Political Theory

Framing Religious Conflict and Violence – Insights from Historical Institutionalism, Part 1 (Vivek Swaroop Sharma)

The following is the first installment of a two-part series.

Killing hundreds of people in the name of “cow protection” would, at first glance, appear to be a headline drawn from a Monty Python skit.  Instead, it is a political problem of the first order in India.  Since the 2014 election of Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hardly a week goes by without some incident or the other involving emboldened cow protection vigilantes.  All of this is despite the rather astonishing fact that rarely gets commented upon in the bewildered international coverage of cow protection vigilantes, that India is consistently one of the top exporters of beef in the world with a nearly 20% share of the world market in 2016 (just behind Brazil)!

How can it be that one of the two major exporters of beef in the world is also a country where people are being subjected to organized violence supported by a major political party and civil society organizations (the Sangh Parivar) in the name of cow protection?  What could explain this seemingly bizarre situation in the world’s largest democracy?

What tools do the social sciences and public policy analysis provide us with which to make sense of what, at first glance, appears patently nonsensical?  Is this really religious violence at all?  And if so, in what sense is it “religious”?

The purpose of this essay is to use the puzzle of cow protection vigilantism as means to provide a new general framing of the problem of “religious violence” that differs from standard academic approaches to the problem as well as those that are in the public domain (especially with regards to religiously motivated terrorism).  In doing so, I seek to ask a series of first order questions of general relevance to some of the major substantive global problems in the contemporary world: 1) What is religious violence?; 2) how does religious violence relate to theology and/or beliefs?; and, 3) how does religious violence relate to a general understanding of political conflict writ large?

The answers that I provide to these questions allow for a new framing of the problem and, in doing so, I generate a new set of questions that have not been directly confronted either in scholarly circles or in the public domain.  Most of these approaches fall into one of two broad categories: 1) in academic circles, “liberal” approaches predominate in which the emphasis is on the “political” nature of “religious” conflict and violence;[1] and 2) in the public domain the “theological” and “micro-individual level” approach is predominant in which the emphasis is on explicating possible causality between theology and individual motivations to engage in “religious” violence.

In part, these two distinct approaches to the problem of religious conflict and violence are the product of different sets of questions.  In the liberal academic approach, the focus tends be on political agents exploiting “religion” for otherwise narrow and selfish “political” reasons. This approach downplays the innate significance of religious differences or cleavages by pointing to the undeniable and empirical reality that difference, religious or otherwise, does not in and of itself cause conflict, let alone violence (much more is said about this important insight below).  Instead, the emphasis is on what social scientists term “agency” (i.e. the motivations and actions of individual political actors in generating, for their own selfish political purposes, conflict and violence along religious cleavages that otherwise and in the absence of the agent would be inert).

These scholars emphasize two main points: 1) “religious” violence is episodic and a deviation from the norm of communal co-existence; and, 2) that at the individual level, group level identities (in this case, religion) manifest themselves imperfectly and any analysis that seeks to explain individual level behavior based upon group identity fails because, on a daily basis, the individual lives of people living in pluralist environments is not obviously a reflection of that identity. [2]  This implies, therefore, that the mere existence of pluralism does not in and of itself predict individual behavior.

This approach denies the significance of religious cleavages as a cause of conflict and violence and instead focuses on agents who exploit these cleavages for their own selfish and individual purposes.  There is, therefore, no such thing as “religious” conflict and violence in this approach.

The liberal perspective on the “cow protection movement” discussed above is that individual agents (Hindu nationalists) are using the theological status of cows among Hindus to mobilize collective action for their own narrow self-interests (in India, this is above all about winning elections).  In this view, it is not the actual religious basis of the action (the sacredness of cows) that is germane, but the need for political actors in India to mobilize for elections.

The cow protection movement, in this view, is not “religious” at all but instead a “political” movement justifying its violence on the basis of religion.  The explanatory weight rests on “political” as opposed to “religious” variables.  We will return to these insights below.

In the public domain, a different approach predominates and tends to frame the phenomenon for the general public as well as policy makers.[3] This approach is focused on the question of what precisely, theologically speaking, motivates individuals to engage in acts of religiously inspired violence.  This approach takes for granted that there can indeed be a causal link between “religion” (implicitly defined in doctrinal terms) and conflict or violence and seeks to place the explanatory weight of the phenomenon on specific passages, strictures, and interpretations etc. of specifically religious sources.

