Political Theory

Framing Religious Conflict and Violence – Insights from Historical Institutionalism, Part 2 (Vivek Swaroop Sharma)

The following is the second installment of a two-part series.  The first installment can be found here.

Religious Conflict and Violence Reframed

There are two important qualifications to the following discussion that are required.  First, this discussion is not about religious violence per se.  Religious violence, as we have seen above, can be a normal part of religious ritual and therefore not conflictual at all.  Animal sacrifice has been characteristic of a range of religious traditions and is undoubtedly violent; nonetheless it would not be classified as conflict (or at least not as political conflict). Second, conflict within, for example, religious orders, about which particular individual is to be the abbot, or the Pope, etc. is also not included in this discussion.  These kinds of conflicts are about rank and status and therefore a normal part of any dynamic within a social group.

What this discussion is concerned with is religion in the sense of rules as discussed above.  Doctrine in and of itself cannot lead to political or religious conflict.  Doctrine can only lead to religious or political conflict if and only if a group seeks to reorder authority and power in ways consistent with a particular doctrine.  By this definition, heresy is a form of religious conflict because it is about social order and not simply about doctrine.  But merely having theological differences within a religious community is not inherently heretical.

While it is possible to identify cases of religious conflict in which explicitly religious motivations are at the forefront (and where religious “difference” is a cause of conflict in its own right) more generally speaking this is relatively rare.  Instead, much more common are conflicts involving different religious communities in which religious authority is one of the nodal points of authority that is being contested but in which identifying and isolating specifically religious motivation is much more difficult.

Perhaps the most obvious example of the former type is the Crusades in the 11th and 12th centuries in which nothing else makes sense without the specifically religious dimension. [1]  A good example of the more typical pattern of “religious conflict” would be the Great Indian Mutiny which was characterized by disparate social groups responding to threats to their “way of life” which in turn was fundamentally about “religion” (or, at the very least, about issues like property and kinship and therefore connected to religion).  This later understanding of what constitutes a religious conflict would also hold for a very wide range of cases including the French Wars of Religion, the medieval expansion of Latin Christendom into neighboring communities that were organized along different lines and the early Islamic conquests of the Near East to name a few. [2]

The fundamental conceptual point here is that, in effect, the addition of religious motivation to a theoretical framework on religious conflict actually adds very little in the way explanatory power.  Even in the case of the Crusades what motivation explains is target selection (i.e. Jerusalem) but not what the Crusaders actually did there when they established conquest states in the Eastern Mediterranean.  These political entities were actually quite similar to the conquest states established by Latin Christians in Wales, Ireland, the Baltic and so on, all of which can also be understood in religious terms even though the motivations for their establishment were much more complex than in the case of the Levant. [3]

This line reasoning may lead the reader to question whether these conflicts can be usefully thought of as “religious” at all?  Indeed, in most of the conflicts mentioned above (i.e. the Great Indian Mutiny, the Religious Wars in Europe and so on) there are long traditions of denying the religious aspects of the conflict and focusing instead on socio-economic factors.  It may therefore be useful to use the example of the Great Indian Mutiny to illustrate just in what sense these conflicts can be understood as religious.[4]

The Great Indian Mutiny of 1857-58 was the largest anti-colonial revolt in history and as such forms a watershed moment in the development of colonial empires.  It is also a particularly good example of just how complicated “religious” conflicts can get when viewed from the prism of religious motivation. The basic facts can be briefly outlined.  There was a major shift in the nature of colonial rule in India that occurred as the British defeated the other contenders for power in post-Mughal India.  This shift is most pronounced in the period coinciding with the defeat of Maratha power during the first two decades of the nineteenth century and intensified in the 1830s and 1840s.

Colonial rule went from being respectful of established power structures and authority to outright assaults on them.  From the British perspective, they were simply engaged in rationalizing their rule by creating British-Indian Law and by regulating social relationships necessitated by their need to dispense justice and to establish their authority. However, in doing so, the British alienated and challenged disparate groups ranging from princely houses upset about the introduction of primogeniture to various groups of Hindus unhappy with the abolition of Sati (widow burning) to various Muslim groups deeply hostile to the inroads that Christian missionaries were beginning to make in their congregations.  Different groups, then, reacted to different challenges being mounted by the British to establish patterns of power and authority that ultimately led to “a chain of different uprisings and acts of resistance, whose form and fate were determined by local and regional situations passions and grievances.”[5]

What gave the Mutiny coherence was the general sense of the participants that the British were engaged in a systematic attempt to destroy the religions of India in the sense of particular ways of life.  Of course, while there were many Britons in the colonial administration who did indeed view Hinduism and Islam with contempt and did indeed seek the conversion of the people of India, the principal concerns of the colonial administration were with the establishment of firm and uncontested domination in South Asia at the minimum cost to themselves.  Their policies, however, had the cumulative effect of triggering a religious war; indeed, a very strange religious war in the sense that it brought together a tremendously diverse coalition of groups that included jihadis, sadhus (Hindu mendicants), princely lineages, elements of the British sepoy army and beyond.

