Academic journal article Harvard International Review

Revisiting the Link: Politicizing Religion in Democratizing Countries

Academic journal article Harvard International Review

Revisiting the Link: Politicizing Religion in Democratizing Countries

Article excerpt

Conflict about the role of religion in state affairs is acute in the Middle East, Europe, and Africa. Are religious cleavages more prone to violent conflict than other cleavages? What is the relationship between religion and political violence? These are important questions in the study of politics but, more importantly, the answers we give have important implications for policy.


Before we continue with this discussion, it is important to clarify certain concepts and set straight some common misconceptions. Anyone who is studying the relationship between "religion" and "political violence" has to confront the conceptual ambiguity that arises from the common usage of these terms. For example, different religious doctrines and faiths have a wide range of dispositions toward the political sphere. Moreover, there is wide variation in organizational structures (e.g., more or less hierarchical, transnational, or state specific), practices (e.g., proselytizing or not), and goals (e.g., establishing a theocracy or not). Using "religion" as an unproblematic category of analysis is tricky.

Furthermore, we should distinguish between conflicts where the "religious cleavage" is salient but not the primary motivation, and conflicts that are fought with religious goals in mind. For instance, while the Chechens are predominately Muslim and thus have a different religion from the Christian Orthodox Russians, this religious difference has not been the main reason for the conflicts in Chechnya. In contrast, the Taliban in Afghanistan can be seen as primarily motivated by religious goals. Relatedly, the public perception of religious political violence may be inflated. Several high profile conflicts, such as in Northern Ireland, Israel/Palestine, and Cyprus have been portrayed as merely religious in nature, when in fact issues of national self-determination and political power definitely motivate these conflicts, rather than mere differences in religious doctrine.

Turning to the term "political violence," we face similar challenges. The meaning of "political violence" is not always unambiguous. We are all confronted in our own personal experiences and traditions with violent incidents that we consider necessary or even acceptable. The American War of Independence is one such instance. Violence is a tool that can serve very different goals. It is not clear that we want to oppose the use of violence under all circumstances. The difficulty lies in identifying the conditions under which political violence is justified with most cynics suggesting that violence is good if it serves your interests.

This article, after presenting the primary findings by existing research, proposes a set of recommended policies. These policies come in the form of modifications in political representation and nation-building, which can aid in the establishment of "cross-cutting cleavages"--a social reality in which people of the same religious beliefs may identify with different ethnicities, regions, or even personal preferences and ideologies. Creating connections across the divide of one significant rift, in this case religious difference, can serve to dampen the effect of that rift entirely.

Religious Cleavages Prone to Violent Conflict?

The type of state that religious groups inhabit, as well as the content of the group's religious doctrine, significantly impacts the relationship between religion and political violence. In this connection, Daniel Philpott's distinction between "integrationist" and "differentiated" states appears potentially useful. In his 2007 article in American Political Science Review, Philpott terms countries where separation of church and state has not taken place as "integrationist," and countries in which it has as "differentiated". Relatedly, he argues that the political theology of a society's dominant religious doctrine is crucial. For instance, when the dominant religion is driven by a doctrine that favors an integrationist state--one that suppresses other faiths and officially promotes a specific one--then political violence becomes much more likely. …

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