In the case of the “cow protection movement” discussed above, the explanation is that Hindus hold cows to be sacred and it is this “religious” cause that is the source of violence by Hindus against perceived violators of their religious taboo.  This is the approach that has generated public debates about whether Islam is inherently violent or not.  It is also the approach that has produced public policy responses to Islamic violence that seek to persuade Muslims (and non-Muslims) that Islam and the Koran do not in fact endorse or prescribe particular categories of violence (suicide bombings being one the principal targets of these efforts).  It is assumptions drawn from this framing of the problem that generated the Bush administration’s attempts, in its public diplomacy in the Islamic world, to emphasize Sufi and other devotional strains of Islam over Salafist and Deobandi ones that are viewed as being the principal sources of Islamic violence.

The public discourse generated by this analytical framework is focused on countering the “religious” (in the sense of “beliefs” and theological strictures) sources of the phenomenon at an individual level.  This question is relevant for some purposes, most notably for law enforcement agencies that must be able to create tools to identify individuals who are potential threats to public safety.  But, I argue that the excessive emphasis on theology, which will be explored below, has shifted focus away from other framings of the phenomenon that generate insights of real importance and imply different categories of public responses to the problem of religious violence.

In what follows I seek to show why the existing approaches to religious violence are limited in their explanatory value.  In the first approach, there is a denial of the significance of religious cleavages writ large.  In the second approach, there is an excessive emphasis on theology and individual motivations.  Instead, in this article I offer an approach derived from historical institutionalism and argue that this approach generates a useful and different frame within which to understand the phenomenon of religious conflict and violence.

The approach offered here has its limitations; most notably, it cannot address the question of why individuals engage in religiously inspired violence (i.e. “terrorism” but also more generally the phenomenon of volunteerism that is so prevalent, and disturbing, in contemporary wars).  However, despite this limitation, the framework offered here is a useful way to explore a series of first order questions: namely what is religious about “religious violence?”  Why do “religious” conflicts tend to generate high levels of symbolic and physical violence?  And, how do “religious” conflicts compare to other categories of conflicts in general?

What is Religious” “Violence?

At the outset, it is critical to emphasize that the current debate about “religious violence” is not, properly speaking, correctly phrased.  “Religious” “violence,” sociologically speaking, refers to a phenomenon much broader, deeper and ancient than is implied by current usages of the term.

“Religious violence” can and does also refer to ritual violence in the service of a relationship with some aspect of the supernatural.  In this sense, “religious violence” is entirely apolitical in that it serves what could be considered to be a narrow ritual purpose in the contractual sense of binding a supplicant to some form of divine force or being in the expectation that a satisfactory sacrificial offering of blood will induce the reciprocal granting of wishes requested by the supplicant.  This “contractual” religious function in which the offer of that which is most precious (blood) as sacrifice to a divine being in exchange for the patronage of that being is entirely normal anthropologically speaking and is, presumably, the most ancient and pervasive form of religious violence.

It is likely that in the very ancient past human sacrifice, as the bogs of Northern Europe keep revealing, was normal.  Indeed, echoes of this very ancient practice of human sacrifice remained a part of Roman religion well into the historical era (for example, gladiatorial combat began as funeral games in which the exercise of violence for a religious purpose was explicit aside from its evident entertainment value).

Other examples from the more recent historical past include the well-known practice of human sacrifice by the Aztecs who practiced this form of blood sacrifice on an industrial scale.  While human sacrifice generally went into abeyance in most societies within early historical times, the centrality and significance of blood sacrifice per se has not and is very much a part of the routine ritual lives of many, if not most, societies in the contemporary world including, Islam, Judaism and some Christian denominations.

The key point here is that most of the phenomenon properly termed “religious violence” is either entirely apolitical (about which more below) as in the case of animal sacrifice (albeit the ritual and communal consumption of the sacrificial victim does have a sociological function) or, in the case of human sacrifice, is at the very least not inherently political (for example, after the battle of Cannae in 216 BCE the Romans, in order to propitiate the gods, ritually buried alive two Gauls and two Greeks in the Forum Boarium in a stone chamber that had, evidently, been used previously for this purpose).

