There has been some shop in my office this week about an interview in the Ottawa Citizen with Andrew Bennett, Canada`s Ambassador for Religious Freedom.  

In the interview, Bennett argues that diplomats and foreign service officers need to be more aware of the role that religion plays in politics and international affairs.  Bennett is quoted as saying: “We need to ensure that if we want to be really nuanced and winsome in how we engage countries that are deeply religious, that we can actually employ language that enables us to have a deeper engagement,” he said. “If we can’t do that, then we risk developing or having a serious diplomatic blind spot.”

One could argue that the same can be said of Canadian Armed Forces personnel operating in environments where religion has a prominence that is far greater than one would find in secular, pluralistic Canada.

Since Saudi Arabia and Iran broke relations last year following the Kingdom`s execution of a dissident Shia cleric, I`ve heard and read several media explanations of the differences between Shia and Sunni Islam, dating back to events following the death of the Prophet Mohammed, and how this split in Islam maps over the contemporary Middle East.

I am sure that this sort of background is useful, particularly in North America where most people have only the haziest of understandings of Islam.  But is it true, as Mr. Bennett suggests, that we can`t understand the world unless we understand the religious factors at work in societies and conflicts?

The answer is probably a qualified yes.   A round table of scholars assembled by the US Council on Foreign Relations discussed the Saudi-Iran split yesterday, 6 January, and focused mostly on the geopolitical rivalry between the two regional powers. 

One of the participants, Philip H. Gordon (a CFR Senior Fellow)  noted that this conflict does break along sectarian lines, but was reluctant to dwell on it.  He said “… this notion of sectarianism and eternal hatred, you know, it has not been an all-out war between Sunni and Shia for 1,400 years.  There have been times when they have been able to cooperate.  And those times end when there are political reasons for them to end, you know, after the Iranian revolution, when whether within a country or between countries there`s some change in the regional order.  So in the `79 revolution in Iran, after the US 2003 invasion of Iraq.  If you change the balance between Sunni and Shia, again either between countries or within countries, you get the rise in tension.”

Writing in The Nation yesterday, Juan Cole, a history professor at the University of Michigan, described sectiarianism as ”a recruiting tool” used by regional rivals, and pointed to the complexity of the religious landscape.

”Just as the political collapse in Yemen and the takeover of Sana by the Houthis over a year ago pushed Saudi Arabia to intervene there, the prospect of the Baath regime of Bashar al-Assad being overthrown pushed Iran to send aid and troops to Damascus. Tehran also convinced Lebanon’s Hezbollah to enter the fray on the side of Assad, preserving the Syrian land bridge for Iranian resupply of munitions to its Lebanese client. The Iranian investment in Syria has nothing to do with Syrian Shiism. Iran’s allies in Syria are an assortment of Christians and Sunni secularists and New Age Shiites (the Alawites) with a gnostic and mythological approach to religion that bears about as much resemblance to clerical Iranian Shiism as Theosophy does to Episcopalianism. Besides, the Alawites who run the Baath regime in Syria are atheists.”

On the other hand, for those who suspect that all conflict in the Middle East is driven by oil, Jon Schwarz in The Intercept analyzes a fascinating map of oil deposits overlaid with sectarian divides and suggests that it`s not a coincidence that most of Saudi Arabia`s oil weath lies in the part of the country dominated by its Shia minority.

Closer to home, one can ask if religion helps to understand the armed ranchers currently occupying a federal wildlife centre in Oregon.   Writing in the New Yorker, Benjamin Wallace-Wells analyzes the political motivations of the occupiers, and suggests that they arise from frustation arising from rural poverty in the so-called ”flyover states” and the rule of far-off elites.   In that respect, the white protesters in Oregon may have more in common with the Black Lives Matter activities in US cities than either group would care to admit.

However, a religious studies scholar, Mark Silk, looks at the role of Mormonism in the Oregon event.  Silk notes the ties between some of the protestors’ thinking seems indebted to the ”Skousenite”offshoot of Mormonism, which combines libertarian thought with apocalyptic expectation, and believes that Mormon warriors will cleanse the US and reclaim if for God. One can only hope that the law enforcement officials tracking the Malheur occupation are talking to Silk and people like him to better understand what is going on here.

These two contemporary examples suggest that religion is complex and can often underlay political conflicts.   To dismiss it in the way that some liberal commentators do (I`m thinking of Bill Maher, who I otherwise enjoy), assuming that religion is a vestigial remnant of our prehistoric superstitions, is to grossly over-simplify.  At the same time, religion does not by itself explain the essence or persistence of some conflicts, and we should not allow our conflict analysis to reinforce notions that religion is a negative, destabilising force in the world.   Religion is an aspect of human behaviour that plays a role from the simplest of everyday rituals to large-scale conflict.  Diplomats and military personnel are well-advised to keep this in mind.