Relaciones Internacionales – Comunicación Internacional

War, peace and conflict

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An award-winning expert on international affairs and military history reveals the astounding truth about war: Peacekeeping is working.

Read the newspapers, and you’ll be convinced war is worse than it’s ever been: more civilian deaths, more rapes, more armed conflicts all around the world. But as leading scholar and writer Joshua Goldstein shows in this vivid, dramatic book, the reality is just the opposite. We are in the midst of a general decline in armed conflict that is truly extraordinary in human history.

Winning the War on War is filled with startling observations, including:
– 2010 had one of the lowest death rates from war, relative to population, of any year, ever.
– No national armies are currently fighting one another–all current wars are civil wars.
– UN peacekeeping actually works very well, and 79 percent of Americans support the UN, according to a recent poll.

Goldstein has compiled evidence ranging from the histories of UN peacekeeping missions to the latest Swedish data on armed conflicts. He tells the stories of peacekeeping failures such as Bosnia and Rwanda, but also the less heralded success stories such as Mozambique and El Salvador. In this «boots on the ground» account, Goldstein shows why global peacekeeping efforts are working –how large-scale looting, sexual assault, and genocidal atrocities are being stopped– and how we can continue winning the war on war.

Link to Introduction and Index

We’ve all asked, “What is the world coming to?” But we seldom ask, “How bad was the world in the past?” In this startling new book, the bestselling cognitive scientist Steven Pinker shows that the world of the past was much worse. In fact, we may be living in the most peaceable era yet.

Evidence of a bloody history has always been around us: the genocides in the Old Testament and crucifixions in the New; the gory mutilations in Shakespeare and Grimm; the British monarchs who beheaded their relatives and the American founders who dueled with their rivals. Now the decline in these brutal practices can be quantified.

Tribal warfare was nine times as deadly as war and genocide in the 20th century. The murder rate in medieval Europe was more than thirty times what it is today. Slavery, sadistic punishments, and frivolous executions were unexceptionable features of life for millennia, then were suddenly abolished.

Wars between developed countries have vanished, and even in the developing world, wars kill a fraction of the numbers they did a few decades ago. Rape, hate crimes, deadly riots, child abuse — all substantially down. How could this have happened, if human nature has not changed?

Pinker argues that the key to explaining the decline of violence is to understand the inner demons that incline us toward violence and the better angels that steer us away. Thanks to the spread of government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism, we increasingly control our impulses, empathize with others, debunk toxic ideologies, and deploy our powers of reason to reduce the temptations of violence. Pinker will force you to rethink your deepest beliefs about progress, modernity, and human nature. This gripping book is sure to be among the most debated of the century so far.

Link to Introduction and Index

Volume 15, Issue 4, 2013

Religious Armed Conflict and Discrimination in the Middle East and North Africa: An Introduction

