Is Religion really Driving Middle East Violence?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Pew Research has released a report saying that

“As a whole, the region continued to have the highest levels of religious hostilities in the world. In 2014, the median level of religious hostilities in the Middle East and North Africa reached a level four times that of the global median.”

But is there another way to look at this data? Is it really all about religion?

Pew does excellent polling and I’ve used their work a great deal, e.g. in my Engaging the Muslim World . And the good thing about their polling is that they are very up front about their assumptions and methodology.

This is what they mean by “religion”:

“For the purposes of this study, religion-related terrorism includes acts carried out by subnational groups that use religion as a justification or motivation for their actions.”

So a “subnational” group might well be driven primarily by nationalism, but if its members commit terrorism that is “religion-related,” then it gets counted under the sign of religion.

Social scientists talk about people having “markers” of identity. Language and religion can be such markers, as can constructions like “race.”

In the context of Protestant Britain, Irish immigrants in the 18th century were coded as Catholics or “papists.” Where there were mob attacks on them, however, it would be difficult to prove that the fine points of theology were always the main drivers of the violence. Some of it was social class, some of it was “race.”

So it isn’t easy to disentangle religious motivations from nationalist ones.

Pew adds

“Religion-related terrorism also includes terrorist acts carried out by individuals or groups with a nonreligious identity that deliberately target religious groups or individuals, such as clergy. ”

So what Pew is really measuring is not religious fanaticism at all, but the prevalence of symbolic targets that are religious in nature.

So if two secular groups fought and a religious symbol was harmed, the incident in this study would be classified as religious violence.

In social science, you have wide latitude in making your definitions, as long as you clarify your terms to begin with.

What Pew is actually saying is that in the Middle East and North Africa, people are four times as likely to act out their ethnic violence by attacking religious symbols as in the rest of the world. It isn’t saying they are four times as likely to be religious fanatics.

My guess is that the Middle East is unusually religiously pluralistic, and this is especially true of the Levant to the Gulf. Whereas Poland is almost entirely Catholic, Iraq is 60 percent Shiite and 37 percent Sunni (counting Arabs and Kurds).

There are also relatively high rates of religious belief in the region. If you wanted to hurt a member of another ethnicity, you’d know that striking their religious edifices or clergy, etc., would hit them hard. Thus, al-Qaeda’s destruction of the Shiite Golden Dome shrine of the eleventh Imam in Samarra in 2006 set off an Iraqi civil war. You couldn’t hurt the feelings of very many French by taking a sledge hammer to a gargoyle.

A lot of the violence that gets coded in the US press as religious is actually about nationalism. This principle holds especially true in Palestine-Israel.

But take Syria. Some observers suggest that the Lebanese militia, Hizbullah, which is Shiite, intervened in Syria to help the Alawites, also Shiites. But they don’t belong to the same branch of Shiism. Most Lebanese Shiites belong to the orthodox Twelver school, with mosques, collective Friday prayers, clergymen, etc. Alawites are heterodox– lacking mosques and having wise men rather than seminary-trained clergymen. Most Sunni and Shiite Muslims don’t consider the Alawites to be Muslims. Moreover, many Syrian Alawites are members of the Baath Party, which is highly secular and socialist. So Hizbullah did not come into Syria for reasons of religious sympathy. They came in because the Baath, secular government of Syria is a vital supply route for Hizbullah.

So if a Sunni mosque was shelled by Baath Party members because even relatively secular Sunni opposition groups were hiding behind it, Pew would count that as religious violence in this study.

That outcome is legitimate, since they defined their terms to begin with. But as consumers of such studies, we should be careful about how we use the findings. They aren’t saying what we might at first assume they are. In polls as in consumer purchases, always read the fine print.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

U Chicago Social Sciences: “PANEL 2: Religious Minorities in Syria’s Civil War | Keith Watenpaugh”

13 Responses

  1. Religion renders acceptable actions which might otherwise give the individual pause and challenge the conscience. A well trodden route to religious aggression lies in many Old Testament stories instilled in most of us from an early age.

  2. The “religious hostilities” in the ME is the byproduct of a false flag operation to destabilize the ME. Just about nobody in the USA had heard of Sunnis or Shiites 50 years ago

  3. At the center of human action is the human self, which reflects a spectrum of qualities ranging from the lowest to the highest.

    Lower qualities include selfishness, anger, vengeance, doing unto others what one doesn’t want done unto one, seeing otherness, ignorance, hatred, desire for power, control and resources, etc., while the higher qualities are the opposites of the lower, and include, love, peace, forgiveness, lack of desire for power, control and resources, willingness to share, generosity, selflessness, not doing unto others what one doesn’t want done unto one, seeing no otherness, etc.

