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When does religion win support for armed groups in Lebanon?

In this picture taken Feb. 14, 2014, Hezbollah fighters hold flags as they attend the memorial of Sheik Abbas al-Mousawi, who was killed by an Israeli airstrike in 1992, in Tefahta village, south Lebanon. (Mohammed Zaatari/AP Photo)
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Within the last week, individual militants identifying with the Islamic State carried out deadly attacks against a Tunisian hotel and a Kuwaiti mosque. These are just the most recent examples of militants committing violence in the name of religion. This presents an obvious contradiction: While the doctrines of most religions preach, and the vast majority of religious practitioners practice, tolerance, there also exists significant documentation of acts of violence justified by perpetrators by religious edicts or on behalf of religious groups. How then, do we explain the usage of religion as an explanation for the support and undertaking of violence?

Academic literature on religion and violence offers two common findings important for understanding the relationship between the two. First, religion is more positively and significantly related to violence when it is a group-level attribute – meaning, the identity of a group, rather than an individual trait of piety. Second, when religion turns violent, it is often about material and strategic interests, such as physical spaces considered to be sacred.

Yet, there is more to this relationship. We expand on these two important insights – that communal aspects of religion and the interests of religious groups matter to the relationship between religion and violence – in a forthcoming article in The Journal of Conflict Resolution. Through a nationally-representative survey Hoffman conducted in Lebanon in December 2013 and January 2014, we find that communal aspects of religion and the interests of religious groups are important predictors of support for militancy – but not in a consistent way.

Lebanon is an appropriate context in which to test this theory. First, religious group identity and militancy matter: Communal religion and support for armed parties have strong influences on Lebanese politics, both in historical and contemporary periods. In addition, the country’s exposure to conflict serves to further heighten the salience of religious group interests. Lebanon has been increasingly exposed to and affected by spillover from the Syrian conflict since 2011. The combination of the salience of religious identity, exposure to violence and the importance of militancy manifested in armed political parties renders Lebanon an ideal test case.

The survey results show that there is a significant difference in support for armed parties between regular communal worship attenders and non-attenders for Lebanon’s three main sectarian groups: Maronite Christians, Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims. For Sunnis and Shiites, regular religious attendance increases support for armed parties, while for Christians, regular religious attendance significantly decreases support for armed parties.

How can we make sense of these findings? We argue that communal prayer increases the salience of group interests through both identity and informational mechanisms. Using an original priming experiment, we demonstrate that the anti-militancy effect of communal worship attendance among Christians is a function of information; providing non-attenders with information about the interests of their sect moves their attitudes into closer alignment with the attitudes held by attenders. We provided information about these interests with the following prime: “As you may know, by some estimates, Lebanese Christians are currently 40 percent wealthier than Lebanese Muslims on average.” By providing information about the interests of the sectarian group, the prime raises the salience of sectarian identity and provides information that non-attenders would otherwise be less likely to possess.

This prime had a substantial effect on non-attenders: Receiving the prime made non-attenders more than 16 percentage points less likely to express support for armed parties. Importantly, there was no difference whatsoever among attenders who received or did not receive the prime. Since attenders possess more information about the sect’s interests, this simple prime has no effect on their attitudes.

Our results demonstrate that the interests of sectarian groups involved or potentially involved in conflict influence how communal worship affects group members’ attitudes toward militancy. For groups engaged in conflict or who have something to gain from conflict, communal prayer increases support for arming political parties. However, for non-combatant groups or those that might lose something in a conflict, religion tends to promote opposition to such militarization.

We argue that the reason for this inconsistent relationship is not cultural or doctrinal differences between religious groups, but rather the different interests held by these groups in their social, economic and political environments. In Lebanon, the Sunni and Shiite communities are heavily invested in the Syrian conflict; Sunnis largely support the opposition, while Shiites are significantly less supportive of action to unseat the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The tensions between these two communities have led to an arms race between groups associated with each sect.

Christians, who are divided on this issue, cannot hope to “win” the war as a sect. Instead, their incentives are to protect their interests in Lebanon. Since Christians are the wealthiest and most over-represented group in Lebanon, the destabilizing effect of conflict poses a serious threat to their interests.

These interests are more salient for regular communal worship attenders, who are consistently provided with information about the interests of their group through repeated exposure in homogeneous, identity-charged worship environments. For groups actively engaged in and hoping to emerge victorious from conflict, we expect communal worship attendance to lead to increased support for arming political parties. By contrast, when the interests and livelihood of a person’s sectarian group are threatened by the presence of armed parties – and that group does not have a clear motivation for participation in or potential benefit from the conflict – then communal religious attendance will tend to decrease support for armed parties.

Our study demonstrates that religion doesn’t necessarily deserve the bad name it often gets. Rather, looking at the earthly concerns of religious groups, most importantly material and strategic grievances, may provide more accurate insight into when and how religion is related to support for violence.

Michael T. Hoffman and Elizabeth R. Nugent are PhD candidates in the Department of Politics at Princeton University.