The exercise of ritual violence in service of a narrow religious goal is an entirely normal part of the religious history of human beings across time and space.  This type of religious violence is non-conflictual and is, for this reason (see below) by definition apolitical.  The question, therefore, in the contemporary political world is not about “religious violence” per se but is, instead about “religious conflict” that leads to violence.  Or put in slightly less unwieldy terms, it is about violence that occurs at the intersection of religion with politics.

War, Political Conflict and Violence Defined

This discussion leads directly to problem of what political violence (i.e. “war”) is in general.  Therefore, before exploring violence at the intersection of religion and politics in greater detail, it is first necessary to step back a bit and consider the problem of political violence on its own terms.  It also provide insights that help better frame the discussion in the third section of this essay.  The abstractions laid out in the next few paragraphs are given texture in the last third of the essay and are necessary for establishing a precise conceptual toolkit for this discussion.[4]

War, as Clausewitz correctly observed, is a political process.  It is the intensification of political violence undertaken to achieve some goal.  War, as a concept, captures a limited (but critical) subset of interactions that involve the addition of organized violence to the normal tools of political competition.  War can be defined, therefore, as a social relationship in which violence is a mechanism used to adjudicate outcomes.

But, the key point is that the concept of war captures an intensification of interactions but does not, in any way, constitute a negation of the social relationship in question.  An implication of this is that to understand war is, by definition, to understand the underlying social relationships that are being contested.

Violence is a language used as a part of a negotiation between groups to determine some aspect of the relationship between the groups; therefore, to understand violence requires understanding the relationships that provide and define its context, without which nothing else makes sense. 

War as Politics

Wars occur when one or more actors in a political relationship seek to change the status quo in some way.  The operative word here is change.  Wars occur when attempts to change the status quo meet resistance and one or more actors seek to deploy violence as an additional means in a political negotiation.  This raises the question of what precisely, in theoretical language, can be changed in a political relationship. My argument, fully developed in other publications, is that political conflicts can be either about the relative rank and status of the actors under stable institutional configurations (or what could be understood as the “balance of power hierarchy” of groups) or about the rules that govern the establishment and maintenance of rank and status (i.e. institutions or, in more vernacular terms, the structural conditions within which balance of power hierarchies operate).  

FConflicts over relative rank and status within an accepted hierarchical structure are a normal part of human history as balance of power theory has long recognized.  These are conflicts between like units about where each member of the group ranks in relationship to the other members.  The classic examples of these systems are ancient Greece, Europe between the religious wars and the French Revolution, and then Europe again in the long nineteenth century.  In a system of like units, conflict will be about the rankings of those units.  It is very rare in balance of power systems for units to disappear entirely.  For that to happen, some other logic of conflict has to be in operation.

So, in ancient Greece, for example, while Sparta and Athens fought the bitterly long Peloponnesian War, the conflict did not end with the disappearance of Athens: only a change in its internal governing institutions (i.e. oligarchy versus democracy) to make it less threatening to Sparta.  Similarly, during the classical period of balance of power from 1648-1789, the only polity to wholly disappear was the Kingdom of Poland and that too towards the end of the period when the French Revolution had unleashed a different logic of conflict (addressed below).

In both of these examples, (as well as the Long Nineteenth Century) conflicts could lead to changes in the boundaries of polities but almost never to their actual disappearance.  Indeed, it was the breakdown of this logic of political conflict after 1789 that made the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars so terribly violent and shocking to observers, such as Clausewitz, who experienced them.  Nothing like these conflicts had been experienced in Europe before (although outside of Europe these types of total wars between Europeans and non-Europeans were the norm and actors routinely experienced defeat as the disappearance of their polities and on occasion of their societies).

Social systems (including societies of states) that use violence as a mechanism to determine relative rank and status will generate violence that is frequent but limited in scale and scope.  Why this should be the case has to do with the nature of domination in balance of power systems.  Dominant entities want the maximum gains for the minimum of expenditure of precious resources.

