Category Archives: Event Responses

Religious Wars conference report

In conjunction with the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life (IRCPL) at Columbia University and RESET: Dialogue of Civilizations (Italy), the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies (RBIIS) recently organized a two-day conference on “Religious Wars in Early Modern Europe and Contemporary Islam.”  The organizers, RBIIS director John Torpey and IRCPL director Karen Barkey, brought together scholars from around the United States and from across the Atlantic to make sense of the ways in which these conflicts resemble and differ from one another.  The collaboration between the two institutions was a model for future endeavors, and included holding the first day’s discussions at the Graduate Center and the second at Columbia’s Maison Française.


The central purpose of the conference was to explore the extent to which the conflicts among Christians in early modern Europe and Muslims in the contemporary world are, in fact, driven by religious concerns, and thus to try to contribute to resolving the conflicts that exist today.  At the same time, the organizers intended the conference to highlight the importance of the comparative method as an avenue toward understanding.  The influential political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset used to like to say, “He who knows only one country, knows none,” because, without some comparative point of reference, it is impossible to say whether the phenomena one is observing are “typical” or “unusual.”  The comparison of these two periods of religiously infused violence was designed to clarify whether and how the two cases might be similar or different, and thus to illuminate the unique or the patterned nature of the conflicts in question.

The organizers sought to address such questions as: Is the conflict in the contemporary Muslim world so unusual, if Christians were doing the same things 400-500 years ago?  Is this really a phenomenon that involves “Muslims,” or is this more a matter of conflicts peculiar to a particular world region?  To what extent are the stakes in the conflict “religious,” as opposed to “political”?  The conference brought together historians and social scientists in an interdisciplinary conversation to address these questions.  Representatives of the two scholarly traditions do not always find it easy to talk to one another, as the historians tend to insist that everything is unique, while social scientists are chiefly interested in recurring patterns and generalizations.  The conclave thus comprised a challenging endeavor that sought to benefit from the insights of scholars straddling area, period, and disciplinary divides.

The question of the relationship between the religious and the political was in many ways at the heart of the discussions.  Some argued that there were too many ways in which “Islam,” often referred to as the umma or worldwide Muslim community, holds together historically and elsewhere than the contemporary Middle East and South Asia for us to be talking about “religious wars” among Sunni and Shi’a in those parts of the world.  Indeed, keynote speaker Chase Robinson, Distinguished Professor of History and President of the CUNY Graduate Center, challenged the conference participants to avoid “essentialist” conceptions of “Islam” that failed to do justice to the multifariousness and malleability of the Islamic tradition.  He also noted that the very title of the conference proposed a comparison between a time/place (“early modern Europe”), on the one hand, and a rather short stretch in the almost 1500-year life of one of the world’s great religious traditions (“contemporary Islam”).  Notwithstanding certain questions about the categories involved in the comparison, however, conference participants engaged in vigorous and illuminating discussions about how to think about these two cases of major conflict, at least a good deal of which was religious in inspiration.

3All of this raised a question regarding the very meaning of the notion of “religious war.”  With religion and politics often indissolubly intertwined, in what sense can one say that the conflicts were “religious” in nature?  There are at least two different senses in which one might see wars as “religious.”  It might be the case that religious doctrines and their public status are what is being fought over; for instance, Protestants may be at odds with Catholics over whether or not they are free to practice their version of the Christian faith in public or not.  Alternatively, it may be that religious identities, now functioning like ethnic identities, are the motivation behind many participants’ involvement in the conflict, but not the subject of the conflict per se.[1]  This scenario characterizes at least some of the fighting in contemporary Iraq: a number of Sunnis have taken up arms with the Islamic State group against a regime that systematically privileged the country’s Shiites and disadvantaged the minority Sunnis.  In short, the religious character of a conflict is not a straightforward matter of a conflict between representatives of different religious factions.

