When Is a Religious Conflict Truly a Religious Conflict?

Inspired by one of Tomndeb’s posts in another thread.

Aaaahh… now THAT is an interesting question, and not just with regard to Rotherham, nor just with regard to Muslims.

Whenever we discuss what we perceive as religious wars, religious conflicts, religious crimes and religious scandals, it’s worth asking several things:

IS religion truly at the heart of the problem?

Are the devoutly religious more likely to be part of the problem than the tepidly or nominally religious?

IF we say religion is at the heart of the problem, why wasn’t the problem a lot worse, say, a century ago, when people were generally far more devout?

Is religion the whole problem? Most of the problem? Incidental to the problem? Convenient shorthand for some OTHER problem that’s not religious in nature?
But these questions are always worth asking, ESPECIALLY when we hear people shaking their heads and saying with sadness and false wisdom,“Those people have hated each other and killed each other for hundreds of years in the name of religion.”

Because a casual glance at real history usually shows that is NOT the case! To take a few examples(including some that are NOT related to Islam):

  1. Many people (Richard Dawkins, for one) like to point to “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland and observe sagely, 'Catholics and Protestants have been killing each other there for centuries."

Uh, well, no. In fact, hell no.

First, remember that England conquered the Irish when BOTH nations were still Catholic, and Catholic Irishmen didn’t love the Catholic English tyrants who ruled them any more than they loved subsequent Protestant tyrants.

Second, if “The Troubles” were truly religious in nature… why weren’t Catholics setting off bombs in Belfast in 1850, when religious fervor was much higher and the Irish were truly suffering under British rule? Why no Catholic terrorist bombing in 1920, or 1940, or 1960? Why did “The Troubles” begin in the 1970s, long after most of Ireland was free, and long after most Irish Catholics AND Protestants had ceased being particularly religious?

  1. Many people think that (Orthodox) Serbs, (Catholic) Croatians and Bosnian Muslims have been cutting each others’ throats since time immemorial.

Again, no. My old neighborhood in Queens was filled with Yugoslavian immigrants (enough to require our parish o offer a Croatian Mass each Sunday). When ethnic cleansing and ethnic warfare began in the Balkans, wanna know how my Croatian neighbors reacted? NOT, surprisingly, with anger, but with confusion! Most told me, “We all had Serbian and Muslim friends and neighbors. Sure, there were religious differences, but we all hung out together, drank together, went to each others’ houses and churches, married each other… I don’t understand what the hell happened over there?”

I’m no expert on the Balkans, but history shows that Serbs, Croatians and Muslims generally got along pretty well until the 1990s, by which point all three groups were pretty secular (PJ O’Rourke used to joke that if you wanted to tell the warring sides in the Balkans apart, here’s the secret: The Croatians are the ones who never go to Mass, the Srbs are the ones who never go to Orthodox services, and the Muslims are the ones who, five times a day, DON’T face Mecca and pray).

  1. TODAY, a huge and disproportionate amount of world terrorism is being committed by Muslims. I myself have been arguing here that it’s foolish and destructive to deny this or to downplay the Islamic nature of much terrorism.

But… anyone who’s tempted to say, “Muslims are animals, they hold all outsiders in contempt, and they’ve always slaughtered non-Muslims, and they’ll never be happy in any society they don’t control” is way off the mark. There are many nations in which Muslims have lived peacefully with non-Muslim neighbors for centuries. TODAY, anti-semitism runs rampant in many Islamic nations, but there have been many periods in history when Jews being oppressed by Christians found safety and acceptance in Islamic nations. TODAY, Muslims commit a huge percentage of the world’s terrorism, but as recently as my childhood in the Sixties, nobody outside Israel worried about Muslim terrorism. Heck, a thousand years ago, did fervently Muslim Arabs stab Jewish passersby on the street for no reason! Of COURSE not!
So, we KNOW that many “religious” conflicts are not ancient but quite recent. We also know that many “religious” conflicts are waged by people who are not particularly observant.

