Matthew Isaacs on Religion & Ethnic Rebellion
Date: June 7th, 2015

When does religion play a role in ethnic rebellion and when does it remain irrelevant?  Matthew Isaacs, a PhD candidate in political science at Brandeis University, adopts an economic model of religion to explain that when denominations are in competition with one another, and when they are facing declining resources, religious rhetoric will be used more frequently in mobilizing groups involved in ethnic turbulence.

Our conversation begins with a discussion of how he came upon his dissertation topic and the general literature in ethnic conflict.  That topic has been of increasing interest to political scientists and Matt notes how he was able to plug in his interest in the “religious economies” perspective to help provide a further understanding of when religion becomes a salient dimension in such conflict.  He notes that while it might seem obvious that religion and ethnic conflict would always be linked, and some studies have noticed a connection, there are plenty of instances — often in the same conflict — where religious rhetoric is not used to mobilize combatants and other forms of support.  Matt notes that since much of the recent literature on ethnic struggles is rooted in a more rationalist perspective, the use of this theoretical perspective was pretty intuitive.

We then discuss his broad-based analysis of ethnic conflict from 1970 – 2014, a period chosen primarily for data availability.  Without getting thick into the statistical details, he briefly mentions how he measured his different variables and how the analysis he ran demonstrated a very strong relationship between religious competition and use of religious rhetoric in conflict, as well as the importance of having a relatively more open political opportunity structure (i.e., a place where rebellious rhetoric is more free to express itself).  Attention then turns to his qualitative analysis of two seemingly disparate cases — Northern Ireland during “The Troubles” and the recent Sri Lankan civil war.  While seemingly very different cases, both involved religious rhetoric being used on one side of the conflict, but not on the other.

Matthew walks us through both of his case studies beginning with Northern Ireland.  Here the story drives us back to the post-WWII era where a bombed out Belfast sent populations scrambling to rebuild in suburbs and leaving churches bereft of resources stranded in the city.  Competition to head out to the suburbs intensified quickly among Protestants and created a very dynamic religious market.  Catholics didn’t exit their faith as much thus that particular niche market did not face much competition.  Interestingly, and in conformance with Matt’s thesis, religious rhetoric was more commonly used to rally Protestants to the Unionist cause (the group that favored union with Great Britain, which ironically meant separation from Ireland).  Matt similarly traces the religious roots of ethnic conflict back prior to the actual fighting in the Sri Lankan civil war.  Colonialism played a large role in Sri Lankan history and when the British left the island in 1948 a number of grievances about funding Buddhist temples arose that created competition amongst various monks.  Over time, this translated into a factionalization in the faith that had a number of monks and political actors vying for support by tying themselves to the ethnic conflict with the Tamils.  He traces this type of competition to a number of electoral cycles in the 1950s and 1970s and how it eventually manifested itself in violent hostilities in the 1980s.

Matt finished off with some self-reflection about the things he has learned in his current research.  Note that because Matt was using a cell phone there are a few spots in the recording that sound a bit off due to the audio compression.  The problems are mostly in the first 15 minutes of the interview.  Recorded: May 26, 2015.


 Department of Politics at Brandeis University.

Matthew Isaacs on Twitter.

Institute for the Study of Religion, Economics, and Society (IRES) at Chapman University. (Info on the IRES graduate student workshop.)


Larry Iannaccone on Sacrifice, Stigma, and the Economics of Religion.

Monica Toft on Religion, Terrorism, and Civil War.

Eli Berman on Religious Terrorism.

Ron Hassner on Sacred Space and Conflict.

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