Identity-Based Conflict
Lecture 6

Religion, Law
and the Public Sphere

Rohee Dasgupta highlights the difficulties of bridging religious and political interests in the spheres of law and governance.
Diverse societies, whether multicultural, pluralistic or deeply divided, often require states to make
legal decisions over clashing religious needs in the public sphere.

This can lead to social, political or even armed conflict, which can be intensified when religious traditions are linked to particular identities.
The class opens with a participant seminar, this time exploring recent identity-based tensions emerging within the United States. While most of our attention has been on violence taking place outside of North America, this presentation links some of the theories we've been learning about with dynamics present even in non-armed, socio-cultural conflicts that manifest in events like the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests or the 2021 storming of the US Capitol. Both cases were analyzed through two identity-based lenses: race and political affiliation.

The first case addressed is the Capitol. On January 6th 2021, where a joint session of Congress was finalizing Joe Biden's electoral win, a pro-Trump rally outside the Capitol turned into a violent protest and proceeded to enter the building, leading to the death of five people, the injury of 140 and damage to the premises.

The period leading up to the "storming" was identified as one of high political polarization, with accusations of fake news, propaganda and various forms of injustice were rampant on many fronts. One of the presenters suggested that racial dynamics were at play, like with the infamous lynch pitched at the rally. It's construction has led many to speculate on the linkages between some of the protestors and various white supremacist groups that had become prominent in the national discourse since Donald Trump's election in 2016.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds | The Guardian
But racial dynamics, the presenter claimed, went beyond explicit signs like the lynch. As compared to violent crowd-dispersal dynamics seen when protesters were primarily black, she claimed, the pro-Trump protesters were met with a primarily peaceful response. Local police were hesitant to engage with the protesters, who moved through the building with relative ease – many of them took selfies inside the building, potentially less anxious about being identified later.

The presenter identified this as an element of privilege: this confidence may have stemmed from how the primarily-white protesters may not have been used to violent response during politicized mass rallies. She also identified that the media treated them differently than black protesters in BLM gathering: the Capitol participants were initially called "demonstrators" instead of "looters" or "rioters" in the media. The presenter claimed these dynamics as an example of how identity markers impact the ways that socio-political conflicts are received in contemporary America.

Media responses to the storming showed another deep-seated identity-based divide: political affiliation. Another presenter discussed how following liberal- or conservative-aligned media outlets showed sometimes entirely different portrayals of the event, with right-leaning outlets offering more favourable coverage (or at least less critical), while left-leaning coverage was often scathing.

A third presenter discussed these dynamics in more detail, describing an increasing body of research identifying liberal and conservative identities as salient factors in contemporary North American conflict. Scholars studying this trend include Lilianna Mason, who claims politics forms an identity marker on par with race, class or gender, Jonathan Haidt, who identifies cognitive and moral roots to political and religious disagreements, and Vamik Volkan, whose theories on trauma, memory and narrative have been discussed in previous classes.

An issue with political affiliation identity, though, is that it's a relatively new contempt in the field and hasn't received as much attention as other identity markers. While much of the literature on ethnic conflict emphasizes the need to legitimize all sides involved, actors in political conflicts often seek to delegitimize the other side in ways not conducive to the construction of sustainable peace.
The All-Nite Images | wikicommons
The presentation moved to the BLM movement and related protests. The presenters identified two roots of the conflict: a) incidents of police brutality resulting in the deaths of black civilians, and b) the rise of "woke" politics accompanied by a growing desire to address structural as well as direct racism.

The first presenter contrasted the relatively "light" treatment of the primarily white Capitol protesters with the treatment of predominantly black BLM protesters. Black participants were often labelled "looters" and "thugs" in the media and were met with harsher responses even though they hadn't targeted prominent political buildings.

Liberal and conservative slants in the media were also present, with many attempts to delegitimize the other side's response to the protests. This was complicated by narratives coloured through liberal and conservative lenses that often pushed simplified narratives at the cost of nuance. One such example is the liberal narrative that BLM speaks for black Americans, which is complicated by conservative black voices (such as economist Thomas Sowell and talk show host Larry Elder) who oppose the movement.

Another difficulty is that political polarization can lead to moral claims to the high ground, with each side not only disagreeing with the other, but talking about the other in moral terms of good or evil. High moral stakes makes it difficult to address legitimate grievances on both sides, which complicates efforts on the left to address property damage caused by protesters and efforts on the right to talk about structural racism. These ideas themselves are polarized and belong to the "other" identity, an identity which is resisted and often marginalized.

This results in identity-based cultural dialects where the different sides talk about the issues in very different ways. An example of this is the use of the word "racism" on the left and on the right – on the left there's a tendency for the word to refer to structural racism (emphasizing indirect systems that may result in oppression), while on the right it refers to direct racism (choices made by individuals that can be attributed to concrete actors). Political-affiliation identity polarization, in these cases, makes it difficult to even have a conversation about the conflict and may prevent effective responses to it.

