How is Religion a Source of Peace and Conflict?

How is Religion a Source of Peace and Conflict?

All major religions profess peace and harmony, but at the same time, they justify “just wars” in defending life and liberating conquered lands without killing innocent people. Peace per se is not prominent in the Old Testament. The ancient Israelites were often merciless warriors.

The Book of Isaiah allowed commanded or obligated war. When the enemy comes to conquer land, fighting is legitimate. There are many accounts of vicious genocide by ancient Jews against neighboring tribes.

In the Hindu epic Mahabharata, Arjun was persuaded by Krishna to engage in combat out of selfless duty. The Bhagavad Gita has been interpreted to sanction killing when bidden by a superior party to do so.

Prior to the establishment of the Roman Empire, religious intolerance was the norm. Christianity under the first Christian Roman Emperor Constantine (280-337 AD) experienced a dramatic conversion toward a state-supportive view of the legitimacy of war and of military service.

St. Augustine, during the fifth century, propounded the concept of “Just wars” and suppressed the Christian “Donatists” from North Africa by force.

Over the next thirteen centuries, Christendom continued to suppress “heresy” by means of physical suppression, often involving cruelty and brutality. The Church promoted the Crusades (War of the Cross) to recapture the holy city of Jerusalem from Muslims with the support of Pope Urban II.

During the Middle Ages, Jews became a handy scapegoat during the plagues. Often, at the instigation of the Christian Church, Jewish communities were invaded, and many individuals were massacred.

Break-away Christian movements were viciously exterminated by the Christian Catholic Church. These included the Cathars, Knights Templar, and Huguenots. A few hundred thousand “witches” and other “heretics” were arrested, tortured, and burned at the stake over a period between 1450 and 1792.

Religious wars during the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe led to the increasingly widespread conviction that there had to be a better way to decide these issues than with the sword. It is only in recent years that the Christian Catholic Church has begun to realize the enormity of crimes perpetrated in the past on others and has made formal apologies.

Islam professes peace, and in a verse in the Holy Qur’an, it proclaims: “Be not weary and faint-hearted, crying for peace, When you should be uppermost” and has a history of tolerance toward other faiths. Islam also sanctions war for God’s cause.

One such verse in the Holy Qur’an states “Fight in God’s cause against those who wage war against you but do not commit aggression, For verily God does not love aggressors.” This implies war is only justified if attacked.

Religious Tolerance

Religious tolerance means to refrain from discriminating against others who follow a different religious path. It does not mean that one has to accept another religion as true.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary’s (1960) definition of religious tolerance is:

  • recognition of the right of private judgment in religious matters.
  • liberty to uphold one’s religious opinions and forms of worship, or
  • to enjoy all social privileges, etc., without regard to religious differences.

This definition views religious tolerance as a human rights issue. It acknowledges that individuals have the right and freedom to their own beliefs and related legitimate practices without necessarily validating those beliefs and practices.

But many religious leaders promote hatred towards people of other religions because they tend to believe that other religions are sinful, offensive to their God, damaging to society’s morals, and will cause others eternal punishment in hell. In such an environment, religious intolerance breeds, and conflicts begin.


One of the most glaring instances of wars in the name of religion was the Crusades led by Christian people toward Muslims to capture the holy city of Jerusalem. The wars were sanctioned by successive Popes.

The religious revival and quickening of vigor in the Christian West, coupled with the establishment of Seljuk Turks in power in the Middle East, led to successive Crusades against Muslims.

A man called Peter the Hermit carried on popular propaganda throughout France and Germany and spoke about the cruelties practiced by the Turks upon Christian pilgrims and the shame of the Holy Jerusalem being in the hands of Muslims.

A great wave of enthusiasm swept the Western Christian world.

The Byzantine Emperor Michael VII feared Turkish invasion, and he sought help not from Christian Emperors but from Pope Urban II.

The religious wars and Crusades began. There were seven Crusades spreading over the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries. The declared object was the recovery of the Holy Jerusalem from the Muslims.

The first Crusade started in 1096 and was one of the most successful ones. In three years they recaptured Jerusalem where the triumph of the Gospel of Peace was celebrated by an appalling massacre of their prisoners, women, and children.

