Most recent civil wars have taken place in Muslim countries, and a large majority of the victims are Muslims. This is not a “clash of civilizations.” It is a battle within the Muslim world.
Interstate wars — wars between nations — are now rare, and civil wars are now largely concentrated in an arc from Central Africa to the Caucasus. As you can see in the map below, in most of the countries in this conflict zone, Muslims are in a majority. Smaller armed conflicts occur in 30-odd countries more widely spread over the globe.
War and civil war have decreased — leaving, primarily, fighting in Muslim countries
As the Human Security Report and books by Joshua Goldstein and Steven Pinker have compellingly argued, war around the world has been declining, both within and between countries. There’s been a recent uptick in violence, particularly in Syria, but the violence in Syria doesn’t match what we saw in Korea and Vietnam.
The remaining civil wars — which scholars define as armed conflicts that claim more than 1,000 battle deaths in a calendar year — are fewer in number but more concentrated geographically, as we show in a recent article in Research & Politics. Although armed violence has been declining overall since the end of the Cold War, violence has spiked since 2011 — particularly in Muslim countries.
In 2012, there were six civil wars worldwide. All took place within Muslim countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. Of the nine rebel groups in these conflicts, seven had an Islamist ideology.
While 2012 was an extreme year, a large majority of all civil wars in the past decade have taken place in Muslim-majority countries. That’s recent. It wasn’t true during the Cold War, when Muslim countries were no more likely to host civil wars than other nations.
But since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, civil wars have declined sharply in most parts of the globe — although less so in Muslim countries. Many of the civil wars that ended after the end of the Cold War were stimulated by rivalry between the two superpowers.
And so even though civil wars among Muslims have increased in the past few years, the decline of other types of conflict is the main reason why the global map of conflict is increasingly influenced by Islamist insurgencies and civil wars in Muslim countries.
Muslims are mainly fighting one another, not the West
While attacks on non-Muslims understandably get more Western media attention, the vast majority of Islamist insurgencies are fighting governments in Muslim-majority countries. In fact, over the past three years, more than 90 percent of the victims in all civil wars are in Muslim countries — particularly in Syria, but also in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Even if the civil war in Syria were to end tomorrow, the victims of civil war would overwhelmingly be found in Muslim countries — even though Muslims make up a little less than a quarter of the world’s population.
The picture is almost equally grim if we look at other forms of violence. Since the Cold War, Muslim countries have hosted more than their share of the world’s interstate wars, genocides, political killings of unorganized civilians, conflicts among groups and factions that don’t involve a government, government political terror and the death penalty. Countries with Buddhist-, Hindu- and Jewish-majority populations also see more than their share of several of these kinds of violence. But these are majority religions in fewer countries, and their conflicts are generally smaller. Accordingly, they account for much less of the globe’s violence.
Both Islam and Christianity are proselytizing religions, and many have suggested that as a result, Christians and Muslims may clash. But what we’re seeing is mainly a series of serious conflicts within the Islamic region, although they have ripple effects in other countries.
Only a minority of the world’s Muslims are living amid civil wars
Let’s be clear: Not all of the world’s Muslims live in countries with civil war. In fact, most of them do not. Among the 10 countries with the largest Muslim populations, only three — Pakistan, Nigeria and Iraq — saw civil war in 2014. (That’s the last year for which the Uppsala Conflict Data Program has data.)
The other seven — including Indonesia, India, Bangladesh and Egypt, four of the five countries with the world’s largest Muslim populations — haven’t faced civil war for a decade or more. They may not necessarily be peaceful — certainly countries such as India and Egypt have seen their share of turmoil that has turned violent at times — but that violence hasn’t been sufficiently severe to be defined as a civil war, an armed conflict with at least 1,000 battle-related deaths in a calendar year.
Why are we seeing so much violence among Muslims?
With the world’s conflicts steadily becoming fewer and less bloody, why is the Muslim world lagging behind? Potential explanations abound. Here are a few.
First, most of these countries continue to struggle with the arbitrary borders imposed during and after the colonial era. Territorial conflicts often take a long time to resolve. A second possible reason is the Middle East’s strategic importance — both because of its location between East and West and its abundant oil wealth, which invites major powers to get involved, for good or ill. Over the past 15 years, several military interventions replaced relatively stable dictatorships with unstable semi-democracies where civil war still rages. The Arab Spring, which was at first a nonviolent popular uprising, wasn’t successful in toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, leading to the chaos and humanitarian disaster we see today.
Some critics of Islam say that it is innately more violent than other religions. But all religions include elements of violence as well as peace. What varies over time is how prominent people — both religious and political — emphasize different parts of the message.
Many observers note that Muslim countries score lower than average on political development, notably the status of women. And except for oil wealth, most Muslim countries are doing poorly on economic and social development as well. Several studies have shown that, after correcting for these factors, Muslim countries are no more violent than others.
But should we control for something that may conceivably be part of the explanation? If the religion is influencing development, then we cannot control for the level of development in an analysis of the effects of that religion. The research puzzle becomes how to assess the net effect of religion — on development as well as on violence.
Whatever the reasons, it’s useful to keep in mind that while there is an understandable fear of Islamist terrorism in Europe, terrorists have found the vast majority of their victims closer to home. The violence now roiling many Muslim countries warrants serious political concern.