Religion and Conflict: On the Ambivalence of Religious Factors in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East

Prof. Dr. Matthias Basedau
2008 - 2018
Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ)
German Israeli Foundation

Prof. Dr. Jonathan Fox, Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel



Research Questions

  • Ambivalence: Under what conditions do religious factors lead to violence or peace?
  • Multidimensionality of religion: What particular religious factors (group identities, religious ideas, religious organisations) lead to violence or peace?
  • Non-religious context: What non-religious factors impact violence and peace independently from or in conjunction with religion?

Contribution to International Research

The project on religion and conflict seeks to fill a gap in peace and conflict studies. While many theoretical arguments can be made regarding the link between religion and conflict or peace (e.g. Appleby, Toft, Fox, Svensson), comprehensive empirical studies are scarce and quantitative analyses are generally based only on demographic data. Many case studies exist, but these are hardly comparable given the different research questions and theoretical and methodological approaches. Among the few comprehensive studies to date is a research project on religion and conflict in Africa which was conducted at GIGA (and funded by the German Foundation of Peace Research) and upon which this project can build.

Research Design and Methods

The project uses a variety of methodologies and thus entails a pronounced multi-method approach:

  • A large-N comparison of almost all countries worldwide that builds on a comprehensive database of around 180 developing countries (an extension of an Africa database).
  • A large-N comparison of religious minorities worldwide that feeds into a database on religious minorities and conflict, which will be jointly compiled with an Israeli partner
  • A qualitative small to medium N-comparison of several country cases in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America (Algeria, El Salvador, Ghana, Niger, Nigeria, Philippines, Indonesia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Tanzania)
  • Local studies of so-called "hot spots" within the country cases, that are designed to shed light on the micro-level
  • Surveys and experiments with religious leaders (Ghana, South Sudan, and Tanzania) and the general population (Tanzania)

Preliminary Results

The project has already yielded many results, which can be summarised as follows: Preliminary analysis of the dataset on developing countries confirms the assumption that religious factors beyond religious demographics impact the risk of armed conflict. These factors include the overlap of religious with ethnic and regional identities as well as horizontal economic inequalities between religious groups. Discourse also plays a role as, for instance, incitement to violence and grievances over perceived discrimination increase the conflict risk in some circumstances. However, there is no direct link from discrimination to grievances to violent conflict.

Another important finding is that results differ according to the type of conflict and the role of religion therein. If warring factions have different religious affiliations, the aforementioned overlaps become more important. When an incompatibility over religious ideas is part of the conflict, discourse becomes more important. Interestingly, the research has also found evidence of a proactive impact of religious factors on peace. While the dataset (as well as the preliminary findings from the country case studies) reveals many instances of peace activism and interreligious dialogue on the part of religious actors, regression results do not indicate that dialogues and networks generally reduce conflict risk. Only when networks have certain characteristics (joint projects, inclusion of elites and grassroots-level) they reduce conflict. Surveys and experimental evidence (see also the project on “The Influence of Religion on Sustainable Development”) suggests that the believing in the superiority of religious over state laws and that there is only “one true religion” increases the conflict risk.