This was not a conflict that was triggered by the fact of British/Christian rule in India; it was a conflict triggered by the policies of the British that threatened a range of social groups who responded by taking up arms.  That the British understood the religious dimensions of the conflict is best illustrated by how they responded after 1858 to the issue of religion.  After 1858, it became official British policy to defend orthodoxy, to prevent missionizing activity and to portray themselves as neutral arbiters in the sectarian relations of their Indian subjects.

The basic point is that beliefs, hatreds and other individual level motivations are not necessary in order to explain religious conflict.  While, on occasion, motivations do align with the observed patterns of religious conflict, often they do not.  What the above discussion implies is that the problem of what motivates an individual to engage in an act violence and the causes of group level conflict lie at different levels of analysis: the first is a micro-level concern (in the sense that it is a question about why an individual chooses one course of action over another) and the second is a macro-level one (in the sense that it is a question about the relationship between groups of individuals).

This implies that the approach taken in much of the public domain and public policy circles towards religious violence is problematic.  The primary question about religious violence is not why individuals engage in religious violence but instead under what circumstances do religious differences cause political conflict.  This is the question addressed in the next section of this essay.

Group Cleavages and Religious Conflict

 Communal pluralism, whether defined in ethnic, religious or linguistic terms, is historically very normal as it is, indeed, in our own era.  Under normal (stable) circumstances, as liberal scholars have long and consistently (and correctly) held, inter-communal relations are non-violent and individual level interactions follow the range of human possibilities across communal boundaries (love, hate, friendship and the like).

This norm of intercommunal peace has led scholars to a further conclusion: that because under normal circumstances intercommunal relations tend to be peaceful when that peace break downs it is because of the agency of political actors who have something to gain, personally, from the violence.[6] This implication drawn from the norm of intercommunal peace and the observed mechanisms of its break down is problematic for the reasons discussed below. It is critical to note that while pluralism is normal in human societies across time and space communal equality is most definitively not.  Indeed, both historically and in the contemporary world it is difficult to identify a single pluralistic society that also practices communal equality.

This means that while communal co-existence is normal, so is the reality that this co-existence, almost without exception, has also been structured hierarchically with a dominant group, establishing the framework within which other groups “co-exist” within a pluralistic society.  This pluralism cum hierarchy has been practiced, par excellence, by Islamic states, above all the Ottoman and Mughal Empires.[7]  In both of these cases, as in all other historical empires, co-existence between the dominant Sunni Islamic group and the multitude of minority religions was, on the whole, peaceful.  This peace was based, as the conceptual discussion above explicates, on a shared acceptance of certain institutional arrangements that formalized the dominance of Sunni Islam while providing other religious groups with a legitimate, if necessarily secondary, place within the political order.

As long as all of the groups accepted this arrangement peace and perhaps even intercommunal harmony prevailed.  Conflict, in these cases “religious” conflict, occurred when one or more groups sought to change the institutional arrangements (and by definition the power relations) between the communities. The later histories of both empires mentioned above—the Ottoman and Mughal—were wrought through with religious conflicts and violence as different religious communities sought to establish new patterns of intercommunal power relations.[8] The key issue is that the cause of these efforts to reconfigure the power relations between religious communities was inherently political because the institutions that managed communal relations were, by definition, political.  It is here that we find the intersection of religion, conflict and political violence.

In the contemporary world, religion is a driving force behind political conflict in the sense that religious communities are making formal and informal efforts to change political institutions to their liking and in pluralistic religious states like Syria, but also Pakistan, Nigeria, India and many, many others, these changes come at the expense of other religious communities and, in some cases, as a direct challenge to secular institutional configurations (as in Egypt).  In all of these cases, the important question from a public policy standpoint is not why individuals are drawn to religious politics but is, instead, how religious communities express their communalism politically.  When framed in this way, the central focus of liberal scholarship on political agency recedes and, instead, we are confronted with the reality that there is absolutely nothing abnormal about religious communities engaging in political, collective action to rearrange institutions to their liking and of these efforts causing conflicts with other religious groups (and secularists in our own age) who have some degree of stake in the preservation of the existing order.

In this sense, religious conflicts have a great deal in common with the “ideological” conflicts of the recent past (the French and Russian Revolutions being prime exhibits).  In both of these world historical processes, it was not the existence of liberals or Marxists per se that generated the terrible violence that their attempts at changing the existing social order generated.  Instead, it was the logic of having to overcome the tremendous resistance of those who had a stake in the status quo that led to the terrible violence.

