Correlated Conflicts: The Independent Nature of Ethnic Strife

By Fox, Jonathan | Harvard International Review, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview
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Correlated Conflicts: The Independent Nature of Ethnic Strife


Fox, Jonathan, Harvard International Review


There is little agreement on the role of religion in ethnic conflict, or, for that matter, its role in politics and society in general. While some argue that it is a central factor, others claim that religion has little or no influence. The belief that religion is not important dominated the social sciences for most of the 20th century. Schools of thought such as modernization theory in political science and secularization theory in sociology had their origins in the formation of the social sciences as a basis for providing a rational and scientific basis for society and politics. These theories were supposed to replace the previous "primordial" religious and ethnic bases for society and politics. Only in the past two decades have social scientists begun seriously to question the assumption that modernity was causing religion to become an epiphenomenon.

Among those arguments that claim that religion is central, Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" theory is perhaps the most widely known. Huntington posits that the majority of conflicts in the post-Cold War era, including ethnic conflict, will be between several civilizations with differing religions. While Huntington's specific theory is controversial, there are many other less disputed formulations that religion is important. This brief description does not nearly do justice to an extensive and varied literature, but it is sufficient to show that contradicting conceptions of the role of religion exist in the modern era.

One way to sort truth from misconception is to identify religion's impact on a more narrowly defined aspect of modern politics and society: ethnic conflict. Too often are religion and ethnicity grouped together; to evaluate the importance of religion, each factor must be considered independently. Instead of using anecdotes, a systematic analysis of ethnic conflicts provides a better basis for analysis. This is done through a review of the general trends found in an extensive analysis of a data set gathered by Minorities at Risk (MAR), which contains information on 337 ethnic minorities which were politically active at some point in time between 1945 and 2000. While there are clearly more ethnic minorities in the world than this--some estimates run as high as 20,000--these 337 minorities represent all of those that have been politically active on a mass level and, therefore, all of those who have been involved in serious ethnic conflict. Unless otherwise noted, the analyses discussed here focus on the 1990 to 2000 portion of the data. It is important to note that the analysis presented here is a summary of a considerably more extensive, in-depth analysis of the MAR data than can be presented in this context.

Religion's influence on conflict can take one of four forms. First, conflicts can involve identity issues which, in turn, can be based in part on religion. Second, conflicts can involve religious issues like religious discrimination, complaints over that discrimination, or the demand by a minority for more religious rights. Third, religious institutions can involve themselves in a conflict directly. Fourth, religion is often used by either or both sides of the conflict to legitimize their actions.

It is important to clarify some terms that frequently arise in such discussions. The term ethno-religious refers to those ethnic minorities that belong to different religions or denominations than the majority group in their state. Religious discrimination refers to restrictions on religious practices, not political or economic discrimination against religious minorities. Religious grievances are complaints about religious discrimination. Demands for more religions rights refer to demands that are not related to religious discrimination, such as demands for privileges not given to other religions.

The basic argument presented here is that while religion influences ethnic conflict in a number of ways, it is not the primary driving factor behind ethnic conflict.

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