Does Religion Speak War; Why Use It As A Means?

Rackel Jackson Agara

Aso Rock in Abujo, Nigeria by Mike Fisher (CC BY-SA 2.0).

“War is the greatest plague that afflicts humanity, it destroys states, it destroys families, and even religion…Any scourge is preferable to it,” observed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Many people in the world have used religion to instigate violent conflicts but these religious roots of conflict are often disregarded. A perennial question that has arisen throughout history has been: Why is religion often a source of violence? That is what this article seeks to answer, as well as to argue that there is a difference between upholders of religious doctrines and violent religious extremists. 

Religious violence is violence that is motivated by or in reaction to religious precepts, texts or doctrines. This includes violence against religious institutions, people, and objects, when the violence is motivated to some degree by the religious aspects of the target or precepts of the attacker. It involves threats or actual implementation of acts which have potential capacity to inflict physical, emotional, or psychological injury on a person or a group of persons for religious ends. The perpetrators of violence often represent or act for a particular religious cause. How do Christians, Muslims, Hindus and people holding other beliefs, ideas, and teachings influence perceptions of religious conflict and the beliefs contribute to it?

Religion has been implicated in direct violence, such as rioting, massacres and persecution. It has also been implicated in structural and cultural violence, helping to define power relations which underpin narratives that legitimize and motivate violence. On the other hand, religion is also credited with driving peacebuilding and reconciliation. This article seeks to address the misconception that religion propagates violence, focuses on how religious beliefs and ideas are used by extremists to propagate violence against humanity. According to Gopin (2000) religious individuals and organizations are important “purveyors of ideas” that can drive both conflict and peace.


Religion is a central part of many individual identities, and any threat to a person’s beliefs can be a threat to their very being. All religions have their accepted dogma of beliefs, ideas, and articles of faith, and this can lead to intolerance in the face of other beliefs. Scriptures are often open to misinterpretation, and extremists may be motivated to bring their misinterpretation of God’s will to fruition in a  way that escalates conflict. They see radical measures as necessary to fulfilling God’s wishes and may resort violence to justify and defend their views. Without legitimate mechanisms to express their views, religious extremists may be more likely to resort to violence.

Many religions also have a significant aim to spread their views and gather followers, and they may even see other religions as opposition. One prominent definition of extremism as a motivation for terrorism is that extremism comprises ideological beliefs about an obligation to bring back the political system to a form suggested by religious norms through violence. Religious extremism may be the culmination of a trajectory of religious identity into group-based violence. Extremism may also be an endorsement of particular beliefs, such as the duty to engage in violent, holy war against the enemy? Jochen Schmidt has identified particular warning signs of religious extremism, which include belief in absolute truth, endorsement of blind obedience, a quest to establish utopia, beliefs that “the end justifies the means,” and, finally, a declaration of holy war.

The ideas that most extremists hold have led to the killings of millions of people in the world. It is said that “Ideas Rule the World”, including ideas that result in wars waged against human lives. The ideas behind Al-Qaeda led to the 9/11 attack, the ideas behind the holocaust led to the extermination of the Jews during Adolf Hitler’s reign. Wars have changed over the years with school children, women, and the youths now becoming targets of violence, wars are no longer fought on the battlefield, nor are they confined to the front lines–humans have now become the main targets.

Violent extremism has remained an increasingly high threat to the world’s peace and security. The use of local grievances and misinterpretations of religion to recruit young citizens in vulnerable situations has increased in recent years.

Many youth suffer from unemployment, a high level of poverty, and a low degree of education that results in illiteracy. If certain factors are not considered, these may lead to individuals, especially youth, joining violent extremist groups. We know from what has been happening in the world today that it is not enough to engage in counterterrorism or “countering violent extremism.” We need to prevent the spread of distorted interpretations of culture, ideas, beliefs, hatred, and ignorance. Of course, we all know that no one is born a violent extremist–they are made and fueled by religious misinterpretations and illiteracy.

