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date: 16 January 2018

Culture, Religion, War, and Peace

Summary and Keywords

Religion and culture have historically been neglected in international relations (IR) theories and in political science more generally. It was only recently that IR began to consider the role of culture and religion in war and peace. Several main scholarly trends in the study of culture, religion, conflict, and peace can be identified, starting with the definitional problems that IR scholars had to deal with as they tried to incorporate culture and religion. The first major attempt in the IR field to understand war almost exclusively through the religious prism was that of Samuel Huntington, who in his Clash of Civilization (1993, 1996) identifies two main reasons why religion can cause war: first, religion can be considered as a primordial and immutable identity; and second, religion is a form of ideology rather than identity. The scholarly literature has also addressed themes such as religious fundamentalism and violence, the role of religious actors in international conflict, the practical use of religion and culture to promote peace via diplomacy, and engagement of religion and culture in existing peace theories such as democratic peace theory. Avenues for future research may include the relational and constantly changing aspects of religion; what, when, and how various religious interpretations receive political prominence in promoting conflict or peace; how religion can be used as an independent variable across cases; and the hidden set of assumptions that are embedded in the cultural and religion labels.

Keywords: religion, culture, international relations, peace, war, Samuel Huntington, religious fundamentalism, violence, diplomacy, democratic peace theory


Historically, international relations (IR) theories neglected ideational factors such as identity, religion, and culture. Although culture was a part of political science since Almond and Verba's seminal book in 1963, IR's dominant schools of thought (Realism and Liberalism) overemphasized material, structural, and “objective” factors in explaining states’ behavior. Religion was ignored altogether not only in IR, but also in political science in general (Wald and Wilcox 2006; Bellin 2008). In recent years, IR began to consider the role of culture and religion. Culture as a variable appeared during the end of the Cold War together with the “constructivist turn” (Lapid and Kratochwil 1996; Checkel 1998; Finnemore and Sikkink 2001). Religion entered the field a decade later alongside a scholarly focus on ethnic and religious conflicts and religious-inspired terrorism (Fox 2001:53; Philpott 2009:184; Snyder 2011:1).

This essay reviews the main scholarly trends in the study of culture and religion as sources for conflict and resources for peace. After a brief survey of the early works of political theorists regarding religion and war, this essay turns to review how the topic has been understood within IR. As the essay demonstrates, the attempt to deal with religion and culture as part of identity is a source of much confusion. In order to avoid confusion and reiteration of other comprehensive review essays on culture and IR (such as the essays titled “Culture and Foreign Policy Analysis” and “Nonrealist Variables: Identity and Norms in the Study of International Relations” in this work), this essay gives special focus to the topic of religion in studies of conflict and peace. In IR, religion is usually an independent variable that causes war or peace, or an intervening variable that shapes the probability of a conflict and its violent potential (Hasenclever and Rittberger 2000:644–8). Some scholars focus on what religion says, while others research what religion does; some scholars deal with religion in the individual level, while others emphasize the societal and organizational aspects of religion (Haynes 1998). The next section reviews the ways IR scholars define culture and religion and suggests that religion should be viewed as a part of culture. The following sections discuss the clash of civilizations debate; the relationship between fundamentalism and violence; religion as a cause of war; religion and the intensity of war; culture, religion and diplomacy with some references to cross-cultural negotiation; and culture and the democratic peace with some references to the debate regarding religion and democracy. The essay concludes with suggestions for future directions for research.

Conceptualizing Culture and Religion in IR Scholarship

Despite some exceptions, such as Adda Bozeman (1960), Jack Snyder (1977), and to some extent Robert Jervis (1976), IR scholars did not realize the importance of culture and religion to the understanding of peace and conflict until the post-Cold War era and the introduction of constructivism. The first task facing IR scholars trying to incorporate culture and religion is the task of definition. The understanding that these concepts can be rather distinct, but at the same time intrinsically connected has been a source for much confusion and contention. As this section suggests, different IR scholars treat culture and religion in different ways and sometimes use these concepts interchangeably with other concepts, such as norms, identity, and ethnicity.

The first example for such confusion exists in the writings of IR scholars from the English School, who understand religion as the main component in a society's culture. To Bozeman (1960, 1971), for example, culture means civilization, and what dictates the mode of thinking and the normative order in a civilization is religion. Similarly, as Buzan (1993:333) and Thomas (2005:153–4) describe, Martin Wight argues that international societies can be formed on the basis of shared culture, but underlines the role of religion in not only promoting such peaceful unity but also holy wars. This view of religion as the core component of civilization is also shared by non-English School scholars such as Huntington (1996) and some of the authors in the volume edited by Katzenstein (2010).

While English School theorists understand culture as part of religion, the constructivist theoretical framework does the opposite. In constructivist studies, culture includes religion as well as other concepts such as identity, norms, or ideas (Lapid and Kratochwil 1996; Katzenstein 1996; Checkel 1998; Desch 1998). Cohen (1997:11–12), for example, defines culture as “an acquired unique complex of attributes of a society that is subsuming every area of social life,” and we can find a similar approach in Mary Adams Trujillo et al. (2008). For others, such as Avruch (1998:17) and Abu-Nimer (2001:687) who draw on Theodore Schwartz's definition, culture is a less homogeneous and static concept and it “consists of the derivatives of experience, more or less organized, learned or created by the individuals of a population, including those images or encodement and their interpretations (meanings) transmitted from past generations, from contemporaries, or formed by individuals themselves.”

Subsuming religion under culture kept the concept under-theorized. It is notable that a canonical constructivist text, Alexander Wendt's Social Theory of International Politics (1999), does not include “religion” in the index (Snyder 2011:2). An exception is Kubálková (2000), who brings religion into the study of IR through rule-oriented constructivism. However, the increasing interest in communal conflicts, such as ethno-national wars, and especially the September 11th attacks, have led to a resurgence of religion in the study of world politics (Fox 2001:53; Philpott 2009:184; Snyder 2011:1).

Religion presents further definitional problems. The definition must encompass numerous but exclude from other phenomena such as ideologies or cults (Philpott 2003). Some of the early studies that deal with religion and international conflict, such as Ryan (1988), Azar (1990), Gurr (1994), and Gagnon (1994), consider religion to be part of a larger concept of ethnicity, or communality. Seul (1999:553) tries to explain “the frequent appearance of religion as the primary cultural marker distinguishing groups in conflict,” and concludes that religion often exists “at the core of individual and group identity” (Seul 1999:558). For Rothschild (1981:86–7), however, religion is subsumed under the concept of ethnic identity. Correlation of War (COW) data uses both religion and ethnicity in measuring culture (see Henderson 1997:661). Finally, Anthony Smith traces modern nationalism to religious origins (Smith 1999; see also Brubaker 2012).

Haynes (1998) provides a brief discussion about the definition dilemma and draws on Aquaviva while offering two sociological definitions. One sees religion as “a system of beliefs and practices related to an ultimate being, beings of the supernatural,” and the other considers religion to be what is “sacred in a society, that is, ultimate beliefs and practices which are inviolate” (Haynes 1998: 4). The latter kind of definition is sometime referred to as ‘civil religion’ (Liebman and Don-Yiḥya 1983).

Toft (2007:99) lists the common elements in most definitions: “a belief in a supernatural being (or beings); prayers and communication with that being; transcendent realities that might include some form of heaven, paradise, or hell; a distinction between the sacred and the profane and between ritual acts and sacred objects; a view that explains both the world as a whole and a person's proper role in it; a code of conduct in line with that world view; and a community bound by its adherence to these elements.”

On one hand, this discussion provides us some indicators to distinguish between religion and culture: the first belongs to the realm of the sacred and involves a relatively stable doctrine that connects the individual with the transcendental, while the latter belongs to the realm of the profane and involves a malleable combination of practices, customs, and expectations in relation to the society. On the other hand, religion and culture are intrinsically connected by myths, practices, and moral judgments that make religion a part of culture.

War and Peace in the Works of Religious Scholars and Political Theorists

Almost all religious texts have references to war and peace – the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Quran, the Iliad and Odyssey, the Rig Veda, Mahabharata and Ramayana, Arthasastra, and so on. These references offer different treatments of war and peace. Some describe human nature as aggressive or as pursuing peace, some explain war and peace as a result of divine intervention and will, and some define the conditions in which war and peace can be achieved. Some references in sacred texts condition peace on the society's moral behavior. Other texts determine with whom, when, and how a war can be held and a peace treaty can be signed. Most of the sacred texts also have detailed historical narratives of war and peace, from which we can draw conclusions how the religion conceives war and peace. Religious figures and leaders are still creating new interpretations and commentary about peace and war, and this rich genre receives a lot of attention from scholars. In the Western world, books on Judaism and Christianity were written focusing on analyzing peace and war in the Hebrew Bible, in the New Testament, and in sermons, letters, and other external texts and exegeses (Arias 1533; Belli 1563; Benezet 1776; Heaton 1816; Dymond 1834). In the Muslim world, a similar attempt was made (Shaybani 1335; Ibn Khaldun 1377; Baladhuri 1866). This trend is still relevant in contemporary research today in Christianity (Faunce 1918; Barrett 1987; Swartley 2006), in Buddhism (Kraft 1992; Jerryson and Juergensmeyer 2010), in Islam (Khadduri 1940; Khadduri 1955; Kelsay and Johnson 1991; Abu-Nimer 2003; Mirbagheri 2012), in Judaism (Homolka and Friedlander 1994; Eisen 2011), in Hinduism (Banerjee 1988), and in some of them together (Jack 1968; Ferguson 1978; Smock 1992; Gort et al. 2002; Nelson-Pallmeyer 2003; Nan, Mampilly, and Bartoli 2012).

Political philosophy also includes religion in its scholarship. Religion, God, and faith exist in the writings of Hobbes, Machiavelli, Grotius, Rousseau, Locke, Kant, and other early Western political thinkers. All of them considered religion to be an inherent part of life and society that had to be accounted for in political analysis. Some perceived religion as a moral and ethical guideline for individuals and society, and some debated whether religion is an obstacle for government and society or an integral part of it. The relationship between religion and political life remains a vibrant subject of debate to this day (Eisenach 1981; Beiner 1993; Martinich 2003; De Vries 2003). Despite the richness of the contributions of religious scholars and of philosophers, these works have not yet offered a scientific theory regarding the role that religion plays in war and peace.

Religion and Conflict: The Clash of Civilization Debate

The first major attempt in the IR field to understand war almost exclusively through the religious prism was that of Samuel Huntington in his well-known article and book Clash of Civilization (1993, 1996). Huntington, rejecting Francis Fukuyama's notion of the “End of History,” divides the world into seven or eight major civilizations that are fundamentally different from each other “by history, language, culture, tradition and, most important, religion” (Huntington 1993:25). Instead of the traditional territorial nation-states, Huntington recognizes a world comprised of various identities that are not necessarily delineated by national boundaries. He argues that the end of the Cold War and the ideological battle between the West and the East will be replaced by a battle of civilizations, which is the broadest category of identification for individuals and is mainly determined by religious beliefs. More specifically, Huntington predicts that the main civilizational conflict will be between the Islamic civilization and the Judeo-Christian Western civilization, due to conflictual history from both sides, a large gap in values, the rise of Islamic extremists and fundamentalism, and a clash of identities as a result of Muslim immigration.

In sum, Huntington's view clarifies two main reasons why religion can cause war. First, religion can be considered as a primordial and immutable identity. The Manichean perception of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ that religion provides is a main source of conflict (Dark 2000:4–5, 11). Second, globalization, which folds within it rapid economic development and an increase in interactions between individual groups, creates a clash between traditional customs and Western modernity (Fox 1997:3; Thomas 2000:5). The desire of other civilizations to maintain their core values and traditions, and to prevent the domination of Western culture lead Huntington to claim that civilizational differences will be the main source of future wars (Huntington 1993:29–31, 40).

Huntington's thesis received a lot of interest in scholarly and political discourse, and his thesis was tested and criticized from many angles. Ajami (1993), Bartley (1993), and Weeks (1993), for example, argue that states are still the main actors in the international system and that the English-Western secular modern force is more powerful than Huntington thinks. Kirkpatrick (1993) claims that intra-civilizational conflicts are more common than inter-civilizational conflicts. Others, such as Tipson (1997), Pfaff (1997), and Said (2001), criticize Huntington's facts and methodology (for more comprehensive reviews of the clash of civilization debate see O'Hagan 1995; Fox and Sandler 2004; Fox 2005). Katzenstein (2010) rejects Huntington's conception of civilizations as homogeneous in favor of a pluralistic view recognizing internal diversity. Katzenstein (2010) further questions the Huntingtonian “clash” with the evident capacity for inter-and trans-civilizational encounters.

Scholars have also made quantitative attempts to test Huntington's theory. Russett, Oneal, and Cox (2000) examine inter-state wars between 1950 and 1992 and conclude that realist and liberal variables provide better explanations of these conflicts than civilizational factors. Henderson and Tucker (2001) examine international wars between 1816 and 1992 and find no connection between civilization membership and international wars. In addition, Henderson and Tucker find that conflicts within civilizations are more likely than conflicts between civilizations. More recent attempts also do not find support for the clash of civilization thesis (Chiozza 2002; Ben-Yehuda 2003; Bolks and Stoll 2003; Fox 2004; Henderson 2005). However, Henderson's (1997:663) findings suggest that “the greater the religious dissimilarity between states, the greater the likelihood of war.” Similarly, Roeder (2003) examines ethnopolitical conflicts and finds support for Huntington's thesis. Fox, James, and Li (2009) bring a different angle to the clash of civilizations debate in examining international interventions on behalf of the same ethno-religious group in another state. Although they focus only on conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, their findings show that Muslim states are more likely to intervene on behalf of other Muslim minorities. Moreover, ethnic conflicts with a religious dimension seem more likely to attract intervention than other ethnic conflicts.

Another view of religion as a cause of war sees religion as a form of ideology rather than identity. In this kind of approach, the emphasis is not on how clashing religious identities create conflict, but rather how religious ideas shape worldviews that justify or are consistent with conflict (see also Desch 1998). According to Beker (2008), for example, the Jewish notion of the “chosen people” has fueled many ideological conflicts between Jews and non-Jews. He further demonstrates how the battle over “chosenness” is evident in modern anti-Semitic discourse. Khadduri (1955) makes an analogous point with the concepts of dar al-harb (territory of war) and dar al-Islam (territory of Islam) in Islamic laws of war. Similarly, in examining Chinese thought and culture and their influence on Ming strategy towards the Mongols, Johnston (1995:xi) finds that the non-militant ideas usually associated with Confucianism may be “inaccurate, misleading, or plainly wrong.” Juergensmeyer (2003) focuses on ideas that affect “cultures of violence.” Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and others, Juergensmeyer claims, share a worldview of cosmic war between darkness and light (Juergensmeyer 2003:13, 35). Because religious ideology is a defined non-negotiable set of rules, resolving a religious dispute peacefully is harder than with other disputes (Dark 2000:1–2).

Religious Fundamentalism and Violence

The relationship between religious worldviews and war leads us to religious fundamentalism and violence. Of special note is the five-volume work by Marty and Appleby (1991–5) that encompasses different approaches and case studies related to fundamentalism. Marty and Appleby (1992:34) define fundamentalism as “a distinctive tendency – a habit of mind and a pattern of behavior – found within modern religious communities and embodied in certain representative individuals and movements … a religious way of being that manifests itself as a strategy by which beleaguered believers attempt to preserve their distinctive identity as a people or group.” They recount the ideological extremism in social, political, and structural conditions, such as social deprivation, repressive regimes, reaction to secularization, and economic crises. Marty and Appleby argue that religious ideas are not the goal for the fundamentalists, but rather they use religion as a means to achieve political ends. Fundamentalists use “old doctrines, subtly lift them from their original context … and employ them as ideological weapons against a hostile world” (Marty and Appleby 1991:826). Fundamentalism, in this view, is a religious backlash against secular rule (see also Tibi 1999). Juergensmeyer (1993) shares this view but opposes labeling this religious fervor as fundamentalism due to the accusatory and ambiguous meanings of the term.

Eisenstadt (1999) agrees with Marty and Appleby that “contemporary” fundamentalist movements are thoroughly modern movements, but disagrees with the link they draw between religious force and fundamentalism. For Eisenstadt, contemporary fundamentalist movements rest on the same universal, utopian, totalistic, and secular claims of modernity that the Jacobins and the communist revolutions were based upon but “promulgate anti-modern or anti-Enlightenment ideologies” (Eisenstadt 1999:1). The direction which a fundamentalist movement takes depends on its civilization, the political and social circumstances surrounding the movement, and the international setting (Eisenstadt 1999). Reviews of religious fundamentalism and violence include Gill (2001) and Ozzano (2009).

Religious Actors and International Conflict

Scholarship has gone beyond the clash of civilizations debate and the study of fundamentalism to explore further questions about how and under what conditions religion leads to war. One approach has been to consider individual values and mindsets in the lists of factors that affect decision making by leaders, including decisions about war. Brecher (1972), Jervis (1976), and Fisher (1997) focus on culture, while Fox (2001), Sandal and James (2010), and Warner and Walker (2011) focus specifically on religion. On the collective level, society's core values, conceptions, and assumptions about the world and the enemy can influence foreign policy outcomes (Booth 1979; Hudson and Vore 1995; Reeves 2004). Religious beliefs should not be dismissed as irrational or marginal, but should be included in the strategic calculations of leaders and states (Toft 2007:129).

Religious affinities on the collective level are not confined to traditional territorial state boundaries. Transnational religious actors are another good example of the role of religion in conflict. Religious terrorist groups that have cells in different countries can initiate a conflict between states, and global riots can result from injury to religious sentiment, as in the Danish caricature case (Dark 2000:5–10; Fox 2001:67–9; Haynes 2001). These kinds of conflicts can be international, when religious diaspora is engaged in the conflict, or remain domestic (civil wars). Fox and Sandler show how local wars can capture the interest of members of transnational religious groups due to the possible involvement of holy sites (Fox and Sandler 2004:63–82). Even without direct participation in violence, religious transnational movements and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) participate in global conflict by lobbying or protesting in order to encourage a state to intervene in a distant war between ethno-religious minorities (Fox, James and Li 2009).

Religion may also have an indirect effect on war since it can be used as a tool to mobilize people and to enhance legitimacy (Fox 2001:65–7; Haynes 2004:456; Snyder 2011:11). This does not necessarily mean that political leaders actually hold religious beliefs but that such beliefs serve them in accomplishing their political interests. This view holds that the recent global resurgence of religion in various societies occurs as a result of instrumental use of religion by political elites (Fox 1997:4; Hasenclever and Rittberger 2000:643–6).

The question of whether religion is the cause of a conflict, or just a tool or a dimension of it was addressed in several quantitative studies. Gurr (1993) uses the Minorities at Risk data to examine mobilization and collective action in “communal conflicts.” His findings indicate that an essential basis for mobilization is a sense of group identity. Gurr measures group identity by using six indicators including religion, ethnicity, and social customs. Fox (1997, 2002) tries to isolate conflicts between groups from different religions. Using the same data as Gurr, Fox concludes that in such cases “religious issues play, at most, a marginal role” (Fox 1997:16). Henderson, however, using Correlates of War data, concludes that “cultural difference, especially in the case of religion, is positively associated with war” (Henderson 1997:666). Durward and Marsden (2009) offer a more nuanced and developed understanding of how religious beliefs, discourses, and practices are politicized and used to trigger conflicts, justify military interventions, and facilitate resolutions.

Religion and the Intensity of War

Another trend in the study of religion and war asks whether religious conflicts are more violent than other conflicts and if some religions are more prone to use more violence than others. Fox and Sandler (2004), using Minorities at Risk data, conclude that “religious conflicts … are consistently more violent than nonreligious conflicts.” A study by Pearce (2005) using a different data set supports this conclusion.

As for the relationship between a specific religion and violence, Pearce's (2005:349) results show that Judaism and Hinduism are more violence prone, but this may be due to a small number of cases. Fox and Sandler's (2004:132) results demonstrate “conflicts involving Islamic groups are more violent than conflicts not involving Islamic groups,” and conflicts within the Islamic civilization “are slightly more violent” than conflicts between civilizations. Due to the fact that there are many Muslim states, but only one Jewish state and one Hindu state that are each experiencing protracted conflict, it is still unclear whether specific religions are more violent than others, or whether it is a false image created by the uneven numbers of religious groups. The finding that Islamists were involved in 81 percent of the religious civil wars between 1940 and 2000 led Toft (2007) to eventually conclude that “overlapping historical, geographical, and, in particular, structural factors account for Islam's higher representation in religious civil wars.” More importantly, her theory suggests that religious aspects are an instrument by political elites for gaining more legitimacy in order to survive, or to achieve another objective (Toft 2007:97–8, 128).

The degree of religious violence does not have to be related to a specific religion, but rather to the type of regime or degree of state power. Thomas (2000:14–15) suggests that the appeal for religious ideas grows larger especially in weak states. Fox (1997) shows an increase in religious discrimination and grievance in autocratic states compared with democratic regimes. When a transition to democracy happens, the chances of such communal violence rise due to the diminishing power of the regime and an ease of autocratic repression (Gurr 1994).

Culture, Religion, and Diplomacy

Scholars have also been interested in the practical use of religion and culture to promote peace. Discussing culture specifically, Kevin Avruch (1998) suggests that culture is a significant variable in conflict resolution as each negotiator comes with his or her own subculture (class, region, ethnicity, and more). In contrast, Zartman (1993:17) gives culture little substantive significance and argues that it is as relevant as the breakfast the negotiators ate. Fisher (1980) and Cohen (1997) occupy the middle ground suggesting that culture matters together with other variables. For a good introductory review regarding these approaches, see Ramsbotham, Miall, and Woodhouse (2011).

Cultural gaps may involve language barriers, create problems of interpretation, and disrupt the transfer of information (Gulliver 1979; Fisher 1980; Faure and Rubin 1993; Cohen 1997; Berton et al. 1999). The dichotomy, made by Hall (1976) between high-context cultures and low-context cultures, is useful in explaining these cultural obstacles in international negotiation. High-context cultures are generally associated with collective societies in which communication is less verbal and more indirect, emphasizing the context in which things are said and done. High-context cultures require communicators to pay attention to nuances and body language. Consequently, those from such cultures are more sensitive socially, they try to please their audience, and they see great importance in small talk and group consensus. Low-context cultures, on the other hand, are individualistic in character, and communication is direct and with a clear message. Accuracy in the written or spoken word is very important in low-context culture, and less attention is paid to context, body language, and facial expressions (Cohen 1997; Rubinstein 2003). When two societies from the two different types of culture meet around the negotiation table, potential pitfalls are evident. This line of research has specific practical implications. The US Institute of Peace published a series of works analyzing different negotiating styles and behaviors to equip negotiators with a better understanding of cultural differences. Examples include Wittes (2005), Solomon and Quinney (2010), and Schaffer and Schaffer (2011).

As for structure and the process of negotiation, culture can play an important role in the degree of trust between the sides, which can define negotiation strategy and whether there is a need for mediation. These factors can also influence the size of the delegations, the different roles within the delegation, the degree of unity within the delegation, negotiating procedures, seating arrangements, and public announcements (Berton et al. 1999:3–5).

This vast literature regarding culture and diplomacy has little to say about religion. As former United States Secretary of State and international relations scholar Madeleine Albright confesses, diplomacy, conflict resolution, negotiation, and peace were all conceptualized in secular terms with no room for religion and faith prior to the terror attacks of September 11th (Albright 2006:8–9). Indeed, most of the IR studies on culture and diplomatic practices to promote peace were written during the 1980s and 1990s. Only after September 11th did religion and faith become a primary topic.

Many scholars agree that the same power that religion has in inciting conflicts can also be used to promote peace (Gopin 1997; Appleby 2000; Broadhead and Keown 2007). Some works continue the trajectory of previous studies on cross-cultural negotiation and focus on a specific religion. In the case of Islam, Alon (2000), Alon and Brett (2007), and Pely (2010) focus on Muslim perceptions of conflict resolution, values of honor, and the institutional mechanism of sulha (reconciliation). Other studies consider how peace can be achieved with an emphasis on shared religious values, such as empathy, forgiveness, mercy, compassion and the Golden Rule to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Gopin 1997; Gopin 2001; Cilliers 2002; Carter and Smith 2004). Similarly, Albright (2006:73) mentions the religious notion that “we are all created in the image of God” as a common ground. Shore (2009:2) shows how “Christianity played a central role in South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” and how values of forgiveness and justice were important in South Africa's peaceful transition to democracy. Similarly, Gopin (2002) argues that in the Israeli-Palestinian case, the marginalization of religious aspects was crucial in the failure of the Oslo agreement. He adds that by putting religion in the middle of the reconciliation process, and with dialogues between key religious figures from both sides, peace in the Middle East can be achieved.

While traditional realpolitik diplomacy has had difficulties coping with religion-inspired conflicts, non-state actors, such as religious leaders and members of religious NGOs, had more success in promoting peace in different forms – whether peacemaking, peacebuilding, peace enforcing, or peace keeping (Little 2006:102). Cynthia Sampson (1997) overviews the various roles and methodologies used by religious-motivated institutional actors in the process of peacebuilding. She provides manifold examples of conflict intervention by religious institutional actors that advocate (such as during the Rhodesian war of independence), intermediate (such as in the 1972 Sudanese peace process), observe (such as during the 1991 Zambian elections), and educate (such as in Northern Ireland). Appleby (2000) offers a similar approach focusing on religious actors and their roles.

The vast examples of religious involvement in peacebuilding have led Johnston and Sampson (1997) and Johnston (2003) to conceptualize this type of diplomacy as “faith-based diplomacy,” which takes place through track II channels (the informal and unofficial negotiations). In general, the Catholic Church receives more scholarly attention than other religious institutions in mediating disputes. Examples include the 1968–89 internal dispute in Bolivia (Klaiber 1993) and the Beagle Channel dispute between Argentina and Chile (Garrett 1985; Lindsley 1987; Laudy 2000). Bartoli's analyses of the reconciliation process in Mozambique specify how religion plays a role in conflict resolution. He demonstrates that religion does not replace or transform the political process of negotiation, but rather provides motivation, organizational capacities, legitimacy, and flexibility (Bartoli 2001, 2005; see also Toft, Philpott, and Shah 2011).

The volume edited by David Little (2007) offers a different perspective that focuses on individual religious figures, rather than institutions, as peacemakers. Examples from El Salvador, Israel/Palestine, Kosovo, Northern Ireland, and Sudan highlight the grassroots efforts by religious individuals to promote peace. Using religious texts, rituals, and networks these individuals increase global attention, help find common ground, provide moral justification, and facilitate face-to-face communication between the warring sides (see also Smock 2008; for more on the topic of diplomacy and religion see “Diplomacy and Religion”).

Recently, there is a growing interest in challenging the secularist assumptions of United States foreign policy. Hurd (2008), for example, demonstrates that the perceived separation between religious and secular political authorities is a result of a political process and is socially constructed. By identifying two trajectories of secularism – a laicist one and a Judeo-Christian one – she shows how religion and secularism were never apart. Thus, instead of characterizing religion as a threat, diplomats and decision makers should realize that there are various political representations and interpretations of religion and should make more room for non-Western forms of politics (Hurd 2007). From a different perspective, Farr (2008) calls for rejecting the American narrow version of religious freedom that focuses on humanitarian violations in favor of a more tolerant and broader version that builds and encourages different versions of religious freedom in different regimes. Philpott (2013:31) supports Farr's conclusions by highlighting how religious freedom is a “critical enabler of peace.”

Culture, Religion, and the Democratic Peace

Another research theme in IR tries to engage religion and culture in existing peace theories. The main example is democratic peace theory, by which liberal democracies tend not to fight each other. One of the explanations for democratic peace argues that shared cultures, values, and norms favoring compromise and peaceful solutions lead liberal democracies to solve disputes peacefully (Maoz and Russett 1993). But the traditional cultural explanation for democratic peace focuses on political culture and not on other elements such as ethnicity, language, and religion. Henderson (1998) tests the theory with those elements included and concludes that religious similarities within democratic dyads decrease the likelihood of war, while ethnic and lingual similarities increase this likelihood.

The connection between peaceful behavior and regime type led scholars to examine the connection between specific religions and democracy as a way to better understand the conditions for democracy and presumably for peace. After Huntington's theory and the events of September 11th, Western scholars tested Bernard Lewis’ hypothesis that Islamic religion conflicts with democracy (Midlarsky 1998:486). This topic was researched from different angles. Some argue that Muslim resistance to modernity is an obstacle to democracy (Sivan 1990); some argue that lack of sufficient economic development holds back democracy; others claim that the possession of oil and the concept of the ‘rentier state’ hinder democracy (Ross 2001; Fish 2002); and some claim that the ideas grounded in Islamic thought and religion are incompatible with democracy (Huntington 1984; Lewis 1996). On the other hand, Esposito and Piscatori (1991) and Esposito and Voll (1996) argue that Islam is not necessarily hostile to democracy, and urge us to remember that Islam, like democracy, has a variety of interpretations, meanings, and political practices. Midlarsky (1998) tries to test the relationship between Islam and democracy using a political rights index (measuring procedural democracy) and an index of liberal democracy (measuring liberal freedoms). He finds that Islam, measured by the percentage of population that is Muslim, has a negative correlation with liberal freedoms but does not necessarily rule out democratic procedure. Recently, Hunter and Malik (2005) offer an antithesis to this view and demonstrate how military, colonial, international economic, and domestic economic factors prevented the creation of a civil society that is crucial for democracy. Sonn and McDaniel's chapter in the same book demonstrates how modern Islamic thought is quite similar to Western values, including rationality and tolerance.

Future Research

In the study of war and peace, religion long played a marginal role. Both sacred texts and Western canonical philosophical works contain religious references to war and peace, but none of the main theoretical works in IR address religion. Since the end of the Cold War and the growing attention to ethnic conflicts, new interests in culture and religion emerged. Scholars first explored the interplay of culture, war, and peace focusing on decision making, negotiation, national character, and the cultural construction of friends and foes. Then, as a result of the growing attention to ethnic conflict and terrorism, there was a resurgence of interest in religion in IR scholarship. Treated both as a central component of social identity and as an overarching ideology, religious international violence is understood by some scholars as a reaction to global population flows, modernization processes, and secularization.

Religion, as a social phenomenon, is also able to help us understand the growing power of actors outside the traditional boundaries of the state. Transnational actors that share religious beliefs with each other can pursue different, and sometimes contradictory, goals from those of the nation-state. Such actors can ignite conflicts, but can also help in mediating negotiations and promoting peace. Diplomats have learned to use key religious figures in their reconciliation attempts and they try to emphasize common values and diminish differences between religions.

The rediscovery of religion in IR scholarship has produced many studies that try to theorize the role of religion in conflict and peace. Thus far, these studies treat religion either as a political tool used by agents for their own interests or as an essentialist ideological scheme that informs actors’ behavior. Future research may focus on the relational and constantly changing aspects of religion and show what, when, and how various religious interpretations receive political prominence in promoting conflict or peace. Moreover, IR scholarship could use more theorization of how religion can be used as an independent variable across cases. How can one compare the religious passions animating the Crusades, with the religious passions during the Thirty Years War, or with modern fundamentalist terrorism? The definitional problems, mentioned earlier, provide difficulties in that regard.

A new way to look in more depth at religious and cultural elements of international politics is to use them as interpretive tools. Culture can be conceptualized as the “practices of meaning-making,” and thus open an opportunity to investigate the ways in which meanings are created within a society (Wedeen 2002). For example, examining political rhetoric can help us understand how meanings become inscribed within a society and how changes in rhetoric can lead to changes in foreign policy (Krebs and Jackson 2007; Krebs and Lobasz 2007). Another beneficial way to engage the elusive concepts of culture and religion is to trace the hidden set of assumptions that are embedded in the cultural and religion labels. What does “democracy” or “freedom” mean to different cultural or religious groups? What types of behavior are expected from a negotiator who is labeled Muslim or Buddhist and how does it affect the negotiation process? Moreover, how does popular representation of different religions shape these hidden assumptions?

IR literature will probably continue to engage culture and religion in its research, but in order to develop the field and avoid academic stagnation, it is important to enable scientific pluralism that will force us to reconsider how we treat religion and culture. A deeper understanding of different religions and cultures will open our understanding of the different “worlds” within “our world” and will identify the values that drive these worlds.


I wish to thank Renée Marlin-Bennett for her valuable guidance and comments, and Andrew Mark Bennett for his meticulous assistance.


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Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs. At, accessed August 21, 2013. The Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, based at Georgetown University, is an educational and a research center for the study of religion in relation to various international phenomena, such as globalization, human rights, ethnics of war, negotiation, and more. The website also includes data regarding international religious freedom.

The Institute for Cultural Diplomacy (ICD). At, accessed August 21, 2013. The ICD is an international NGO whose main goal is to enhance the intercultural relations between peoples and areas in the world. The ICD offers reports and publications researching various aspects of cultural diplomacy – definitions, efforts, implementation, and future directions. The institute combines academic development of the field with practical programs and educational resources.

Minorities at Risk (MAR). At, accessed August 21, 2013. The MAR project, located at University of Maryland, collects data regarding active conflict between communal groups. Among other variables, the MAR data measures religious characteristics of the conflicting groups.

Religions and Ethics in the Making of War and Peace Project. At, accessed August 21, 2013. The project on Religion and Ethnics in the Making of War and Peace, based at the University of Edinburgh, is an academic and practical forum to discuss the relationship between military and religious ethics. The publication section includes several articles on that topic.

Religions for Peace. At, accessed August 21, 2013. Religion for Peace was founded in 1970 as a coalition of representatives from the world's major religions dedicated to promote peace. The website offers guides and resources aimed to help religious leaders decrease violence and encourage development and peace.

United States Institute of Peace. At, accessed August 21, 2013. Beside various books dealing with negotiation styles of different cultures, the United States Institute of Peace offers panels, initiatives, reports, and other publications dealing both with culture and religion in diplomacy and in war.