Unlike limited conflicts over rank and status, conflicts over institutional arrangements can be set along a continuum defined by the strength of a given challenge to the existing social order. 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 these conflicts have in common is that they tend to be harder to resolve, result in greater degrees of mobilization, and are characterized by more symbolic and physical violence.
Religious conflict involves some aspect of the rules governing social order. In this sense, the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth century were not principally caused by prejudice, bigotry, or intolerance per se; they were instead a consequence of differences over how authority was to be constructed in Latin Christendom, and with what consequences. 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, fundamental changes in society’s overall power relations. Similarly, what makes ISIS a revolutionary movement is that it seeks to reorder social institutions internally within the Sunni Arab world, and just as significantly, it is rejecting 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 within Sunni Arab society (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 Bolshevik and fascist movements in the early- to mid-twentieth centuries.
In the cases of both ISIS and the Bolsheviks, a set of first-order principles (Salafi Islam and Marxist-Leninism) generated a political impulse to radically challenge the existing domestic and international orders. There is no bargaining position short of total victory or total defeat. The cause of the violence, in other words, is not ideology per se, but instead a political agenda of changing institutions along lines that those with an 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, or imposing an indemnity of some amount, cannot constitute a basis for peace. Indeed, it is not possible to conceive of a peace agreement of any kind with ISIS, short of its voluntary disappearance.
In this sense, whether or not the Koran (or any other religious text) sanctions violence is irrelevant, as are the specific motivations of those 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, such as terrorism, conventional warfare, or some other form of irregular warfare.
RELIGIOUS VIOLENCE can exist devoid of conflict—take animal sacrifice. And conflict within a religious community, about who will be abbot, pope or so on, entails rank and status, and is indistinguishable from any other kind of group’s social dynamics. What this discussion is concerned with is religion in the sense of rules governing social behavior. Doctrine itself cannot lead to political or religious conflict. Doctrine can 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.
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), in general this is rare. 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 harder. Perhaps the most obvious example of the former type is the Crusades of the medieval period, in which grasping the religious dimension is essential to understand the whole. A more typical “religious conflict” is the Indian Rebellion of 1857–58, which entailed disparate social groups responding to threats to their “way of life,” which fundamentally involved religion (or at least issues connected to religion, like property and kinship). This latter understanding of what constitutes a religious conflict holds for a wide range of cases, including the French Wars of Religion, the medieval expansion of Latin Christendom into neighboring communities that were organized along various lines and the early Islamic conquests of the Near East, to name a few. The point is that 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, motivation explains the target selection (Jerusalem), but not what the Crusaders actually did 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 Levant.
Can these conflicts be usefully thought of as “religious” at all? Indeed, in most of the cases mentioned above (the Indian Rebellion, the European Wars of Religion and so on) there is a long tradition of denying conflicts’ religious elements and focusing instead on socioeconomic factors. It may therefore be useful to use the example of the Indian Rebellion to illustrate just in what sense these conflicts can be understood as religious.
The Indian Rebellion of 1857–58 was the largest anticolonial 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 become when viewed through the prism of religious motivation.
A major shift in the nature of colonial rule in India 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 respecting established power structures to assaulting them outright. From the British colonists’ perspective, they were simply rationalizing their rule by creating British-Indian law and regulating social relationships, as necessitated by their need to dispense justice and establish their authority.
However, in doing so the British alienated and challenged groups that ranged from princely houses upset about the introduction of primogeniture, to Hindus unhappy with the abolition of sati (widow burning), to Muslims who resented the inroads made by Christian missionaries. Different groups, then, reacted to different British challenges to established patterns of power and authority, which ultimately led to what William Dalrymple calls “a chain of very different uprisings and acts of resistance, whose form and fate were determined by local and regional situations, passions and grievances.” What gave the mutiny coherence was the participants’ general sense that the British were engaged in a systematic attempt to destroy India’s religions, in the sense of particular ways of life. While many Britons in the colonial administration truly did view Hinduism and Islam with contempt, and sought the conversion of the people of India, the principal concerns of the colonial administration lay with the establishment of firm and uncontested domination in South Asia, at minimal costs to themselves. Their policies, however, had the cumulative effect of triggering a religious war—indeed, a very strange one that united a coalition of groups that included jihadis, sadhus (Hindu mendicants), princely lineages and members of the British sepoy army. This was not a conflict that was triggered by the fact of British/Christian rule in India; it was a conflict triggered by British policies 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 came to handle the issue of religion: after 1858, it became official British policy to defend orthodoxy, prevent missionizing activity and portray themselves as neutral arbiters in the sectarian relations of their Indian subjects.