Identity-Based Conflict
Lecture 4

Religious and Ethnic Nationalism

Rohee Dasgupta describes the complex relationship between religion, ethnicity, belonging and violence.
Conflicts can emerge or intensify because of how religious, ethnic and civic identities collide.

How does this process work, and how can all three factors influence nationalist movements?
Our class begins with a presentation on the current conflict taking place in Ethiopia. The parties to the conflict are the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), located in the northern Tigray region, and the central government in Addis Ababa. The TPLF used to be one of the dominant powers during the country's Communist era but is currently marginalized and in the midst of a bloody war.

Part of the background to the conflict is the fact that the Communist government proclaimed a post-ethnic power structure, but the Tigray people (less than 5% of the total population) formed a de facto elite class. When the regime fell, the new government reinstituted a multi-ethnic cultural structure to counter the anti-ethnic narratives promoted in previous years.

Ethiopia's ethnic clashes are too complex to get into here, but the presenters added that there is another element to consider: religion. Ethiopia is the center of the Tewahedo Orthodox Church, whose spiritual center includes various sites in the Tigray region. The foremost of these is a church in the town of Aksum that allegedly holds the biblical Ark of the Covenant. A local ruin is claimed to be the legendary Queen of Sheba's palace.

Major attacks on Aksum's religious sites in early 2021 have sparked outrage across the world and risk adding religious layers onto an increasingly dire humanitarian crisis. But how precisely do religious and ethnic factors play into an ongoing conflict?

Today we'll be exploring this question by looking at both through a very particular lens: nationalism.

Genealogies of Nationalism

In our first lecture we looked at Benedict Anderson's idea of nationalisms, which are dominant identities that frame themselves as including all who belong within a nation-state, and subnationalisms, which are smaller groups within the larger nationalism which may seek for varying degrees of autonomy or recognition. In many cases, the subnational group may not feel included in the national group, potentially because of a unique cultural heritage or historical legacies of marginalization.

"Today we're expanding the conversation around nationalism," says Rohee Dasgupta, our lecturer. Questions that interest practitioners, researchers and policy makers aren't limited to who these nationalist groups are, but also what causes a particular nationalism, what makes it strong or weak or whether it is a settled phenomenon or in flux. There's also the question of how an idea of nationalism gains legitimacy, in what cultural group's mind and under whose definition. We can also examine different types.

The first we look at is civic nationalism. This form of nationhood is defined by citizenship rather than ethnic background – anyone can become part of the nation should they go through the process of getting a passport. Unity within diversity can be promoted as a virtue, though sometimes (as was the case in the USSR) authoritarian visions of unity resulted in the marginalization of ethnic communities who lived according to local traditions.

In theory, civic nationalism is based on choice, on an acceptance of the political creed that unites the state and is thus independent of race, colour, religion, language and other factors. Nationalism can be contrasted with regionalism, which can be framed as a divisive force threatening the country's unity.

This form of nationalism is often promoted by various democracies and has its roots in the French and American Revolutions. While in practice results can vary, most constitutions aimed at civic belonging claim that citizens enjoy a rights-bearing status on par with any other citizen in the country.

Many countries may enshrine their civic nationalism with values like secularism – but how secularism is expressed in these states differs. Secularism can imply the separation of church and state, the absence or accommodation of religion from the public sphere, a repressively atheistic system or a set of checks and balances ensuring the ability of minorities to practice freely.
Soviet poster: "God isn't here!"
Next we look at ethnic nationalism, also called ethnonationalism. If civic nationalism defines belonging as a matter of passport or place of residence, ethnonationalism adds layers of history, heritage and, often, blood. Other factors, depending on the location, can include language, customs, tradition or religion. We've been looking quite a bit in this course at the relationship between ethnic identity and conflict – here we're asking about what happens when the ethnic group claims an entire state for itself and its interests.

It's common that ethnonationalism gets framed as a force encouraging us-and-them thinking, with potentially zero-sum dynamics when its adherents come up against their opponents. Obviously that's a generalization, as ethnonational groups can ally with other groups against perceived enemies. There were examples of this in the late colonial period, when various national groups worked together to resist imperial powers.

Rohee draws attention to how ethnonational systems sometimes tend towards framing participation in terms of inheritance, measuring loyalty by certain kinds of emotional attachment, lifting up a majority above other classes in a given society. Unity comes from ascription, essentially through birth (although women can often marry into the group). Duties, obligations and expectations are passed down to someone who may or may not have a choice of another role.

