Religion, Pragmatic Fundamentalism and the Transformation of the Northern Ireland Conflict

Since 11 September 2001, the religious dimension of conflict has been the focus of increasing attention. In The Clash of Civilizations, Huntington has identified the West in religious–cultural terms, as Christian with a dominant democratic culture emphasizing tolerance, moderation and consensus. The persistence of conflict in Northern Ireland among `White’ Protestant and Catholic Christians undermines this simplistic argument and demands a more subtle understanding of the role of religion and fundamentalism in contemporary conflict. Modernization theory — which is echoed among some theorists of globalization — had predicted the declining importance of religion as the world became industrialized and increasingly interconnected. This is echoed by those who argue that the Northern Ireland conflict is `ethno-national’ and dismiss the role of religion. On the other hand, others have claimed that the conflict is religious and stress the role of Protestant fundamentalism. This article draws on new evidence from Northern Ireland of the complex and subtle ways in which religion impacts on the conflict there, incorporating insights about the pragmatism of fundamentalist Protestants and how religious actors are contributing to conflict transformation. This analysis leads to three broader conclusions about understanding conflicts with religious dimensions. First, the complexity of religion must be understood, and this includes a willingness to recognize the adaptability of fundamentalisms to particular contexts. Second, engaging with fundamentalists and taking their grievances seriously opens up possibilities for conflict transformation. Third, governments and religious actors within civil society can play complementary roles in constructing alternative (religious) ideologies and structures as part of a process of transformation. In a world in which the impact of religion is persistent, engaging with the religious dimension is a vital part of a broader-based strategy for dealing with conflict.