One of the major differences between the cases, the discussions revealed, had to do with the fact that the religious identities of the early modern European Christians were new and thus drenched with potential for conflict, while the religious identities (often) at odds in the contemporary Islamic world are very old – indeed, they originated from the problem of succession after Mohammed’s death in the early 7th century – but this has by no means meant that Sunnis and Shiites have always been at each others’ throats.  New religious identities and their implications for early modern European politics were crucial causes of the conflicts in early modern Europe in ways that cannot be said to be the case in the contemporary Islamic world.

Yet Christians came, over time, to accept one another and to forswear deadly conflict arising from religious disagreements.  Much weight in this development is attributed to the Peace of Augsburg of 1555, which first articulated the axiom cuius regio, eius religio (“whose the rule, his the religion”).  This first peace treaty settling wars among Catholics and Protestants regulated the affairs only of Catholics and Lutherans, however; it took almost another century of bloody warfare, culminating in the so-called Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) to extend the understanding to those adhering to the Reformed (especially but not only the Calvinist) faiths.  The Peace of Westphalia that brought these devastating conflicts to a close is widely regarded as having privatized religious faith and muted it as a cause of “domestic” strife.  While the treaty had little directly to do with the idea of “sovereignty,” it helped consolidate a burgeoning shift within Western Europe from a pattern of dynastic regimes marked by overlapping, cross-cutting forms of religious and political rule to a more coherent system of territorial nation-states.[2]  Notwithstanding the shift to territorial states, the relationship between religion and politics remained close until at least the American and French Revolutions, which inaugurated forms of politics that were to be decisively separated from religion (in one case the divorce was friendly, and in the other it was notably hostile).  The relationship between religion and politics has not been the same ever since.2

Meanwhile, the conflicts among Muslims in the contemporary period are related to religion in complicated ways.  New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has written that there are three kinds of conflicts in the Islamic world today: 1) between Sunnis and Shiites; 2) between Sunni moderates and Sunni extremists; and 3) among different Sunni extremists themselves.  These conflicts, which may have either of the characteristics of “religious war” outlined previously, are variously intermingled with more straightforwardly “political” conflicts.  Hence the Sunni/Shi’a split is undergirded and (as a general rule) promoted by the regional great-power rivalry of Saudi Arabia and Iran.  But the religious and national differences here are overlaid and perhaps exacerbated by an ethnic distinction between Persian and Arab.  The ethnic (and indeed national) distinction plays a decisive role between Kurds and their oppressors, whether Arab or Turkish – despite the fact that both of them are Sunnis.  Meanwhile, the threat of the Islamic State has brought Saudi Arabia and Iran together, in at least a limited fashion, against a common extremist enemy.  This marriage of convenience reminds us that there is nothing “primordial” about the Sunni-Shi’a divide, even if it goes back, as a historical matter, to the very origins of Islam.  In addition to these conflicts across the sectarian divide, Sunnis may also be at odds with each other in various ways.  The rulers of a number of Gulf monarchies recently withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar because they believed that the tiny country was offering too much support to the Muslim Brotherhood, which Arab states have feared for decades as a serious challenger.  The Brotherhood was, of course, the major force behind the Arab Spring in Egypt and its democratically elected leader, Mohammed Morsi, was overthrown by the military not long after he took power.  Finally, the various factions battling Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad have hardly been “on the same page” as the conflict has unfolded.  The jihadists in Syria – of which there are many, joined together in a substantial number of shifting militia groups – do not necessarily share the same goals with regard to the post-Assad future.  For example, the Islamic State (aka ISIS) has been engaged in intense conflict with the Al Nusra Front in Syria over dominance in the opposition to Assad.  ISIS is a renovated version of Al Qaeda in Iraq (with the addition of disaffected ex-Baathists – that is, supporters of Saddam Hussein), but has been disowned by Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri as too radical.  Nonetheless, the Pakistani Taliban leadership has endorsed ISIS and its goals, notwithstanding the close relationship between themselves and Al Qaeda.[3]  In sum, the divisions among Muslims over politics in the Middle East and South Asia are multiple, cross-cutting, and shaped by sectarian, national, ethnic, and great-power interests.

