What Makes a Conflict ‘Religious’?

    Vivek S. Sharma

    Politics, Asia

    A cow stands in the middle of a busy road as auto-rickshaws pass by in Bengaluru, India

    The question that faces the modern world is not about “religious violence” per se, but instead about religious conflict that leads to violence.

    KILLING HUNDREDS of people in the name of “cow protection” would, at first glance, appear to be a headline drawn from a Monty Python skit. Instead, it is a political problem of the first order in India. Since the 2014 election of Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), hardly a week has gone by without some incident involving emboldened cow-protection vigilantes. All this is despite a fact that rarely gets attention in the bewildered international coverage: India is consistently among the world’s top exporters of beef, with a nearly 20 percent share of the world market in 2016.

    How can it be that one of the world’s top exporters of beef is a country where people are subject to organized violence supported by a major political party and civil-society organizations in the name of cow protection? Is this really religious violence—and, if so, in what sense is it “religious”? Why do “religious” conflicts tend to generate high levels of symbolic and physical violence? And how do “religious” conflicts compare to other categories of conflict in general?

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