Open Forum

Stoking conflict by evoking religion: Bane of our times

Many violent conflicts throughout history have had their genesis in inter-religious differences as well as intra-religious / inter-denominational disputes.

Oct 13, 2017
By Shubhranshu Suman
Many violent conflicts throughout history have had their genesis in inter-religious differences as well as intra-religious / inter-denominational disputes. Religion and conflict have frequently been portrayed to have a simple cause and effect relationship. However, particular case studies unravel the true nature of religions, usually employed as a pretext to justify conflicts. The fact of the matter is that conflicts, though occasionally fuelled by contrasting religious sentiments, have political and economic motives embedded into them.
Nevertheless, religion and conflict continue to profoundly impact each other. The remnants of this relationship can be seen in the empires of ancient India and medieval Europe. Ashoka, the foremost emperor of the Mauryan dynasty, denounced violence after the bloody battle of Kalinga. Enormous death and destruction prompted him to adopt the Buddhist path of Ahimsa and Dharma-Vijaya. Emissaries and monks, including his son and daughter, were sent out into the world to propagate Buddhist teachings. The royal patronage that Buddhism received under his reign was instrumental in its expansion to West Asia, Persia, Afghanistan, China, Japan and Korea. In essence, violent conflict led to alteration in religious outlook of the empire that influenced its foreign policy and upheld its international standing as a peaceful empire. 
Another instance would be Constantine the Great who changed the face of Roman Empire. Jews and early Christians had a history of persecution by the Roman military. Forced slavery, murders, plundering of Jewish temples and artefacts and refusal of citizenship compelled Jews to periodically rebel against the central authority. Similarly, The Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD was blamed by Emperor Nero on the Christians, causing their widespread persecution.
These atrocities were destined for a payback from the Romans and, in the early 4th century, rebellions orchestrated by Christians threatened a complete disintegration of the empire. Constantine envisioned the need of multi-cultural and multi-religious dimensions within his empire, eventually adopting Christianity as the official state religion.
More recently, the migration of Europeans and Africans to the Americas since the 16th century has completely changed the religious and ethnic demography of these continents. Native Americans constitute a tiny fraction of the United States’ population today and most Americans have either European or African ancestry or had their forefathers converted to Christianity via missionaries. These cultural assimilations were accompanied by their fair share of violent conflicts between natives and outsiders that shaped the modern nation states of the Americas.
Since the association between religion, conflict and foreign policy is highly dynamic, it is pivotal to trace the historical correlation among these factors and scrutinize their viability in geopolitics of today.
Pre-Renaissance Period
The Silk Road, a vital combination of sea and land routes connecting the Eurasian landmass and Africa and, debatably, the predecessor to China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, served as a major trading route since ancient times. Despite the route being a carrier for silk, porcelain, spices etc. to Europe, it was notorious too for carrying deadly pathogens, culminating in Black Death in the 14th century that wiped out a substantial portion of Europe’s population. The varying degree of political stability encompassing this region determined the nature of prosperity of the people, particularly the mercantile classes and political elites. Goods reaching Europe from India and China via the Silk Road were quite expensive owing to the intricacies of logistics. Adding to the costs was the trade monopoly in the Mediterranean Sea of Maritime Republics of the Italian peninsula (Venice, Genoa) and of the Romans and Byzantines.
The reign of the Byzantines and contemporary European monarchs witnessed notable decline in the powers of Catholic Church. The sovereign power of the papacy began to be questioned by the kings. This power struggle spanning the entire European continent led to the rise of various branches of the Church; paramount among them being Eastern Orthodoxy. The Byzantine Empire operated effectively as a theocracy after the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the decentralisation of power away from Rome to Constantinople.
The 1453 ‘Fall of Constantinople’ was a ‘landmark event’. For the first time in over a millennium, the control of geopolitically strategic Anatolian peninsula, the bridge between Europe and Asia, shifted from a Christian empire to a Muslim one, the Ottomans. The event had overwhelming cultural and political influences in years to come. However, there was little change in the hegemonic character of the Mediterranean trade. The Byzantines were replaced by Ottomans and the broader system remained intact.
The monopolistic nature of trade and erosion of powers of religious institutions fuelled by political upheavals, propelled Europe towards the Age of Discovery. Shipbuilding in the Iberian Peninsula thrived. Spanish and Portuguese discoverers, under the patronage of their respective kings, began to find alternate routes to India via sea. Exploration of new lands thus became the foreign policy instruments of Spain and Portugal.
This was also the time when the Ottoman Sultans inherited the politico-religious institution of Caliph, the leader of Muslim community. Had there been an Ottoman naval dominance, the fate of Spain and Portugal would have been very different, both economically and religiously.
Post Renaissance and Pre-Industrial Revolution Period
The Renaissance originated in Italy, but it ignited a spirit of enquiry across Europe. It led to unprecedented breakthroughs in science, the development of which would later pave the way for Britain’s Industrial Revolution.
