department of Religious Studies (February 21, 2016)

At face value, the title Between Terror and Tolerance makes the reader question if yet another volume on conflict will have anything new to contribute regarding an issue that has been extensively discussed. However, Sisk collected eleven essays (plus introduction and conclusion) that reinvent the way scholars think about the relationship between religion and conflict. The book opens with an essay by David Little titled “Religion, Nationalism and Intolerance.” Little’s thesis sets the tone for the ten following case studies: the level of control imposed by the government is a strong indicator for how much violence will be present in any given state. Thus, an authoritarian state is far more likely to be violent. Implicit in Little’s thesis are two important ideas. One, that religion is not the cause for violence, unlike the stereotype may suggest, but rather, it could be the interlocutor for peace. Two, an implied use of affect theory because the language of the leaders and the elite shapes the resulting actions. Whether he means to or not, Little’s thesis subverts the way religion converses with conflict.

The ten case studies that follow Little’s essay support his hypothesis that the state and politics have more to contribute to conflict than religion. To make the scholarship unbiased and comprehensive, Sisk chooses a wide variety of conflicts ranging from the paradigmatic conflicts, like the Sunni-Shia conflict or the Israel-Palestine conflict, to less commonly discussed conflicts like Muslim-Maronites (Shia-Catholic), Muslim-Christian, Catholic-Protestant, Russia-IRP (Islamic Renaissance Party), the role of the Buddhist sangha (monastic community) in conflict, Hindu-Muslim, and most importantly, state versus religion. By arranging the book with such a wide variety of examples, the conversation becomes inclusive, and a scholarly contribution to the discourse regarding conflict.

At the end of the day, thanks to Little’s theory and Sisk’s compilation of essays, the idea of conflict now has a new outlook that considers that the state may be more at fault because it has been compromised by internal conflict as a result of poor leadership at the local level. Perhaps even more radical is the idea that religion may be the answer to the conflict, or a strong contributor to the discourse that begins to end the conflict, whether it is religion’s role in unifying a community, or the role of religious leaders in exercising their authority to incite change.

While the essays are written in a clear fashion without jargon, and follow a logical train of thought, if the reader is not able to comprehend Little’s thesis about liberalism and its direct relationship to violence, the reader will likely struggle through the case studies. All the case studies are written to prove the idea that the state is the cause of violence. If the reader does not comprehend Little’s rationale and logic behind liberalism, then the rest of the book will seem a bit disjointed. Additionally, the reader would be well advised to be versed in affect theory, as some of the general tenets of the theory can help the reader be informed on the relationship between language and conflict as it plays out within the state and top-down imposition that causes conflict.

Scholars who study conflict, asymmetric conflict, terrorism, the relationship between state and religion, and other related fields, would be well advised to read Between Terror and Tolerance. Even if the reader does not have time to venture through all ten case studies, time should at least be spent contemplating Little’s thesis, and reading the particular chapters to their area of scholarship. Between Little’s thesis and Sisk’s collection of essays, a whole new perspective is offered about the origins of conflict and religion’s role as a peace-making solution, rather than an instigator of conflict.

Although the book was published in 2011, the chapters specifically relating to Sunni-Shia conflict, as well as Muslim-Christian conflict, have an incredibly pertinent role in contemporary times with the rise of ISIL and the United States’ ever changing foreign relations, as dynamically impacted by internal conflict shaping the ability for foreign relations. Overall, a phenomenal read for any scholar interested in the field, and looking for a new perspective on a timeless issue.

Reviewed by Raphael Cohen-Almagor, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of Politics, University of Hull, UK (April 20, 2012)

Between Terror and Tolerance is a collection of essays on the relationships between politics, religion and violence. The contributors comprise an international team of scholars who researched the roles of religious leaders in deeply divided societies. How do religious leaders affect social forces and help define intolerant or tolerant national identities? The case studies are diverse, touching upon such issues as the Vatican influence in Lebanon; Shari’a, identity politics and human rights in Sudan; the role of religious leaders in Nigeria, Northern Ireland, Tajikistan, Sri Lanka and Kashmir. In many parts of the world, understanding of the interplay between religion, ethnicity and government is essential for the analysis of internal conflicts and for the evaluation of prospects for peace.

The first two chapters are general in nature. In Chapter 1, David Little analyzes the complex relationships between, religion, ethnonationalism and intolerance. In turn, in Chapter 2 Nader Hashmi investigates the complexity of the Sunni-Shi’a divide in Islam and considers its implications for conflict and coexistence in the Middle East. While most Muslim majority societies are Sunni comprising about 85-90% of the total Muslim population, Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain are Shi’a majority societies. Significant Shi’a populations also live in Afghanistan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen.

