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Domestic conflicts

Claudia Baumgart-Ox

Dr. Claudia Baumgart-Ochse, project manager at the Hessian Foundation for Peace and Conflict Research (PRIF), studied political science, religious studies and modern German literature in Frankfurt and London. Her doctoral thesis dealt with the influence of the Jewish settlers on the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the 1990s. She is currently leading a project at PRIF that examines the role of religious NGOs in the United Nations.

"The misused faith" - this was the headline of the Spiegel and lamented the "dangerous return of religions". Wars, violence, oppression - all of this is attributed to religion. Research shows that the role of religion in conflict is ambivalent and that many factors play a role in its impact.

A boy examines shoes in October 2005 after a bomb attack on a Shiite mosque in Hillah, Iraq. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)

Shiites against Sunnis in Syria, Christians against Muslims in the Central African Republic, Buddhists against Hinduists in Sri Lanka - religion, it would seem, is causing strife and violence in many parts of the world even in the 21st century. So was American political scientist Samuel Huntington right when he prophesied in the mid-1990s that the Cold War of the 20th century would be replaced by the clash of civilizations in the 21st century? Huntington saw the wars and civil wars of the future looming on the fault lines of these cultures, which are mainly shaped by one of the world religions. In particular, Islam has "bloody borders," wrote Huntington (1998). His findings have been contradicted many times (e.g. Müller 1998; Senghaas 1998). Nevertheless, talk of the "clash of civilizations" persists. Not least, the attacks by Al-Qaeda on September 11, 2001 in the USA were taken as confirmation by many observers.

Huntington's analysis is based on the difference thesis: When members of different religions face each other, each claiming the absolute truth of their belief, violent conflicts are inevitable. The thesis testifies to ignorance of many historical and current examples of religious coexistence, which range from medieval Andalusia to the Indian Mughal empire in the 16th and 17th centuries to the religiously diverse societies of the present.

The difference thesis in this simplicity has also been refuted by current research. Their findings are clear: the mere clash of different religions, their beliefs and practices is almost never the cause of violent conflicts. Civil wars are usually triggered by struggles for political power and for natural and economic resources in the context of institutionally weak statehood. Religion or religious differences alone are not a sufficient cause for conflict and violence to flare up; However, in a very similar way to different ethnic affiliations, they can, in interaction with other factors, contribute to the exacerbation of conflicts.

The politicization and instrumentalization of religions

Political science research has produced a number of plausible explanations for the conflict-aggravating effect of religions. Although religious differences alone are not a sufficient cause for the flare-up of conflicts and violence, the demographic distribution of religious affiliations - for example the polarization between two religiously defined groups or the dominance of one group - is a prerequisite for a possible politicization of religion (Montalvo / Reynal-Querol 2005). Such demographic structures become particularly virulent when they are intertwined with ethnic identities (Basedau et al. 2011), economic differences or nationalist movements (Juergensmeyer 1993).

The concept of identity, which has come to the fore in constructivist peace and conflict research, is of central importance: Religious affiliation is one of the most important distinguishing features in the construction of collective identities. Groups use their religion to define their self, but also how they distinguish themselves from others Groups (see the overview in Choijnacki / Namberger 2013). The "correct" belief becomes a condition of belonging to the group. Deviants are excluded. Outwardly, the religious difference becomes a central explanation for the otherness of the "enemy". Such "in-group / out-group" mechanisms are constitutive for the conflict, because they first create the collectives that are then hostile to each other.

However, it always takes the deliberate action of social, political and intellectual leaders to produce the conflict-aggravating effect of religion. The studies by De Juan and Hasenclever (2009; 2015) draw attention to this and highlight the crucial role played by political elites. Using the framing approach, the authors show how elites design religiously charged discursive frames that are intended to legitimize violence and mobilize believers to use violence. The extent to which this works depends on a number of factors - for example the coherence of the frames and the authority of the elites who use them to achieve their own ends in the conflict.

Religious ideas, beliefs and norms are therefore important in justifying violence and inciting believing followers. But there is no simple equation that can explain the instrumentalization of religious dogmas and traditions for inciting violent acts in present-day conflicts. Rather, religions are "ambivalent" according to Appleby (2000): They contain ethical principles, norms and narratives that call for peace and reconciliation, as well as content and interpretations with which violence and war can be justified.

Violence as a possible option for action appears to be justified above all when the religious community gets on the defensive in relation to its social and political environment and feels threatened. Then every attack on religious rules and traditions and every degradation of religious symbols is perceived as an attack on the own lives of the members and the entire community. The Copenhagen School speaks of the "securitization" of religion. In view of the threat to security and survival invoked by the political and religious leaders, the community changes from routine to a state of emergency, in which even extraordinary acts such as hatred and violence appear legitimate (Laustsen / Waever 2003).

The relationship between religion and state

Which models of action from religious tradition and practice are chosen depends on the historical development of the relationship between the religious community and the political rulers. According to Philpott (2007), the relationship between state and religion moves between two poles: the complete integration of state and religion on the one hand and the institutional independence of both spheres on the other. According to Philpott, the likelihood of either violence or democratization increases depending on how closely state and religion are intertwined. An integrationist political theology that seeks political power and suppresses other religions makes the justification of violence much easier.