It is also worth emphasizing that violence is an inherently risky undertaking.  If actors can achieve dominance and high status without the risks and expenditures associated with violence, then they will do so: violence only becomes a necessity if there is some dispute over the ranking system and thus, violence is accepted as a legitimate mechanism to resolve disputes of this nature.   The violence expended will be limited by the logic inherent in the ranking systems themselves: the point is to dominate the maximum number of individuals in a group for the minimal expenditure of scarce resources and so the violence in such competitions is highly ritualized and restrained by rules designed to contain the levels of violence and by implication its collateral impact on other members of the group.  The point of the exercise is to gain recognition of one’s status by both the individuals involved in the conflict as well as by the other members of the group.

The aim of the violence is to force an acceptance of an individual’s status (and therefore access to the actual benefits that flow to those with high status) under the existing rules of the society and once that goal has been achieved the continuation of violence becomes counter-productive.  Empirically, this type of violent competition has very wide resonance and can be viewed in a wide range of settings from primates to wolves to human societies and therefore constitutes the most ancient and ubiquitous form of political violence.

It is important to note that this kind of conflict requires, by definition, the basic acceptance of the rules of the game by the individuals engaged in the conflict.  Therefore, these kinds of conflicts can only occur between individuals (or groups) that are fundamentally equals.  This basic equality implies a level of trust that the players will accept the outcomes of violent competition as legitimate and will not seek to use non-legitimate forms of competition to advance their interests; to do so would make the benefits of victory and the consequences of defeat uncertain and insecure.

Put in slightly different language, this kind of conflict can only occur under stable institutional conditions where all concerned share limited goals and agree that a particular form of violence is a legitimate mechanism for conflict resolution.  The entire structure of international relations since 1945 has been geared towards limiting conflict to legitimate units (states recognized by other states) using specific forms of conflict resolution to establish their relative rank and status.  And, predictably, we have seen few, if any, legitimate polities disappear as a consequence of conquest. 

Institutions and Violence

 Institutions can be understood as legitimate power configurations in society: they incentivize human behavior by providing individuals within the system with templates of behavior to be followed and by constraining and channeling behavior through the existence of enforcement mechanisms.  The power of institutions lies in their ability to order individual behavior and the outcomes associated with that behavior.  Changing institutional configurations requires overcoming the resistance of those who have vested interests in particular configurations of institutional rules.

A conflict over some aspect of the rules of a society is more than a conflict involving the specific individuals within a ranking system: it is about the nature of the ranking system itself.  These conflicts are about some aspect relating to the very nature of social order and therefore can, in some sense, be understood as “constitutional” in nature.  This is precisely why the French Revolutionary Wars were so horribly violent.

The French Revolutionary State was demanding peace on the basis of the disappearance of the entire system of dynastic politics then prevalent in Europe.  There was, in effect, nothing to negotiate about.  The French Revolutionary state demanded a change in the nature of the units of European politics itself and not merely the nature of power relations between them, as had been the case throughout the period 1648-1789.

What was at stake in the French Revolution was the very basis of social and political organization (i.e. institutions). In attempting to change those institutions, the French Revolutionary State had to use forms of violence not seen in Europe since the end of the religious wars in the 17th century (a point that we will have cause to return to below).  Conflicts that involve some attempt to change some aspect of the institutional structure of society will generate greater levels of resistance for the simple fact that what is at stake in these conflicts involves more vested interests than is the case with conflicts that are merely about the internal ranking of individuals within a group.  Why this should be the case has, again, to do with the nature of institutions, aspects of which have already been discussed.

Institutions, as defined above, can be understood as legitimate configurations of power.  Furthermore, institutions do not exist in isolation from one another, but instead exist in an entangling web with other institutions in society. Changing or overthrowing particular power configurations can vary in magnitude and the degree of collateral impact on other nodal points of power and authority within a society.  When challenges to it are sufficiently threatening, the stakes are raised, as are the levels of mobilizations and its consequent expression in resistance and violence.  This implies that unlike limited conflict over rank and status, conflicts that involve some aspect of the institutional structure of society, by definition, involves actors who do not accept the fundamental equality of their opponents.

Conflicts over institutional arrangements can vary in intensity depending upon their capacity to mobilize resistance to

changes in these power configurations.  For this reason, unlike limited conflict over rank and status, these conflicts can be arranged on a continuum defined by how fundamental the challenge to the existing social order is.  Conflicts about religion tend to be at the more intense end of the continuum; those involving rulers and representative bodies more towards the middle; and those involving the precise configuration of property rights more towards the lower end.  What all the conflicts have in common is that they tended to be more difficult to resolve, result in greater degrees of mobilization and are characterized by greater levels of symbolic and physical violence.

