Does Religion Make a Difference? Theoretical Approaches to the Impact of Faith on Political Conflict

Date01 December 2000
Published date01 December 2000
Subject MatterArticles
© Millennium: Journal of Int ernational Studies, 2000. ISSN 0305-8298 . Vol. 29, No. 3, pp. 641-674
Does Religion Make a Difference?
Theoretical Approaches to the
Impact of Faith on Political Conflict
Andreas Hasenclever and Volker Rittberger
As observ ed by many scho lars, a renaissance of religious traditio ns is taking place
virtually all o ver the globe.1 Contrary to o nce widespread expectati ons that relig ion
would gradually d isappear as a po litical force in mo dernising societi es, religious
communitie s have been g etting stronger in most nation s over the la st two decad es
or so. T heir leaders put forward grievances about disc rimination, raise claims as to
how state and society should b e organised , and mobilise the faithful into actio n.
Social institutions suc h as sc hools, charitie s and hosp itals are run in the name of
their respect ive religious denominat ions. In many Muslim co untries, there are calls
for the intro duction of the sharia as publi c law. In Indi a, Hindu nationalists attempt
to establish their creed as the state p rivileged reli gion. In the US the ‘Christi an
Right’ tries to capture the state for the dissemination and imple mentation of the
eternal truth as the y understand it.
Often the political re surgence of reli gious communities is accompanied b y
violent cl ashes in and between natio ns. Take, for example, the b loody conflicts in
Algeria, Bosnia, East-Timor, Kashmir, Nigeria , Palestine, an d Sri Lanka, to name
but a few. Scholars differ significantly i n their interpretatio ns of t his correlat ion
dependin g on their theo retical point of view. Primordi alists argu e that difference s
in relig ious traditions sh ould be vie wed as one of the most i mportant independe nt
variables to exp lain violent interactions in and betwee n nation s. Collecti ve actors at
the nat ional as well a s the intern ational level tend to form alliances a round
Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the 2000 annual International Studies Association
convention in Los Angel es and at the London School of Econ omics conference ‘Religion and
International Relations’ on 27 May 2000 . The authors app reciate the many pertin ent comments they
received on these occasions. Especially, we want to thank Martin Beck, Jonathan Fox, Peter Mayer,
Mark Neufeld and two anon ymous referees for their helpful critiques of earlier drafts.
1. See, for example, M ark Juergensmeyer, Th e New Co ld War? Religiou s Nationalism Confron ts the
Secular State (Berk eley, CA: University of Californ ia Press, 1993); Giles Kepel, Die Rache Gottes:
Radikale Mo slems, Christen, und Juden auf dem Vormarsch (München: Piper, 1991); Martin E. Marty
and R. Scout Appleby, eds., Fundamental ism Comprehended (Chicago: University of Chicag o Press,
1995); Jeffrey Seul, ‘Ours is the Way of God : Religion, Identi ty, and Intergro up Conflict’, Journa l of
Peace Research 36, n o. 3 (1999): 553-69; and Bassam Tibi, Krieg der Zivilisationen (Hamburg:
Hoffmann and Campe, 1999). It should be noted, however, that the deb ate on the renewed power of
religious communities in p olitics rests on scholarly impressions rath er than quantitative empirical
research. For the purpo se of this paper we simply assume that such a revival is currently tak ing place.
common cosmologies, and tensions arise and escalate primarily between alliances
with different co smologies. Instrumentalists admit tha t confli cts may be aggravated
by div ergent religious cree ds, but they insist that t hey are rarely if ever cau sed by
them. From t heir point o f view, t he correlation of vio lent clashes with t he
resurgence of old re ligions is not surprising, but neither i s it nece ssary. Riots an d
wars would have occurred in an y case as a con sequence of poli tical and
socioecon omic ineq ualities in and between nations. By contrast, constructivists
hold that in man y situations it is only the juxta position of true believers and siniste r
pagans that enables politic al entre preneurs t o mobili se thei r const ituencies i nto
violent action. Acts of violence require legitimatio n, and religion and religious
leaders can provi de such legitimation. B ut then they may also deny it. Religious
leaders can refuse to bless t he weapons, and then violence may not occur even if
significant socioecon omic and poli tical inequalities exist in or between socie ties.
In the next sectio n, we will briefly disc uss primordialism, instrumentalism, an d
constructiv ism as rival pers pectives on the impact o f faith on t he course of
conflicts. Su bsequently, in the th ird section, we wil l introduce a simp le elite-based
model of strategic choices. This model distinguishes between conf lict de fined by
the issues in contentio n and conflict behaviour ranging from peaceful
accommodat ion to a ggressive self-help . In the fourth section, we will argue that,
although differences in reli gious creed are hardly ever a genuine source of violent
clashes, under certain conditions, they have the potential to escalate conflict
behaviour. In the fi fth sect ion, we will proceed to exa mine three types of strate gies
which are expected to help c ontrol or reduce the violence-pro moting impact of
religious creeds on the course of confro ntations: (1) strategies of det errence and
repressive d enial which aim at increasin g the costs of v iolent resistance and
uprisings; (2) strategies of socio economic develo pment and democratisatio n that
are designed to overcome the underlying mod ernisation crisis; and (3) a dialog ue
strategy which seeks to delegitimi se the use of violence for th e advanc ement of
religious or oth er interests.
