Book chapter

Identity, Internal State Conflict, and Religion (2019)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics


Social science literature does not identify a direct effect of religion on the occurrence of intrastate conflict. Yet religion as a sociopolitical identity does have several fairly unique features that render religious differences particularly useful to political entrepreneurs in the course of conflict. First, religions often have codified guidelines, typically written, that convey normative behaviors—what one should do to attain salvation, for example. The presence of such guidelines can reinforce the organizational strength of particular groups and underscore the nonnegotiable status of their beliefs, both of which can be useful in the course of conflict. Second, the religious identity includes multiple levels of division that do not exist within other identity types—including interfaith differences, differences between sects within religious traditions, and divisions between secularists and strong religionists. Such divisions create opportunities for outbidding that exacerbate tensions and conflict. Third, religious group membership confers nonmaterial benefits, such as perceived access to salvation, that can motivate behavior in very tangible, this-worldly ways, for example by encouraging fighters to choose martyrdom over negotiated settlements. Finally, religious networks link adherents transnationally in a manner that no other identity type can, creating opportunities to mobilize resources and support from abroad for a conflict within borders.These features suggest that, whereas religion is no more likely than other types of identity divisions to cause conflict, it can be particularly powerful for political entrepreneurs to wield as a tool in conflict settings. In some cases, conflicts are viewed as religious because the religious labels of competing sides differ, even if the conflict itself has nothing to do with religion. In other cases, conflicts may be described as religious if the content over which adversary sides fight is itself religious in nature; violence over the imposition of Islamic sharia law in a religiously mixed country may be one such example. Even when intrastate conflicts are fought over religious content, however, from the perspective of political scientists the matter is still one of political choice. This underscores the critical role that political entrepreneurs play in the shaping of conflicts as religious. Understanding the power of codified behavioral guidelines, multiple layers of division, non-material payoffs, and transnational networks that religious identity provides, political entrepreneurs can use religion to exploit the (sometimes unrelated) grievances of their supporters and thus escalate conflict where doing so pays political dividends. In this way, scholars recognize that intrastate conflicts with various causal foundations frequently become fights in the name of God.