James Anderson, John Bell, Anna Bigelow, Rafael Blanco-Guzman, Rex Brynen, Géraldine Chatelard, Andrew Scott Dejesse, Madhuri Masai, Michael (Mick) Dumper (organiser), Alexander Finnen, Alfio Gullotta, Agnieszka Jachec-Neale, Marion Lecoquierre, Jolyon Leslie, Francis Kok Wah Loh, Lynn Meskel, Kenneth Schmitt, Peter Stone
by Mike Dumper
5 – 10 March, 2018
A. Purpose of Seminar
As a result of rapid pace of global urbanization, the study of conflict in cities has emerged as a significant sub-field in the social sciences. This seminar set out to explore the contention that while all cities are arenas of contestation, some cities exhibit specific forms of conflict arising from the salience of religious activity within them. Powerful religious hierarchies, the generation of often unregulated revenues from donations and endowments, the presence of holy sites and the enactment of ritualistic activities in public spaces combine to create forms of conflict which are, possibly, more intense and more intractable than other forms of conflicts in cities. This strongly suggests, therefore, that they require specific forms of conflict management and resolution. The purpose of the seminar was to draw together a series of case studies focusing on cities with religious conflicts and examples where international structures and mechanisms have been employed to address such conflict. In this way, the seminar sought to examine the possible options available to those concerned with this increasingly urgent phenomenon.
Key words: Cities, conflict, religion, cultural heritage, urban, holy sites, simulation, practitioner
In order to achieve this goal, a mélange of participants was invited*. These included academics with fieldwork knowledge of specific sites in different regions of the world drawn from a wide range of disciplines and bringing different theoretical and methodological approaches to the table. It also included experts on international organizations and international law such as UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre, the International Committee of the Blue Shield Organization, and from police and military personnel in the growing field of Cultural Property Protection. Three participants were young scholars with less than seven years’ experience of professional life since their PhD graduation: Kenny Schmitt, Marion Lecoquierre and Rafael Blanco-Guzman.
The seminar was designed to maximize the exchange between these different expertises. Sessions comprised presentations from a mix of disciplines and professional backgrounds. In addition, two respondents, also of different expertise, were nominated to interrogate the empirical data and the conceptual underpinnings of the presentations from different perspectives. Thus each session was a mix of academic disciplines and practitioner expertise. Running through the programme was a daily session based upon a simulated urban religious conflict in which all participants were given roles to play. This had the function of both exploring some of the themes raised in the academic discussions in a practical way, and of feeding ideas drawn from the experience of the simulation into the discussions in a very dynamic way. This structure was experimental and contained many risks, but ultimately it proved to be successful in stimulating a great deal of discussion and interesting ideas.
D. Some main points
- The question of what constitutes a religious conflict and what that designation can tell us about its impact in urban processes was a major issue considered. There was consensus that in this field there was a lack of clarity on the attributes that cities subject to such religious conflicts may have in common. While most of the participants agreed that while cities such as Varanasi, Istanbul, Mostar, Jerusalem and Cordoba are examples where religion plays a dominant role in urban development, it was not possible to define a city’s holiness or religiosity simply by the number of holy sites located within its limits.
- The focus on the religious identities of protagonists in conflicts can mask a more complex mélange of identities, solidarities and motives. While the religious nature of conflicts can be very prominent and also be the most important, they are not the only reason for conflict and that religious or sectarian groupings are subject to influence and manipulation by economic, class, or ethnic interests.
- While conflict takes place in religious sites or cities they are not always about religion. There are many other reasons why conflicts take place in cities which are associated with religion, such as it being a capital city, a geographical hub, a centre of ethnic nationalism and so forth.
- Cities have also a tradition of accommodating religious diversity and that the focus on conflict can distort our understanding of the salience of conflict in a city. The longer historical context can show the genealogy of a religious conflict but it also can show many decades and even centuries of sectarian co-existence and the daily task of reconciling differences.
- There were many policy and programmatic implications drawn out in the discussions and the academics present were given an intensive course in the various mechanisms and tools used by the international community to address the issue of urban religious conflicts. It became clear that despite the huge resources invested in identifying, preserving, promoting and renovating cultural heritage sites, the magnitude of the task, in the face of massive destruction and criminality, renders the international community relatively impotent. In addition, there is a great need to improve the quality of the interventions and extricate them from narrow political and nationalistic agendas.
- There was also much empirical evidence presented to support the argument that the urban form introduces a specific set of factors which can complicate religious tensions and lead to conflict: congestion around access points, the density and logistical challenges of shrine cities particularly at key moments in the annual religious calendar, the divisiveness of security walls, of segregated sites and residential areas, and the speed in which political forces can be mobilised.
- Cities which are divided along ethno-nationalist lines or where the administering authority is not recognized by a significant part of the population become arenas for conflict which draws upon religious solidarities to achieve political goals.
E. Lessons Learned
- More time should have been provided for discussion. The group was a unique combination of expertise and the programme did not optimise this. Each day should have had a general discussion slot to draw together some of the main points raised.
- One drawback of the diffuse combination of people was that the discussion was also very diffuse. As convenor I should have identified earlier some major themes on which we could concentrate our thoughts and expertise. (e.g. D.1, 2 and 3 above)
- The final session was a useful summary of the views of the participants but a better outcome would have been to present some key points drawn from the previous discussions and so as to explore them in a more focused way.
- The “urban dimensions” element was often eclipsed by other material. A couple more urban geographers and would have redressed the balance.
- There was insufficient consideration given to the view from the “global South”. More participants outside of Europe and North America would have helped in this regard.