Religion in the Thirty Years' War and Peace of Westphalia: Relevant to Pakistan Today?

By Devine, Michael E. | Joint Force Quarterly, April 2012 | Go to article overview

Religion in the Thirty Years' War and Peace of Westphalia: Relevant to Pakistan Today?


Devine, Michael E., Joint Force Quarterly


In a world shaped by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Thirty Years' War seems far from the public consciousness. Nevertheless, this war, which is difficult to understand, in fact offers a useful analogy to the politics of religion in the current international security environment. This article first addresses the consequences of the Thirty Years' War on religion in the context of the international order emerging from the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. It then explores how these aspects of religion and the politics of the Westphalian system of states are both relevant to Pakistan and a source of instability in the region.

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Today in the Western world, sovereignty is accepted as a dominant principle regulating relations between states. It was not always so. The Peace of Westphalia established the conditions for an inverse relationship between sovereignty and religion: as the sovereignty of states became dominant, religion receded in importance in international politics. Consequently, the international environment was no longer subject to the passions that religious militancy had inspired. For the 364 years since the Peace of Westphalia, the primacy of state sovereignty has been a stabilizing influence in international order in the West. Among states in the Islamic world that gained independence in the 20th century, however, the idea of religion as an instrument of international politics is reminiscent of pre-Westphalian Europe. Pakistan best illustrates how a state that has attempted to construct a direct rather than inverse relationship between sovereignty and religion has created conditions that have destabilized the region, inviting comparisons to Europe in the early 17th century.

Two aspects of the Thirty Years' War concerning religion are especially noteworthy. First, state sovereignty emerged as a dominant feature of international politics in the years after the Peace of Westphalia. The national interest of the state consequently developed as a concept that for the first time separated a state's interests from the religion of the prince and his people. Second, religious moderates, who "rejected providentialist theology," (1) contributed to the development of the Westphalian system of states by prevailing over religious militants and their belief in the primacy of universal moral values. These aspects have contributed to the development of a system that is inherently more stable than the one that preceded it. In addition, they have an important relation to the evolution of Pakistan since its independence. On one hand, Pakistan, an insecure state highly sensitive to its sovereignty, is closely wedded to the post-Westphalian order. On the other hand, the growing influence of Islamists there, whose religious worldview is not unlike the militants' view during the Thirty Years' War, suggests that Pakistan continues to evolve toward a pre-Westphalian society where religion has primacy over the state. (2) This dilemma has created an inherently unstable dynamic similar to the religious tension that sparked the Thirty Years' War. The expanding role of Islam in Pakistani society, while originally intended to buttress the state's legitimacy, now poses a threat to the security not only of neighboring India and Afghanistan, but also to U.S. interests in the region and, ironically, to Pakistan itself.

The Thirty Years' War

While the Thirty Years' War was far more complex than simply a conflict over religion, Europeans in the 17th century believed religion played a significant role in initiating the conflict. (3) In addition, the Peace of Westphalia that ended the war signaled major changes for the relationship between religious and temporal authority. The significance of religion in the Thirty Years' War was not about differences of doctrine or faith: the alliance of Catholic Bourbon France with Lutheran Sweden and Calvinist princes against the alliance of Catholic Habsburgs and their Lutheran allies indicates as much. …

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