"Wars of Religion"

The Simplification of Faith

Though modern conflicts are often framed in religious terms, Manali Desai argues that "religion" is an essentially useless category in understanding what drives groups against each other

Historic artwork of the Sepoy Rebellion (photo: Wikipedia.org)
An engraving titled "Sepoy Indian troops dividing the spoils after their mutiny against British rule" gives a contemporary view of events from the British perspective

​​It has become fashionable to refer to the global cultural and political struggles of the present as "wars of religion". The trend extends beyond the post-9/11 obsession with Islamic fundamentalism, although interest in Islam is critical to this new sensibility. Multiculturalism in the UK, with its policy of separate but equal religious communities, is also responsible for elevating the political import of faith. Similarly, the sectarian strife between Shia and Sunni in Iraq is framed frequently as a timeless and eternal conflict.

Communities from diverse backgrounds are now referred to with religious prefixes such as "the Islamic community" and "the Hindu community" without so much as a moment of doubt. The reality of religious politics and conflicts seems indisputable: religion has now become the great catch-all term for Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations".

Even outside the realms of policy, in the softer matter of the scholarship, religion is becoming the prism through which conflicts through time are understood. The travel writer and historian William Dalrymple's recent book, The Last Mughal, displays such historical innocence in arguing that the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857 was a war between Islam and evangelical Christianity. This is paralleled, he argues, by the current war between an arrogant Christian imperialism and a militant Islamic response.

Internal and external conflict

To think of religion as the originating cause of current conflict and violence is to simplify the different ways religion works and has worked in practice. To begin with, there is the issue of timing. Why now? For centuries, certain strands of Islam have not sat well with other religions, but nor have Brahminical Hinduism, for example, or evangelical Christianity. In all these faiths, there exists a notion of the infidel, the impure.

These practices have been turned inwards, as in the caste system in India, but in some cases they have been a potent force in external conflict. The task is to understand how and why certain strands of religion – such as Wahhabism – have provided the impetus for violent struggle against a constructed enemy – the unbelieving, crusading west – and why they assume particular force at particular moments.

Religion certainly frames much of the rhetoric of war: insurgent groups from the Taliban to the Mahdi Army in Iraq speak the language of jihad and holy war. Even George W. Bush's proclamations on the war on terror are tinged with religious zeal. But let us not be fuzzy-headed and mistake rhetoric for reality.

We have to refrain from thinking of religion in purely idealist terms. Ideas do not battle each other, nor do philosophies – at least not on the killing fields of Iraq, New York, or Palestine. Ideas and philosophies become potent forces only when lives and ways of living are perceived to be in peril.

Indeed, it may be more useful to employ a sociological perspective and think of religion itself as a material force. Historically, conquests and colonial penetration have invoked religious justifications for war, precisely because they have disrupted the material basis of life, and radically imperilled ways of living.

Contextualising religion

Manali Desai (photo: University of Reading)
"We tend to treat socially constructed communities as 'real,'" says Manali Desai

​​Rather than thinking of the Great Mutiny of 1857 as a religious war, then, we would do well to consider the point made by Niall Ferguson: "We should not let the many appealing aspects of the eighteenth-century Indo-Celtic fusion blind us to the fact that the East India Company existed not for the sake of scholarship or miscegenation but to make money... And no matter how devoted they might be to Indian culture, their aim was always to transfer profits back home to Britain. The notorious 'drain' of capital from India to Britain had begun."

Punitive taxes, forced seizures of land, economic drain, the social exclusion and stripping of political representation – it was these, and not merely Christian evangelism – which provoked fury among people across India.

A hundred and fifty years later, there are important parallels to be drawn. It is not religion after all that provides al-Qaida with its impetus, but rather a global political economy of oil, guns, money, and military forces. Wahhabism may offer strong emotional resources, but a global network of terror cannot thrive on these alone. For this, the hard-headed networking of military technologies, information and surveillance mechanisms, oil profits, and scientific and technical skills are more important.

Likewise, neither can US policy be attributed to the force of messianic visions or even neoconservative ideals. While Bush's religious proclamations may have sharpened the perceived religious effect of the present war, we must not forget that Islamic fundamentalism and so-called jihadism well predate Bush. For decades before and under Bush Sr., and then Clinton, the US pushed aggressively towards cheap oil, while in Afghanistan, the Taliban were the product of the "war on communism".

Historical ideas of kinship

Even if religion forms the mantle of global wars, it does not explain why it is so regularly invoked as a causal force in policy circles or among the intelligentsia. Perhaps this is a product of the normalization of certain categories – nation, race, ethnicity, and now religion – in everyday thinking.

We tend to treat socially constructed communities as "real". Thus, for example, scores of Islamic insurgents have spoken of their anger at seeing their "Muslim brothers" killed in Bosnia or Palestine. In this sense, religion informs what Benedict Anderson called the "imagined community" of nationality, except that all religions have a concept of kinship that goes beyond the nation.

An "imagined community", however, suggests that historically we have created ideas of kinship that surpass the immediate, face-to-face community of the village. We came to imagine ourselves as connected to others we would never meet, often as if they were part of our family. Yet, this is a construction; one can just as easily imagine several ways of connecting ourselves to others we may never meet, aside from through religion.

The concept of "imagined community" offers an important corrective to the idea of some "real" Islamic or other community out there that speaks and acts for itself. Instead, we can see how the idea of such a community can be constructed and used by various actors – states and insurgent groups – to favour their cause. Wars of empire provoke struggles over the boundaries and definitions of communities precisely because the material stakes are so high.

Manali Desai

Dr. Manali Desai is Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Kent. She is author of State Formation and Radical Democracy and States of Trauma: Gender and Violence in South Asia.

© madrid11.net 2007

This article was previously published on Madrid11.net.

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