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The Divine Tragedy of Securing the Sacred: Religion, Security and Nationalism in Southeast Asia

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Understanding the imagined security threat of ethnoreligious groups in protracted conflicts

An EU-funded project is elucidating the importance of emotive, symbolic and perceptual reconciliation and regulation between rival ethnoreligious groups in violent internal and intrastate conflicts.

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In political science, most literary works on internal and intrastate conflicts centre on understanding the prevailing reasons behind them as well as establishing why some have led to violence while others have not. While insightful, the literature does not provide a clear explanation on how the very first stage of these protracted conflicts begin, and more specifically, how ethnoreligious groups become an existential security threat to states and societies. Addressing this, the EU-funded SeReNa-SEA project with the support of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) programme brought to light the unseen, albeit powerful emotional, symbolic and perceptual (ESP) mechanisms that drive state and non-state actors in pluralistic polities to frame the ‘othered’ ethnoreligious groups as threats to their security, power and status. “To achieve this, the project used interdisciplinary theories on critical security, religious and nationalism studies and developed the ethnoreligious ‘othering’ framework to better understand how imagined insecurities are transformed into tangible security threats,” explains Michael Intal Magcamit, MSCA fellow. The key focus was on south-east Asia: Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines.

Insights into ESP

“My investigation and analysis of ESP mechanisms reveals that without a serious appreciation for these intangible yet highly crucial elements, violent conflicts are bound to re-emerge and remain entrenched over long periods,” reports Magcamit. The promotion of conflict resolution strategies and peacebuilding programmes that take into account ESP reconciliation and regulation is therefore paramount. “Furthermore, these elements are not just powerful tools for explaining why people act the way they do politically but also vital resources that can be used to transform the actors involved and the accepted rules,” adds Magcamit. In addition to these findings, SeReNa-SEA also highlighted the importance of recognising religion and nationalism as legitimate constituents and instruments of realpolitik and the need to provide them with appropriate seats at policymaking tables. “These phenomena persist because they are – and have always been – matters of security and survival for states and societies,” emphasises Magcamit. Moreover, the project demonstrated how the ethnoreligious othering framework can bolster and advance process tracing explanations. “By linking interpretive works and causal arguments together through the theoretical and empirical probing of ethnoreligious otherings and protracted conflicts, SeReNa-SEA opens the door wider for the study of mechanisms that have been traditionally ignored in political science,” outlines Magcamit.

Furthering research and knowledge

The key findings and insights from the project have been disseminated to the scientific community and the broader public through a range of knowledge transfer deliverables. Drawing from these findings, Magcamit will embark on a new project to explain how violent, protracted conflicts in South Asia, the Middle East and East Africa can be more effectively addressed and prevented. “I will apply the ethnoreligious othering framework to investigate how relevant state and non-state actors routinely activate and employ the ESP mechanisms of ethnoreligious othering as security defence strategies against specific target groups,” confirms Magcamit. The MSCA fellow also aims to establish and launch the Asia-Pacific (In)Security Lab that will serve as a research and knowledge exchange platform amongst scholars and experts on Asia-Pacific security and conflict. “The long-term goal is to transform it into a fully operating not-for-profit hybrid research facility, functioning both as a non-government organisation and a think tank,” concludes Magcamit.


SeReNa-SEA, conflict, othering, ethnoreligious groups, security threat, reconciliation, internal and intrastate conflicts, pluralistic polities

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