Race and political affiliation aren't the only identity markers dominating North American cultural conflicts – there are also factors like gender, urban-rural geography, nationalism and religion. The topic of religion, as well as how it intersects with the law in the public sphere, will be the core of this week's lecture.

Religion and the Public Sphere

"If talking about religion is already playing with fire," says Rohee Dasgupta, our instructor at St. Paul University, "then bringing in law is like adding salt to the wound."

The question of how to legislate religious issues in a country easily touches sensitive factors connected to our identities. There's the issue of dogma and how it shapes our lives, and how we organize our social structures through marriage, divorce and other processes that can be mediated by religion.

A person's religion may influence how they perceive the social sector, charity, education and how the public sphere is organized, as well as how dress and symbols (such as hijabs or the knife-like kirpans carried by Sikhs). The extent to which religious indicators can be worn in public by public servants has also been a hot topic, particularly in French cultural zones like France and Quebec where local visions of secularism known as laïcité have drawn criticisms for being unwilling to accommodate religious differences.

In these and other contexts, conflict can emerge when a religious group's conception of public life doesn't line up with the legal system's.

Making things more complex, sometimes religious affiliation can line up with various other identity factors, such as ethnicity or political affiliation – it depends on the context, and analyzing a conflict will by necessity involve picking apart these different factors. A political struggle can then take on religious overtones that would otherwise not be present, or a primarily social persecution may be framed as a kind of collective martyrdom.

In cases where religious communities frame their practices in terms of a divinely-ordained dogma that transcends temporal structures like law or nation, adherents may feel divided loyalties which may be regulated (sometimes harshly) by communities who, depending on the context, may push individuals towards integration or resistance.
These dynamics may also look different in the decolonized south, where religious practices can also be historically associated with colonial structures that continue to impact people's lives. A population's integration into a religious community (often through missionary activity) may have been conducted alongside a campaign that delegitimized their culture, which may create a perceived conflict between a colonial religion and local customs. In cases where the colonized and the colonizer's religions are different, hierarchical political structures may be justified religiously, with one system seen as higher than the other. In these cases, the marginalized religion may resist the influence of the colonial power not only on political grounds, but also on spiritual ones.

This can also confuse the motivations behind violent acts, especially asymmetrical ones labelled as terrorism. If a suicide bomber kills members of an opposing elite, to what extent was it a religious, cultural or political act? If it is labelled as a primarily religious problem, as has been the case with "Islamic extremism," political, colonial or other factors may be downplayed in favour of narratives implicating a "clash of civilizations."

There may be attempts to try to address these factors in pluralistic societies. But these factors are complicated further in the context of authoritarian states, whether religious or secular in nature.

Secular and Religious States

When it comes to how secular and religious structures operate in a society the fundamental question of where religion stops and the state can take over is very blurred, even in societies like within the EU or North America that have a formal separation of church and state.

In last semester's class on ethical dimensions of conflict, we discussed different visions of secularism: equalizing-down and equalizing-up. Equalizing up renders places all religious traditions on equal footing, with recognition in the public sphere along historically-privileged traditions. Equalizing down attempts to attain neutrality by removing religious imagery and a certain degree of public expression.

Many of the mentioned conflicts that have recently taken place in French cultural spheres have involved the consequences of equalizing down, which has made demands on Muslim women not to wear the hijab in certain contexts and is thus taken as a kind of discrimination against Islam. Members of other religions have also been marginalized in terms of the imagery they may wear while embodying public service roles. This has created public outcry, and at times generated tensions between different religious or social groups within areas like France or Quebec.

But the opposite is often true, with a state privileging one religion over others even in an ostensibly secular state, as is the case with Turkey and India in recent years. Religious symbols, when used by the state, can trigger heightened responses that can inspire a particular reaction. This can involve feelings of unity, loyalty or participation as well as humiliation, oppression or marginalization, all of which can contribute to conflict.

The pivoting of regional powers like Turkey and India can also have ripple effects in surrounding societies, empowering states with similar religious traditions or alienating neighbours professing different beliefs. If increasing religious nationalism results in the persecution or marginalization of local populations, neighbouring countries may feel compelled to respond with various policies, or even interventions.

In the case of India, the treatment of local Muslims may inspire responses from neighbouring Pakistan, especially if the Muslims in question live in the disputed Kashmir region. Religious tensions may also provide a pretext for political interventions, giving a faithful veneer to worldly interests and enlisting the support of populations that might have otherwise not have gotten involved in politics. In certain cases, campaigns against political enemies may be framed as a kind of religious crusade, with possible rewards for those who die in the cause.

Religious Identity and Government Structures

Freedom of religion is important for secular states in Western Europe and North America, but how that freedom is enforced, protected or ignored in favour of other factors is different in each context.

Given the importance of religious symbols in public life, many cultural conflicts cluster around how governments do or do not offer religious accommodations to a given community. Sikh officers in the Canadian mounted police may wear turbans instead of traditional felt hats, Israeli police can wear yarmulkes, and hijabs may be welcomed as part of uniform dress. When these accommodations are denied, religious believers may frame it as a kind of persecution.

