One of the surest ways to launch a war in antiquity was to desecrate the temple of a rival's god - or to run off with his wife. Missing wives no longer launch a thousand ships, but religious identity is reemerging as a powerful theme in international conflict.
Crusaders swept into Jerusalem at the beginning of this millennium (1099) to wrest control of the Holy Land from "unbelievers." By mid-millennium, Ottoman Turks had toppled the seat of the Orthodox Christian Church in Constantinople (1453) and had taken the borders of Islam up to the walls of Vienna (1529). Later, a brutal Thirty Years' War (1618-48) pitted Lutheranism and Calvinism against Roman Catholic absolutism and replaced the Holy Roman Empire with a new map of sovereign nation states.
But by the 19th century, so-called modern warfare had become the business of nation states - cool, calculated, and anchored in some notion of national interest.
That's why the reemergence of religion as a factor in conflicts at the end of this millennium took many Western observers, especially Americans, by surprise. From Christian Falangists in Lebanon with images of the Virgin Mary on the stocks of their AK-47 rifles to Chechen fighters shouting "Allahu Akbar!" ("God is great!") as they headed into battle, religion is becoming a factor that military strategists can no longer dismiss.
"One of the lessons learned by the Russians in their Chechen campaign was that their lack of understanding of the power of religion in people's minds really aggravated the situation there. That's a fair statement for many conflicts today: To underestimate the effect that religion may have on a people's will to fight or reason to fight is a mistake," says Col. Peter Christy, a faculty instructor at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., who is developing a new course for senior military leaders on world religion in a strategic environment.
It's no longer enough for military leaders to learn the dos and don'ts of respecting religious sites when on a mission. Regional strategic appraisals of the religious dimension of a conflict are as critical as analysis of firepower, he says.
"What many of our future senior leaders need to understand is that the significance that religion plays in many parts of the world in the lives of people is substantially different than in America. It goes beyond just a sentiment; it goes deeply into the roots of the very political fiber of the people, and the two often cannot be separated in many cases," he adds.
Moreover, the idea that different religions can coexist without undermining the stability of the state is also not widely accepted. "This idea that we Americans take for granted that you can have a multireligious, multiethnic state where this doesn't affect the ability of the state to have political unity is not only rare, it's unique. It's not even completely established in theory in Europe," says Martin Cook, professor of ethics at the US Army War College.
Conflicts in Bosnia, Chechnya, Dagestan, Indonesia, Sudan, Somalia, Kashmir, Afghanistan, and the Middle East have a clear religious dimension. Harvard political science professor Samuel Huntington calls such conflicts "fault-line wars," and argues that such conflicts will define warfare in the decades to come.
"The local conflicts most likely to escalate into broader wars are those between groups and states from different civilizations," he writes in "The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order" (Simon & Schuster, 1996).
At the same time, religion can also be a force for peace. Religious leaders played a key role in protecting civilians from conflict in Somalia and South Africa, according to a recent survey by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
"Religion can also mitigate conflict: I think of South Africa with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, [how he] helped to mitigate what could have been a bloodbath. I think religion in South Africa probably helped stave off what could have been a very bad situation," says Colonel Christy.
One of the deepest challenges in a situation like Bosnia is a tendency on all sides to focus on evils of the past.
"It's as if every bad thing that has happened in history is lumped together, as if it happened yesterday. There is no room for progress or hope - just for anger, hate and fear," says Capt. Arnold Resnicoff, a rabbi and command chaplain of US forces in Europe.
Here, religion can make its greatest contribution as a force for good, he adds: "So much of religion is to teach us to go against human nature. The golden rule says you treat others as you want to be treated.
"We have a choice to repeat the cycles of violence in the world in the same way a child can repeat cycles of abuse in a family, or we can break the cycle," says Chaplain Resnicoff. "Really, it takes the courage of faith to break cycles and change the future."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society