What Makes a Conflict 'Religious'?

A cow stands in the middle of a busy road as auto-rickshaws pass by in Bengaluru, India

The question that faces the modern world is not about “religious violence” per se, but instead about religious conflict that leads to violence.

March-April 2018

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 has gone by without some incident involving emboldened cow-protection vigilantes. All this is despite a fact that rarely gets attention in the bewildered international coverage: India is consistently among the world’s top exporters of beef, with a nearly 20 percent share of the world market in 2016.

How can it be that one of the world’s top exporters of beef is a country where people are subject to organized violence supported by a major political party and civil-society organizations in the name of cow protection? Is this really religious violence—and, if so, in what sense is it “religious”? Why do “religious” conflicts tend to generate high levels of symbolic and physical violence? And how do “religious” conflicts compare to other categories of conflict in general?

AT THE outset it is important to note that “religious violence” refers to a phenomenon much broader, deeper and more ancient than current usage implies. It can also refer to ritual violence in 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, binding a supplicant to a divine force or being, in the expectation that a satisfactory offering of blood will induce the reciprocal granting of wishes requested by the supplicant. This “contractual” religious function, offering that which is most precious (blood) in exchange for divine patronage, 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 often reveal, was normal. Indeed, echoes 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 past include the Aztecs’ well-known industrial-scale practice of blood sacrifice.

Much of what is properly termed “religious violence” is either entirely apolitical, as in the case of animal sacrifice, or, as in the case of human sacrifice, is at least not inherently political. The exercise of ritual violence in service of a narrow religious goal is an entirely normal part of religious history. This is type of religious violence is nonconflictual and is, for this reason, by definition apolitical. The question, therefore, that faces the modern world is not about “religious violence” per se, but instead about religious conflict that leads to violence. Or, in slightly less unwieldy terms, it is about violence that occurs at the intersection of religion and politics.

WAR, AS Clausewitz correctly observed, is a political process. It is an intensification of political violence to achieve some goal. War, as a concept, encompasses a limited (but critical) set 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 one of the mechanisms used to adjudicate outcomes. Consequently, to understand war is by definition to understand the social relationships in play.

Wars occur when at least one actor in a political relationship seeks to change the status quo. The operative word here is change: when attempts to change the status quo meet resistance and political actors deploy violence as an additional means of negotiation, war ensues. This raises the question of what precisely, in theoretical language, can change in a political relationship. Political conflicts can be either about the relative rank and status of the actors under stable institutional configurations (groups’ “balance-of-power hierarchy”) or about the rules that govern said rank and status (i.e., institutions themselves).