During the twentieth century, violent conflicts on the national scene were often caused by extremist thinking, rather than religion by itself. It is important to remember that adherence to strict religious practices or conservative views does not always result in fundamentalism. Terrorism experts Walter Lacquer and Peter Neumann argued that religion itself does not lead to violence, but it is manipulated by opportunistic and power–thirsty leaders both religious and political, who appropriate religious language for their ends. In his acclaimed book, The Ambivalence of the Sacred, Scott Appleby goes beyond arguing about the obvious–that religious text can provide justification for either promoting peace or war—to point out that both violent extremism and non –violent movements can be religious. 

Appleby’s interest is in the factors that cause religion to be used to legitimize violence. For him, it is “religious illiteracy,” a lack of understanding of religious writings and the interpretations by the common people, which makes it possible for reckless political and religious leaders to manipulate populations in achieving their violent objectives. At the same time, Appleby sees the inherent possibility of religion as fundamentally ambivalent, because it also presents opportunities for peace promotion.


The history of Nigeria’s religion before the introduction of Islam and Christianity, was of the practice of traditional worship, which was by and large were peaceful until the intrusion of politics. Politics was the game changer, and this change was seen in the eighteenth century when Uthman Dan Fodio led a jihad war, based in the Islamic religion to carry out political war aimed at overthrowing leaders Hausa lands, which led to the establishment of the Sokoto Caliphate. This political use of religion disrupted the religious peace that had prevailed in Nigeria’s history of religion. The ongoing religious conflicts in Nigeria that we have witnessed in the twenty-first century were never the norm. 

Most of Nigeria’s population of about 182 million now follows either Islam or Christianity. The question now is what role religion plays–or should play–in Nigerian political life. The role of religion roles in political life and power manifest is dynamic, such that religion has been a critical element of politics because it has the propensity to shape people’s worldviews, and influence their attitudes through pattern, decisions and it also provides a gauge to measure the legitimacy of government.

Religious conflict in Nigeria has led to violence, including loss of human life and displacement of peoples. This has posed an existential threat to Nigeria’s security and development goals. For example, Plateau State in central Nigeria, once called a “home of peace and tourism,” has been transformed into a landscape of wanton and large-scale displacement of people. In September, the capital city of Jos experienced an eruption of violence between the Tiv and Jukun ethnic groups and the indigenes. Over 500 people were injured. In June 2016, a mob lynched 74-year-old Bridget Agbahime, who had a shop in Kofar Wambai market in the city of Kano, in north-western Nigeria. She had reportedly asked a male Muslim adherent not to conduct his ablution in front of her shop, which turned out to be her last earthly request. Affronted, the man accused her of blasphemy, summoned a mob, and they beat her to death.

Recently, a religious conflict broke in Nigeria on May 19, 2022, Nigeria’s leading newspaper, The Guardian reported the story of Deborah Samuel Yakubu, a student of home economics at the Shehu Shagari College of Education, where she was known as the co-coordinator for the fellowship of Christian students who worship together on campus. She allegedly had an argument with her fellow students online, and the Muslims among them claimed that she blasphemed. This happened during the Ramadan holiday. When school resumed after the holiday, Muslim male students surrounded her and stoned her, set her body ablaze,, and burned her alive. Deborah’s violent death by her Muslim classmates, for allegedly blaspheming against the Islamic faith, reveals the darkest side the human propensity for evil. Instead of religion being a beacon of hope and agent of unity, it appeared to be the opposite, becoming a force of evil instead. These abusers of religion, rather than manifesting their virtue, strip life of its sacredness.


In the eyes of many, religion is inherently conflictual, but this is not necessarily so. The solution is therefore to promote a heightened awareness of the positive peace-building and reconciliatory role that religion has played in many conflict situations. Being educated about other religions does not mean conversion, but it may facilitate understanding and respect for other faiths. Learning about other religions is a powerful step. 

