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“Religious Wars”

Religion has been a part of bloody conflicts that have engulfed dozens of countries in the last fifteen years. In Ireland, Cyprus, the Balkans, Rwanda, Burma, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Sudan, Israel/Palestine, the Philippines (Mindanao), and Indonesia, individuals acting in the name of religion have played an important role in crystallizing group hatred and violence.29

Human Rights Watch has insisted that religion is more properly seen as a tool used by those seeking power than a “root cause” of conflict in such cases,30 and analysts have pointed out that “despite the perception that religion is always a complicating factor in disputes, religion also includes the tools that may be necessary to break the cycle of conflict.”31 Others counter, however, that in some particularly intractable confrontations  “it is the religious factor, not the conflict of interests, that threatens to prevent a settlement,” leading to the continuation of the cycle of violence and human rights abuses.

Religion also has been thrown into the maelstrom of terrorism in national and international contexts, from attacks against abortion clinics in the United States to religiously justified suicide bombings in Israel.32 After 9/11 in particular, politically motivated “fundamentalist” fervor and terror seem to go hand in hand on a global scale and immediately evoke images of suicide bombings, hostage takings, and beheadings.

While such extreme or violent expressions of religious beliefs do not in themselves create particular dilemmas—mainstream religious groups typically join rights groups in denouncing such attacks on civilians as crimes against humanity—they can exacerbate tensions between human rights and religious groups, as has occurred in the abortion debate in the United States, in Israel following suicide bombings, and between some rights groups and Islamist organizations after 9/11.

[29] Malise Ruthven, Fundamentalism: The Search for Meaning (Oxford (U.K.): Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 3.

[30] Human Rights Watch, Slaughter Among Neighbors: The Political Origins of Communal Violence, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).

[31] “The Power of Religion,” The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, Winter/Spring 1996, Medford, MA, p. vii.

[32] Human Rights Watch, Erased In A Moment: Suicide Bombing Attack Against Israeli Civilians (New York:  Human Rights Watch, 2002).

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