Religion is often cited as a cause for wars, including contemporary conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Gaza and perhaps even partially in Ukraine. However, a review of recent and historical conflicts suggests that religion is often used to exhort populations or specific groups of people to war, while the real causes of war maybe economics, mutual distrust and fear of the unknown future.
The global news media has it that the Islamic Caliphate, otherwise known as ISIL, or ISIS, is an extremist Sunni Muslim state being formed over the territories of two states dominated by Shia governments: Iraq, dominated by a majority Shia population and government, and Syria, still officially ruled by the Shia Alawite minority. Mostly Shia Iraqi army is struggling to contain the Caliphate, even supported by the Shia Iran and a number of mostly Christian states, among them the United States and the United Kingdom. The Caliphate is receiving money and fighters from the Sunni Muslims all over the world, some of whom are doing so because they have declared Jihad, a holy war against enemies of Islam. In addition to their war against the Shia governments, the Caliphate fighters are persecuting all other religious minorities within their reach: Christians, Yazidis, etc.
The ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict, including the latest chapter of Israeli incursion into Gaza, has all the markings of a religious war. Islam is pitted against Judaism. The conflict goes back to the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948 and flares up periodically into:
- Suez Crisis in 1956,
- Six Day War in 1967,
- War of Attrition in 1969,
- Yom Kippur War in 1973,
- Operation Litani in 1978,
- Invasion of Lebanon in 1982,
- First Intifada 1987-1993,
- Clashes with Hezbollah in Lebanon, in 1993, 1996 and 2006,
- Second Intifada 2000 to 2005
- 2006 Lebanon War
- Gaza War 2008-2009
Although probably no one would claim that the war in Ukraine is a religious war, there is a religious aspect of the Ukrainian war: Eastern Ukraine is Orthodox owing allegiance to the Patriarch in Sergiyev Posad while Western Ukraine is either Uniate (an Orthodox church with allegiance to Rome) or Catholic. There have been news stories which have accused the Eastern Ukrainian priests of aiding the Eastern Ukrainian rebels and preaching against the ultra-nationalist Ukrainian government as well as stories about persecution of the Orthodox priests by the Ukrainian ultranationalists.
Chechen War was proclaimed a jihad and attracted a number of foreign fighters from Turkey and Arab countries. A book “My Jihad” is a compelling story of an American, Aukai Collins, who converted to Islam and went to fight in Chechnya. How much of the story is true isn’t known. In one particularly gruesome episode the author describes how the fighters of the jihadi unit snuck into the Russian army barracks and in cold blood slit the throats of a number of Russian conscripts, boys of 18 to 20 years old, who just arrived at the front. The author later appears to have cooperated with FBI and CIA against his former cohorts.
Jihad, or holy war, has been proclaimed by one or other Muslim authority in Afghanistan, certainly when it had a socialist government in the late 80s. Remember Charlie Wilson’s “brave mujahedeen”? The fighters who “fought on the side of freedom” against “Russian aggression” later turned out to be Taliban and Al-Qaeda. They harbored those who planned 9-11 and are continuing to cost the United States and its allies thousands in lives and billions in budgetary expenditures. Expenditures which may have gone to improve the lot of the poor in the developed countries, raised the level of education, developed new scientific breakthroughs, etc.
There have been a number of religious wars through history. The enormously destructive Thirty Year War in central Europe in the early 17th century pitted, for the most part, Protestants against Catholics. The war laid waste to most of Germany and parts of Belgium, Denmark and Czech lands. In some parts of Germany as many as a half of all men were killed and a total population was reduced by 25 to 40%. All sides, much to the detriment of the local population, used mercenary forces, at times hiring entire professional armies-for-hire supported by artillery, baggage train, and commissary. Unfortunately, the main method of provisioning the armies was the so-called “off-the-land” method, featuring indiscriminate looting of the local population which responded by periodically killing military foraging parties and stragglers. The war was also a crucible of re-emergence of combined-arms warfare using Swiss and German pike-wielding heavy infantry, harquebusier light infantry, reiter light cavalry and lancer heavy cavalry.
