Field of Science

Wars increasingly involve religion, but it's not a clash of civilisations

Jonathan Fox, a Political Scientist at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, has reviewed data on conflicts worldwide since 1960, and found not only that there are currently more religious conflicts that there were in the 60s, but that religion now plays a role in over half of all conflicts.

By 'religious conflict' he doesn't mean one that is just about religion - such conflicts are few and far between. Rather, he means one in which religion is a significant factor, meeting at least one of these criteria:

  1. It is between groups who belong to different religions;
  2. It is between groups that belong to different denominations of the same religions (e.g. Protestants vs. Catholics or Sunni Muslims vs. Shi’i Muslims)
  3. The issues in the conflict include (but are by no means limited to) significant religious issues, such as state religion policy or the role of religion in the regime. These issues need not be the most important issue in the conflict but they must be among the central issues in the conflict.

He used a standard and widely-used database of conflicts (the PITF), extracting data on ethnic wars, genocides and politicides and revolutionary wars, and categorised them according to whether they involved a conflict of religious identity conflict (the two groups involved in the conflict belong to different religions or different denominations of the same religion) or a religious war (both sides are the same religion, but religion is an issue in the conflict - usually fundamentalists versus secular states).

Overall, wars of all kinds peaked in the early 1990s and have dropped away since. The same trend is shown by religious wars, although the drop-off has not been so sharp.

The result is that religious wars are making up an increasingly large portion of the total - a trend that can be identified as starting in the late 1970s (think: Iranian Revolution).

These wars increasingly involve Islamic fighters. In recent years, 70% of all conflict and 100% of all religious wars have had an Islamic component.

However, they are not inter-religious wars. Conflicts involving Christians have declined somewhat, and other religions even more.  This conflicts with the 'Clash of Civilisations' idea, in which Samuel Huntingdon proposed that conflicts between the West and Islam would increase following the end of the Cold War.

What Fox thinks is happening is a combination of two factors.

Firstly, he cites David Rapoport’s Wave Theory of terrorist causes. This basically says that terrorist causes rise and fall roughly every 45 years. Each generation, looking for a cause to make its own, rejects the causes of the generation before and seeks out a new cause.

 Islam, then, is simply the current vehicle for revolutionary idealism - following on in the footsteps of anarchism, anti-colonialism, and 'new-left' terrorism. Revolutionaries latch onto Islamism as it offers a stark contrast to the established, secular states.

In this reading, the current wave of Islamic conflict will ebb in turn, probably over the next 10-20 years. Maybe the 'Arab Spring' is the first flickerings of the next wave!
Jonathan Fox (2012). The Religious Wave: Religion and Domestic Conflict from 1960 to 2009 Civil Wars DOI: 10.1080/13698249.2012.679492

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. What is the factor accounting for the drop off in total conflicts from the early 1990s? The fall of the USSR?

  2. But generations are (used to be) ~ 20-25 years, so the wave theory is 'every other generation'.

    @ Anomynous:

    Maybe Pinker has something to say (his book about how we are becoming peaceful), but if not I think Hans Roslings statistics are valid:

    Markedly increased social health for almost all nations (better economy/free markets, more democracy, more social medicine) has correlated with less war.

  3. I am a Brazilian Historian of Science and a former Marxist-Leninist. Can you lead me to a scientific paper explaining the atheistic ethos that led to a 100 million deaths in the 20th century?

  4. @ anon: Yes, the spike in the early 1990s was to do with the collapse of the USSR. Here's what Fox says:

    In 1991 and 1992, 18 new state failures started, 11 of which were religious ones. Nine, of these state failures, were in the former Soviet bloc, six of which were religious state failures. However, half of the new state failures occurred elsewhere and a majority (five of nine) of them were religious state failures. During this period religious state failure increased from 30 per cent of all state failures in 1986 to 49 per cent in 1992.

  5. @Enezio: short answer is no. I don't really think there was an atheist ethos that lead to 100 million deaths, so I doubt such a paper exists.

  6. I wonder how the data would change if you normalized it by the size of the conflict. While it may be true that there were a lot of small wars peaking in the 90s, I think one would have a hard time making the case that the world was a more war-filled place in the 90s than in, say, the 40s! I know the top line would look a lot different if normalized for the size of the conflict; so I have to wonder how that would affect the religious wars.

    Oh, and Enezio is clearly trolling, so well worth ignoring.

  7. Bah, ignore me, I should learn to read graphs better. I see it already is normalized by number of fatalities. And it only goes back to 1960, hence there being a legitimate peak in the 90s. Nevermind, I'm silly...

  8. For the atheist ethos that led to a 100 million deaths in the 20th Century see the book:

    The Black Book of Communism

  9. Happy to hear you found the article useful.


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