Print pagePDF page

BTB_0001Peter H. Denton (ed.), Believers in the Battlespace: Religion, Ideology and War (Canadian Defence Academy Press, 2011).

Reviewed by Tania Sebastian (Assistant Professor, Law at Gujarat National Law University)

Believers in the Battlespace looks into the interesting debate of blaming religion for all that is bad in the world, especially in the realm of conflicts and wars. While asserting, and rightly so, that this conclusion is both simplistic and misleading, the authors in this edited collection work on the common theme of the juxtaposition between religion and war. From the earlier battlefields, to the twenty-first century battlespace, a lot has changed, with industrial technology coming into the limelight, waning the ‘religion’ aspect in the event of war.

Believers in the Battlespace points to the religious elements in what happens between conflicting militaries, as well as the religious elements among civilians and the lives of ordinary citizens as to what a war means in the midst of conflicting values and inadequate information. This work also highlights how religious extremists of all sects and sorts make use of what people believe to manipulate them in destructive ways. From whatever perspective or discipline it is approached, the relationship between beliefs, particularly religious beliefs, and warfare is a huge subject.


Iran 1979 Revolution

The authors of this collection explore the relationship between religion and modern warfare and provide a series of examples as to how this dynamic may be understood in specific circumstances. Chapters in the first section, “Religion, Narrative and Identity,” exemplify the role played by religious belief, tradition or leadership in weaving narratives of social and political identity, particularly in a time of serious conflict. In the first article (Section 1.1), Peter H. Denton examines the case of Sir George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh, Lord Advocate of Scotland and author of Religio Stoici (1663) – a book which provides a ‘unique window’ on the struggle between the church and the state, among other things – and shows how the narratives of religious conflict in seventeenth century Scotland. The author also examines the volatile mix of church and the state that existed at that time. Levon Bond in Section 1.2 traces the conflict between the Christian and the Islamic civilizations from the seventh century through the nineteenth century. Bond explores the relationship between religion and nationality among the Russians and the Turks in the wars between them towards the end of the nineteenth century, while also asserting that this is just “an example in microcosm of the larger phenomena of religious warfare between and within the world’s most powerful religious blocs.” (Page 33, Section 1.2) In Section 1.3, Sylvain Therriault considers the historical relationship of the clashes between the Muslim-based sect, Druze, and the Christian sect, Maronites, in Lebanon, which in turn lead to the massacre of 1860, and how poor governance and external influence created a conflict in the nineteenth century that was then fought along religious lines, even though the conflict between the two groups had nothing specific to do with religions; it was more about the aspect of political ambitions which were by the external imperial powers competing for control of the region, which created the flashpoint for conflict. Becky Weisbloom looks at the intersection of religion and geography and the related surrounding sacred space, specifically the Temple Mount, which help define national identity, in this case, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and make the resolution of conflicts with religious dimensions more difficult, in Section 1.4. Both sides believed that without sovereignty over their holy site, they would remain incomplete, while asserting that the current arrangement concerning the Temple Mount, under which the waqf (an inalienable religious endowment under Islamic law made for Muslim religious or charitable purpose, which is of irrevocable and voluntary in nature. The endowment can be of one’s wealth or a portion of it in the form of a plot of land, or a building or even in cash) maintains the complex but claims its legitimacy under the laws of the State of Israel, appears to be the best compromise.

The second section about “Managing Religious Difference” addresses the nature of religious differences and how they are best managed. Sharlene Harding in Section 2.1 offers Sierra Leone in Africa as a model of religious tolerance, even in the midst of a civil war. The emphasis is on the ability of Sierra Leone to effectively separate the religious biases of the heads of state from governmental practices, not by removing religion from the public sphere but by embracing all the aspects of religious expression that have played an important role in the personal lives of the citizens. Christine Zubrinic, subsequently, in Section 2.2 debates and analyzes the oft-debatable topic of partition as an effective tool to end ethnic conflicts. Examining the case of Bosnia, an approach to resolve conflicts in which religious traditions have been deliberately used to create upheavals is examined. The author concludes by discussing the future of Bosnia and the Dayton Peace Accords, which have bought peace to Bosnia despite the soft partition that has occurred among the three ethnic/religious groups. Nancy Reid talks about the attempts to suppress and control the assimilation of Christianity in China as a result of the Mao and the Communist parties, especially after the 1949 Revolution when strong and often violent measures were taken in an attempt to wipe out Christian culture and beliefs, in Section 2.3.


