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.

All 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.

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,

Category: Event Responses