As should be clear by now, the argument in this essay is that religious conflict is a form of conflict involving some aspect of the rules governing social order.  In this sense, the religious wars of the 16th and 17th century were not principally caused by prejudice, bigotry or intolerance per se: they were, instead, a consequence of differences over how the general nature of authority was to be constructed in Latin Christendom and with what consequence.

The Protestant Reformation was a revolutionary movement in the sense that it sought not just changes in the doctrines and rituals of the Catholic Church but also, and more importantly for our purposes, sought fundamental changes in the broader structure of power relations in the society as a whole.  Similarly, what makes ISIS a revolutionary movement is that it is seeking to reorder social institutions internally within the Sunni Arab world, and just as significantly, it is rejecting the basic frameworks of contemporary international relations.

In this sense, the source of the revolutionary impulse is less significant than its consequences for the current institutional status quo both internally within Sunni Arab society (i.e. tribes, states etc.) and the international system itself (the UN, the international monetary system etc.)  We have seen, in relatively recent history, revolutionary movements engaging in the precise analytical categories of behavior being discussed here: most significantly and ominously, the Bolsheviks and Fascist movements in the early to mid-twentieth centuries.

In both the case of ISIS and the case of the Bolsheviks, a set of first order principles (Salafist Islam and Marxist-Leninism) generated a political impulse to engage in a radical challenge to the existing “domestic” and “international” orders.  In both cases, there are no non-violent means to achieve these goals because the opponents of these systems (the upholders of the status quo) would, by definition, have to disappear in order for the revolutionary groups goals to be achieved.  There is no bargaining position short of total victory or total defeat.

The cause of the violence, in other words, is not the ideology per se, but instead the political agenda to change institutions (domestic and international) along lines that those with some interest in the status quo are bound to resist.  No compromise or agreement as in balance of power systems is possible because merely trading a bit of land here or there or by imposing an indemnity of this or that amount cannot constitute as basis for peace.  Indeed, it not even possible to conceive of a peace agreement of any kind with ISIS short of its voluntary disappearance.

In this sense, the question of whether the Koran (or any other religious text) sanctions violence is irrelevant, as are the specific motivations of the individuals within the movement.  What is consequential is that a political impulse to change institutions is generating conflict and not whether there is a theological basis for the means selected to bring about that change (i.e. terrorism, conventional warfare or some other form of irregular warfare).  In the final part of this essay these issues are brought into sharper relief.

Vivek Swaroop Sharma, visiting assistant professor of politics at Pomona College, has taught courses on political violence, state formation, South Asian politics and political development at Yale University; École des hautes études en sciences socials (Paris, France); University of Copenhagen, Denmark; and Pitzer College. 


[1] The classic iteration of this approach in an Indian context is Paul Brass, Theft of an Idol: Text and Context in the Representation of Collective Violence, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.  See also Steven Wilkinson, Votes and Violence: Electoral Competition and Ethnic Riots in India, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006 and Ashutosh Varshney, Ethnic Riots and Civic Life: Muslims and Hindus in India, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.  For a general theoretical framing of the focus of scholars on “agency” see Stathis Kalyvas, The Logic of Violence in Civil War, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

[2] See Tariq Thachil, Elite Parties, Poor Voters: How Social Services Win Votes in India, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

[3] Any Internet search using the term “religious violence” will produce hundreds of examples of work in these genera.  However, see for example: Ronald Lindsay, “Islamic Extremists don’t have to be Islamic Scholars” in the Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/islamic-extremists-dont-h_b_11649482.html; Gary Gutting, “How Religion Can Lead to Violence” in the New York Times, August 1, 2016; and, Julia Ioffe, “If Islam is a Religion of Violence, so is Christianity” in Foreign Policy, June 16, 2016.

[4] This discussion is a condensed version of arguments and work fully developed elsewhere.  See Vivek Swaroop Sharma, “A Social Theory of War: Clausewitz and War Reconsidered” in The Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 28(3): 1-21, October 2014 and ibid., “War, Conquest and the State” in Lars Bo Kaspersen and Jeppe Strandsbjerg (eds.) Does War Make States? Investigations of Charles Tilly’s Historical Sociology, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

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