Issues of marriage and marriage law are tricker, as some religions may permit (bigamy) or not permit (same-sex unions) certain practices that are at odds with local laws. Local communities may maintain certain practices among themselves that will never enter the mainstream, such as teenage marriage, living with multiple partners or refusing religious divorce in lieu of certain conditions not reflected by law.

These discrepancies may create issues that test a government's stated commitment to diversity. In cases like these, coexistence may be imposed from above, or it can be a matter of creating distance between various communities instead of working toward integration.

The issue of tax is also important – in Germany there is an official church tax that collects funds for use of various religious traditions. Some consider this to be a helpful accommodation, and others would criticize this as too close a union of church and state. There may also be issues when certain religions qualify for the tax status while others may not – in Canada, for example, the Church of Scientology protests resistance by the Canada Revenue Agency to treat them as a tax-exempt charity like other denominations.

Health services have historically be linked to religion, and religious values may influence access to controversial services like abortion, euthanasia, blood transfusions and others. Some services may be legal, but religious taboos may prevent certain individuals from pursuing certain kinds of care. Religious interpretations of gender may also require both male and female doctors or nurses on call to respond to sex-specific requests. In many cases, patients may request for sensitive spiritual services while staying in medical care facilities, which leads hospitals to try to form policies concerning prayer spaces or spiritual staff, which may be controversial in secular societies that favour public equalizing-down policies.

There may also be disputes concerning the quality or type of spiritual service available in these contexts. For some, an ordained member of the clergy is a requirement – for others, this is not important. The level of "devoutness" may also be a factor, which spills over into debates on political figures.

A recent cultural conflict that emerged over the course of the 2020 political election focused on the degree to which president Joe Biden was "sufficiently" Catholic. His Catholicism was promoted during his campaign, in part to appeal to religious voters that were seen as having allied with Donald Trump – this is an example of political affiliation identity, as discussed in the presentation above, intersecting with religion.

The issue, though, comes from the fact that Catholicism is often framed as a religion predicated on maintaining a certain outlook on life, an outlook that actively promotes alternatives to abortion, or delegitimizes gay marriage. Given that Biden supports both, many Catholics wondered if his faith was being promoted for political rather than religious purposes. Other Catholics resisted this discourse, claiming that one's private religious convictions are one's own.
There are plenty of other hotly contested spheres where religious interests rub up against government regulation.

First there's the issue of speech. In cases where a particular religious tradition has been historically privileged, certain laws or political structures may carry spiritual overtones. Should these be removed, recontextualized, glossed over? Then there are issues of blasphemy or hate speech – to what extent should certain words be regulated, or even policed, in the interests of protecting the well-being of spiritual believers? And when might these protections infringe on the freedom of religious critics to express their own beliefs?

Then there are questions of education. Religious believers may value educational options that support their belief systems, either creating a separate space from public schools or creating space within them for religious learning and expression. This raises questions of how to relate to indoctrination as a strategy – the word has a negative connotation in secular contexts, but is often acceptable in terms of passing down one's values to the next generation. Presenting various religious traditions on equal terms can be seen as a positive factor, but it can also imply a kind of relativism that goes against certain religious sensibilities, leading parents to opt out of these classes or out of the system altogether.

Issues of public history, and whose version of events inform public discourses, can also be linked with religious sentiments. In Poland, for example, Catholicism has mixed with victim narratives resulting from Nazi and Soviet domination, producing a kind of nationalism that, in some cases, resists acknowledging the ways that Polish citizens may have collaborated or stood by during the Holocaust. Local religious sentiment was evoked when Polish victim narratives were challenged, giving extra support against academics who were doing research on the nuances of the occupations. In addition to possible academic censorship, this can cause other problems as religion can become associated with problematic censorship, and so when that censorship is resisted then the religion can be resisted with it, leading to additional feelings of persecution and a heightened response in return.
In all of these cases, even small conflicts resulting from different approaches to religious and secular states can become attached to other identity markers and spiral out into conflict. In Europe and North America this can result in social unrest, or perhaps even acts of violence or terrorism. In other contexts, especially in Africa and the Middle East, religious geopolitics can inspire full-scale interventions that add to cycles of violence and intractable conflict. Understanding the dynamics of these conflicts requires being able to parse through all the subtle influences, of which religion can stand out quite prominently.
Rohee Dasgupta teaches conflict studies at St. Paul University; her research interests include identity, cosmopolitanism, security and anthropology.

Josh Nadeau is a freelance writer and dialogue practitioner.
He studied identity-based conflict at St. Paul University in 2021.

Banner photo from
Be the first to hear about new content!
Peace research, activism, facilitation - it's all coming.
Sign up to receive an email whenever new Summerpax content becomes available.
Further Reading
Religion and Secular
State in Canada
Jukier, R. and Woehrling, J. (2014)
McGill University Press
Religion and the Authoritarian State:
The Case of Syria
Heck, P.
Center for Democracy and the Third Sector, Georgetown University
Migration, Ethno-Nationalist Destinations and Social Divisions:
Non-Jewish Immigrants in Israel
Bartram, David, (2010)
Ethnopolitics 9:3