Religion, while differing from liberalism and Marxism in its fundamental legitimizing principles, shares with these movements the basic commonality that these are systems of basic principles that are meant, by definition, to guide the construction of social and political institutions in this world.  Stated like this, the political nature of religion becomes self-evident, but also becomes less alien and surprising.  Similarly, the violence that religion has the potential to generate is equally unsurprising.

All of this brings us back to the puzzle offered at the beginning of this essay: namely organized and routine violence in the name of cow protection in a country that is one of the largest exporters of beef.  What are we to make of this seeming paradox?  As I have argued elsewhere, neither the Indian state nor its society is liberal in the sense of being comprised of individuals equal before the eyes of the law.[9] Instead, it is comprised of different corporate groups in competition, much of it violent, over the basic institutional framework of the state and the society.[10]

These are not groups who are content to accept the basic equality (however, defined) of others. The violence over cow protection targets two groups: Muslims and Dalits (formerly called untouchables).  In other words, these are vigilantes of high caste Hindus whose explicit agenda is to reduce every other group (caste and religious) to mere appendages of a social order in which all of the benefits flow to upper caste Hindus.

These cleavages, pace liberals, are not made up.  These are not “invented” identities (or at least not any less real than any other social identity). Violence in India over cow protection goes back centuries.[11] There is nothing new about this. Indeed, amongst the single worst incidents of violence in British India between the Great Mutiny of 1857 and independence in 1947 occurred in the years 1892-93 in which some 75 people lost their lives in cow protection riots in Bombay alone.  Note that this was not anti-colonial violence.[12]

Indeed, there was no violence against the British for eating beef.  Instead, this was violence committed by Hindus against Muslims in the context of the British Colonial State trying to find ways to govern a pluralistic and hierarchical society.  The violence was a language in which to speak to the British colonial government about communal hierarchy because the British colonial government had to listen to widespread communal violence. This was violence as a form of negotiation between four parties: the British, the Congress Party Nationalist Movement, upper caste (communal) Hindus and Muslims.[13]

It occurred during a period when the British began to make substantive concessions to some degree of self-government.  It really was “religious” violence in the sense that religious communities were making claims to power and authority at the expense of other groups (especially Muslims and Dalits but not the British who of course, also ate beef). The basic political cum religious problem at stake in cow protection vigilantism was succinctly put by the most important Muslim thinker in late 19th century British India, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (the founder of Aligarh Muslim University) in a famous speech delivered in 1888:

Now, suppose that the English community and the army were to leave India, taking with them all their cannons and their splendid weapons and all else, who then would be the rulers of India? Is it possible that under these circumstances two nations – the Mohammedans and the Hindus – could sit on the same throne and remain equal in power? Most certainly not. It is necessary that one of them should conquer the other. To hope that both could remain equal is to desire the impossible and the inconceivable… But until one nation has conquered the other and made it obedient, peace cannot reign in the land.[14]

It is worth emphasizing that Mahatma Gandhi fully concurred with Sir Syed Ahmed Khan that religion cannot be divorced from politics.  In 1915, he would declare in a speech to students in Calcutta that “Politics cannot be divorced from religion.”[15]  Indeed, with regards to the puzzle addressed in this article Gandhi had this to say about cow protection in 1920: “Cow protection is the outward form of Hinduism.  I refuse to call anyone a Hindu if he is not willing to lay down his life in this cause. It is dearer to me than my very life.”[16] Throughout his life in Indian politics, Gandhi consistently and persistently upheld the legitimacy of the principal that cow protection was a fundamental religious obligation of Hindus and he urged Muslims to refrain from killing cows voluntarily.

Gandhi and Kahn might as well as have added the obvious in the speeches from which the above quotations are drawn: in India, religion is not about an individual’s “faith” but about communal identity. There is no operative liberal individualistic definition of religion in India.[17]   Beef eating, therefore, has been a communal demarcation between groups in India for centuries.  But it is only a meaningful one in a political sense only under certain circumstances.

It was also, among other demarcations, a boundary marker between Christians and Hindus.  But Hindus cow protection vigilantes have only engaged in organized violence against Muslims and Dalits.  This is not surprising.  Christians are not, as a group, contenders for power in India.  Dalits and Muslims are.  Nor does this fact negate the idea that the violence over cow protection really is religious in nature.  But not in the sense that a particular theological stricture provokes in individuals a propensity towards violence as much of the discourse in current public policy circles would imply. Individual motivation (and the question of belief) is largely irrelevant to the public policy question of why we witness religious violence and what its causes are.

Hindu vigilantes are using violence over particular issues (cow protection in this instance) as a language of negotiation with the Indian state about how communal power relations are to be structured.  These vigilantes have also used other issues to engage in violence against Muslims: most nefariously the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in 1992 in which not only the mosque itself was demolished by hand, but it triggered a wave of rioting throughout Northern India in which several thousand people were killed.

