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Inter-Relativity Between Religion & Conflict

Does the existence of religious justifications of "Just war" mean that religions inevitably lead to conflict?


The inter-relativity between conflict and religion has become a prominent point of discussion within the broader areas of discourse on war and even terrorism. The world after the September 11, 2001 (9/11) has seen a resurgence of interest in the religious discourse on conflict and war. There is therefore a change from the secular discourse on war, which had been prominent due to previous century’s world wars and the international law responses to the same, which were focused on the secular aspects of war and conflict, such as international humanitarian law.


Spencer has argued that contrary to what some ‘apologists’ may contend, Islam does allow its followers to indulge in war which may not necessarily be just (Spencer, 2003). It is also contended that the faith-based terrorism that is also driven by the imagery associated with engagement in a cosmic war that is fought to protect some absolute truth (Juergensmeyer, 2003). It is also said that the fanatical Muslim groups are only “extreme manifestations of more prevalent intellectual theological currents in modern Islam” (Fadl, 2002, pp. 7-8). These writers contend that Islam does inevitably lead to conflict.

On the other hand, Samuel Huntington’s seminal and now classic The Clash of the Civilizations, posits that the world will increasingly witness conflict which is civilizational in its basis where the interactions among seven or eight major civilizations, that is Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American, and African, will be dominated by inevitable conflict due to civilizational faultlines (Huntington, 1993). In his words:

“the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics” (Huntington, 1993, p.22).

This debate encompasses most religions in the world, although, it is easier to relate violence to Islam in the post 9/11 world. Still, it can be argued that all religions may have the capacity to fuel war and conflict (Dawkins, 2016). Religion is powerful in the context of its political value and its ability to dominate various aspects of national life.

This essay considers the question of whether religion can and does lead to conflict in light of recent conflicts in the world that are derived from religious fundamentalism. Particular focus is on the concept of Jihad and whether Islam encourages and motivates violence.

Religion: Meaning, Concept and Influence

In order to understand the context of the essay, it is important to define one of the key terms in the essay, that is religion. Religion is one of the most difficult terms to define because religion itself is difficult to universalise due to the fluidity of its concept (Silvestri & Mayall, 2015). Nevertheless, it is important to conceptualise the word for the purpose of this essay. Religion can be defined as:

“1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (Geertz, 1993, p. 90).

According to the definition, religion is a system of symbols, therefore it has the ability to relay messages which may be effective in conveying conceptions about existence. Religion can also be defined as:

“a system of beliefs and values associated with particular organisational forms (e.g. ritual practices, institutions), and with a supra-natural deity embodying and emanating some absolute truths” (Silvestri & Mayall, 2015, p. 6).

This definition relates to organised religion which is monotheistic in nature, such as Christianity and Islam. However, as many religions (especially Asian) are not revolving around a single God, the above definition will not apply to these religions or philosophies (Silvestri & Mayall, 2015, p. 6). In this sense, religion can be defined as “a conceptual and moral framework for understanding and ordering lives and communities” (Skidmore, 2007, p. 4).

From the brief discussion above, it can be said that religion is a concept or framework that may systemise beliefs and values or create an order for life, where such system or ordering may be derived from something considered to be divine or a supra-natural deity.

Religion is powerful in the context of its political value and its ability to dominate various aspects of national life. In the last few decades, many countries in the world have felt the impact of religion in different aspects of social and political life and in the context of the ability of religion to cause conflict. Examples of this are many, including, destruction of a mosque at Ayodhya, India by Hindu fundamentalists; the Palestinian and Jewish conflict over the possession of holy sites in Jerusalem; attacks on the US in September 2011 and the many terror attacks in prominent European capitals such as Paris, Brussels and London (Bruce, 2003).

Just War – Justifications in Religion

Waltzer writes that for as long as there has been a discussion or a discourse on war, an important element of such discourse is the consideration of war in terms of right and wrong, while at the same time there have been objections to such moral discourse on something that is beyond moral judgement (Walzer, 2015). The futility of the moral discourse on the question of war is often showed in terms of inter arma silent leges, which means that in the time of war even the law is silent (Walzer, 2015). Nevertheless, religious discourse on war or just war is seen in the major religions of the world. For instance, the works of Augustine, Aquinas, Vitoria and Suarez was concerned with the religious theory on just war (Walzer, 2015).

Augustine believed that war was a tragedy even if it was just because war was a species of destruction (Elshtain, 2004, p. 44). In fact, he said that if one were to contemplate the destruction caused by war brought on by unjust or unworthy ends, then there would be more determination to avoid war, unless war was necessitated by injustice (Elshtain, 2004). Sometimes war was necessitated by certain situations, because as Augustine said

“People never possess a kingdom so securely as not to fear subjugation by their enemies; in fact, such is the instability of human affairs that no people has ever been allowed such degree of tranquility” (Quoted in Elshtain, 2004, p.45).

Religion and Conflict: Holy War

The domain of theology is the “religious experience and semiprivate associations of religious believers” (Cavanaugh & Scott, 2004, p. 2). As such, theology is to be differentiated from politics whose domain is the public authority. The concept or war or just war may appear to be appropriately situated within the domain of politics and not theology. But theology is also related to politics and within the interactions between politics and theology, a space for a discourse on war and conflict is created (Cavanaugh & Scott, 2004).

How does religion become the source of conflict or war? According to Huntington, there is now a separation between the people and their local identities because of the disruptive nature of the processes of economic modernization and social change which weaken the nation state as a source of identity (Huntington, 1993). A gap is thus created and world religion “has moved in to fill this gap, often in the form of movements that are labeled fundamentalist” (Huntington, 1993, p. 6). For most major religions in the world including Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism, and Islam, this tendency of fundamentalism has been witnessed. With gaps in local identities surfacing, the concept of identity becomes a major source of concern and people define their identity in ethnic and religious terms, leading to ‘otherisation’ of people of different ethnicity or religion (Huntington, 1993). This over a period of time

According to one expert on Islamic law, “Holy war” elicits strong emotional and intellectual responses but it is misplaced in the context of Islam (Fadl, 2000). The idea of holy war is a product of European Christian culture, but it is mistakenly projected onto different cultures, despite the obvious differences in socio-historical circumstances between the cultures (Fadl, 2000). In the same way, West mistakenly approaches the Islamic idea of jihad, and equates it with holy war, which is a European Christian concept and it does not sit well with Jihad (Fadl, 2000).

On the other hand, many Islamic writers have identified Jihad with a holy war, often using the term holy war to give meaning to the Arabic Jihad (Ayoob, 2008). Irrespective of whether Jihad is a holy war or not, it definitely is a call that permits conflict. However, there are many aspects of Jihad.

  • Jihad is a central duty of every Muslim. Modern Muslim
  • theologians have spoken of many things as jihads: defending the
  • faith from critics, supporting its growth and defense financially,
  • even migrating to non-Muslim lands for the purpose of spreading
  • Islam. But in Islamic history and doctrine violent jihad is founded on numerous verses of the Qur'an most notably, one known in
  • Islamic theology as the "Verse of the Sword": "Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them (captive), and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush. But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then leave their way free. Lol Allah is forgiving,
  • merciful" (Sura 9:5). Establishing "regular worship" and paying the "poor-due" [zakai] means essentially that the "idolaters" will become Muslim, as these are two of the central obligations of every Muslim (Spencer, 2003).

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