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Last Updated: 02/23/2005
Religions and War
Timothy A. McElwee, Ph.D.

The study of religions and war is somewhat inchoate, yet for many years scholars have noted the important role religion plays in national, ethnic and international conflicts. Many have recently pointed to the use and abuse of religious symbolism by politically motivated leaders who employ religious language as a means of generating support for purportedly righteous causes.

We have become increasingly aware that when conflicts are couched in religious and moral language, followers often quickly and enthusiastically fall in line many willing to make ultimate sacrifices to fight on God s behalf, or at least on God s side as defined by their leaders.

Whether such political leaders are sincere in espousing religiously-imbued rhetoric or whether they are simple demagogues, the approach clearly works. It works to a great extent because it seems that many people, no matter what their political leanings, prefer to reduce complex socio-economic, or political conflicts into a zero-sum values game of right and wrong.




According to the World Conference on Religion and Peace of the roughly six billion people on earth, five billion consider themselves to be members of a religious community.  Religions have been used for centuries as a pretext to foment war and religion is also understood as the basis for attempting to build the peaceable kingdom.   It has been described as the most powerful and pervasive force on earth, [1] yet the study of religions and war is often over-looked by peace scholars.  Such inquiries could expand opportunities to enhance under-utilized means of achieving conflict transformation in war-torn societies through an assessment of three key questions: (1) what means are employed, and how extensive is the manipulative use of religion in generating support for armed conflict?  (2) What are the prospects for achieving inter-religious peace?  (3) What positive roles have religious peacemakers played in the past in pursuit of conflict transformation, and how might these methods prove to be effective in the future? 

We need look no further than the so-called war on terrorism to quickly assess the deadly effects of merging religious rhetoric with political ambitions.  Both sides in the conflict appropriate religious symbols and language in calling their adherents to battle.  In his highly acclaimed book, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror,[2] Mahmood Mamdani, the distinguished political scientist and anthropologist, identifies several striking parallels between militant Islamic terrorists such as Osama bin Laden and U.S. President W. Bush.  Mamdani notes that both adversaries:

  • are veterans of the Cold War who were, at one time, on the same side in opposing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan;
  • are informed by highly ideological worldviews, articulated through self-righteous, highly religious-political language; 
  • employ religious language of good and evil and demonize adversaries as terrorists;
  • deny the possibility of a middle ground and instead employ language of no compromise, stating: either you are with us or you are against us;
  • primarily seek justice as revenge, and nurture a spirit of perpetual revenge;
  • practice a form of collective punishment that refuses to distinguish between the guilty target and the innocent victim.  Instead, both demonstrate a callous disregard for what military strategists coldly refer to as collateral damage. [3]

Both men adopt stirring religious rhetoric while addressing their faithful adherents, but it must be noted that they also unabashedly assert their political goals as well.  Bush has proclaimed that the fundamental objective of the war on terrorism is to secure our nation, while bin Laden has boldly declared of his efforts: We bled Russia for ten years until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat.  We are continuing in the same policy to make America bleed profusely to the point of bankruptcy."[4]



Notes [1] Kimball, Charles. 2002. When Religion Becomes Evil. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco. [2] Mamdani, Mahmood. 2004. Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror. New York: Pantheon Press. [3] Mamdani: 217, 254, 257. [4] From the text of his speech broadcast by Aljazeera, November 1, 2004. Available through the Aljazeera website:
Dr. Timothy A. McElwee is the Plowshares Associate Professor of Peace Studies at Manchester College (USA).