The next nine chapters (3-11) present nine different cases studies. Religion plays an important role in violent internal conflicts. Often, justifications are found in religion for violence and terror. In Chapter 3, George Irani probes the role of the Vatican in the Lebanese civil war. He curiously states (p. 50) that Lebanon “has long been considered an example of coexistence of multiethnic and multireligious groups.” If this was true, much of the Irani chapter was not written, certainly not in its present form which addresses the role of the militias, warlords, the long Lebanese civil war, the questionable role played by Syria which deepens the religious divide and the animosity between religious factions. Intriguingly, Irani makes the controversial statement twice on the same page.

In Chapter 4, Michelene Ishay aims to explain the rise of religious and political extremism in both Israel and the Palestinian community as a consequence of globalization. She explains (p. 81) that religious fundamentalism is a response to social disparities, frustrated promises of peace and insecurity. Hamas won 76 (not 74) seats in the January 2006 parliamentary elections while the previous ruling party, Fatah, took only 43 (not 45) seats of the 132 seats in the chamber. Little is said about the role that corruption played in affecting those elections. Many people opted to vote for Hamas because they resented the corrupt PLO and wanted a party that would distribute resources also to the people, not only to the fortunate elite.

The next two chapters seem dated as they did not address adequately the Arab Spring and its effects on Egypt and Sudan. In Chapter 5, Scott W. Hibbard analyzes religion and conflict in Egypt. He discusses the rise and fall of secularism, from Nasser’s modernist vision of Arab nationalism and socialism, to Sadat’s theologically conservative vision of Islam and then to the Mubarak era. The conclusion that “conservative Islam is wrapped up in political authoritarianism; it is an unholy alliance to keep people down” (p. 101) might have been true for the time those lines were written but is no longer relevant.

Chapter 6 suffers from a similar problem. Recent dramatic developments necessitate a crucial update. Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban explains the role of religion in the conflict in Sudan in historical terms, observing the different identities Sudanese adopt – Arab, Muslim or African and the north-south divide. Fluehr-Lobban concludes that “With independence near in 2011… southern voices of compassion and forgiveness can be heard along with the practical realization that an independent South will need to cooperate with the North” (p. 119). She speaks of the need for “forgiveness” and the positive role that religious leaders can play in the process of reconciliation while underplaying the crucial economic interests.

In Chapter 7, Rosalind Hackett explores the mixed record of religious conflict and cooperation in Nigeria. This country is riddled with corruption, its infrastructure is crumbling, the gap between the small elite and the vast poor segments of society is striking, and its internal political order unstable. During the past decade religion has assumed a greater salience in Nigeria, with religious leaders exerting their moral authority to criticize the government for its failure to improve the plight of the poor. Hackett argues that the peace rhetoric of religious leaders has become conjoined with talk about national integration and communal development (p. 136).

In Chapter 8, Mari Fitzduff analyzes the role of religion in Northern Ireland 27-years’ conflict up until the power-sharing Belfast Agreement of 1998, and in Chapter 9, Karina Korostelina explores the rise of the Islamic Renaissance Party in Tajikistan during the early 1990s. She discusses the role the religious leaders had played in the peace talks to end the conflict. These chapters show that religious leaders try to maneuver between commitments to their church and to the people whom they serve, while taking into account political pressures.

Buddhism has been used as a source for legitimation of political policy and structure in Sri Lanka throughout its history. In Chapter 10, Susan Hayward probes the role played by the monks in the Sri Lanka peace process which led to the 2005 ceasefire and the subsequent conflicts up until 2009. Finally, in the last chapter, 11, Sumit Ganguly and Praveen Swami discuss the role religion has played in the Kashmir conflict.

The editor, Timothy D. Sisk, wrote the Introduction and Conclusion. He notes that whether countries move toward greater tolerance and political inclusivity as in Northern Ireland, or toward violence and further entrenchment of ethnic hegemony as in Sri Lanka, depends on the ways religion and state authority have mutually reinforcing attitudes to peace (p. 230). Sisk concludes that religious leaders can define the terms of conflict, tolerance and coexistence, yet with due appreciation to their influence religious elites are still more likely to reflect social forces than to shape them (p. 235).

The book has a thorough and informative index, a valuable resource for a book that is rich with facts and condensed with information.