My current book project, Misplaced Faith: Why States are Reluctant to Compromise with Religious Rebels, examines how Western elites understand and respond to armed opposition movements that mobilize along religious lines. It builds off of my dissertation project, which won the American Political Science Association’s 2019 Aaron Wildavsky Dissertation Award for the best dissertation in the field of religion and politics. The primary aim of the study is to demonstrate that state, not just insurgent, forces contribute to the intractability of religious civil wars.
The project is motivated by an important empirical puzzle for scholars and an increasingly difficult challenge for policymakers. Nearly half of all civil wars during the twenty-first century have been fought over confessional differences or for religious demands. And, these conflicts have been shown to endure longer, involve more casualties, and remain more resistant to negotiated settlements than nonreligious conflicts.
The conventional wisdom is that rebels’ convictions and identities alone drive the intractability of religious disputes. Confessional beliefs, it is argued, increase the resolve of rebels and the subjective value of their demands. Far less attention, however, has been paid to how military planners respond to guerrilla groups that draw, in whole or in part, on religious traditions.
My research addresses this gap by showing that state forces also play a critical role in obstructing the peaceful resolution of religious conflicts. Drawing on insights from social psychology, along with the strategic and religious studies literatures, I advance a novel theoretical framework that explains why and when counterinsurgent officials will refuse to compromise with opposition movements they construe as religious. In brief, I argue that Western political and military elites share a secular strategic culture that heightens the correspondence between religious insurgents’ behavior and motives. This cognitive bias leads decision makers to infer that religious guerrillas fight to radically alter the status quo, rather than protest unfavorable conditions, such as poverty or territorial occupation. They, consequently, discount the efficacy of a negotiated settlement because they conclude their opponents will stop at nothing to achieve their objective. These ideas are most influential when religious demands represent a central incompatibility in the conflict and counterinsurgents face an unfamiliar faith tradition. Ultimately, it is not that religious insurgents are necessarily unwilling to make concessions; it is that they cannot credibly do so.
I provide comparative evidence from British counterinsurgency campaigns during the early postwar period to illustrate the empirical utility of my theory. Particular attention is paid to Mandatory Palestine (1944-47), Cyprus (1955-59), and Kenya (1952-1956). For each case, I draw on original data collected from more than a half dozen archives in the United Kingdom, Cyprus, and Israel. The majority of my evidence – which includes incident reports, personal correspondence, and operational assessments – comes from the War, Foreign, and Colonial Office files housed at The National Archives in London. This includes documents that were part of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s “migrated archive”, which have only been available to the public since 2013. A final chapter of the book also compares contemporary U.S. and British counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan.
The study challenges the strongly held conventional wisdom that the negative elements of religious conflicts are principally due to the demanding and uncompromising nature of combatants’ beliefs and identities. It suggests the utility of establishing a research agenda on the role of state forces in religious conflicts. And, the project points to ways that that decision makers can minimize their biases and improve the quality of their religious intelligence efforts in on-going counterinsurgency campaigns. Correctly understanding the threat posed by religious opponents matters not only for academics, but also for those who wish to peacefully resolve such conflicts.