The entire endeavor was a vindication of the value of comparison in understanding social life and political conflict.  The various papers and presentations enhanced our understanding of the myriad interconnections among religion and politics and reminded us that, even though these have changed from the time of the Peace of Westphalia, neither have they become as neatly separated as the French revolutionaries might have liked it.  Religion and politics remain deeply enmeshed with one another, but not always and not everywhere, and it is possible to disentangle them for analytical purposes.  The hope is that some sort of accommodation between religion and politics will allow those in the Islamic Middle East and South Asia to come to some more stable and satisfactory arrangement with respect to the religious pluralism that inevitably obtains in any country.  But there is also some worry that there is no substantial social base for such an outcome, and that authoritarian leaders will continue to step in to regulate things when no other actor presents itself on the scene.  That is a somewhat pessimistic conclusion, perhaps, but seems consistent with the facts on the ground.

John Torpey, Director
Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, CUNY Graduate Center



[1] See Monica Duffy Toft, et al., God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics (New York: Norton, 2011), p. 129.

[2] “Medieval Europe had never been composed of a clearly demarcated set of homogeneous political units – an international State system.  Its political map was an inextricably superimposed and tangled one, in which different juridical instances were geographically interwoven and stratified, and plural allegiances, asymmetrical suzerainties and anonymous enclaves abounded.” Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State (London: New Left Books, 1974), pp. 37-38.

[3] Angelo Young, “Pakistan Taliban Pledges Support to ISIS Militants,” International Business Times, October 4, 2014,

A Response to Elizabeth Shakman Hurd on the Politics of Religious Freedom

by Jonathan Thumas

This past Thursday, September the 20th, Dr. Elizabeth Hurd of Northwestern University delivered a paper at Columbia, jointly sponsored by the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies and the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life. The paper will be a chapter in a forthcoming volume on human rights. During her talk, Hurd explored some of the issues and contending forces that arise in applying (or attempting to apply) decidedly occidental models of religious rights and freedom to other systems. In laying out contextual grounds, the author first mapped out the field of international religious freedom advocacy, and then discussed at length how these discourses matter, and furthermore may be used, in a globalized world. She allowed numerous open ended threads to hang loose to, as she put it, facilitate discussion and even argument into these matters. To fully unpack the value of the points raised, it is necessary then to pull at these threads.

Those with access to nearly boundless freedom in the realm of religious choice (and voice) often take for granted notions of religious freedom, and further this “self-evident” notion by understanding it to be a universal right, one that ultimately allows for impartial dealings between people and state. Hurd makes it known that this is not necessarily the case. There seems to be an ideological hegemony to notions of “norm diffusion,” mistakenly thinking that certain freedoms and social institutions that work for one society are universal norms that all other societies should adhere to and abide by. It is clear that Hurd is not convinced by our cultural, normative assumptions. The question is then asked: Does advocacy for religious freedom, especially on a global scale, instigate peace? Rather than bringing about unity, Hurd finds religious freedom to be a force that reinforces sectarianism, political entanglement, and persecution, singling out groups by legally defining them and ultimately distinguishing communities based on religious terms. In addition to causing problems for people with multiple ethnic and religious ties by raising the profile of religion as a matter of difference, this also raises issues of influence and access power. Larger sectarian groups, through their separation, will invariably have greater political standing and influence.

Persecutions as the result of making such rigid distinctions between groups can also arise, primarily through “perfected” forms of religious toleration and regulation. These systems empower bureaucrats placing traditions into narrowly defined categories and allow greater potential for critique and conflict.  Worse, however, is that with more rigid sectarian lines, governments are given the difficult choice of choosing between religious ideologies in rule making, very likely (and intelligently so) choosing to appease the largest collected majority of people under a given religious category. With this, it becomes exceedingly difficult to account for marginalized religious groups, perhaps furthering the role of a majority ridden monolithic religious culture in ultimately making policy decisions to benefit them that will likely affect a number of other groups in potentially different ways.

