Religion and Conflict

Eric Brahm

November 2005

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, a casual glance at world affairs would suggest that religion is at the core of much of the strife around the globe. Often, religion is a contentious issue. Where eternal salvation is at stake, compromise can be difficult at or even sinful. Religion is also important because, as a central part of many individuals' identity, any threat to one's beliefs is a threat to one's very being. This is a primary motivation for ethno-religious nationalists.

Additional insights into religion and conflict are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

However, the relationship between religion and conflict is, in fact, a complex one. Religiously-motivated peace builders have played important roles in addressing many conflicts around the world. This aspect of religion and conflict is discussed in the parallel essay on religion and peace. This essay considers some of the means through which religion can be a source of conflict.

Religion and Conflict

Although not necessarily so, there are some aspects of religion that make it susceptible to being a latent source of conflict. All religions have their accepted dogma, or articles of belief, that followers must accept without question. This can lead to inflexibility and intolerance in the face of other beliefs. After all, if it is the word of God, how can one compromise it? At the same time, scripture and dogma are often vague and open to interpretation. Therefore, conflict can arise over whose interpretation is the correct one, a conflict that ultimately cannot be solved because there is no arbiter. The winner generally is the interpretation that attracts the most followers. However, those followers must also be motivated to action. Although, almost invariably, the majority of any faith hold moderate views, they are often more complacent, whereas extremists are motivated to bring their interpretation of God's will to fruition.

Religious extremists can contribute to conflict escalation. They see radical measures as necessary to fulfilling God's wishes. Fundamentalists of any religion tend to take a Manichean view of the world. If the world is a struggle between good and evil, it is hard to justify compromising with the devil. Any sign of moderation can be decried as selling out, more importantly, of abandoning God's will.

Some groups, such as America's New Christian Right and Jama'at-i-Islami of Pakistan, have operated largely through constitutional means though still pursue intolerant ends. In circumstances where moderate ways are not perceived to have produced results, whether social, political, or economic, the populace may turn to extreme interpretations for solutions. Without legitimate mechanisms for religious groups to express their views, they may be more likely to resort to violence. Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine have engaged in violence, but they also gained supporters through social service work when the government is perceived as doing little for the population. Radical Jewish cells in Israel and Hindu nationalists and Sikh extremists in India are other examples of fundamentalist movements driven by perceived threat to the faith. Religious revivalism is powerful in that it can provide a sense of pride and purpose, but in places such as Sri Lanka and Sudan it has produced a strong form of illiberal nationalism that has periodically led to intolerance and discrimination.[1] Some religious groups, such as the Kach and Kahane Chai parties in Israel or Egypt's Islamic Jihad, consider violence to be a ‘duty'.[2] Those who call for violence see themselves as divinely directed and therefore obstacles must be eliminated.

Many religions also have significant strains of evangelism, which can be conflictual. Believers are called upon to spread the word of God and increase the numbers of the flock. For example, the effort to impose Christianity on subject peoples was an important part of the conflict surrounding European colonization. Similarly, a group may seek to deny other religions the opportunity to practice their faith. In part, this is out of a desire to minimize beliefs the dominant group feels to be inferior or dangerous. Suppression of Christianity in China and the Sudan are but two contemporary examples. In the case of China, it is not a conflict between religions, but rather the government views religion as a dangerous rival for citizens' loyalties. All of these instances derive from a lack of respect for other faiths.

Religious fundamentalists are primarily driven by displeasure with modernity.[3] Motivated by the marginalization of religion in modern society, they act to restore faith to a central place. There is a need for purification of the religion in the eyes of fundamentalists. Recently, cultural globalization has in part become shorthand for this trend. The spread of Western materialism is often blamed for increases in gambling, alcoholism, and loose morals in general. Al-Qaeda, for example, claims it is motivated by this neo-imperialism as well as the presence of foreign military forces in the Muslim holy lands. The liberal underpinning of Western culture is also threatening to tradition in prioritizing the individual over the group, and by questioning the appropriate role for women in society. Of course, the growth of the New Christian Right in the United States indicates that Westerners too feel that modern society is missing something. Conflict over abortion and the teaching of evolution in schools are but two examples of issues where some groups feel religious tradition has been abandoned.