Another factor of ethnic nationalism is that it is not the state that creates citizens, but it is the national group which creates the state. If shared political rights are the glue that holds members of a civil nationalism together, here that role is played by pre-existing ethnic characteristics (which may or may not change over time).
Civic Nationalism Emphasizes:
Ethnic Nationalism Emphasizes:
Rights and Law


Rational Attachment

Unity by Consent

Democratic Pluralism


Individuals Create The Nation
Shared Roots, History and "Blood"


Emotional Attachment

Unity by Ascription

Ethnic Majority Rule


Nation Creates The Individual
Europe's movement towards ethnic nationalism began in the 19th century with the post-Napoleonic revolutions that gave birth to a plentitude of new countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Up until then, the continent was ruled by the imperial Great Powers (which often included Russia, Britain, France, Austria and sometimes Turkey, Italy and Germany) which contained many ethnic groups within their borders.

At various times throughout that century, Poles, Balts and North Caucasian Muslim groups resisted Russian rule, Serbs and Bulgarians fought back against the Ottoman Turks, and Croatians jostled for autonomy under Austro-Hungary. Many of them soon emerged into full statehood for the first time in their entire history.
Europe after the 19th century national revolutions | Encyclopedia Britannica
Many liberal political theorists, like Michael Ignatieff, favour civic nationalism over ethnic nationalism, saying that, while both are constructions, civic structures at least acknowledge that construction. While a common background may help people unite against ethnic 'others', Ignatieff claims, it won't necessarily be as useful addressing divisions like class, gender or regional interests. In fact, an overarching focus on ethnic identity can frame individuals who focus on other identity markers as traitors.
[note: much of what is presented in class is done through a liberal-cosmopolitan framework, one that has been criticized for downplaying local, ethnic or religious concerns. It would be interesting to hear about this subject from another point of view]
Ignatieff suggests a contemporary paradox: while civic nationalism seems to provide the de jure model for the international community in terms of frameworks of law, political participation and legislative structure, it still seems that ethnic nationalism forms "the world's primary language."

Lastly we look at religious nationalism, which refers to the emergence of a politicized religion. In such cases, the metaphysical, social or moral principles of said religion become institutionalized in state structures and dramatically shapes what public life looks like as well as who gets to participate in it. If civic and ethnic nationalism are based on citizenship and birth, religious nationalism is based on adherence to a faith.

Public morals can become a major point of contestation in this kind of system. This is not to say that morality is conducive to conflict, but that when it is politicized there will often be challenges to the privileged moral values. If a country also hosts atheists, members of other religions or secularized adherents of the privileged religion, then tensions may emerge over the right to belief or ideological practice.

While ideological and moral conflicts are bound to emerge in any diverse society with parallel social groups, adding a nationalist layer can give one party a heightened sense of its own legitimacy. In certain cases, other groups who challenge or threaten the dominant religion may face oppression or persecution.

The issue of creed is particularly important, as a religion's social beliefs can determine what power structures are seen as legitimate and which ones are not. If a faith emphasizes consensus, then democratic structures may be strengthened and anchored. If it emphasizes the value of hierarchies or submission, then elites may co-op spiritual precepts to consolidate power and persecute their enemies.

Educational institutions are particularly shaped by religious nationalist movements – a particular creed is taught, or a certain interpretation of history is promoted. This can create tension between schools and families who possess other values, a pattern that can be repeated in aggressively secular states which forbid religious expression or values in schools.

Another major factor is when religion is tied to a particular ethnic group in conflict with a different ethnic group. In the case of the Islamic State, terrorist acts were committed in order to hasten the coming of a spiritual Caliphate. Many scholars interpret the Crusades as an era when political interests were dressed up in metaphysical concerns. In the former Yugoslavia, the political struggles of Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Bosniaks gained a metaphysical sheen – elite parties could equate fighting for one's nation to fighting for God.
Map of ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia |
That said, Rohee repeated that she does not want us to come away with the idea that religion has a negative impact on violence. These are just factors that can come into play when religion is taken up and combined with nationalist causes.

In reality, religion is a much more ambiguous force. It can promote social virtues of trust, forgiveness and reconciliation, as was the case in South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). It can empower minorities to seek their rights, or it can be used to oppress minorities. It can prompt humanitarian aid to war-torn countries, or it can bias international populations towards one of the parties to the conflict. It can prompt groups to invest heavily in peacebuilding initiatives, or it can be used to justify terrorist acts. It has often been used as justification for liberation movements – but questions like whose liberation is at stake, and at what cost, remain.