he role of religion in armed conflict and discrimination in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is receiving increased attention as the focus of the region’s conflicts shifts from nationalism and ethnicity to religion. All of the contributions to this section seek to build knowledge and theories to understand how religion contributes to conflict and discrimination, focusing on the MENA, the world region where religious conflict and discrimination are most prominent. The three articles in this special section of Civil Wars address these changes, each looking at them from a unique perspective including both comparative and quantitative methodology.
Armed conflict in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has always been an issue of political and academic interest. Yet the nature of our perceptions of the region’s conflicts and perhaps also the nature of domestic conflict and discrimination in the region are changing. This change is occurring along two fronts since the end of the cold war. First, while in the past examinations and perceptions of conflict in the region have focused on political issues such as nationalism and ethnic conflict, there is an increased focus on religion as a cause of conflict. As my article in this special section points out, this increased attention on religion is not unique to the MENA and is a worldwide phenomenon. This shift was perhaps most prominently heralded by Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ theory1 but has been echoed by many others.2
Take, for example, the case of Israel. Through the 1980s, the conflict between Israel and the Arabs/Palestinians was seen as primarily an ethnic or nationalist conflict, when it was not considered an international conflict. The main focus through the 1973 war was conflict between Israel and its neighboring states. While Palestinian terror was present against Israel since its establishment in 1948, this was seen as a secondary issue. After 1973, the focus began to shift to a violent domestic nationalist or perhaps ethnic conflict between the Palestinians, especially those in the territories taken by Israel in the 1967 war, and Israel. In a Huntingtonian sense, these conflicts were always ‘civilizational’ in that the participants belonged to different religions, but the conflict was not primarily seen in this light. During this period, the primary Palestinian conflict participant was the Palestinian Liberation Organization which was actually an umbrella organization for several Palestinian groups, most of which were considered secular. With the beginning of the first Intifada in 1987, which was led by Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the conflict as well as perceptions of its causes and nature shifted toward religion.
This shift in focus from national and ethnic conflicts to religious ones has been occurring throughout the MENA. Ethnic minorities such as the Berbers in Morocco and Algeria are less active and while the Kurds in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey remain an issue, they are overshadowed by the growing prominence of Islamic-based opposition movements. The political outcomes of the Arab Spring are case in point. Egypt’s revolution resulted in the election of a government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist movements, though at the time of this writing there remains some question as to whether Egypt’s military will allow these parties to remain in power. In the wake of massive and often violent protests, in 2011 Tunisia elected a government dominated by the Ennahda party, an Islamist party. Libya and Syria are essentially in a state of civil war in which Islamist forces are prominent. Similarly, conflicts between Shi’i and Sunni Muslims in countries such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia had been in the past perceived as ethnic, but are now seen in religious terms. The same is true of Lebanon’s sectarian divisions.
The second shift is one of focus of international attention. Since the end of the cold war, how governments treat their minorities is becoming an increasingly prominent issue. While discrimination against minorities, both ethnic and religious, has always been present in the MENA,3 the new focus on minority rights combined with the increased prominence of religion makes religious discrimination an increasingly important issue. Religious discrimination remains an issue intimately linked to violent conflict for two reasons. First, discrimination, religious or otherwise, against a minority is one of the more prominent precursors to that minority becoming involved in violent opposition to the state. Second, human rights violations, including violations of religious freedom, are increasingly becoming justifications for international intervention.
The three articles in this special section address these changes, each looking at them from a unique perspective. Isak Svensson focuses on armed conflict in the MENA using quantitative methodology. He demonstrates empirically a massive shift from nonreligious to religious conflict. He finds that in 1975 no participants in armed conflict in the MENA made explicit reference to religion, but by 2011 75 per cent of conflicts in the region included participants who made such references. This proportion of religious conflict is considerably higher than the averages for the rest of the world, making the MENA the world region where religious armed conflict is most prominent. In addition, he finds that religious conflicts within the same tradition are becoming increasingly common as interreligious conflicts decrease. Thus, not only is religious conflict increasing disproportionally in the MENA, but the type of religious conflict has also shifted from one with an ethnic element to one that involved religious organizations opposing states – which subscribes to the same religion as their opposition – they see as insufficiently religious. This is in direct contrast to Huntington’s predictions.
Svensson attributes this to two basic dynamics. First, religious conflicts are more intractable and last longer than other conflicts. In the MENA, nonreligious conflicts have been starting about as often as have religious conflicts. However, the nonreligious conflicts have been ending more quickly. Accordingly, in any given year, religious conflicts are more common. Second, religious conflicts are becoming increasingly transnational. In the past, armed opposition was mainly local. Now there are a number of groups which espouse religious ideologies and are active in multiple countries. This means that religious armed opposition spreads more easily across borders. This international element can also add to the intractability of religious conflict. Svensson also points out the governments are increasingly seeking international allies in combatting these armed opposition groups.
Laura Feilu and Rafael Grasa take a more comparative and theory-building approach to examining armed conflict in the MENA. They argue that religion is a factor that has been ignored, not only with regard to the MENA, and accordingly, theory building on the topic is important. They acknowledge that many other factors such as disproportionate international participation in conflict, the incongruence between identity and the territorial state, transnational ideologies (both religious and secular), economic inequality, a high concentration of autocratic regimes, and weak institutional cooperation mechanisms all contribute to conflict in the region, but argue that more attention needs to be paid to the religious factor. They attribute the increased role of religion in the MENA conflict to an increase in religious ideology in politically mobilized groups, which can be attributed to the failure of governments guided by secular ideologies. Thus, their results, based on comparative methodology, are strikingly similar to Svensson’s conclusions based on quantitative methodology.
Finally, in my contribution to this discussion, I focus on the extent of religious discrimination against 47 religious minorities in 17 Middle Eastern Muslim majority states using empirical methodology. Most of these minorities experience religious discrimination, but this discrimination is not spread evenly, even within the same state. Muslim minorities (e.g. Shi’i Muslims in a Sunni Muslim state) experience the lowest levels of discrimination, though all but two of them experience some discrimination and many experience substantial levels of discrimination. Christian minorities experience higher levels of discrimination than Muslim minorities, but the highest levels are placed against Hindu, Buddhist, Druze, and Bahai minorities. I argue that states that combine autocracy with strong state support for religion are more likely to discriminate against religious minorities. The variation within states can be explained by Islamic theology on which religions ought to be tolerated.
All of these studies explicitly argue that religion has been a neglected topic in explanations for conflict as well as in the social sciences in general. They all seek to build knowledge and theories to understand how religion contributes to conflict and discrimination, focusing on the MENA, the world region where religious conflict and discrimination are most prominent. Using different perspectives and methodologies, they all conclude that religious ideology is playing a greater role in recent the MENA conflict and discrimination than it has in the past. While all of these studies should be taken as contributions to a discourse that is still in progress, I argue that they all succeed in advancing our understanding of the role of religion in the MENA conflict and discrimination, and by implication our understanding of the causes of conflict and discrimination in general.


1. Samuel P. Huntington, ‘The Clash of Civilizations?’ Foreign Affairs 72/3 (1993) pp.22–49; Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster 1996).
2. See, for example, Jonathan Fox, Religion, Civilization and Civil War: 1945 Through the New Millennium (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books 2004); Monica D. Toft, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy S. Shah, God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics (New York: W.W. Norton 2011).
3. Fox (note 2).

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