In this contex t, we will refer, inter alia, to the id eas of Hans Kün g which are
currently much debated in Germany.2 Küng propo ses that strategie s be devised to
initiate a dialogue —or to reinforce the ongoi ng dialo gues—among the world’s
religions in order to achieve an d strengthen an interre ligious world ethic. As stated
in the preamble of th e UNESCO Charter, Küng’s strategy emphasises that ‘wars
begin in the mind s of men’ and ‘it is in the min ds of men t hat the defences of peace
must b e constructed ’.3 It is import ant, therefore, to strengthen people’s principl ed
2. See especially Hans Küng, P rojekt Weltethos, 5th ed. (München: Piper, 19 92); Hans Küng, Glo bal
Responsibility: In Search of a New Wo rld Ethic (New York: Crossroad, 1991); Hans Küng, Weltethos
für Weltpolitik und Weltwirtschaft (München: Piper, 19 97); Hans Küng, ‘Politik aus Verantwortung:
Plädoyer für Eine Ethisch Fundierte Außenpolitik’, Internationale Politik 55, no. 2 (2000 ): 1-10; and
Hans Kü ng and Karl Josef Kuschel, eds., Erklärung zum Weltethos: Die Deklaration des Parlament s
der Weltreligionen (Münch en: Piper, 1993).
3. UNESCO Charter, preamble [ /unesco/ ml] (10
December 2000).
Does Religi on Make a Differenc e?
disapprov al of vio lence. The principled d isapproval of violence ma y derive from
intra and inter-religious dialogues but also from other sources. In g eneral, it is
expected to bro aden the space for co-operative forms o f c onflict management
during soci al and eco nomic cri ses th us preve nting p olitical c onflicts from
escalating into violent clashes.
Three Theoreti cal Perspectives on the Impact of Fai th on Political Conflict
As alrea dy mentioned, we distinguis h three theoretic al perspectives on the role o f
religions in political conflicts: p rimordialism, instrumentali sm, and constructivism.
The primordi alist perspective is adopted by Samue l H untington, Gilles Kepel,
Jeffrey Seul, and Bassam Tibi among others.4 They arg ue that the embeddedness of
nations in civilisations will be the most important determinant of world politics in
the twenty-first cent ury. The pivotal charact eristic of each civili sation, in turn, is
the re ligion or cosmology o n which it is based. Hence, we have Buddhi st,
Christian, Confuc ian, Hi ndu, Islamic, Judaistic, and Taoist civili sations. In t he
Cold War era, the supe rpowers were able to suppress the conflict-generati ng force
of divergen t creeds. M ore generally, the global competit ion b etween East and
West, t ogether with the a highly skewed distribution of military capabil ities in the
internatio nal sys tem, strongly reduced the impact of partic ular cultural
characteristic s on foreign po licy behaviour. Now that th e Cold War i s over,
however, primordi alists e xpect the dawn of a new world order where cult ural
similarities and difference s will beco me highly sal ient for i nternational behav iour
and interacti ons.
In this view, cultural simi larities and dissimilarities produce converg ing an d
diverging state i nterests, respe ctively. States with similar relig ious traditio ns and
cosmologie s will form alliances directed against those with whom t hey have litt le
in common i n cultura l and religious terms. Viol ence will be largely co nfined to
interaction s that take place between civilisation s. At the same time, states wi th
similar religious traditio ns and cosmo logies will work hard to accommodate t heir
disputes in order to strengthen their joint power positio n vis-à-vi s ot her
According to the primordialist perspective, t he reorganisat ion of world politi cs
will be accompanied by civil unrest and i nternational wars. Domestically, non-
western civil isations will purge themselve s from th e remnants of the Cold War era.
Religious militants face, a nd take up, the t ask of eithe r ousting westernise d
political elites from po wer or converting their members into zealous believers, who
recant secularism and devote themselves to building political institutions that
protect and p romote the religious tradit ions of their nations. In mul tireligious
4. See Samuel Huntingt on, ‘The Clash of Civilizations?’, Foreign Affairs 72, no. 3 (199 3): 22-49;
Samuel Huntington, Der Kampf der Kulturen: Die Neugestaltu ng der Weltp olitik im 21. Jahrhun dert
(München: Europ averlag, 1996); Kepel, Rache Gottes; Seul, ‘Ours is the Way of God’; Ti bi, Krieg der
Zivilisationen; an d Basam Tibi, Die Neue Weltunordnung: Westliche Dominanz und Isla mischer
Fundamentali smus (Berlin: Propyläen Verlag, 1999).

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