Holy Wars



These days, the term “holy war” brings to mind the conflict between Islamic terrorists and western cultures. Although the so-called Islamic Jihad is not the topic of this essay, there are some parallels between Islamic activism and American social movements.  Those social movements are the topic, but first we need to distinguish those movements from the Islamic Jihad.  I will paraphrase a description of the Jihad as given by James Turner Johnson, an academic scholar who has written several books on Islam and the west.

In our western minds, politics and religion belong to two distinct spheres, not to be mingled. In politics, we regard the principal institution as the state, hopefully a universal institution appropriate for all political  and religious communities, regardless of their different cultures.

By contrast, within Islam a war for religion is associated with continuous striving within the path of faith. The Arabic word for this striving is jihad. Indeed, holy war as such, or striving by the sword, is the lesser jihad. Seeking proper behavior of oneself and unity of Islam is a higher jihad. Either jihad is based in an understanding of religion as integral to the political order. Islamists can’t conceive of a state that isn’t based in religion. The west mostly grew away from that notion, and the notion of wars specifically for religion, after the disastrous Thirty Years War of the 17th century, which started as a set of religious fights.

The term “holy war” has usually meant a war for religion. Wars for religion mingle religion and politics, confounding our western notion of separate spheres.

In this essay, I will argue that our notion of separate spheres–separate spheres of politics and religion–is a myth, a useful myth, but still a myth. Our everyday political struggles are intimately mixed with religion and belief, and thereby take on the characteristics of holy wars.


The term “holy war,” usually means a war to impose or to defend a religion, such as the Islamic Jihad, which seeks both to defend and to impose a religion. I’m taking a broader view of actions that we might call “holy wars.” All religious wars are holy wars, but not all holy wars are religious wars. I want to look at the characteristics that some social struggles have in common with religious wars, so that we might recognize them, perhaps understand them and maybe do something about them. You can’t alter a situation unless you can first bring it to conscious focus. I’m focusing on the characteristics of one class of social struggles. I call them holy wars, whether those struggles are global or on the scale of one neighborhood.

First, let’s clarify what I mean by holy war. I define a holy war as a forcibleE attempt to impose a different cultural practice based on belief. Examples might be:

The 12th century Christian crusades, which were armed efforts to install Christian cultural dominance in the middle east.

Battles over sex education in local schools. These are not armed struggles; rather, they are the application of political force to the school officials to alter the presentation of sexual information in school. The effort was not aimed directly at teen sexuality, but rather at the teacher’s practice of dissemination of information. The objective is to alter the teachers’ practice, not the teachers’ beliefs or the teens’ behaviors.

A holy war is not intended to capture real estate or wealth or slaves, although that may happen. A holy war seeks to alter a cultural practice, an assumed behavior, often something that’s done without conscious decision each time you do it. You and everybody else assumes you will be fully clothed when you go out on the street. You don’t consciously decide against being naked. To alter that fully-clothed assumption might require a holy war. I don’t care, but I would decline to enlist in the battle.


Holy wars are not won or lost like conventional wars. Rather, I see the outcome of a holy war as either effective or ineffective. If the intended practice becomes normal practice, then the holy war has been effective. Ineffective holy wars may continue for years or centuries, the struggle going back and forth, property or dominance may change again and again with injuries traded across invisible boundaries. Eventually, the participants may forget what the war was all about, each side justifying continued warfare by the previous damages and insults received. In such a case, no practice is changed, so the war is ineffective.



Jesus’ effort to alter the practice of Jewish law. Jesus was a good Jew. The subsequent Christian practice moved out of Judaism. It required more than two centuries of minor holy wars before the Roman church achieved dominance over other Christian practices. There were forceful struggles until the practice defined by the Roman church became the established dogma. The Roman church was eventually effective in imposing it’s practice–whether or not that practice was what Jesus intended.

Gandhi’s effort for independence of India from England. This effective holy war relied on passive obstruction, not armed force. A particular practice ended: the British cultural practice of colonialism in India—based on the uncritical assumption that if we occupy a land, we own it and govern it.

The civil rights movement of the ’60’s and ’70’s, identified with Martin Luther King. This obviously was effective–it changed practices in education, commerce, travel, and governance. It did not change the assumption of white supremacy.

The movement for independence of North Ireland from England. This political movement was mixed with a Catholic/Protestant armed civil holy war. It has been ineffective, going on for generations, neither side establishing the practice it seeks. Like other ineffective holy wars, it bleeds the people and accomplishes little.