The Battle of the Ice culminated a campaign by the knights of the catholic Teutonic order against the Orthodox Novgorod Republic. During the battle, the heavily armed Teutonic knights charged into the middle of the Russian array in a customary wedge formation. Their plan followed the traditional heavy cavalry tactic of attempting to burst through the ranks, wheel and take the wing formations in the rear. Some of the order’s men-at-arms on foot as well as Estonian infantry followed to exploit the breech. Russian forces arrayed in the traditional linear formation with the Alexander Nevsky’s heavily armed personal guard (the companions) formed in the middle and the Novgorod and Pskov militia on the flanks. In a variation on the typical battle order, the Russian bowmen formed in a single unit in front of the guardsmen, thus masking them. When the Teutonic wedge broke through the bowmen, they were halted by the heavily armed guard and entangled into a static melee. The Russian militia advanced to encircle the Teutonic cavalry and infantry, surrounding most and pursuing the rest for seven miles. During the pursuit some heavily armed knights and footmen fell through the ice.
The most famous religious wars must be the Crusades which went on from the end of the 11th century to the end of the 13th century. Some historians count nine crusades:
- The First Crusade had two columns, one of 20000 largely unarmed people who were ambushed and massacred by the Turks. The other decidedly less pacific group of French knights and men-at-arms massacred Jewish populations of European cities they passed through, inflicted heavy defeats on Turks and Arab they encountered and annihilated Muslim and Jewish inhabitants of the Levant cities they took by siege.
- The Second Crusade featured massacres of the Jews in Germany as well as Reconquista of Lisbon from Moors.
- The Third Crusade was led by the powerful and colorful kings: Richard the Lionheart (of England), Frederick Barbarossa (Holy Roman Emperor) and Philipp Augustus (of France), started out in a promising manner, but fizzled after a few victories in the field.
- The infamous Fourth Crusade, having started out against Muslims, turned against Orthodox Christians, resulting in the first in history fall of Constantinople and a short-lived Latin Roman Empire. Subsequent crusades were less notable but fortunately also less iniquitous.
The Muslim Conquest of the 7th and 8th centuries is thought to be a religious war. Arab armies supported increasingly by local converts to Islam conquered territories from India and Central Asia to Spain. In process they destroyed the Persian Sassanid Empire, which existed under one dynasty or another since time immemorial. They also greatly diminished the Roman Empire, taking all of their territories in Mesopotamia and North Africa. They annihilated the upstart vandal kingdom in North Africa and Visigoth principalities in Spain. They nearly took over southern France before being halted by Charles Martel in the Battle of Tours. Central Asian Turkic tribes, Khazars of southern Russian planes, and Hindu kings of Rajasthan all defeated attempts at further expansion of the original Muslim Caliphate.
Vardanank was a war between the Christian Armenians and Zoroastrian Persians around 450 AD. For much of its history Armenia was a pawn played by the superpowers of the ancient world: Persia and the Roman Empire. Persia attempted forcible conversion of Armenian nobility to Zoroastrianism to tie the country closer to Persia. Vardan Mamikonian, the Armenian military commander, was persuaded to convert while in the Persian capital. However, upon return to Armenia he repudiated his conversion and set about gathering an army from the private guard units of the nobility. His quest was noticed by the people and soon became a national uprising, bringing in volunteers from around the country, including from those fiefs which chose not send their professional soldiers. At the time of the rebellion, a unit of Armenian cavalry fought for the Persians in Central Asia. Upon hearing of the uprising they went over to the enemy and made their way roundabout through Central Asia, Russian steppes and Caucasian mountain passes back to Armenia, offering their services as mercenaries for one warlord or another along the way. Both Vardan Mamikonian and his daughter Shushanik died during the war and were canonized by the church.
Some think that religion is a frequent cause of war. The news storied keep harping on “sectarian violence” and “religious intolerance”. However, Encyclopedia of Wars lists only 123 of 1763 total wars having religion as the primary cause. Considering the recent conflicts it is clear that although Jihad serves as means to recruit fighters and bring donations to ISIL, the low standard of living in Syria and Iraq as well as disenfranchisement of Sunnis by ruling groups who happened to be Iraqi and Syrian Shiites also may be the causes of advent of the Caliphate.