Secretary-General Visits Religious Sites in Kosovo
(Attribution: UN Photo, Eskinder Debebe)

The third section, under the title “Ideology and Identity” illustrates how, while discussing various religions of the world, assess whether, though religion is a component of both ideology and identity, it might not necessarily determine a specific resolution of any individual conflict. Robert B. Watts (in Section 3.1) explores the ways in which Buddhism was used to create national identity and thus encourage ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, more so as Sri Lankans have always been sharply divided along ethnic and religious lines. Rebecca Walker similarly explores, in the Indian context, how ‘Hindutva’ has been used by some specific political parties (BJP, Shiv Sena) to foster resentment against Muslim and other non-Hindu citizens of India. Further, specific acts of violence, such as the destruction of the mosque at Ayodhya, the Mumbai violence and the resurgence of violence in Gujarat are brought in as examples to enumerate the religion-coloured violence in India. In theory, India is a secular state but it has been strongly influenced by the religions and cultures within the country, in Section 3.2. Taking the example further to Africa, M. McLeod, in Section 3.3 considers the concern faced by various NGOs in Africa, as a result of being branded as camouflaging their ‘missionary’ activities under the garb of providing aid, even though many NGOs function without any religious affiliations whatsoever. Even if not seen as an instrument of an extension of the western faith, they are viewed as an agent of their home country’s commercial or imperialist ambitions. Charlene Piper (in Section 3.4) then looks at the way religious language has been incorporated into American political rhetoric, from George Washington to the present, calling into question whether the separation between church and state is as definite as some might think. Although the Bill of Rights excludes state influence over religious practice and explicitly states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,”  it says nothing about religious influence over the affairs of the state.

The “Politics of Personal Religion” as the fourth section indicates ways in which the personal religion of political leaders can shape social and political ends. William MacLean, in Section 4.1 analyzes the role of the Ayatollah Khomeini-through a culmination of his writings and his lectures-in creating the conditions for an Islamic state after the Revolution in Iran, even though in his work, while explaining his philosophy, describes how the fuqaha (religious scholars or jurists) should be the guardians or rulers. Subsequently, however, Khomeini issued statements in which he described how Islam and democracy were basic principles of government, a duality that illustrates how he was both a religious ideologue and a pragmatist. David M. Hodson explores the post-World Trade Centre 9/11 scenario and what happens when a President (specifically George W. Bush) uses language in his speeches that associates him with  Christianity in the United States and how it can contribute to propaganda about the war on terror or a crusade against Islam. This Section (4.2)  also goes into the depth of identify those people who influenced him throughout his presidency, which became all the more important when, as a President, he tried to persuade the American people that the United States’ military enjoyed divine favour.

Finally, in the fifth section, the essays by Peter H. Denton(Sections 5.1 and 5.2) concentrate on  “Religion and War in the Twenty-First Century,” and the resultant changes that are seen, while arguing that only a better understanding of the technology, and a willingness to acknowledge and incorporate existing religious beliefs in the context of human security on a global scale, will make it possible for the twenty-first century to be less bloody at its end than it has been to this point.

Written in a lucid manner, this book comes in handy not only for the experts in the related field, but also makes for an interesting read for anyone with an interest in exploring the intricacies of the intertwined relationship between religion and war. The book is useful for those whose careers take them within the ambit of warfare and for those civilians whose lives are shaped perhaps even more profoundly by its effects.