Religion and Conflict: Data is Part of the Answer

Religion and Conflict: Data is Part of the Answer

By Anthony Measures

Expert analysis requires accessible, accurate, timely and globally comparable data. It is an essential underpinning for a greater understanding of key trends – none more so than when attempting to understand the profound impact of religion on global events. For this reason it is imperative to assess and display current and relevant data alongside analysis on religion and conflict.

The events of the past twelve months, the rapid rise of ISIS and the so called “caliphate”, the devastation caused by Boko Haram in Nigeria, the growing influence of other international jihadi groups such as al-Shabaab in Somalia and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria and the ongoing religious conflicts in countries such as the Philippines and Myanmar have had a major impact on the news agenda.

At Religion & Geopolitics we aim to inform the international community about religion and conflict, and the role that religion plays in contemporary affairs. We do this by providing compelling, informative and timely analysis and commentary on situations such as those listed above, backed up by the clear presentation of relevant data.

The use of data in the context of religion and conflict is all about enhancing our understanding of why these conflict situations occur, how and why religion is involved and how we can seek answers. It is also about studying and focusing on where the next global or regional challenges may arise. This ensures that those who are making policy decisions can do so using robust, clear and informed data, including on the religious dimensions. 

Data is now more accessible; mainly through “open data” government initiatives to ensure transparency and more generally organisations properly collect and display data so that analysis and research can be shown in a meaningful way.

Qualitative and quantitative data presented in an engaging way allows the audience to put what they are reading or watching into an informative, meaningful context. When done well, this can assist decision-making and allow people to act on this information with greater insight and understanding.

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On Religion & Geopolitics we show the socio-economic, civil-political, religious and conflict related data on a global scale, and focus in on particular countries to connect together the different pieces of the jigsaw (see above). These data visualisations help to support the wider thinking around the issues. 

The research and data that Religion & Geopolitics is focused on, such as looking in detail at the various groups involved in religious conflicts and their justifications and tracking trends in global terrorism, are key to ensuring that policy makers, business leaders and others today remain attentive to these issues. Equally, data representation to enhance people’s understanding can be applied to many other issues of global significance.

Brian Grim, a leading data expert on religious freedom and international religious demography has been researching how data can allow us to improve policy and our understanding of religion’s role in conflict situations. He says that even today, sourcing data on religion is a new field, but “when informed by data you can make much better policy decisions”. And this is particularly true in today’s society where there is still a lack of understanding about the role that religion plays around the world in countries which are experiencing conflict.

Studies on conflict situations, such as those by the Institute for Economics & Peace who publish the Global Terrorism Index are important in assessing where shifts in conflict situations could occur and who is involved. In displaying this data we can build up a clear picture.

Globally, regionally and nationally, data is key to depicting what is happening and where resources need to be focused to tackle issues such as violent attacks by terrorist groups, attacks on religious minorities, global restrictions on religion, perceptions of religion and internally displaced people through conflict.

On a globally comparable level there is much data available, particularly through international organisations such as the World Bank and the United Nations. This global picture allows us to map easily some of the key issues across the world such as population density, land use, migration, refugee numbers and the state of peace in a country.

Religious demographics are notoriously difficult to map globally due to the many ways in which religious data is, (and is not), collected by individual countries. The World Religion Database does collect what data is available through numerous methods and gives us the much-needed basic level detail.

On a national level, in-country surveys and polling provide us with some of the detailed data we need to enhance our understanding. But as data collection methods change and demand increases, we need to consistently review how we can best use, display and compare this information.

As an example, we can track the effects of conflict through data that is collected to provide us with information on a specific situation. The on-going attacks by Boko Haram in and around Nigeria are constant, but how can you build up a picture of these events? The Council on Foreign Relations has developed a Security Tracker, which maps attacks by Boko Haram on a weekly basis. The tracker not only pinpoints where the attacks are occurring, providing an invaluable snapshot of the conflict, but also assists policy makers and others in getting to know more about the situation on the ground through relatively simple data analysis.

Even in the remote parts of the north of Nigeria information is more accessible as technology and globalisation make the world a smaller place. The demand is there quick information and data that can support overall policymaking. In the context of religion and conflict this is all too apparent.

Each week through media and social media channels we see a constant stream of ongoing and new stories on the role of religion in conflict, which in some form or another we need to make sense of. Data is part of the answer, and all of us at Religion & Geopolitics are committed to providing the best information we can find in a way that informs our wider analysis of religion and conflict around the world.

Anthony Measures is a Researcher at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation and leads on data analysis for their online resource