The second Crusade (1147-49) began with the massacre of Jews in Germany and ended in disaster, except when an English fleet took Lisbon from Arabs, and it passed into the hands of the King of Portugal. Then, in 1187, Saladin recaptured Jerusalem for Islam.

The Third Crusade began in 1189 and continued until 1192. The German Emperor and the Kings of England and France participated in the war but failed to recover Jerusalem.

The Fourth Crusade began in 1202 and helped to capture the city of Constantinople in 1204. Three more Crusades were fought but ended in failure.

The Crusades had shown the unpleasant face of religion and exacerbated the sense of unbridgeable ideological separation between Islam and Christianity.

In recent times, Pope John Paul II apologized to Muslims for the cruelties perpetrated on them by Christians during the Crusades. The Catholic orthodoxy condemns Islam, and likewise, Islam makes the same condemnation of Christianity because of their belief in the “Trinity” (Father, Holy Ghost, and the Son).


The rise of Zionism led to the establishment of a state within Palestine. The name “Zionism” was coined by a Hungarian Jew Theodore Herzl from the word “Zion”, the hill in Jerusalem where King Solomon built the Temple.

In the 20th century, with the rise of Zionism, “tolerance turned into hatred and respect into contempt.” The creation of a Jewish state and the upholding of Palestinian rights were found to be incompatible. The Palestine Arabs feared that in a Jewish state, they would become second-class citizens.

Hitler, through his efforts to exterminate Jews in Europe, provided a boost to Jews to set up a new state.

The Jews, with the support of Western money and support, created a Jewish State, Israel, in 1948. As a result, millions of Palestinians became refugees, and the conflict between Jews in Israel and Palestinian Arabs commenced and continued until today.

The resolution of the conflict is imperative for peace in the Middle East.

Other Religious Conflicts

Catholics and Protestants fought with each other in The Thirty Years War of the early seventeenth century. The war (1618-1648) led to terrible bloodshed. The conflict was between two sets of rival doctrines of Christianity.

The dispute was “over the source of doctrinal authority with Protestants believing that the New Testament to be the only source and Catholics asserting that the Church as an organization had divine authority to interpret the New Testament”.

The conflict between the two sects re-surged in Northern Ireland in 1969. Although there was a Peace Agreement concluded in 1999 (Good Friday Agreement), the terms of the Agreement fell apart in 2002 as the Irish Republican Army (Catholic) and Ulster Defence Association (Protestant Para-Military Group) were reluctant to lay down their arms.

Islam has also split into two sects – Shi’ia and Sunni. Like Catholics and Protestants, they have a long history of mutual persecution.

Pakistan has often been the scene of sectarian conflict. It is reported that on 22nd February 2003 nine minority Shi’ites were gunned down by suspected Sunni extremists riding a motorbike in Karachi, and as a result, riots broke out.

In Western eyes, the two most spectacular victories for militant Islam had been the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the capture of Kabul by the Taliban in 1996 (Taliban regime was dismantled by December 2001 by the US-led forces).

In Western countries, fundamentalism arose through aggressive denominations of Churches since the 80s. The religionization of politics and the politicization of religion are new phenomena that spread at the beginning of this new century. Extreme Christian groups under Jerry Falwell spread hatred between Christian and people of other faiths in the US. Malise Ruthven pointed out that the visions of the “end of time” in which Christian fundamentalists such as Pat Robertson’s beliefs were not far removed from Osama Bin Laden’s fantasies.

In the Middle East, many militants including Osama Bin Laden believe that Muslim countries have been corrupted by Western ideas and therefore must be overthrown. Egyptian terrorists killed seventy tourists from Europe in 1997 at Luxor.

The culminating point reached when the terrorists attacked on the US on September 11, 2001 killing almost 4,000 people of different nationalities.

In the post-September world, “Islamophobia” began to creep into Western society. An eminent Palestine-American academic Edward Said wrote that: “I don’t know a single Arab or Muslim American who does not feel that he or she belongs to the enemy camp and that being in the United States at this moment provides us with an especially unpleasant experience of alienation, quite specifically targeted hostility.” Professor Samuel Huntington (US) predicted that a clash of civilizations between Christians and Muslims would dominate this century.