Desperate poverty and overcrowding of Gaza and continued stranglehold of Israel on any hope of better life for the Palestinians inhabiting Gaza may have been the true cause of the recent Gaza conflict. It may be that Israel finds itself in nearly constant warfare because it forcibly displaced Palestinians off their land to clear space for the Jewish state and deprived them of their property and livelihood. The lot of Palestinians, generations of whom by now have languished in poverty in Jordan, Lebanon, Gaza and West Bank, has not improved over the years.
In addition to being Catholic or Unitarian, the Ukrainian West is also the poorest region in Europe. It is beset by institutional corruption and inefficient socialist institutions left over from the Soviet Union. It is grieved by memories of Russian persecution after being on the wrong side during the two World Wars. The Ukrainian West, goaded by the United States and NATO enmity to what they see as an emerging dictatorship in Russia, doesn’t have much to lose in causing unrest and war.
1990s were not kind to any of the states of the former Soviet Union. Abrupt discontinuation of centralized economy resulted in rampant inflation, staggering unemployment, lawlessness, widespread corruption. During these days of the Wild Wild East Chechnya was the Sicily of Russia. Chechens formed a dedicated nucleus of a number of criminal organizations in the countries of the former Soviet Union somewhat similar to the Sicilian mafia in Sicily and in the United States. In case of Chechnya, the mafia appears to have attempted to form a criminal state within a state as a place of refuge. Onslaught of the Russian army to prevent formation of a criminal haven caused the Chechens to cast about for the allies abroad.
Afghanistan, always poor, much like Ukraine, became a geopolitical pawn. A socialist government came to power in the late 1970s and threatened the established leadership of the Afghani society. The resulting struggle led eventually to the declaration of Jihad against the overwhelmingly superior invading Russian army. The United States supported the Jihad with word and deed. In 2001 it was the turn of the United States to occupy Afghanistan with Russian help to try to bring stability to the warring land. Neither the United States, nor Russia have been successful so far.
The Thirty Years War, nominally between Catholics and Protestants, was also a power struggle between numbers of German princes and later involved the Habsburg Empires of Spain and Austria, a rising Swedish power and ambition of Richelieu to protect France from encirclement by the Habsburgs.
The Teutonic Knights attempted to impose Western European feudal order on the republics of Pskov and Novgorod, thus running afoul of the merchant elite which ruled both city-states. Alexander Nevsky himself, a later Orthodox saint, was an invited military commander in Novgorod. His relationship with the Novgorod city masters, the rich traders, was tenuous. On a number of occasions, he was banished from the city and another captain was brought in. The Novgorod merchant elite would fight any rule that would threaten their position.
It’s reasonable to assume that the success of the First Crusade when minor French nobility became kings of large principalities in the Levant did much to popularize religious wars among the knights and monarchs of Europe. Eastern Roman Empire’s desire to recapture lost territory from Muslims and prospects for ferrying armies, provisions and a possibility of a direct route to eastern spices motivated the Venetians, Genoans and other Levant merchants.
The wars of Muslim Conquest certainly assured formerly impoverished Arab tribesmen of riches and influence beyond their dreams. Islam may have offered populations of Mesopotamia exhausted by constant warfare between Christian Eastern Roman Empire and Zoroastrian Persians an opportunity to get rid of both.
Vardanank preserved Armenia as a Christian state. In addition to religious reasons Armenian nobility may have resented the encroachment of Persian landlords, were concerned of their ability to maintain their wealth and power within a larger Persian empire. They certainly would not have had much influence at the large Persian court and would have had less ability to play off Persia against the Romans to stay independent. The Christian clergy also certainly had much to lose.
While religion may be a factor in many wars, it doesn’t seem to be a strong candidate as a cause for war. Rather, it seems to be a frequent justification or an additional impetus to encourage populations to fight.