With the arrival this week of UN peacekeeping forces in the Central African Republic, M. Christian Green looks at the motivations and drivers of a conflict that is so often characterised as being divided along religious lines.

In December 2012, the largely Muslim rebel coalition known as Seleka instigated a rebellion against the Central African Republic's (CAR) president François Bozizé. In March 2013, Seleka insurgents captured the capital Bangui and overthrew the Bozizé government, installing in his place a Seleka-backed leader, Michel Djotodia. On October 10, 2013, the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling on Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to produce a report outlining plans to send a peacekeeping force to the CAR to quell the fighting between Muslim and Christian groups.

 In November 2013, UN officials began publicly speculating about possible genocidal directions of the conflict, which would eventually light up the twittersphere under the hashtag #CARcrisis. The religious affiliation and network of the Seleka coalition when it began its campaign toward the capital and the installation of the country's first Muslim leader after Bozizé's fall were early indications that the conflict could fracture along religious fault lines. The rise of anti-Balaka fighters, drawn largely from villages in the Christian dominated south, to counter Seleka insurgents' atrocities hastened the complete breakdown of political order and disintegration of the national military. The country rapidly descended into tit-for-tat sectarian violence, and violence perpetrated in the name of communities by small groups. This developed over the summer and autumn months of 2013 along increasingly religious identification rather than political or economic markers. In January, UN representatives began warning that the conflict had the "seeds of genocide".

Labelling a conflict as "religious" has the potential to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The use of the term “genocide” might be considered the main controversy in this conflict, as international leaders have debated its meaning many times in the two decades since the deadly genocidal conflicts in Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur and elsewhere. There has been a surprising emphasis in the debate on the CAR conflict however, focused on – often challenging – the use of “religious” to describe the conflict’s origins and nature. Representative news headlines, policy paper titles, and blog posts tell the story – “The Central African Republic Is About Far More than Religion”, “Chaos in Central African Republic Is About Power Not Religion”, “The Central African Republic—Politics or Religion?”, “Central Africa Conflict Not Religious”, “Don’t Blame the Central African Republic Conflict on Religion”.

These and other headlines justifiably point to the complex mixture of religion, politics, ethnicity, economic, natural resource and postcolonial boundary issues that characterise many African conflicts. After all, conflict, both in Africa and elsewhere around the globe, is rarely reducible to any single factor. Even so, at a certain point after the UN's early warnings about the conflict becoming potentially genocidal, the conflict began to be described increasingly in "religious" terms. After earlier proclaiming the CAR crisis to be headed in the direction of "religious war", the UN has recently backed away from that characterisation. Just as the term "genocide" warrants careful application, the labelling of a conflict as "religious" merits further examination, both for its factual validity and – possibly more importantly on the ground – its potential to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Religious conflict researchers Brian Grim and Roger Finke have demonstrated the strong correlation between religious freedom and the reduction of violent conflict. More recent studies, such as the Global Group Relations Project undertaken by psychologist Steven L. Neuberg and his colleagues at the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict at Arizona State University, have suggested that "religious infusion," defined as the "extent to which religious rituals and discourse permeate the everyday activities of groups and their members" can in fact exacerbate intergroup conflict, especially in conjunction with political and socioeconomic disadvantage. This has certainly been the case with the trajectory of the conflict in the CAR.

Social scientists are keen to emphasise the difference between causation and correlation.

While many of the "battle lines" in the conflict can now be drawn along some sense of religious lines, this was not a dominant motivation of the conflict's inception. Social scientists are inevitably keen to emphasise the difference between causation and correlation, but these studies reinforce other analyses and anecdotes that suggest that, even where religion is not the initial impetus for conflict, the probability of violence may be ratcheted up when conflicts are infused with religion or where religious freedom is denied. In other words, when it comes to religion and conflict, where there is smoke, fire often follows.

This realisation raises important questions when it comes to understanding religion and conflict. Is religion the sole or main reason for conflict? After all, the religious affiliations of the Seleka and Anti-Balaka groups overlap and intersect with control of diamond mines, trade routes, and poaching networks among other factors. How and to what extent does religion intersect or interact with other factors? What constellation of factors produces the "tipping point" at which a conflict begins to be construed as religious? Should we be wary of labelling conflicts "religious" and thereby potentially infusing religion into conflicts based on other grounds? Should a judicious reticence to label a conflict "religious" be undertaken strategically to try to minimise and contain the religious dimensions and potential for religious violence? Or should frank acknowledgement of religious dimensions of conflict be employed practically to bring religious leaders together in interfaith actions for peace?

Practical policy questions such as these need to be urgently addressed when considering solutions to the CAR conflict, as well as the mandate and goals of the UN mission MINUSCA. These issues will be explored in an upcoming intensive training course on "Religion and Conflict: Practical Policy Implications" to take place in Pristina, Kosovo. Particular attention will be given to engaging religious communities in efforts of conflict resolution, post-conflict reconciliation, and especially conflict prevention.

Religion can be a cause or means of conflict, but it can also be a crucial part of the solution toward a lasting peace. In one of the interesting ironies of the CAR conflict, religious leaders have been among those keen to discount religion as a causal factor, while at the same time taking a leading role in promoting reconciliation. So it may be that even where conflicts do not begin with religion, religion can play a big role in bringing them to an end.