And so we have an answer to how one of the world’s biggest exporters of beef can also have an organized movement of vigilantes engaged in violence over the slaughter of cattle.  It is about communal hierarchy. But the individual theological underpinnings of this are entirely irrelevant.  And this does not mean that this violence is not religious. The framework offered in this essay has limitations.  It cannot, for example, speak to the concerns of law enforcement agencies that really must be interested in why some individuals and not others engage in violence. It does, however, have the advantage of taking religious cleavages seriously and can explain why under conditions of conflict these cleavages tend to generate high levels of violence (as opposed to, for example, coups which are merely about rank and status).

It also has the advantage of shifting the public policy question away from theology (a cul-de-sac for western policy makers if there ever was one) towards a serious consideration of how to cope with pluralism and communal hierarchy.  This is not an easy task, intellectually, for liberals to undertake, given that liberalism is grounded specifically and historically in a rejection of communalism and hierarchy in favor of individualism and equality.

But this ideological proclivity is rapidly becoming a luxury that the West can no longer indulge in.  Eliminating religion as a political cleavage in Europe took two hundred years of terrible conflict and violence and resulted in religiously homogenous societies across Europe (with the notable exception of Poland).  The reemergence of religious communalism in Western Europe has come as a deep and disconcerting shock to societies long used to thinking of themselves as “post-religious.”

If we like religious pluralism then we will also have to get used to the idea of communal hierarchies. The principal public policy challenge of our time is how to devise responses to the assertion of communal rights (and power) in pluralistic societies that manage the inevitable conflict that pluralism, religious included, necessarily generates without insisting that the liberal framing of the problem (individualism) be imposed on societies long organized along communal lines.  But that is the subject for another article.

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] See Christopher Tyerman, God’s War: A New History of the Crusades, Cambridge MA: Belknap Press, 2005.

[2] See for example Mack Holt, The French Wars of Religion, 1562-1629, New York: Cambridge University Press, Second Edition 2005.  On the intersection of theology and violence see Diarmaid McCulloch, The Reformation: A History, New York: Pengiun, 2005.

[3] See especially, Robert Bartlett, The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change, 950-1350, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.

[4] Excellent introductions to this topic are William Dalrymple, White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India, New York: HarperCollins, 2003; ibid, The Last Mughal, New York: Vintage, 2007.  See also Ferdinand Mount, The Tears of the Rajas: Mutiny, Money and Marriage in India, 1805-1905, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015.  For excellent overviews see Piers Brandon, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997, New York: Vintage, 2008; John Darwin, Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain, New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013 and ibid., The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World System, 1830-1970, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

[5] Dalrymple, The Last Mughal, p. 18.

[6] There is a vast and growing literature on this topic.  Good introductions are Karl Cordell and Stefan Wolff, Ethnic Conflict: Causes, Consequences and Responses, Boston, MA: Polity, 2010; John McCauley, The Logic of Ethnic and Religious Conflict in Africa, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017; David Horowitz, Ethnic Groups in Conflict, updated edition, 2000; and, William Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

[7] On the Mughal Empire the best introduction is John Richards, The Mughal Empire, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.  On the Ottomans see Donald Quataert, The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922, New York: Cambridge University Press, second edition 2005.

[8] See for example Ipek Yosmaoglu, Blood Ties: Religion, Violence and the Politics of Nationhood in Ottoman Macedonia, 1878-1908, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013.

[9] Vivek Swaroop Sharma, “The Myth of a Liberal India” in The National Interest 140, pp. 66-71, November/December 2015.

[10] Vivek Swaroop Sharma, “Give Corruption a Chance” in The National Interest 128, pp. 38-45, November/December 2013.

[11] Peter van der Veer, Religious Nationalism: Hindus and Muslims in India, Berkeley, CA: The University of California Press, 1994.

[12] Maria Misra, Vishnu’s Crowded Temple: India Since the Great Rebellion, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.

[13] John McLane, Indian Nationalism and the Early Congress, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015; Mark Doyle, Communal Violence in the British Empire: Disturbing the Pax, New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016; and Ian Copland, “What to do about cows? Princely versus British approaches to a South Asian dilemma” in The Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 68 (1), pp. 59-76, February 2005.

[14] The full text of the speech may be found here: http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00islamlinks/txt_sir_sayyid_meerut_1888.html.

[15] Over the years Mahatma Gandhi made numerous such statements and he discussed this matter, extensively, in his autobiography.  See Mahatma Gandhi, An Autobiography – The Story of My Experiments With Truth, New York: Beacon Press, 1993.

[16] Mahatma Gandhi, Young India, New York: B. W. Huebsch, First American Edition 1923, p. 182.

[17] Sharma, “The Myth of a Liberal India”

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