So, despite my many arguments against political correctness, against fudging the truth to spare the feelings of innocent people, against downplaying the role Islam plays in terrorism, I have no trouble seeing and saying that…

There’s nothing organic about Islam that requires violence or terrorism.

Muslims not only CAN get along with infidels, they HAVE and the DO, in most times and places. I’ve worked and socialized with with loads of them, and none has ever tried to convert me, let alone kill me.

The most dangerous Muslims AREN’T necessarily the most religious. They aren’t necessarily religious at all (it’s hilarious how often friends and neighbors will say of a dead Muslim terrorist, “Abdul? But… he wasn’t religious. He NEVER went to the mosque? He was a loser who spent most of his time smoking weed and looking at porn!”). In the same way, many “Catholic” IRA bomb makers haven’t darkened the doorway of a church since they were little kids, and couldn’t remember the words to the Hail Mary if their lives depended on it.

All this is worth remembering when we’re judging any seemingly religious conflict or religious crime from the outside.

There’s an old quote, I forget who said it, that “The Spaniard cannot enjoy Heaven unless he knows his neighbor is going to Hell.” I wouldn’t restrict that to Spaniards, or even Christians. Every religion has ambitious clerics who need to be seen as the Most Pious of Them All.

Well, in 1920 they mostly were using guns rather than bombs, but I think it absurd to not classify multiple planned simultaneous assassinations as terrorism simply because of which tools were used to kill. The word terrorism gets pretty mangled these days but if it’s going to be anything other than a dog whistle for ‘the people the speaker wants you to hate’ some semblance of a definition is needed.

It would be a mistake to classify this conflict as only being about religion, but it would be at least as absurd to ignore the fact that the principal difference between the populace in the counties that voted to secede and those who voted to stay in the union was religious.

It’s a debate, that’s for sure…

Just as there are people who try to say that the American Civil War wasn’t about slavery, but about the share of power states would have under the federal system, so there are those who say that religious wars aren’t really about religion, but about underlying economic issues.

There is currently a reform/revision movement trying to say that the Thirty Years’ War was not really about religion (after all, Catholic France sided against the Catholic Hapsburgs.)

I think there is justification for the weak version of this idea: the ostensible matter of a war is not always the single most important root cause. It’s as if we were to say that WWII was a war against “Nazism.” No, not exactly. Nazism was a big ugly deal, but it wasn’t the “real enemy.”

If you insist, the ACW could be said to have been about the economics of slavery – but it was, still, about slavery. And religion was a really big and important part of the 30YW.

I’d think there’s a lot more Muslim fundamentalists in the modern era due to the spread of Wahhabism, the decline of Arab nationalism, the Iranian Revolution, and the fall of communism in Afghanistan.

Some percent of the population can become much more fundamentalist even while the whole society trends secular. For example, the American conservative religious revival of the 70s.

Indeed. Their have been a variety of “fundamentalist” revivals that have swept the Islamic world at various times. The Almoravids ( and Almohades after them ) that erupted from North Africa and entered Islamic Spain are one notable exampe - desert puritans disgusted by the “decadent” and “tolerant” Islam practiced by the taifa states in Spain.

The modern eruption dates to the 18th century for the most part in a period of de-centralization and decline in the Islamic world. It was among other things yet another puritannical backlash to modernism and perceived decadent corruption ( in Arabia reacting directly to the then increasingly moribund Ottoman state, in India to British rule ).

But most of the terrorist organizations active today only emerged in the 1980’s. Iran was an inspiration to a few, but more importantly the dominant Islamic world ideologies in of the 1950’s-1970’s like Marxism, socialist nationalism and secular Pan-Arabism were perceived to have largely failed. The Islamic conservatives were mostly a ground-level up group, unlike say the intellectuals that created the Pan-Arab movement. More importantly they concerned themselves with issues like social justice, public works and anti-corruption that resonated with both the larger class of mostly oppressed and ill-educated working poor, but also the educated but also largely politically disenfranchised middle-class professionals who didn’t have the right connections.

It has blown up into a huge issue, but I suspect it wasn’t inevitable. Anymore than the historic success of Islam itself was inevitable.

