Insurgent violence in the name of religion dominates our headlines. This summer, Boko Haram advanced rapidly across northeastern Nigeria in pursuit of its announced goal to create an Islamic state in the region. ISIS enjoyed similar success when it combined threats against Western involvement in the Middle East with the gruesome beheading of journalists and aid workers. More recently, the threat of domestic terrorism inspired by foreign guerrillas has surfaced in Ottawa and just last week, a horrific attack on worshippers in a Jerusalem synagogue resulted in the city’s deadliest mass killing in years.
Events like these leave us asking: What is it about religion that inspires such violence? Far less frequently do we consider the intense shock and outrage they provoke. Many of us, however, including government and military officials, exhibit a particularly fervent reaction to religious violence. Why? And, how might this influence the policies we advocate for and adopt in response?
Who Fights Matters
Despite the frequency and consequences of religious conflicts today, surprisingly little research explores the cultural, organizational, and cognitive biases that influence military planners’ reactions. Too often analysts assume states have fixed interests and will respond in a uniform way to any type of non-state challenger. When the role of religion is considered, attention overwhelmingly focuses on how it shapes rebel behavior.
Yet, research by social movement scholars over the past decade persuasively argues that the identity of dissenters can substantially affect the type and extent of force applied by the state, although their focus has been primarily on domestic police, not military forces. Christian Davenport, Sarah Soule, and David A. Armstrong, for instance, show in a recent study the impact of demonstrators’ race on police response. Examining U.S. protests between 1960 and 1990, they find that African-American protestors were more likely to attract a police presence than other groups and, once present, police were more likely to make arrests and use force and violence, especially before 1970.
Policymakers frequently emphasize the need for overwhelming force against insurgents perceived to be motivated by religion.
Terror at the Name of God
Building on this body of literature, my own research considers how the religious identity of insurgents can arouse a similar reaction in COIN planning and operations. While focusing on British security forces during the early postwar period, I find evidence that decision makers construe religious opposition movements as particularly violent and uncompromising. Across a diverse set of cases, however, one can find a tendency to prioritize coercive tactics over population-centric methods. For example, policymakers frequently emphasize the need for overwhelming force against insurgents perceived to be motivated by religion. Appeals within the U.S. foreign policy community that suggested “out-terrorizing” Islamist insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan stand out as one notable instance. The call by Nigeria’s President Goodluck last May to wage a “total” war against Boko Haram another. Netanyahu’s promise of a harsh response to this week’s synagogue attack a third.
Similar views also manifest on the battlefield, although they are more difficult to document. David Morris, for instance, records in his controversial article on the Iraq War, The Big Suck, that “To hear the marines describe it, Ramadi is the Chernobyl of the insurgency, a place where the basic proteins of guerrilla warfare have been irradiated by technology and radical Islam, producing seemingly endless cells of wide-eyed gunslingers, bomb gurus, and aspiring martyrs. Globalization wrought with guns and God. A place devoid of mercy, a place where any talk of winning hearts and minds would be met with a laugh.” A 19th-century British observer of the Russian conquest of the Caucasus adopts a remarkably similar tone. Trying to dissuade those at home from aiding the rebels, he warned that Moscow faced guerillas intent on creating a new Empire in the region, one “based on the principles of Mahomedan fanaticism and domination.”
Finally, even a cursory review of insurgencies over the past half-century reveals that episodes of disproportionate force by counterinsurgents fighting religious guerrillas are far from the exception. For instance, following an uprising by members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Hafez al-Assad ordered a scorched earth campaign against the city of Hama. The massacre has since been described as one of “the single deadliest acts by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East.” The Sino-Tibetan insurgency wars inspired a bloody response by the state, with approximately 85,000 deaths and Lhasa’s three main monasteries damaged nearly beyond repair. The Russian bombardment of Grozny during the Second Chechen War, in turn, was so devastating that the United Nations declared Grozny the most destroyed city on earth in 2003.
Lest one think that such violence is restricted to authoritarian regimes, democratic governments have inflicted equally intense levels of devastation. The Indian army, for instance, employed six tanks and approximately 80 high-explosive shells in its assault of the Golden Temple in Amritsar during the 1980s. Similar episodes of disproportionate force characterized battles during the Iraq War, such as when U.S. Marines in April 2004 launched Hellfire missiles and two 500-pound bombs to subdue 30 to 40 insurgents firing from the Abdul Aziz al-Samarrai mosque in Fallujah.
For over a decade now, scholars and policymakers have kept their focus squarely on how religion shapes non-state actors’ behavior. This has led to widely cited findings that suggest religious conflicts last longer, involve more casualties, and remain more difficult to resolve than other types of conflict. Yet, the jury remains out on whether these purported effects are a consequence of religion motivating rebels or the response provoked in counterinsurgent forces. The above-mentioned examples, of course, do not demonstrate a pervasive or systematic bias in state response. However, they do suggest the value of further study. Looking at only one side of the battlefield misses the many ways religion influences contemporary warfare.
[Photo source: Flickr Commons.]
Jason Klocek is a doctoral candidate in the Travers Department of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. He holds an M.A. in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served with the U.S. Peace Corps in Turkmenistan. His research focuses on religious violence, counterinsurgency, and transitional justice.
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number (1423286). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.”