Empirical evidence suggests that militant people of all faiths have recourse to conflicts on the basis of religion. It appears that militants have abandoned the core teachings of the religion of love, amity, tolerance, and patience. Many scholars have noted that one of the tragic developments was the rise of very aggressive religious-political positions during the 20th century, which has continued in the 21st century.

Revival of Religious Fundamentalism

Douglas Allen argues that the revival of fundamentalism has often been stirred up by a relatively privileged, newly emergent, urbanized, and economically Westernized middle class rather than by an oppressed and exploited class.

The fundamentalist religious-political parties failed to win over the masses of workers and peasants. In Bangladesh, the religion-based party Jamaat’s political strength came down with each election. In 1991 they secured 12.13 percent of the popular vote; in 1996, 8.61 percent; and in 2001 just 4.31 percent.

Religious Fundamentals In India

India’s political scene has been dominated since 1998 by the emergence of an ideology of militant Hinduism (Hindutva) as nationalism.

Hindutva ideology means one nation, one religion, and one country. It rejects the pluralism of religion. To them, India would be the land for Hindus – “Hindustan”. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has ruled India in coalition with other parties since 1998. Has been a right-wing party that is affiliated with the Hindu-based organization called Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) is another affiliate of the BJP, and both RSS and VHP have considerable influence on the BJP. Most of the members of the BJP are members of the RSS. RSS looks with suspicion at the loyalty of both Muslims (about 130 million) and Christians (30 million) in India (Hindus constitute 830 million).

There was a report that RSS had set up camps for re-conversion to Hinduism from Christianity. In recent times, Christian missionaries were attacked and killed in India.

In 1992, the BJP’s campaign against the Babri mosque was realized. Ending a year of widespread communal violence, especially in Kashmir and the Punjab, where there had been many deaths, a Hindu crowd demolished the 464-year-old mosque on 6th December 1992 in Ayodhya.

This fueled communal riots all over the country. The RSS and VHP want to build a Temple on the site of the mosque it claimed was the birthplace of the Hindu god, Lord Rama. Praveen Tagodia, VHP’s General Secretary, reportedly admitted on 2nd April 2003 that his organization was responsible for demolishing the Babri mosque.

Furthermore, Tagodia was reported to have called for “Glorious Hindu rule.” Whether RSS and VHP can build a Temple on the site of the mosque depends on the judgment of India’s highest court. Meanwhile, the court put a ban on any religious activity on the site, and the BJP-led government in February 2003 urged the court to lift the ban to please the BJP supporters.

An aspect that merits attention is the fear among fundamentalist Hindus that Hindus are bound to disappear in 100, 200, or 400 years.

Author Neil DeVotta stated that Hindus’ concern led the Arya Samaj, a Hindu revivalist organization, to institute a shuddhi (purification) ceremony movement whereby those Hindus who had converted to Islam or Christianity or whose ancestors had changed faiths were returned to the Hindu fold.

Hindu fundamentalists utilize selective historical accounts of Muslim rule in India to claim that a Muslim conspiracy has long existed to eradicate Hinduism.

The same logic of survival of Hinduism also influenced their preference for Hindi as the only national language in India. It is argued that communal riots or religious cleansing takes place when one religious group considers seriously in providing a permanent solution to controlling an opponent’s numbers.

It appears that British India’s partition in 1947, long-lasting tensions with Pakistan over the Kashmir dispute, a belief among some Hindus that Muslims could operate as a fifth column (spy) for Pakistan, the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque in 1992, and the existence of separate civil code for India’s Muslims have all contributed to Hindu-Muslim suspicion and animosity.

What is also clear that Hindu radicals (Shiv Sena, Jan Sangh, and Hindu Mahasabha organizations) driven by their Hindutva ideology and a deep-seated antipathy for anything Muslim and Islamic have demonstrated a willingness to exploit whatever they can to undermine communal harmony in India. However, the majority of Hindus in India remain tolerant and secular.

It is regrettable that some elements are exploiting religion to pursue conflicts for narrow selfish interests.

Radicals of all faiths gave a bad name to noble religions by nurturing bigotry, contempt, and conflict, while true religion represents contentment, tolerance, love, and peace. As Pope John Paul II said: “All religions should strive for peace. War is always a defeat for humanity. It is a tragedy for religion.