Religious nationalists too can produce extremist sentiment. Religious nationalists tend to view their religious traditions as so closely tied to their nation or their land that any threat to one of these is a threat to one's existence. Therefore, religious nationalists respond to threats to the religion by seeking a political entity in which their faith is privileged at the expense of others. In these contexts, it is also likely that religious symbols will come to be used to forward ethnic or nationalist causes. This has been the case for Catholics in Northern Ireland, the Serbian Orthodox church in Milosevic's Yugoslavia, and Hindu nationalists in India.

Popular portrayals of religion often reinforce the view of religion being conflictual. The global media has paid significant attention to religion and conflict, but not the ways in which religion has played a powerful peacemaking role. This excessive emphasis on the negative side of religion and the actions of religious extremists generates interfaith fear and hostility. What is more, media portrayals of religious conflict have tended to do so in such a way so as to confuse rather than inform. It does so by misunderstanding goals and alliances between groups, thereby exacerbating polarization. The tendency to carelessly throw around the terms ‘fundamentalist' and ‘extremist' masks significant differences in beliefs, goals, and tactics.

Religion and Latent Conflict

In virtually every heterogeneous society, religious difference serves as a source of potential conflict. Because individuals are often ignorant of other faiths, there is some potential tension but it does not necessarily mean conflict will result. Religion is not necessarily conflictual but, as with ethnicity or race, religion serves, as a way to distinguish one's self and one's group from the other. Often, the group with less power, be it political or economic, is more aware of the tension than the privileged. When the privileged group is a minority, however, such as the Jews historically were in much of Europe, they are often well aware of the latent conflict. There are steps that can be taken at this stage to head off conflict. Interfaith dialogue, discussed further below, can increase understanding. Intermediaries may help facilitate this.

Religion and Conflict Escalation

With religion a latent source of conflict, a triggering event can cause the conflict to escalate. At this stage in a conflict, grievances, goals, and methods often change in such a way so as to make the conflict more difficult to resolve. The momentum of the conflict may give extremists the upper hand. In a crisis, group members may see extremists as those that can produce what appear to be gains, at least in the short-term. In such situations, group identities are even more firmly shaped in relation to the other group, thereby reinforcing the message of extremists that one's religion is threatened by another faith that is diametrically opposed. Often, historic grievances are recast as being the responsibility of the current enemy. Because at this stage tactics often come detached from goals, radical interpretations are increasingly favored. Once martyrs have been sacrificed, it becomes increasingly difficult to compromise because their lives will seem to have been lost in vain (see the essay on entrapment* for more on this problem).

What is to Be Done

In the eyes of many, religion is inherently conflictual, but this is not necessarily so. Therefore, in part, the solution is to promote a heightened awareness of the positive peace building and reconciliatory role religion has played in many conflict situations. More generally, fighting ignorance can go a long way. Interfaith dialogue would be beneficial at all levels of religious hierarchies and across all segments of religious communities. Where silence and misunderstanding are all too common, learning about other religions would be a powerful step forward. Being educated about other religions does not mean conversion but may facilitate understanding and respect for other faiths. Communicating in a spirit of humility and engaging in self-criticism would also be helpful.[4]


[1] David Little, "Belief, Ethnicity, and Nationalism"

[2] David Little, "Religious Militancy," in Managing Global Chaos, eds, Chester A. Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson, and Pamela Aall (Washington DC: USIP Press, 1996).

[3] R. Scott Appleby, "Religion, Conflict Transformation, and Peacebuilding," in Turbulent Peace: The Challenges of Managing International Conflict, eds, Chester A. Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson, and Pamela Aall (Washington DC: USIP Press, 2001).

[4] David Smock, Building Interreligious Trust in a Climate of Fear: An Abrahamic Trialogue,

Use the following to cite this article:
Brahm, Eric. "Religion and Conflict." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: November 2005 <>.

Additional Resources