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The Contexts of Religion and Violence


Researchers, who adopt a functionalist approach to religion, believe that it strengthens the unity of the community. Moreover, this institution is believed to eliminate the risk of social conflicts or at least minimise their impacts. This idea has been advocated by Emile Durkheim and his supporters (1965, p. 44). Nevertheless, one can refer to several cases showing that religion can be one of the forces that perpetuate or contribute to violent confrontations. Some believers are firmly convinced that they must maintain the purity of religious faith.

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They also tend to perceive themselves as the chosen group. Moreover, people, who do not agree with certain worldviews or principles, are regarded as enemies who want to corrupt or pollute religion. This attitude significantly contributes to the risk of religious violence. Nevertheless, the risk of religious violence depends on various legal, economic and political factors that can govern the interactions between people representing various religious, ethnic, or racial groups.

These issues can be better examined by focusing on two cases, namely anti-Muslim rights that took place in Sri Lank in 2014. Furthermore, much attention should be paid to the activities of the organisation known as the Islamic State. These are the main questions that should be discussed more closely.

The setting in which religious conflicts usually take place

At first, one should mention that religious disputes or disagreements can occur in various regions of the world, but they are more likely to provoke violence in relatively poor countries in which people are affected by such problems as unemployment, inadequate protection of civic rights, underdeveloped infrastructure, and absence of mechanisms which enable individuals and groups to influence the politics of the state (USAID 2009, p. 23; Onapajo 2012, p. 42). Furthermore, these societies do not include mechanisms that contribute to the peaceful resolution of conflicts (Arazeem & Saka 2007, p. 21).

Apart of that, such states do not properly enforce certain unalienable liberties of individuals such as freedom of religion and the right to free speech, even though there are legal documents that can guarantee them (USAID 2009, p. 18). Furthermore, the countries, which are more exposed to the risk of religious violence, have to struggle with the legacies of colonialism.

The problem is that colonial administrators often made use of ethnic and religious differences within the countries that they tried to control (Simkins 2007, p. 12; O’Neil 2014, p. 11). In fact, they always tried to intensify these conflicts. After the collapse of these colonial empires, religious hostilities only intensified. In turn, these factors increase the risk of religious violence. This discussion is important for showing that the impact of religion is often dependent on other economic, political, and social factors. Yet, one should also focus on those elements of religions that can increase the risk of violent conflicts.

The notions of purity and pollution

It is important to remember that religious texts often include a set of rules and restrictions that are supposed to regulate the daily lives of people. These rules can be related to such aspects as personal hygiene, diet, marriage, expression of sexuality, lifestyles, and so forth (Singelenberg 1990, p. 515; Douglas 1966, p. 33).

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Some of these restrictions can have profound implications for the lives of individuals; for instance, one can refer to the prohibition of blood transfusion (Singelenberg 1990, p. 515). However, these notions also imply that people should literally follow the rules of a religious text. Additionally, this behavior is critical for the inclusion in a specific group (Ghassem-Faschandi, 2012, p. 261). The compliance with these rules is supposed to emphasise the purity of a person’s faith.

Additionally, people may believe that those individuals, who do not literally follow religious principles, defile or corrupt faith. Furthermore, in their opinion, the deviation from these rules can lead to God’s punishment. Even contacts with people, who do not follow these rules, are believed to defile an individual (Douglas 1966, p. 33).

To some degree, this argument can be relevant to various movements within Islam, Jedaism and Christianity. For instance, one can mention Tablighi Jamaat (Spencer, Goodhand, & Hasbullah, 2014, p. 95). The advocates of this movement lay stress on the idea that many Muslims have departed from various rules adopted by the Prophet Muhammad and his early followers.

Similarly, one can also refer to Jehowah’s Witnesses. Many representatives of this movement believe that they are “true Christians” (Singelenberg 1990, p. 521). It is important to mention that such groups are usually opposed to existing political institutions. They tend to separate themselves from other members of the community. Additionally, they do accept the views of other religious movements. In some cases, they can openly express their intolerance of other groups. Such convictions can lead to violence provided that the state cannot effectively protect the rights of people, especially those ones belonging to minority groups.