Many of these factors are important in the fields of international relations and political science. In the field of philosophy, theory and the humanities, however, a particular approach evolved that saw spirituality and violence as intrinsically connected. And for French philosopher René Girard, it would take religion to solve problems that religion had shaped in the first place.

René Girard and Mimetic Theory

Girard pioneered the idea of mimetic desire, which refers to the human tendency to mimic other humans. For Girard, this starts from birth – our journey of education as children is framed here as one in which adults model for us certain norms that we then adopt for ourselves. In this potentially positive, social framework, this is called imitation. A distinction is drawn between imitative socialization, though, and when people start mimicking the desires of others – this is known as mimesis.
René Girard | wikicommons
This might sound like a question for psychologists or anthropologists, but Girard maintains that this mimesis is also a major source of violence. According to the theory, when we start imitating somebody else's desire they act as a mediator of that desire. These include mediators who are significantly detached from us and may model an entire way of being, sometimes in order that we mimic them. This mediation mechanism can be used in advertising, where a model is paid to model certain desires for a specific audience – but it can be used in political, cultural or religious fields as well. When leaders display outrage at current affairs or historical grievances, they can be deliberately modelling emotions they wish the viewer to mimic. Religious leaders often use various mediums to inspire mimesis. Depending on the context, a population might internalize desires that lead them into conflict with others.

But mimesis and mediation have another component – when the mediator is relatively equal to the mimicker, the successful mimesis of a desire may then lead to competition for the object desired. The object could be attention or love, but it might also be status, position, territory or recognition.

Girard claims that the competition generated by mimetic desire often leads to violence, or at least to the buildup of tension within a community that may erupt disruptively. One way it can erupt is through the scapegoat mechanism, which is when the community takes out their built up aggression against a particular victim who is then sacrificed. This sacrifice could be literal, but it could also mean exile, ostracization or some other penalty.

Certain anthropologists use mimetic theory to suggest that, in pre-agrarian cultures, occasional scapegoating was a mechanism used to regulate violence and aggression. This may have even been institutionalized in religious rituals, thus linking violence with the sacred. Societies developed and grew in size, many cultures abandoned sacrificial rituals (either by limiting sacrifice to animals or eliminating them altogether), which then leaves the issue of mimetically-based aggression that still needs to be channelled somewhere.
In a world that grew and grew increasingly connected, scapegoats themselves may have taken on new forms. Whereas, in the past, individual sacrifices might have sufficed, sometimes entire, families, groups or ethnic categories might be seen as possible targets for scapegoating. While some scholars take issue with Girard's speculative religious anthropology, he raised the issue of scapegoating in the context of intergroup conflict, and this is where a number of his theories have remained relevant.

Girard's purported link between violence and the sacred has also continued to remain a talking point, both in conflict studies and in other fields. Some use it to justify secular systems – if religion was built around sacrificial acts and scapegoat mechanisms, is that not another reason to limit its influence on the public sphere? But there are others who disagree and say that, if humanity indeed has a scapegoating mechanism, and if it can get co-opted by religious practices, then it might not be something we can work out of ourselves. And by suppressing certain religious impulses, even the impulses that can contribute to violence, we may set the stage for even more violence to come.

Girard's approach was to allow religion to be part of the solution –- as a Christian, he saw the gospels as a way out of the scapegoating mechanism by taking seriously the premise that God offered a lasting scapegoat in the form of Jesus. This is a controversial position, one that would not be accessible to believers of other traditions. Attempts to channel violent impulses linked to religious practices, whether they are generated by mimetic aggression or scapegoating, might be made within a variety of spiritual traditions.

For scholars, practitioners and religious leaders invested in finding solutions to violence that cooperates with religion, just how to do this remains a major question. This question becomes even more complex when religious impulses not only entwine with violent actions, but also with identity and the structure of the state.

Religion, Identity and the State

"Religion, even if a major factor," Rohee says, "still remains merely one influence in the leadup to or intensification of an armed conflict." Researchers who study the impact of religion in conflict try to figure out what exactly it is about it that can make disputes so volatile. Sometimes metaphysical claims to land frame compromise as a kind of blasphemy, or even heresy.

Elite members of a religious group can manipulate the sensibilities (or actions) of other believers. External factors, such as poverty, instability or a history of conflict, can make a traumatized population turn to a religious identity to provide stability in times of crisis – sometimes at the cost of other religious groups. Funding, weapons or other support from foreign members of a religion can provide the resources necessary to start a rebellion or intensify one already in process. Moral sensibilities such as loyalty, submission, courage or faith in heavenly rewards can evoke violent behaviour.

