Religious festivals as a source of community cohesion and conflict

by Revd. A.J.D. Gilbert,
Senior Chaplain, RAF Halton

And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhood’s cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
Shakespeare, Henry V, Act 4 Scene 3

It seems fashionable today in many different circles to claim that religion and religious belief are the cause of more death and suffering than anything else in the world.  Such a statement tends to mistakenly assume that basically all religions are at heart the same and it fails to acknowledge the reality of how dissimilar different religions can be from each other.  Even a cursory examination would demonstrate the truth of this. Therefore to try and explore the relationship between religious festivals and violence in all religions is unrealistic.  That being the case this article will concentrate on the Judeo-Christian and Islamic religions.

the-war-on-christmasWhat is undeniably true is that religion and religious belief have been inextricably involved in many unsavoury incidents in world history but can it really be true that they have been more responsible or that they instigated more of them than has any other motivating factor? I doubt very much whether that is likely to be true.  There are many instances of violence that has had nothing to do with religion such as Mao Tse Tung’s Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot in Cambodia or year zero in Vietnam.

What is true is that belief systems in general, which included religious and non-religious systems such as Communism, can and do impinge on the very heart of individuals’ understanding of themselves, their place in world and the society in which they live.  These systems bind societies together and define the boundaries of that society.  If individuals are lead to feel that any of this is threatened in some way then they will react against the threat, possibly violently.  Therefore it is hardly surprising to find that vested interests, political leaders, aspiring revolutionaries, power brokers etc realising the latent power available through manipulating religious belief have found ways of enlisting religion in support of their cause whatever it is.  This technique can quite clearly be seen in the speech of Pope Urban II at Cleremont in 1095 launching the 1st crusade. [1] Arguably this same mechanism of manipulating beliefs was invoked in both the Chinese Cultural Revolution and Vietnamese year zero but in a non religious context.  Interestingly Urban’s speech was not made on any particular religious festival which one might expect it to have been if such festivals were seen as motivating factors.

If religion really was the instigator of the violence in the world rather than a tool used to support it, then it would be reasonable to suppose that religious festivals would act as a focus and give focus and encouragement to that violence.  There is little evidence to be found support this contention.  In fact only in Mesoamerican cultures such as Aztec is it possible to find a direct causal link.  Aztecs needed prisoners to sacrifice on certain festivals and they appear to have gone to war to obtain them.[2]

While not advocating war there are examples in both Christianity and Islam of festival days when if a war is to be undertaken they are regarded as good days to fight.  For instance, St. James’s Day is considered auspicious in Spain. Grotius terms it, a day the Spaniards believed fortunate, and through their belief made it so.  Charles V conquered Tunis on that day.[3]  In Islam the 27th day of Ramadan is a particularly holy day for the Muslims as it is the “Night of Power,” when the first verses of the Koran were revealed to the Prophet Mohammed.  Al Qaeda’s aspiring martyrs appear to regard this as a particularly auspicious day to die.   After his victory at the Battle of Hastings, William the conqueror marched on London and received the city’s submission.  On Christmas Day, 1066, he took advantage of the festival to be crowned king of England.[4]

If anything religious festivals are more likely to be used by the enemies of a particular system rather than its advocates.  In Islam, Sunni terrorists often stage atrocities against Shi’ites during Ashura, a Shi’ite festival.  The IRA is remembered in the UK for its Christmas bombing campaigns.  Christian churches have been attacked in Sudan and Nigeria at Christmas and Easter by Islamic terrorists.  Israel was attacked on the Day of Atonement in 1973 by both Syria and Egypt, remembered today as the Yom Kippur war. This makes sense because in one blow such an attack insults your enemy’s beliefs, takes advantage of minimal security at a time when adherents want to be celebrating a festival.  From a terrorist point of view it is often a time when large numbers of people gather together making it both easier for a bomber to remain undiscovered whilst providing an opportunity for greater casualties.

Lastly there is plenty of evidence that religious festivals can have a dampening effect on conflict.  There are numerous historic tales of Christian wars ceasing over festival periods.  During the First World War much to the consternation of the Generals (particularly the French) British, German and French troops got together over Christmas in no man’s land, exchanged small presents and even played games of football.[5] Operation Desert Fox (16 – 19 Dec 1998) in which this author participated was timed not to interfere with Ramadan.  Syria tried to instigate a ceasefire during the Eid-al-Adha celebrations in Oct/Nov 2012.[6]

In conclusion, there is little evidence that Religious festivals per se encourage their followers to violence.  However, religions and belief systems are powerful tools which are therefore targets for manipulation.  There is evidence that festivals give the enemies of a particular faith group a target to fire at whilst within a faith group festivals tend to have a dampening effect on violence.

[1] C. Tyerman, God’s War (Penguin books, 2007), pp. 58ff; also

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