While religion has evidently been a cause of many conflicts throughout history, it is by no means the only reason for conflict. Surveying the state of 35 armed conflicts from 2013, religious elements did not play a role in 14, or 40%.
It is notable that religion did not stand as a single cause in any conflict; however 14% of conflicts did have religion and/or the establishment of an Islamic state as driving causes. Religion was only one of three or more reasons for 67% of the conflicts where religion featured as a factor to the conflict.
Nevertheless, global peace as measured by the Global Peace Index (GPI) has been steadily deteriorating over the last seven years; with 111 countries deteriorating and 51 improving. One of the main reasons for the global decline in peace has been increased terrorist activity, which has been driven by high profile Islamic terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State (IS), Boko Haram and Al-Qaida. Both the scale and the intensity of terrorism has substantially increased. In 2011, 13 countries recorded more than 50 deaths from terrorist activity; by 2013 the number had jumped to 24 countries.
Identity was a feature in most conflicts in 2013, with 21 conflicts involving clashes of identity as a main cause of conflict. When analyzing the motivation for these conflicts the desire for identity and self-government was a part of 60 per cent of the conflicts. While religious elements may have a significant impact, there are many other motivators of armed conflict.
There are many difficulties in simplistically determining what the causes of a conflict are. Conflicts with religious elements are not necessarily primarily driven by religious objectives or identification. In many instances armed groups focused more on overthrowing the government or eroding government power and use religion as a rallying cry in religious societies. It has been argued that religion is rarely a foundational cause for conflict. It “does not ordinarily lead to violence”, but it is generally only “when religion becomes fused with violent expressions of social tensions, personal pride, and movements for political change.”
When parties to a conflict are divided on religious adherence, the conflict often becomes framed as religious even though the parties have originally fought over other issues. As the majority of people in the world adhere to some religious beliefs it is unsurprising that many conflicts are interpreted as having a religious element. It thus does not always follow that religion is the cause for conflict.