Given what we have said about “God and Political Science” and “God and Democratic Diplomacy,” we should note the downsides to global religion. Religion is a great source of war and violence in the world. Indeed, both religious terrorism and religious civil war have increased markedly during the same forty-year period in which religious democratizers expanded. Here, too, the religious were empowered by globalization, technology, and, in general, modernity. This may seem to be a concession to the secularization thesis. After all, the folks known as the “neo-atheists,” Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, claim that where religion persists, it is violent and irrational. But things are more complex than that.
Part of the great surprise of religion’s resurgence is that it also has been a forceful instrument of tearing down dictatorships, promoting democracy, mediating peace, and healing the wounds of war and dictatorship—quite the opposite of violence. And where religion is the source of violence, it results from the same factors that explain peace and democracy—degree of independence from the state and political theology. In the case of violence, though, these variables take on readings that are the opposite of those that lead to the more peaceful outcomes.
First, religious actors are likely to become the source of civil war and terrorism when they inhabit states with a close integration of state and religion, particularly ones where the state is cozy with a dominant religious group and then marginalizes a dissenting or minority religious group. This pattern has been quite common in the Arab world since World War II, as in the case of Egypt, from Nasser’s officer coup in 1952 up until the recent overthrow of Mubarak. A government that is secular in spirit typically allies closely with a dominant faction of Islam, usually a moderate one, and then marginalizes more traditional groups.
Second, religious actors carry political theologies that lead to violence. On the basis of their understanding of their very doctrines, they advocate a state where they will enjoy a close integration with the ruling regime, and thereby threaten other religious groups. This marginalization leads to a backlash of violence. Or, quite simply, they hold doctrines that sanction violence for their cause.
About a third of all civil wars since 1940 (42 of 133 civil wars) have had a religious basis. Their proportion has been increasing over time, beginning in the 1970s, and religious civil wars now make up about half of all ongoing civil wars. In many, religion is peripheral, meaning that it is the source of identities, but that the religious laws and policies of the nation are not a direct object of dispute. An example of this is Northern Ireland. In others, it is central, meaning that the religious character of the state is at issue, as in Sudan. This surge in civil wars based in religion is concerning. Religious civil wars last longer than non-religious civil wars (2 years more, on average) and are less amenable to negotiated settlement. They are also more likely to recur and are more deadly to noncombatants.
Religious civil wars occur disproportionately in Islam. In upwards of 80 percent of civil wars, Islamic groups have been one or both of the combatants. In 58 percent of these wars, the states involved have Islam as a dominant religion. This occurs in two patterns:
The first is found in secular integralist states built on nationalism and modernization, as in the Arab world since World War II. Again, the pattern is that the government allies with moderate Islam and marginalizes conservative Islam. A paradigmatic example is the Algerian civil war that broke out in the early 1990s and brought about the deaths of some 200,000 people. True to the argument, the post-colonial government in Algeria was a socialist dictatorship, dedicated to building an Algeria based on equality, loyalty to the nation, and secularism, which it promoted by making official a moderate version of Islam while suppressing more traditional forms, which it expected to fade away. But they did not. In the 1970s, they resurged among the population. By the 1980s, amidst an economic crisis that accentuated the corruption and poor economic performance of the socialist regime, the Islamists threatened an electoral victory. When they won the first round of national elections in 1991, the regime’s army stepped in and canceled the second round, touching off a decade of massive bloodshed.
The second factor is the growth of radical Islamic revivalism and its capture of some regimes. The belief that Islam has gone into decline and a radical revival is needed has resulted in calls for a strong form of Sharia law that sometimes threatens minorities, as in the case of the civil war in Sudan from 1982 to 2005. This same pattern can be found in other religions, as well, as in Sri Lanka, where the Buddhist Sangha's exclusion of Tamils resulted in civil war.
Religiously-inspired terrorism has also been on the rise. Prior to the 1980s, religious terrorist actions or activities were practically non-existent. However, after the 1980s, the numbers increased, and increased proportionally from the 1980s, 1990s, and into this century. In 1980, 4 percent of known international terrorist organizations had a religious basis, compared with 33 percent in 1994, and 46 percent in 1995 and 2004.
Religiously-inspired terrorism is also more deadly than secular terrorism. While the attacks of secular groups tend to kill, on average, 3-4 people and wound another 8-16, religious terrorists tend to kill 17 people per attack and wound another 39. Since 2001, Salafi jihadist groups have been responsible for the largest number of terrorist missions and proportion of deaths. Not only do such groups support the spread of Islam through violence (jihad), but they give a violent interpretation of jihad an elevated status as a permanent individual obligation. Additionally, the excommunication (takfir) of other Muslims is practiced strongly, while suicide attacks and the targeting of civilians is justified.
As transnational actors, these jihadis have managed to escape the confines of state boundaries. Historically, they tended to be local actors fighting local battles, but by the 1980s, especially after the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, religious terrorism became a global phenomenon, or more precisely, a “glocal” one, in which local issues became linked to global ones. This can be seen in the case of foreign fighters who, often uninvited, spontaneously joined fights to defend fellow Muslims (e.g., Bosnia, Afghanistan, Chechnya). The reorientation of U.S. foreign policy in the last two decades to Afghanistan and fighting al Qaeda is the result of religiously-inspired violence that continues today. Again, the explanation is similar: such violence occurs due to Islamist revivalism and the marginalizing of Islamists by a highly secularized regime.