The exploration of new lands opened up new avenues of natural resources for exploitation by Europeans. Their adventurism led to institutionalisation of a triangular trade throughout the Atlantic Ocean. Slaves were bought by colonists from African slave traders to work in plantation farms in the Americas and the Caribbean. These raw materials would be shipped to Europe and finally the finished products would leave European ports for the African coast, to be traded in exchange of slaves. This model, apart from being extremely successful commercially, reinforced the idea of racial superiority among white Europeans.
The slave trade was dominated by Spain and Portugal in the 16th century. Beholding the riches of their counterparts, the British, French and Dutch reoriented their foreign policy towards exploration and jumped into the sea of uncertainty. The changing policies created rifts among Europeans and pushed the non-European world towards colonisation. These rifts were evident between the Dutch and Portuguese in Indonesia and the British, French and Portuguese in India.
Post Industrial Revolution Period
The primary feature describing European foreign policy post industrial revolution is the economic exploitation of colonies. Though amassing huge wealth at the expense of colonies was prevalent earlier, it institutionalised after spinning Jennies, power looms and steam powered engines came into picture. Colonies turned into procurement centres for raw materials.
The unintended yet desirable consequence of the revolution was development of transport, communication and banking sectors. Some of the oldest banks of the world are of European origin and they initiated the gravitation towards institutionalised credit across the globe.
The Indian Sepoy Revolt of 1857 was the outcome of various factors. According to eminent historian Bipan Chandra, “The conditions of service in the Company’s army and cantonments increasingly came into conflict with the religious beliefs and prejudices of the sepoys”. Before the mutiny, Indian soldiers were sent across India as well as to Burma and Afghanistan to suppress smaller rebellions against the British authority. Going to faraway lands and not being able to adhere to eating habits dictated by their respective castes invited banishment. These social exclusions invited wrath against the British.
The revolt, sparked partly by religious sentiments, shaped the relationship between India and the British Crown.
The extent to which the Sykes-Picot agreement affects modern day conflicts of the Middle East is disputed, but it is generally agreed to be the largest contributor to the region’s chaos with borders that were drawn without due consideration of the ethnic and sectarian realities. Straight lines depicting Iraq’s borders with Syria and Jordan and Israel’s border with Egypt are testimony to the disregard of the colonial masters towards the region’s realities.
Arab-Israel hostilities during the latter half of the 20th century, the current Israel-Palestine conflict and the havoc created by ISIS are legacies of the Sykes-Picot agreement.
India probably faced the worst outcome of an independence struggle in the form of the partition along religious lines in 1947, coupled with widespread communal violence that still mars the bilateral policies of India and Pakistan towards each other.
Though India could exercise its foreign policy options after independence relatively flexibly owing to its secular character, Israel had a hard time forging relations. Except Egypt and Jordan, no Arab league member has diplomatic ties with Israel. Hostile neighbours provide reasons for Israel to follow belligerent policies.
Despite nation states being the most fundamental political entity of the 21st century, non-state actors have found an influential place in geopolitics. Ranging from left wing guerrilla forces like FARC in Colombia to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, non-state actors have invited foreign state intervention.
Complications set in when non-state actors get succour and support from the state. While the Mujahedeen fighters, predecessors of the Taliban, during Soviet-Afghan war were trained, armed and funded by the USA, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, various proxy groups in West Asia, like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza are reportedly funded by Iran.
Non-state actors live in a symbiotic relationship with states, often manipulated for that state’s goals for regional and global dominance. The military and intelligence apparatus of Pakistan are well known to have ties with extremist groups in India and Afghanistan and often use its influence over these groups to prevent India from becoming a regional hegemon. Similarly, China funds separatist groups in India’s Northeastern states to keep India in check.
These actors have a history of infusing confusion in interstate relations. Clearly, non-state actors pursue religious extremism for greater gains, regionally and globally. The state’s changing equation with these actors also reflects their own geopolitical ambitions.
Today, conflicts can begin with a text message on Whatsapp. On one hand social media is utilized for popular mobilisations against despotic regimes while, on the other hand, it is employed to arouse social tensions. In these uncertain times when sources of conflict initiation are manifold, it is imperative that people and governments are restrained from evoking religion for personal and political gains.
Core principles of all organized religions are peaceful. Sadly, religions have mostly been used otherwise throughout history.
(The author is an alumnus of Takshashila Institution's Graduate Certificate in Public Policy (GCPP). He can be contacted @

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

In northeast India, water-management practices to deal with climate change

In a small village on the north bank of the Brahmaputra in Assam in northeast India, farmer Horen Nath stood gazing at his partially submerged paddy field. The floods had kept their annual date but mercifully, the farmer said, the waters have started receding. "The weather has become very strange of late. We always had ample rain,


UAE, Saudi Arabia can help India meet any oil deficit, says UAE envoy

Even as the US-imposed sanctions on Iran has put India’s energy security in jeopardy, United Arab Emirates Ambassador to India Ahmed Albanna has allayed fears of an oil shortage, saying hi...

Tweets about SAMonitor
SAM Facebook