Bloody Sunday started as a political act of war, not terrorism, with the IRA targeting only “soldiers” of their political opposition. But here we bump against “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” and need to take emotion out of it. First, did the counties that seceded do so because they were Catholic, or was it because of social and economic reasons not tied to religion? If they voted because they were treated shabbily by the English was it because they were Catholic, or because they were Irish and, consciously or subconsciously, not considered entirely human, like the Scots and Welsh? I don’t know enough about the Irish Civil War, its background and its history, and I am interested in learning more, so maybe you can help me. Anyway, it’s late and I’m becoming even less coherent than usual.

Human beings is a highly adaptive and highly proliferating species. One key to its success is the capacity of human beings to form coherent groups that will progressively and aggressively encroach territories and/or resources controlled by other species or human communities. This human tribalism is the result of our evolutionary psychology where competitive males organize themselves in groups on the grounds of a common creed and struggle to maintain or expand their dominance at the expense of what they ideologically identify as the enemies, whose physical eliminations is preceded or accompanied by their dehumanization and demonization, which can be easily achieved by means of religion.

For the most part I think religion is used more as an excuse for a war where the true roots lie elsewhere.

Now in the case of Islam, Iran and Iraq go to war. Both sides will claim religion as a cause yet in reality the cause is political.

Now in the case of say an Islamic state like Isis wanting to take down a secular state, then yes I see Islam is being a stronger motivation because many Muslims would welcome an Islamic state and Sharia law (although maybe not one as intolerant as Isis). Look how in the UK Muslims have embraced Sharia courts even if they go beyond English law.

this is only to show you dob’t have any real understanding of the Iraq or what the “secular state” is there or any of the history behind the secular state as it was experienced in Iraq (as a socialist dictatorship).

(or of course what simple religious law family arbitration courts are, unless of course the preference of the orthodox jews for the same thing is showing some great lesson about Jews…)

but it is a good illustration of the problem of weak understanding and superficalialism the OP decries.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: True religious conflicts are vanishingly rare. Most of the time, there is much more basic problem, with the religious angle being draped over top to provide a more morally-defensible (in some minds) reason for aggression. In the case of The Troubles, it’s really a very typical ethnic conflict. The “Catholic” side are native Irish, and the “Protestant” side are the descendants of English/Scottish invaders, who the native Irish consider to be usurpers. The Catholic/Protestant thing just makes for a convenient identifier.

As for the Sunni/Shia strife, it’s probably worth noting that Iranians (the main Shiite power) are NOT Arabic, nor do they speak Arabic, while Sunnis by & large are & do. Also, both sides also hate the Kurds, who are mostly Sunni, so it’s worth asking why the Sunnis never ally with their Kurdish “brothers.” Because religion is really only a secondary issue to the underlying ethnic tensions.

These are reasonable observations and correct in the broad way, however they are stated in a way implying universal or permanence. They are perhaps approximations of true now since the “european” (in origin) ideas of the language = the ethnicity = the nation = the state penetrated the region since the late 19th century. But in centuries past the kurdish were the pillars of the islamic state (Salah eddine al Ayyoubi, a kurd in modern sense).

It is agreed that the supposed eternal and essential differences are usually just recent rationalisations over competition over resources or over dominance (in a region of increased resource stress [the soil salinasatoin, the extension of drought, the reduction of rains seasons, etc.] and vastly increased population is it surprising there are tensions?].

With more competition for decreased resources, it is not surprising there is an evolution of new ways to slice and to dice…

Even the creation of the Shia state in the modern Iran is easily traced back to the very practical objectives of a certain dynasty and their seeking a power base… so converting the Persians to a certain form of the Shia belief on which they based their power.

Or the Wahhabi Saudi, for all the Ibn Saud show not very much signs of themselves being very deeply ideological and never have the Wahhabite belief was a good way to eject the Sharifs from the city of Mecca and so confirm the Ibn Saud as kings. A monster of detestable innovation they helped create and now have to ride, they can not get off…