But religion is not just about violence; it also promotes peace and reconciliation. Every religion has a peace tradition; in every religion, inspiring activists can be found who work hard for peace. For comparison’s sake, let us focus on religion’s peace-building work in two contexts. The first is mediation. During the past half-century, the preponderance of violence in the world has taken place in civil wars, not international wars. As Monica Duffy Toft has shown in her separate work, the period since the end of the Cold War has seen a historically high concentration of civil wars ending through negotiation. In God’s Century, we survey 26 cases of peace negotiations since the end of the Cold War and find that, in 11 of these cases, religious actors played a strong mediating role; in 11 of these cases, they played a weak mediating role; and in only four of these cases, they played no significant role at all.
What characterized the effective mediators? Independence mattered a great deal, though here it was with respect to both the state and to armed opponents. A political theology that placed a special stress on peace was essential, as well. Perhaps the quintessential religious negotiator has been the Community of Sant’Egidio, a lay community of the Catholic Church. Through befriending parties on all sides of the civil war in Mozambique over 16 years—yet affiliating with none—and through the community’s political theology of peace and reconciliation, the Community was able to bring all sides to the negotiating table and secure peace in 1992. It has since served as a key negotiator in Algeria, Guatemala, Liberia, Burundi, and elsewhere.
We also surveyed 19 cases of transitional justice—that is, countries’ choices about how to deal with past crimes after a transition to peace or democracy. Common approaches include punitive justice, epitomized by the ICC, and truth recovery, the most famous of which remains South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We found that, in eight of these cases, religious actors were importantly influential. In all of these cases, they favored truth recovery, though in a few cases, they also favored trials. The influential ones carried a political theology of reconciliation and, once again, independence from the state. The signature actor here is Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who had been both a leader in the anti-apartheid movement and a pioneering theologian of reconciliation. Following South Africa’s transition to democracy in 1994, he rose to lead the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
To summarize, religion has made a political comeback, abetted by globalization, democratization, and technological development. Those religious actors who are most closely integrated with state authority and who hold a political theology that calls for state sponsorship, the subordination of minorities, and the use of violence are most likely to be violent. Those who have remained independent of state authority and carry a political theology that prescribes democracy, peace, and reconciliation are most likely to be peaceful and democratic.
This argument has important implications for U.S. foreign policy. First, quite simply, it is essential that foreign policymakers come to understand better that religion is not going away—the 21st century is God’s century. Whether or not one likes religious actors, they are here to stay. The issue is not whether but when and how religious actors will enter public life and shape political outcomes. Second, better understanding the forces that shape the politics of the religious can help the U.S. pursue its goals of democratization, stability, and fighting terrorism more effectively. The U.S. would know better which religious actors are likely to support these goals, which are likely to be its allies, and which are likely to stand in the way. No better illustration for this claim can be found than in the current Arab Spring, as we struggle to answer certain key questions: What is the political role of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood likely to be? What about the Shi’ite crowds in Bahrain? What sort of regime do they have in mind? And what about those Libyan rebels, whose identity we are only beginning to learn? In what way are they religious? And how does this religion translate into politics?
Some unabashedly universalistic claims can be derived from this argument, as well. Namely, where government and religion lack institutional independence, the result is likely to be conflict, whereas independence is a precondition for democracy and a mediating influence. Thus it seems that a healthy institutional independence between religion and state is good for everyone, everywhere. This carries with it an important lesson for policy. While it does not mean that the U.S. ought to replicate exactly the first amendment of the Constitution, it does mean that a healthy secularism of separation is better for democracy, human rights, and peace, on one hand, and for the flourishing of religion, on the other. The U.S., therefore, should be highly reluctant to support authoritarian secular regimes on the argument that they are needed to marginalize religious actors—as the U.S. did for so many years in the Arab world.
Religious actors cannot be confined to a private sphere and we should not try to keep them there. Today, one of the biggest questions in Egyptian politics is the place of the Muslim Brotherhood. Will it be a democratic player or is it an aspiring oppressor? In fact, the Brotherhood is a complex organization with many factions, and its future is not without risks. But it is far more likely to be peaceful and democratic precisely if it is brought into the fold of Egyptian democracy rather than being marginalized.
To conclude, religion is far from being the only or even the most decisive factor in global politics. But it has played—and will continue to play—a key role. The 21st century has brought us a world radically different from the one that secularization theory promised. We have no choice but to build new theories and devise fresh policy strategies for the religious age we live in, not for the secular age that never came.
Timothy Shah is Assistant Professor in the Department of Government, Georgetown University. Daniel Philpott is Associate Professor of Political Science and Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame. Monica Toft is an Associate Professor of Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. They are the authors of the recently published God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics and continue to collaborate closely as associate scholars of the new Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, Georgetown University.