Should this be engaged globally? This is surely an interesting and important issue, but it seems difficult to pursue at great length without having some basic issues cleared up. Why can’t religious freedom simply imply allowance or tolerance? Is it necessary, or the rule-of-thumb, for official governmental regulation to follow? It would seem that this last step is a central part of the problem. In many ways, it appears that the mechanics of religious freedom laid out here echo a form of ideological colonialism, not entirely different from Said’s deconstruction of the orientalists, in my mind. There is certainly a vestige of colonial and cultural hegemony here, both in the ways that religiously “free” nations push their agendas on other religious cultures, and also in the potential re-creation of a dominant religious group, within which Hurd finds one of many concerns. I do wonder, however, how much of this is projecting a particular narrative that might otherwise be contained. How much is actually rooted in recurring examples? Hurd brought up a few examples of persecutions through emphasizing freedom occurring across the world, but a larger survey might be beneficial to this. To be sure, the assertion of any identity is exclusionary to some degree, but considering the often cosmopolitan interactions that arise through deeper globalization, it would be interesting to see just how possible it would be for sectarian lines to become as rigid as the author suggests.

Departing from the discussion, I harbor one last question for the author or for anyone else actively engaging these issues: It is a clear point permeating the paper that bureaucracies serve as segregating forces in their treatments of religion. Through this, larger groups become normative, and those smaller are marginalized, oftentimes being referred to as “cults” or “extremist movements” if they represent minorities or deviations from and/or within larger groups. It would seem to me, however, that these labels and their treatment are not solely if even primarily exacted by larger social institutions, but also by the popular strata as well. It is important to consider the agency of culture as a deciding and segregating force in this way. To what extent then does the popular, “bottom-up” strata serve as a deciding force in the drawing of sectarian lines?

Jonathan Thumas is an MA student in the Department of Religion at Columbia University, studying East Asian Relations. 

Shopping on Shabbat Doesn’t A Dove Make: A response to Guy Ben Porat

By Hannah Rubashkin

On Thursday, February 21, Guy Ben Porat, an Israeli lecturer from Ben-Gurion University, gave a lecture at the Columbia Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies on his latest book Between State and Synagogue: The Secularization of Contemporary Israel. His lecture addressed the main questions of his book. Is secularization occuring in Israel? In what ways is it taking place? Is it connected to a particular political ideology, liberal or otherwise?

He began by making a useful distinction between secularization and secularism: the former consists of changes in peoples’ practice from religious to secular habits while the latter is an ideology that articulates the principles of liberalism as Americans from the U.S. would define it. This distinction created space for him to argue that secularization, but not secularism, was taking root in Israeli society. As examples of this secularizing behavior, he cited increases in marriages outside the Orthodox Rabbinate, shopping on the Sabbath, the selling and eating of non-kosher food, and non-religious burials. Continue reading

Gangster Nostalgia: A response to a public talk with Paul Lieberman

By Rivka Rappoport

A response to a public conversation with Paul Lieberman, author of the Gangster Squad, at Columbia University on February 19th, 2013.

Paul Lieberman’s talk “Gangster Movies and Reality” was marked, more than anything else, by a pervasive sentiment of nostalgia.  Throughout the talk, it seemed as if Lieberman longed for a world that was characterized by both the sub-system vigilante justice of the real life “Gangster Squad,” upon which the film Gangster Squad was based, and for the mobster, Mickey Cohen, whom the squad was tasked with bringing down.   As Lieberman walked the audience through important dates from the biographies of Cohen and the Squad, a fascinating narrative emerged of a world in which, sometimes, the differences between lawman and mobster were merely a matter of dress.

It turns out that the real-life members of the Gangster Squad were more than worthy of dramatization—complicated, obsessive, occasionally self-destructive characters who pursued Cohen aggressively.  Lieberman’s diligent delivery of the men’s bios was packed with fascinating tidbits that gestured toward the more complex film that might have been made in the blockbuster’s stead.  For example, he explained that Mickey Cohen was obsessed with cleaning his hands, washing them hundreds of times a day; the image of the fastidious gangster is so unlikely and so strong that it’s a wonder Hollywood could resist.  The members of the Gangster Squad had frequently interesting backgrounds, as well—one was the son of a real-life con man, another, a Texan sheriff—but these facts were delivered as though the audience was already acquainted with their names and invested in their stories.