The main issue is that modern societies tend to become multi-cultural and multi-religious. Therefore, people can be exposed to various examples of something that they perceive as the so-called religious impurity or defilement. This behavior is not always tolerated by people who regard religion as the core part of their identity. In turn, it is necessary to illustrate how these issues manifest themselves during religious conflicts that took place in specific social and political settings.

Specific examples of religious violence

Religious violence in Sri Lanka

Overall, it is possible to consider several examples of religious violence. At first, one should speak about hostilities that affected the citizens of Sri Lanka. Its citizens can practice various religions; in particular, they can represent Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism (Svensson 2008, p. 9). In this country, religion is not only a set of beliefs or practices related to the sacred things. In this case, Durkheim’s definition of this notion is not quite applicable. More likely, it can be viewed as “a place of retreat and consolation” from existing political, social, or economic injustice (Spencer, Goodhand, & Hasbullah, 2014, p. 19).

Furthermore, people, who represented the same religious groups, take parts in various public protests. In turn, one should speak about the considerable role of Buddhist nationalism in this country. In particular, the supporters of this religious movement emphasise the idea that they try to recreate the purest form of Buddhism (Svensson 2008, p. 9). In their opinion, it was the main mission of Sri Lanka. This is why they did not want the citizens of the country to join other confessions.

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Additionally, in their opinion, Buddhists cannot interact with non-Buddhists since this behavior can be compared to defilement. More importantly, these people perceive violence as a legitimate way of rising to political power, even though Buddhism is traditionally opposed to any forms of violence. Additionally, they do not accept the idea that the representatives of other groups can be granted the same civic rights (Svensson 2008, p. 9). So, the political ideology of these groups is rather exclusionary. This is one of the details that should not be overlooked.

The representatives of these radical religious groups believe that only Buddhists should play a key role in the political life of the country. Furthermore, they are willing to attack the representatives of other confessions, especially Muslims. It should be mentioned that according to the principles of Islam, only Abrahamic religions, namely Judaism and Christianity are considered to be acceptable. These disputes led to anti-Muslim riots that took place in 2014. These attacks were led by the Buddhist movement Bodu Bala Sena.

There riots resulted in the deaths of four people; furthermore, more than thirty individuals were heavily injured. Finally, one should mention, many Muslims were left homeless. This case should be considered because it demonstrates that people, who regard themselves as true believes, can marginalise other religious groups. More importantly, they can depart from the principles that are traditionally associated with a certain religion.

Yet, one should bear in mind that this conflict could have been caused by some colonial legacies. The problem is that Buddhists were often suppressed during the period of European colonialism (Stein 2014, p. 2). Moreover, they could perceive non-Buddhists as the supporters of colonial regimes. So, one should pay attention to the influence of the political and social environment.

Islamic State and religious violence

It is possible to consider other examples of such conflicts. For instance, one should focus on violence that has engulfed the modern Middle East. In this case, it is important to consider conflicts between and within religious groups. Many radical Muslims believe that their understanding of Islam reflect the ideas of the Prophet Muhammad in the most accurate way. As it has been said before, such views are advocated by the group known as Tablighi Jamaat (Spencer, Goodhand, & Hasbullah, 2014, p. 95).

However, this movement is not the only one. Much attention should also be paid to such groups as Boko Haram, Taliban as well as the Islamic State which is also known as ISIS. One should keep in mind that ISIS represents the Salafi movement within Islam. The representatives of this group insist on the literal interpretation of the Quran and the most precise compliance with the rules identified in this religious text. They do not consider the idea that these rules may not be applicable to other people. These individuals prefer to impose their dogmas on other people. This is one of the aspects that distinguished.

They can also use this text to justify violence against other Muslims, especially those ones who practice Shia Islam. Similarly, they commit violent acts against Christian minorities living in Syria and Iraq. In their opinion, their religious affiliation means that they represent the chosen group that is closest to God. Furthermore, they are firmly convinced that people, who do not follow their principles, are traitors. For instance, they believe that the principles of Sharia should guide the life of every individual (Gerges 2014, p. 339). People, who do not recognise this law, are labeled as enemies, if they are not practicing Muslims.

Additionally, they are believed to pollute Islam, if they do not accept the principles of Sunni Islam. This worldview is quite convenient for justifying different atrocities. Very often, these individuals try to influence the political structure of countries. Currently, they try to become the main political force in Syria, Iraq, as well as the entire Middle East.

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These are some of the main details that should be taken into account. At present, ISIS is already responsible for the deaths of thousands of people. Moreover, many families were forced to flee Iraq or Syria. Furthermore, people belonging to this group openly admit that they are ready to kill everyone who does not accept the principles of their faith. At present, policy-makers from different countries have not identified any mechanisms for stopping this religious violence.

However, it is important to keep in mind that such groups can become influential if there are no external forces that can restrict them. In advanced countries, law-enforcement agencies and courts can act as such mediators. In turn, groups like ISIS operate in failed or failing states engulfed by civil wars. Furthermore, in many cases, there are no official institutions that can protect minorities.

In fact, one can argue that these radical religious groups can substitute the state (The Eurasia Center 2014, p. 1). Therefore, the conflicts between Sunnis and Shias become more acute, provided that there is no force that can limit religious violence. So, the impact of socio-political environment can play a vital role. This is one of the details that should not be overlooked.


These examples demonstrate that such notions as purity and pollutions have far-reaching implications if they are taken in a religious context. As it has been said before, they are not related only the observance of dietary or hygiene rules.

Moreover, people, who are pre-occupied with these notions, attach importance to the strict or even literal compliance with the norms identified within a religious text. These worldviews lead to the discrimination against certain religious groups that are deemed to be impure. More importantly, some people can accept violence and murder as legitimate methods of purifying the social environment. This is why this dogmatism can lead to bloodshed.

Admittedly, religions can mitigate social conflicts because they can lay stress on values and moral principles that can be shared by many people (Geetz 1993, p. 122). If religious leaders emphasise these common attributes, many people will be reluctant to use violence against each other. Certainly, religious values may not necessarily eliminate wars, but they may contribute to humane treatment of potential opponents.

Furthermore, the representatives of different religions should also stress the idea that the differences between ideologies are not sufficient for marginalising, discriminating, or killing people who do not belong to a certain religious group. They can act as important mediators who can show that there is a peaceful solution to possible disagreements.

Nevertheless, the problem is that the voices of these people can be stifled, especially at the time when radical religious groups become the most dominant political force in the country. They can easily suppress those individuals who do not agree with the assumption that the alleged pollution of faith can be purified with violence. In many cases, they can do it with impunity.

Under such circumstances, religions do not have mechanisms that can eliminate the risk of violent confrontations. Overall, religions can strengthen the unity of the society in those cases, when there are certain liberties that are properly protected by the state. One should speak primarily about the freedom of speech and religion. Furthermore, it can mitigate social conflicts in relatively homogeneous communities in which people do not differ considerably in terms of their ethnicity or religious background.


Overall, this discussion shows that religion can contribute to the risk of violence. This problem can become significant provided that the community does not have a system of checks and balances that can reduce or minimise conflicts or disagreements. This argument is particularly relevant if one speaks about failing states engulfed by civil wars. Additionally, much attention should be paid to countries that were once controlled by colonial empires. The main problem is that many religious groups can lay stress on such notions as purity and pollution.

They can believe that people, who do not fully obey the principles outlined in a religious text, pollute faith. Even tolerance of this allegedly deviant behavior can be compared to defilement. In many cases, these individuals can resort to violence. These conflicts are more likely to manifest themselves in diverse societies in which people may differ in terms of their ethnicity, cultural background, or religious affiliation.

The problem is that people, who are firmly convinced of their religious purity, can resort to violence against other individuals. Admittedly, religion can act as a unifying force within a community, if people representing different confessions highlight the common attribute and values that can be shared by people. Yet, these mechanisms are often absent. These are the main arguments that can be put forward.


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