Criticisms are also levelled at how religion is framed as a source of conflict – specifically whose religion. While the European wars of religion in the 16th century saw various Christian groups pitted against each other, much contemporary research is being made into the relationship between Islam and violence. This approach is justified by those concerned over Islamist violence in places like Syria and Iraq, especially during the period of the Islamic State, but is criticised by others as a West-centric outlook that fails to take into account Islamic diversity. Sometimes Islam is even perceived as a separate ethnic marker, as was in the case during the collapse of Yugoslavia when Croats and Serbs forces referred to Bosniaks simply as Muslims.

And when it comes to discourses of alleged Islamic violence, the main issue under debate is terrorism. The discourse on this issue is sometimes framed as between one side that describes Islam as inherently a "religion of the sword" and another that points to non-religious motivations for violence such as instability, political oppression, economic strife, oil politics or ethnic factors.

Both sides in this debate face criticism: the former for reducing a diverse faith to a set of stereotypes conducive to a "clash of civilizations" narrative, and the other for ignoring the way that religiously-informed identities can prompt certain Muslim majorities to persecute Yazidi, Christian, Jewish and other minorities.

That, and religious sensibilities can prompt responses from powerful countries and provide a rationale for military intervention. Russian support for East Ukrainian separatists is premised on their being Russian-speakers and members of the Russian Orthodox church (whose monasteries have been accused of hiding soldiers and arms deposits). Sunni- and Shia-dominated countries in West Asia and North Africa may make alliances with other countries who adhere to the same denomination as they do. The Tamil Hindu diaspora sent support to Sri Lankan fighters resisting the Buddhist Sinhalese population in that country's civil war.
A Chechen man prays during the battle for Grozny.
Mikhail Evstafiev | | wikicommons
As mentioned in the previous lecture, religion can be used to promote historical narratives that are conducive to conflict. Serb rhetoric in the leadup to the two Balkan wars of the 1990s included references to the 1389 battle of Kosovo, where Orthodox Serbs lost to Ottoman Muslims – Bosniaks and Albanians, though ethnically distinct from the Ottoman Turks, were presented as heirs to the force responsible for Serb humiliation and suppression.

The emergence of politicized religious sentiment can also follow a period of radical secularization. The atheistic Soviet mindset has been replaced by a regime promoting an Orthodox "Russian World" among neighbouring Slavic regions. Both India and Turkey are seeing increasingly authoritarian regimes using religious rhetoric to delegitimize the secularism of previous presidents.

Different religious groups may offer varying images of peace as well. For adherents to Islamic State philosophy, territorial conquest would purify the land from infidel ideologies foreign to the religion of peace. For certain Jewish Israeli groups, the controversial practice of forming settlements on Palestinian land is an act of expanding the boundaries within which Jews can live in peace.

Then there's the issue of colonization and the impact it has had on the ability of religious believers to form their own nation-states. The partitioning of the Ottoman empire was done in a way that left Sunni and Shia believers mixed into different states, which sometimes prompts religiously motivated attempts at redrawing the borders. The colonial legacy of British India has led to bloodshed between Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, not least in the contested valleys of Kashmir.
And then there are the arguments that religious nationalism is not based on religion at all but is merely a proxy for ethnic or identity markers. This idea does much to address a major paradox inherent to religious violence: how is it that faiths proclaiming peace, love, humility or forgiveness become co-opted to serve the purposes of war, domination or even genocide?

While the religion-as-identity argument is tempting, others say, it still must take into account that, not only are people's values at stake when conflict arises, but one's metaphysical image of the world. Perhaps this is what makes religious conflict so fierce, notwithstanding spiritual admonitions of peace: if another group is threatening you, they are not merely threatening your family, your community or your nation. They stand against the very way you see the universe, as well as the space you occupy within it. And maybe it is this that, for some, is worth picking up a weapon to protect.
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 Providence Magazine
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Further Reading
The Girard Reader
James Williams, Ed.
New York: Crossroad, 2000.
Religion and Nationalism: Understanding the Consequences of a Complex Relationship
Barbara-Ann J. Rieffer (2003).
Ethnicities, 3 (2), 215-2422
Globalization and Religious Nationalism: Self, Identity and the Search for
Ontological Security
Catarina Kinnvall (2004)
Political Psychology, Vol. 25, No. 5.
Imposing Particular Identities:
The Balkans as a Meeting Place
of Ethnicities and Religions
Insight Turkey, 20(3), 241-264.
Ethnocracy, Land and Identity Politics in Israel/Palestine
Yiftachel, Oren
Philadelphia: UPenn Press, 2006