Interfaith dialogue is becoming a commonplace these days. Many organizations and countries around the world are pursuing it and tackling interreligious tensions.

Dialogue between followers of different faith traditions is crucial to promote and propagate peace and cooperation among different religions and cultures. Multiculturalism, including religious pluralism and diversity, is an accepted fact which demands peace and tolerance, all over the world. True peace demands mutual respect, mutual understanding and co-existence in religions. 

The world is filled with different religions, but there is a common moral question among most of them: How can people who have different and sometimes competing visions of reality live together in peace? The effort to bridge the gaps in understanding between religions has led to efforts at interreligious dialogue; we see such efforts at interreligious dialogue going on between Christians and Muslims, Buddhist, Hindus, and Jews and members of other religious traditions and those who profess no religion. The purpose of interfaith dialogue is to understand and learn to live with religious differences..


Over the last four decades, Nigeria has witnessed religious violence, which includes the emergence of the violent extremist, Boko Haram which has killed millions of people in North-East Nigeria. Such stories are incomplete without mentioning the works of two peace activists, Pastor James Wuye and Imam Muhammad Ashafa. The two men of faith did not start as peacemakers. Ten years ago, Imam Muhammad and Pastor James were mortal enemies, intent on killing each other for religion.

In 1992, violent interreligious conflict broke out in Kaduna State. Christians and Muslims fought each other in the marketplace, destroying each other’s families. Pastor James and Imam Muhammad were involved in this conflict, and both paid a heavy price for their involvement–Imam Muhammad lost his two brothers and his teacher and Pastor James lost one of his hands to injury. Over the next few years, though increasingly frequent meetings and separate religious epiphanies, the two men slowly built mutual respect and decided to work together to bridge the divide between their communities. In 1995, they together formed the Interfaith Mediation Centre, a religious grassroots organization that has successfully mediated between Christians and Muslims throughout Nigeria.


It is almost impossible to have peace in a nation where religions are at war against each other.  Religion as a powerful constituent of cultural norms and values is deeply implicated in individual and social conceptions of peace because it addresses some of the most profound existential issues of human life, such as freedom, inevitability, and the relationships between fear and security, right and wrong, and sacred and profane. Marc Gopin remarks that it is probably true for that all religion has developed laws and ideas that provide civilization with cultural commitments that are crucial to peace, empathy, and openness. Ethnicity and religion are often given the blame for Africa’s problems or conflicts. Neither is by definition contentious, but they can be swiftly mobilized in unstable situations. Leaders capitalize on ethnic and religious loyalties in the struggle for power.

Religion can lead to conflict, but it can also make an invaluable contribution to increasing tolerance and resolving conflicts. Negative aspects may occur when religions carry out their messages in terms of resignation, revenge, unequal treatment.  When there’s unequal treatment among different religious groups, hatred, strife and superstition may arise all of this may likely lead to a violent religious conflict. In Africa, Christianity and Islam each have enormous social influence. Both are proselytizing and fast growing  faiths and in some regions, this creates the potential for religious tension.

Unfortunately, conflicts fought in the name of religion have not decreased but, in fact, have increased in recent years. Representatives of religious traditions could play a role in conflict prevention and conflict resolution. In religiously grounded conflicts, the involvement of religions is necessary for conflict resolution. Positive aspects of religion can be marshaled toward the prospect and hope for reconciliation after conflicts. Religion shouldn’t be the reason states go to war, because the top goal of most religions is peace. If religions don’t speak war, then why use religion as a rationale and means to carry one out? ♦

Rackel Jackson Agara is a youth peace activist who believes in creating a culture of peace by alienating violence in the world. She is a student at University of Calabar, Calabar, Nigeria.

Recommended Citation

Agara Jackson, Rackel. “Does Religion Speak War; Why use it as a means?” Canopy Forum, January 18, 2022.