In Sudan, for example, the authoritarian Islamist state forced its religious legislation (Sharia) on the Christian south, which led to a brutal civil war. Religious fanatical non-state violent actors can also try to take over a state or create their own state in order to achieve their political goals. The first variant can be observed in numerous civil war countries - e.g. in Yemen, Mali, Nigeria, and the Philippines. The second variant is practiced particularly consistently and brutally by the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

Opportunities to deal with political-religious conflicts

Are there ways of dealing with such religiously charged conflicts? An active civil society is crucial. Whether the propaganda that fuels hatred and violence catches on has to do with the openness of the discourse and the plurality of society. If effective counter-discourses exist and are represented by influential social and political forces, the chances of religious fundamentalist leaders to assert themselves diminish.

Hasenclever and De Juan (2007) identify four starting points to prevent the instrumentalization of religions to justify violence and war:
  • Religious enlightenment, i.e. a broad interpretation of the religious tradition that respects the inner diversity and complexity and thus counteracts the selective picking out of excluding statements that legitimize violence.
  • Structural tolerance, i.e. the strengthening and consolidation of moderate and differentiated modes of interpretation in institutions and discourses, e.g. in religious schools, in theological training and in community structures.
  • Autonomy potential, i.e. guaranteeing the independence of religious communities from the state, which allows them to resist being taken over by political power.
  • A lively inner-religious public that opposes the isolation of radical groups and modes of interpretation with exchange on a local, national and transnational level (Hasenclever / De Juan 2007).
It becomes clear that such a prophylaxis must start a sufficiently long time before the outbreak of a conflict in order to prevent an escalation of violence. This also applies to approaches that rely on interreligious dialogue (Smock 2006). They take a long breath, and as a rule they only reach those believers who already have a minimum degree of openness to exchange ideas with those who think differently, but not radicalized fighters.

Paradoxically, when dealing with conflicts in which religion plays a role, it will be more important not to emphasize the religious dimension. As the explanations for the conflict-aggravating effect of religion predominantly show, religion only comes into play when conflicts over political and economic power are already simmering. These conflicts are fueled not least by political elites who promise political or economic gains and who purposefully instrumentalize religious identities.

If violent conflicts, as in Syria or Iraq, are then reduced to religious differences by the outside world, this intensifies the differences between the religious groups and ignores the economic and political causes (Hurd 2015). States and international organizations involved in conflict management should by no means fall into this trap of simplification. Rather, they should look at the breadth and complexity of the causes without ignoring the religious dimension.


Appleby, R.S. (2000): The Ambivalence of the Sacred. Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation, New York.

Basedau, Matthias / Strüver, Georg / Vüllers, Johannes / Wegenast, Tim (2011): Do Religious Factors Impact Armed Conflict? Empirical Evidence from Sub-Saharan Africa, in: Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 23, No. 5, pp. 752-779.

Choijnacki, Sven / Namberger, Verena (2013): From conflict to war: causes and dynamics, in: Schmidt, Manfred G. / Wolf, Frieder / Wurster, Stefan (ed.): Study book political science, Wiesbaden, pp. 495-520 .

De Juan, Alexander / Hasenclever, Andreas (2009): The framing of religious conflicts - the role of elites in civil wars with religious connotations, in: Bussmann, Margit / Hasenclever, Andreas / Schneider, Gerald (eds.): Identity, Institutions and Economics. Causes of domestic violence (special issue Politische Vierteljahresschrift), Wiesbaden, pp. 178–205.

De Juan, Alexander / Hasenclever, Andreas (2015): Framing Political Violence: Success and Failure of Political Mobilization in the Philippines and Thailand, in: Civil Wars, Vol. 17, No. 2, pp. 201-221.

Hasenclever, Andreas / De Juan, Alexander (2007): Religions in Conflicts, in: From Politics and Contemporary History, Issue 6, pp. 10-16.

Huntington, Samuel (1998): Clash of Cultures. The reshaping of world politics in the 21st century, Munich.

Hurd, Elizabeth S. (2015): Beyond Religious Freedom. The New Global Politics of Religion, Princeton.

Juergensmeyer, Mark (1993): The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State, Berkeley.

Laustsen, Carsten B. / Waever, Ole (2003): In Defense of Religion: Sacred Referent Objects for Securitization, in: Hatzopoulos, Pavlos / Petito, Fabio (eds.): Religion in International Relations. The Return from Exile, New York, Basingstoke, pp. 147-180.

Montalvo, José G. / Reynal-Querol, Marta (2005): Ethnic Polarization, Potential Conflict, and Civil War, in: American Economic Review, Vol. 95, No. 3, pp. 796-816.

Müller, Harald (1998): The coexistence of cultures. An alternative to Huntington, Frankfurt / M.

Philpott, Daniel (2007): Explaining the Political Ambivalence of Religion, in: American Political Science Review, Vol. 101, No. 3, pp. 505-525.

Senghaas, Dieter (1998): Civilization against Will. the conflict of cultures with themselves (Edition Suhrkamp, ​​Volume 2081), Frankfurt / M.

Smock, David R. (Ed.) (2006): Religious Contributions to Peacemaking. When Religion Brings Peace, Not War (Peaceworks), Washington, D.C.

Links (in English)

Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs

Online course from the University of Groningen on "Religion and Conflict"

Research and publications by the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies