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Religious Wars & Violence

Religious Wars & Violence


This lesson presents an abbreviated history of religious wars, as well as the theological, textual, and historical bases, motivations, and justifications for violence both within and among different religions.

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Religious Wars and Violence

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Let's take a look now at religious wars and violence. War rarely, if ever, has a single cause but it arises from a complex set of circumstances. So whenever we discuss war, we need to take into account economic, political, and cultural factors. So religion would only be one of those cultural factors that contributes to warfare and violence.

When it comes to religion, we can ask is religion a cause for war or is it more of a pretext for violence? Nation states enter into wars for many different reasons. They could be looking to increase their power. They could be looking to increase their territory. They could be looking to increase their geopolitical strategic readiness. So religion can be used as a pretext by any state that wants to come up with a justification for using violence.

So let's take a look at the Crusades for just a minute. The Crusades were waged by the Catholic Church and by feudal states against Islamic lands primarily as a land grab. That is, they wanted to take back Jerusalem and the Holy Land from Muslim control. So this was a move for territory.

And at the same time, Muslim governments were looking to expand their territories as well. So on both sides, this was a territorial expansion. And both sides also exercised a religious mandate. Both sides felt that it was their destiny to expand to conquer more territory, rather like Manifest Destiny in the United States, the push to move out all the way to California when settlers felt that it was their divine right to conquer the entirety of the North American continent.

These motives are remarkably intertwined-- the desire to have more land, more power, more resources-- together with a religious mandate or a religious justification. It's very difficult to separate these two things.

It's maybe not as well-known that the Crusades were also anti-Semitic-- that there were persecutions of Jews that went along with the Crusades. So when the Crusaders were making their way down the Rhine in Germany, they often built fortresses. And as they were doing that, they were also tormenting the local Jewish population, killing Jews, expropriating their property, and putting that stolen Jewish property into the service of the Crusades.

What the Crusades thrived on was difference. Any kind of religious or ethnic difference that could be used to justify the theft of property was exercised.

Let's take a quick look at the Bosnian Conflict, which you might remember from the '90s. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, religion was used as a pretext for ethnic cleansing. And it was primarily Muslims who were killed during that ethnic cleansing.

So this was a very, very, very ugly historical circumstance where people who had previously been neighbors and had lived together peacefully were now killing each other and taking over property belonging to one another. And this was on an almost block-by-block basis. So this is a tremendously horrific situation.

Would it have happened without religion? Well, we really need to look into this notion of ethnicity. Ethnicity can take on a more hereditary flavor. It can act in a sort of pseudo-racial basis. I say pseudo because race is not really a scientific construction. It's more of a social construction.

So religion is a component of ethnicity but we can have ethnic notions that don't rely as much on religion. Religion absolutely played a role in this conflict but it's not clear that religion was the decisive factor.

Let's take a look now at terrorism. Is terrorism religiously motivated? Well, yes. But that doesn't really tell the whole story.

Terrorists around the world don't just have religious grievances. They have issues that are exacerbated by geopolitical issues. That is to say that terrorists are concerned with their way of life, their culture changing. They are concerned with imperialism, with western countries that throw their weight around. They are still dealing with the legacy of colonialism.

So their gripes, their grievances, are not just religious grievances but they have to do with a host of issues, those issues that we were talking about at the beginning of the tutorial-- economic issues, political issues, cultural issues. So religion is one axis along which terrorism operates. But it's not the only axis.

It's also very difficult to define what terrorism is. Terrorism to one person is freedom fighting to someone else. So terrorism depends on your perspective. Most people tend to view the actions of their own nation in a favorable light and the actions of other nations and non-state actors in an unfavorable light. So it just depends on your perspective who get labeled as a terrorist.

Thanks for watching this tutorial on religious wars and violence. We said that war rarely, if ever, has a single cause but arises from a complex set of circumstances including economic, political, and cultural factors. We said that religion can be a cause for violence but it can also be a pretext for violence, a convenient justification for going to war.

We looked at the Crusades as both a land grab and as a religious mandate as Christian and Muslim armies vied for territory over several centuries, including parts of Eastern Europe, North Africa, and Palestine. We also said that the Crusades had an anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish aspect as the crusading armies also expropriated the property of Jews and killed Jews.

We took a look at the Bosnia-Herzegovina Conflict and said that religion was one of the fault lines along which ethnic cleansing took place. And that this was a very ugly conflict in which there was a campaign of genocide against different ethnic groups, mainly the killing of Muslims. Finally, we said that terrorism is, in part, religiously motivated but that it is also motivated by geopolitical issues.

Let's take a quick look at the vocabulary. The Crusades were a series of wars between Muslim and Christian armies for control of Eastern Europe, North Africa, and Palestine. Ethnic cleansing was the targeting of ethnic or religious groups for elimination from a particular area, generally either by death or by forced relocation.

We said that terrorism is the deliberate undertaking or threatening of violent actions against the civilian population, designed to instill fear in that population in order to achieve desired social, political, or religious aims.

Terms to Know
Ethnic Cleansing

The targeting of ethic or religious groups for elimination from a particular area, generally either by death or forced relocation.


The deliberate undertaking, or threatening, of violent actions against a civilian population designed to instill fear in that population in order to achieve desired social, political, or religious aims.

The Crusades

A series of wars between Muslim and Christian armies for control of Eastern Europe, North Africa, and Palestine.