    Organized religion, as opposed to spirituality, often causes one to see otherness and lead to tyranny.

    Nevertheless, religions are potent. Interpret and apply them through the lower self (consciousness), and they’ll produce devastating results. Interpret and apply them through the higher consciousness, and they’ll be a source of peace and togetherness.

    The violence driving the ME is a manifestation of the lower self, albeit in the making for a very long time.

  4. Hi Prof. Cole: How accurate are the Iraqi statistics in relation to the Sunni-Shia distribution as referred in your article? It was never the state policy to count people’ religious affiliation, knowing that specifically the Shia / Sunni real number is dynamic or un-stationerious.
    P.S.: it is understandable when this type of statistics are not liked by the pre-invasion government because it sells itself as secular or it would discredit itself if in reality the Shia are the majority. Thank you. Ahmed Fourati

  5. While I generally concur with Juan Cole’s observations about the ME, I would have to admit that the continual use of the Western monotheist (Latin) term ‘religion’ in the media about the Levant is misleading, unless referring specifically to belief in a direct correspondence between the material and immaterial facets of existence. The hypothesis that is, that ‘spiritual’ forces affect material phenomena. The term religion originally referred to any form of strong legal ‘binding’ between individuals. It’s the difference between ‘equation’ and ‘adequation’ (or approximation) in ancient philosophy, which marked the transition to early modernity in Europe and the gradual evolution away from theocracy in civic life. A development in which the ME (and its various warring ‘religious’ cults) is by and large about a millennium behind the West.

  6. Yes, and this is how the terms ‘clash of civilizations’ and ‘they are against our what we believe’ developed. It’s not so difficult to understand why 9/11 happened if its put in political terms. US = S. Arabia = illicit government/apostate. The stationing of US troops in Arabia after Desert Storm were the immediate target and the US removed them after 9/11. Everything in the ME is political. Palestinian Christians are just as opposed to Israeli occupation as Palestinian Muslims.

  7. ‘Religion’ is a Western notion, the adaptation of an ancient Roman legal term for the ‘binding’ (ligature) of individuals to each other; a ‘secular’ concept. Its use for what is conventionally termed religious or spiritual(ist) practice is an adaptation of this for theist cultic behavior. Beneath the term is an epistemological claim: that there is a real ‘causal) link between immaterial and material phenomena. That the palpable universe is the artifact or product of a divine (immaterial) artificer or creator, which elicits or demands acknowledgement or obedience, and which promises punishment or death by local hegemonic powers for non-literal acknowledgement of enforced superstition.

  8. ‘Religion’ is always, everywhere, about social power; about the maintenance of a belief in unverifiable forces and ‘proper’ cosmic ‘order’. Much contemporary media commentary about religion is misinformed, illiterate, ahistorical and ultimately terror-inducing. Dr Cole always seems to engender responsible commentary and discussion and is an oasis of sanity in terrible times.

  9. Forgot to mention that this is all at base a matter of ‘correct’ aesthetic fabrication – as Plato rightly argued in the text we call The Republic (Ta Politeia), where he railed against representational art as potentially damaging to the ‘souls’ of citizens – unless properly guided by a good (aristocratic) ruler or philosopher-king in accord with the forces of the cosmos. The paradox of course was that the articulation of those cosmic laws was in the hands of those holding for desiring civic power.

  10. Most American politicians, along with journalists like Fareed Zakaria, think that the Muslim extremists hate the USA because of our “freedoms” (tits and ass, etc. ) and refuse to name the question of Israel and Palestine as the real root cause. Bin Laden always said that was foremost issue.

  11. “Thus, al-Qaeda’s destruction of the Shiite Golden Dome shrine of the eleventh Imam in Samarra in 2006 set off an Iraqi civil war. You couldn’t hurt the feelings of very many French by taking a sledge hammer to a gargoyle.”

    Apples to Oranges? I think blowing up Notre Dame would get their attention.

    Admittedly though, it wouldn’t be so much a matter of religion but French identity.

  12. Implementing any system where religion and government are intermingled is certain to promote hostilities and strife. Theocracy works in small tribal settings but fails miserably when confronted with large diverse populations.
    Attempting to unify under the auspices of any obscure 5 millennia-old desert tribal god is the errand of fools and pretenders and yes, psychopaths.

  13. The “West” pretends that support for Israel’s wars is not religious, but the operative definition of “Jewishness” in Israeli law (maternal inheritance or Orthodox conversion) is a religious doctrine – there is no secular scientific basis for this classification.

Comments are closed.