Sacred violence or strategic faith? Disentangling the relationship between religion and violence in armed conflict

Published date01 March 2016
AuthorMatthew Isaacs
Date01 March 2016
Subject MatterResearch Articles
Sacred violence or strategic faith?
Disentangling the relationship between
religion and violence in armed conflict
Matthew Isaacs
Department of Politics, Brandeis University
Why are religious conflicts more violent than non-religious conflicts? Research has argued that religion pushes
partisans toward violence. However, existing research suffers from widespread problems of measurement validity
and fails to confront the possibility of endogeneity in the relationship between religion and violence. This article
develops a more precise measure of the relevance of religion to conflict based on the use of religious rhetoric by
political organizations. With this approach in mind, this article disentangles the causal sequence linking religious
rhetoric and violence using annually coded data on the rhetoric of 495 organizations worldwide from 1970 through
2012. The analysis finds a strong general correlation between religious rhetoric and violence. However, past use of
religious rhetoric does not increase the likelihood that an organization will participate in violence or the overall
intensity of conflict. On the contrary, previous participation in violence makes an organization more likely to adopt
religious rhetoric for mobilization. Indeed, religious rhetoric becomes more likely as violence increases in intensity
and conflict continues for longer periods of time. These findings suggest that violent actors adopt religious rhetoric to
solve the logistical challenges associated with violence, including access to mobilizing resources and recruitment and
retention of members. This article contributes to the study of religious conflict by providing evidence of endogeneity
in the relationship between religion and violence and highlighting the need for temporally sensitive measures of
religious mobilization.
endogeneity, religion and politics, religious violence, temporal sequencing
The past half-century has seen a significant increase in
the public presence of religion worldwide. Especially
critical has been the dramatic rise in the use of religious
rhetoric to promote violence. Between the 1960s and
1990s, the percentage of civil wars involving religion
increased from 21% to 43% (Toft, 2007). In the Middle
East and North Africa, the proportion of armed conflicts
involving religious claims increased from 0% in 1975 to
75% in 2011 (Svensson, 2013).
Research has suggested that conflict involving religion
is more violent and longer lasting than other forms of
conflict (Henne, 2012a; Horowitz, 2009; Pearce, 2005;
Piazza, 2009; Toft, 2007). Religious conflicts are more
likely to concern issues seen as indivisible, less likely to be
resolved through negotiated settlement, and more likely
to relapse once a settlement has been reached (Hassner,
2009; Svensson, 2007, 2012; Walter, 2011). These chal-
lenges can be seen worldwide, from enduring religious
hostilities in Afghanistan and Israel to the rise of religious
violence in Burma, Iraq, and Nigeria.
Though considerable research has highlighted the
relationship between religion and violence, little scholar-
ship has examined the causal sequence linking the two
(Grzymala-Busse, 2012). While some scholars maintain
that religious beliefs encourage violence, there is also
reason to believe that violence encourages religion. Spe-
cifically, religion may help solve the logistical challenges
facing violent organizations, including resource shortages
Corresponding author:
Journal of Peace Research
2016, Vol. 53(2) 211–225
ªThe Author(s) 2016
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/0022343315626771

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