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The Resignation of Scientific Capitalism

By chris crews

A response to a public conversation with Wallace Broecker at Columbia University on November 13th.

As a lifelong advocate of environmental education and a student of catastrophic and apocalyptic discourses in popular culture today, I was excited to hear that Columbia University’s Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life (IRCPL) was bringing Wallace Broecker to talk about climate change and apocalypse as part of their yearlong series Apocalypse Now, which is billed as a “series of conversations with writers that explores our current fascination with apocalyptic visions.” The talk also included NY Times writer John Broder, who covers environmental issues in Washington.

For starters, I have to admit that my level of disappointment, while certainly not apocalyptic, was pretty high after listening to someone who is considered a leading authority in the field of earth science and climate change talk about the state of ecological affairs today. I’d sum up Broecker’s comments like this:

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“I have grown tired of silence”: A response to a public talk by Charlotte Pierce-Baker

By Elizabeth Wade

A response to a public conversation with Charlotte Pierce-Baker at Columbia University on October 23rd.

One of the first things Charlotte Pierce-Baker made clear in her talk on November 4th was that it wasn’t going to be easy for her. Pierce-Baker, a professor of women’s and gender studies at Vanderbilt University, is a distinguished and award-winning academic who I’m sure has given countless confident presentations in the past. Yet Pierce-Baker – and her audience – knew that this one was different. As she spoke about her recent memoir This Fragile Life: A Mother’s Story of a Bipolar Son, Pierce-Baker was keenly aware of her limitations. “I wrote the book, but it’s still difficult for me to read it to the public,” she admitted in her opening statement. This would not be a cold, academic lecture on a mood disorder; instead, it would unfold as a sensitive, almost therapeutic, discussion on the horrors bipolar disorder can wreak on the life of a family.

In order to talk openly about the debilitating effects of bipolar disorder and mental illness, Pierce-Baker deliberately created a gentle format: after reading a passage she would give the audience time to digest the material, pausing to ask questions and reminding the audience to “breathe.”  The intimate audience, sitting around an oval table, followed her cue. We all took a breath together, trying to absorb the weight of the piece she had just read. Despite having read the memoir at multiple book readings, Piece-Baker is not yet immunized to the emotional weight of her material, and her presentation was raw. Though it was obviously difficult for her, Pierce-Baker’s sense of duty overwhelmed her fear of sharing such personal information.  Regarding the stigma surrounding mental illness, she explained, “I have grown tired of silence.” And this was, quite possibly, the point of the evening: to attempt to break the silence. This was done haltingly, with long pauses by the author and shaky, personal questions by the audience. As Pierce-Baker told us, her goal was to start a “conversation about the conversation about mental illness.”

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The Choice is Ours: A Response to Jesse Jackson and Katrina vanden Heuvel

By Neshani Jani

A response to a public conversation with Reverend Jesse Jackson and Katrina vanden Heuvel at Columbia University on October 25th, 2012. View photos of the conversation here.

With the 2012 Presidential election occurring tomorrow, a Mitt Romney win would be a devastating blow to the progressive movement and would represent a step backwards on a range of issues, including rights for women, immigrants and the LGBT community, as well as strides made on healthcare, social security, labor laws and other major civil liberties developed over the past 50 years. It is important to acknowledge that while a second term for President Obama will not solve all of the country’s current problems, an Obama Presidency will continue to foster a space for social movements (both progressive and conservative) to grow and will continue to enable progressives to raise questions of consciousness that will help shape the political agenda over the next four years.

This is the main point that I took away from the discussion between the Reverend Jesse Jackson and publisher of the Nation Magazine, Katrina vanden Heuvel, on October 25th at Columbia University. Continue reading