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Religion and the Modern World Stage

What historic role did religion play throughout the world's major conflicts?

August 7, 2002

What historic role did religion play throughout the world's major conflicts?

The 20th century may be remembered as the century in which empires collapsed. The British Empire, on which "the sun never set" 100 years ago, is now a faded memory. The Russian empire, which only 20 years ago was a feared superpower in its Soviet incarnation, imploded with stunning rapidity. The Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires collapsed earlier, victims of the First World War.

In the ruins of these and the other empires, an abundance of new states has emerged. Some have historical roots and others do not. But they all face one challenge — to find some rationale for why they should be independent states.

As it turns out, this transition from empires to independent states has a disturbing precedent in Western history. Look back at the beginning of the 16th century. Back then, Western Europe was nominally unified because of its allegiance to a single Catholic — or universal — church. And the Holy Roman Empire was a loose political expression of this unity.

But this sense of unity began to unravel in the 1520s when Martin Luther challenged church doctrines, thereby beginning the Protestant Reformation. Already shaken by internal rivalries, the Empire's fate was soon sealed. Religious differences undermined the previous sense of unity — and led to conflicts that undermined the bonds holding the Empire together.
Luther, according to the historian Friedrich Heer, was “a revolutionary who left no stone standing of the Great Order he demolished, a big gun who shattered the ‘walled church’ — and brought the old Holy Roman Empire crashing with it to the ground.”

What is striking, comparing the decline of empires then and now, is the role of religion in creating that indispensable identity for the new states being formed. In the 16th century, people thought the coexistence of multiple religions in one country would undermine its sense of community. As the French put it, “one king, one faith, one law.”

In addition, religion provided a vital theme for nation-building around which people could unite to oppose foreign domination. Thus, Dutch Protestants rebelled against the rule of Spanish Catholics. And just a short distance to the west, Irish Catholics similarly resisted the authority of English Protestants.

“In both societies, a religious cause enhanced — and was enhanced by, a sense of national identity,” observes Professor J. H. Elliott. “In both, the affiliation of national leaders to an international religious movement provided new opportunities for securing international assistance.”

The potent force of religion in the decline of empires was initially less evident in the 20th century. To be sure, an Irish republic with a strong Catholic identity did gain independence in the early part of the century. And in the late 1940s, when the British empire began to dissolve, a Jewish state (Israel) and an Islamic state (Pakistan) emerged.

Nevertheless, the strong identity of religion with national states did not become apparent until the breakup of the Soviet (Russian) empire. And in a fascinating fashion, the disintegration of Yugoslavia demonstrated religious identity with nationality, especially with regard to international support.

How so? Well, just consider that it was Germany — the core of the earlier Holy Roman Empire — which urged early recognition of Catholic Croatia. Meanwhile, Greece and Russia exhibited strong sympathies for Orthodox Serbia — and the Islamic world supported Muslim Bosnia.

In the wars that resulted from this multi-layered conflict, the Serbian-Bosnian cause was especially vicious, in large part because of the religious overtones. “Only God is with us,” exclaimed Radovan Karadzic, now wanted by the Hague War Crimes Tribunal, “although we are defending Christianity against militant Muslim fundamentalism.”

Indeed, Christian-Muslim warfare is another uncomfortable parallel between the present era and the 16th century. Back then, that century began with the expulsion of Muslim rule from Spain with the reconquista of 1492. It ended roughly with the Spanish triumph over the Ottoman fleet in the battle of Lepanto in 1571.

In our own day, national struggles in the Mideast and South Asia are increasingly acquiring a religious dimension. These overtones make already difficult problems that much harder to resolve.

How does this relate to perhaps the greatest religious struggle in the world today — the war against terrorism? Evidently, at its core it is a war between forces of religious tolerance and intolerance.

What is even more fascinating is that this present battle has its origin in the effort by the United States to combat the Soviet Union in the Cold War. And it was the United States, of all countries, which deliberately —and in furtherance of its own strategy and tactical objective — decided to utilize the explosive tool of religious fanaticism in the current era.

“Thousands of freedom fighters from more than 40 countries were welcomed, trained and armed by the United States to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 80’s,” writes the retired Pakistani General Mirza Aslam Beg in Pakistan's Nation. And he adds: “Those Muslim fighters now form the core of the global resistance, which turns to places where Muslims are being brutalized.”

According to Beg: “This wave of Islamic revival may be termed by any name — clash of civilizations or the new world order. Behind all these movements there is a latent dynamism, which points toward the resurgence of Islam, which is an unmistakable reality the world has to gracefully acknowledge, because the process cannot be reversed.”

History does not repeat itself exactly, but there are patterns to human behavior. The national and religious disputes of the 16th century ultimately led to horrible wars before the principle of tolerance was accepted. And that tolerance resulted probably more out of exhaustion than conviction.

All of that should give us a moment to pause. If history is repeating itself, then the first decades of the 21st century may be very troubled, indeed. Just remember that the 16th century was also an era of globalization, as trade expanded, discoverers explored — and ideas spread rapidly following the introduction of printing presses.