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The road to peace in jihadist conflicts

29 April 2016

Desirée Nilsson and Isak Svensson conduct research on conflict resolution, and are now to focus on jihadist conflicts in particular.

Conflicts related to jihadism are considered particularly difficult to solve within peace research. What does it really take to solve them? That is the theme of a new international research project headed by Uppsala University.

‘Nearly all of the basic questions surrounding conflict resolution of jihadist conflicts remain unanswered,’ says Isak Svensson, professor of peace and conflict research and leader of the interdisciplinary project.

He and his colleagues Desirée Nilsson and Mimmi Söderberg Kovacs conduct research on conflict resolution and are well-versed in which approaches usually work when dealing with conflicts. They know which factors commonly result in negotiations and finally peace treaties. The question is why these same approaches are not viable for conflicts involving militant Islamist groups.

‘It’s a matter of both seeing what distinguishes them from other conflicts and understanding what makes them particularly difficult to solve,’ says Desirée Nilsson.

Currently, several conflicts with religious aspects are ongoing. 2014 saw more people killed in armed conflicts than any other year since the end of the Cold War. Another trend is that of more and more conflicts becoming internationalised. Among the most intense conflicts, the ones involving jihadism constitute a majority.

‘It is not really that this type of conflict has grown that much more common. Instead, other types of conflicts have declined, so proportionally, jihadist conflicts have become more dominant. This might be due to the world becoming better at curbing conflicts in general, yet still lacking the methods and knowledge required to handle religiously defined conflicts,’ Isak Svensson says.

The project will also see the participation of religious sociologist Mark Juergensmeyer, who is to conduct several case studies within the context of the project. Professor Ebrahim Mosa at the Notre Dame University in the US will study conflicts from an Islamological perspective.

‘As peace researchers, we need to turn outwards and enlist the help of, for instance, religion researchers. We have the conflict resolution skill set, while they contribute by highlighting other important perspectives,’ Desirée Nilsson says.

The research on conflict resolution has expanded as a field since the 1990’s. Now, insights produced by that research area will be applied to jihadist conflicts.

‘For instance, previous research has shown that meaningful mediation can be achieved when the parties perceive the conflict as very costly. But religiously motivated actors may well perceive this cost in a different way. If one aims at martyrdom, it may give one a differing view of the costs one is prepared to pay,’ Isak Svensson says.

The researchers will use data from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), which gathers data on armed conflicts all over the world. In addition, a number of case studies will be conducted in various parts of the world. These have not yet been finalised, but one of the more interesting peace treaties is that reached in 2014 in the Philippines.

‘It is actually among the largest successes in recent years, and serves as an example of the possibilities of finding solutions to conflicts involving jihadist groups,’ Isak Svensson says.



The researchers are defining ‘jihadist conflicts’ as ‘armed conflicts with at least 25 combat deaths per year, which include a rebel force with self-describe Islamist political goals’.

The project, which translates to ‘Peaceful solution to jihadist conflicts? Religion, civil war, and prospects of peace’, began this January, and will run for five years. The project is funded by the Swedish National Bank, at a sum of SEK 14.8 million.

See also the Uppsala Conflict Data Program website.