Nuclear electric power in the U.S.  This ineffective holy war officially began in 1975, when the National Council of Churches issued a draft statement opposing nuclear power. A set of Nobel prize winners signed a pro-nuclear statement. A set of 2300 scientists signed an anti-nuclear statement. One physicist, as I remember, signed both statements. An industry spokesman identified it as a holy war, saying the Christians were acting like lions. I reviewed this movement in 1966, in my first holy war essay. Because it was missing a key ingredient of effective holy wars, I predicted that it would be ineffective, with continuing argument and political struggle but without progress. Sure enough, we still don’t have a consensus. We have public fear, no nuclear fuel cycle, no new nuclear plants, and no nuclear waste repository. But we have spent fuel and old reactors. After thirty-four years, this holy war is right where it started.  It has been ineffective.



Let’s look at the general characteristics of holy wars.

1) A holy war has a central belief that would be supported by the new practice, and, being a war, has an opposing belief. The nuclear power holy war was–and still is–based on the belief that nuclear energy is so dangerous it could bring about the collapse of society, and the opposing belief that society will collapse without abundant energy. Those beliefs–like most beliefs–are rarely examined. The civil rights movement was based on the belief that racial inequality is bad, and the opposing belief that white supremacy is good.

A belief is different from a reason.

1) A belief can’t be examined–to question a belief is heresy, disloyalty. When a shared belief can’t be questioned, it becomes doctrine, and doctrine can be oppressive. Among the protagonists, a holy war can’t be questioned. That absence of questioning made the Bush II invasion of Iraq, and the administration’s announced intents to topple non-democratic regimes in the Middle East, a holy war. It was like an Islamic Jihad in reverse. Perhaps we could call it a corporate jihad. It was ineffective.

2) A holy war takes time. Holy wars seek to alter an established practice. It may require generations of social evolution or revolution before a new practice is unconsciously assumed by the populace. The time for effect depends on the number of people involved. Sex education in a local school might be resolved within a year—or never. If sex ed were specified for the entire nation, like the currently mandated testing in the schools, I suspect the arguments wouldn’t be resolved for a century.

3) A holy war usually seeks to relieve oppression, or to install oppression. Jesus sought to relieve the oppressive interpretation of the Judaic law. The independence movement in India and the civil rights movement in the U.S. sought to relieve social and economic oppression. Each side in northern Ireland sought, in its own terms, to relieve the oppression of the other side and to install its own oppression.

Notice that the beliefs underlying holy wars aren’t talked about. Like sex, they are practiced but not discussed or examined. Yes, the civil rights practices such as voting and access to hotels were talked about. But the ideas of inherent equality and white supremacy were not widely discussed. Just why the citizens believed that nuclear power would lead to social collapse, or why the industrialists believed the lack of nuclear power would lead to social collapse, was not examined. I think part of the belief on the citizens’ side was based on the prior anti-environmental behavior of the electric power industry, but this didn’t enter the war of words.



Somebody wants the revised practice. The new or modified practice is consciously or unconsciously desired by a significant fraction of the affected people. Relief from modernism would be welcomed by many middle-eastern people, although western people may think that the established middle-eastern customs are oppressive. Likewise, many western people would like to see western personal and corporate freedoms brought to the middle east. Bush II envisioned a latent revolution that would spread across middle eastern countries if he removed a few dictators. However, he overlooked the unspoken thoughts of many people on the other side who preferred the traditional male-dominated tribal society.

There’s a spokesperson. An effective holy war has, somewhere within it, a philosopher-leader who articulates the unspoken thoughts–even the beliefs–of the affected people. He makes conscious what would otherwise remain unconscious. He or she generates awareness, like a psychotherapist.

In India, Gandhi was the philosopher-leader.

In civil rights, Martin Luther King was the visible philosopher-leader, although several other people had functional leadership roles.

The Islamic Jihad will be an ineffective holy war, although it might continue for a century. It has no philosopher-leader who articulates the thoughts of many of the affected people on both sides. By the Koran, there can never be another philosopher-leader, otherwise called a prophet. This thing will go on until one or both sides are exhausted.

Nuclear electric power. Without a philosopher-leader who articulates the thoughts of both sides, it will probably continue as it has for the last 37 years. There has not been a sensitive discussion of fears, fuel cycle, or waste facilities. It’s a poison topic unmentionable by any political leader except a president in his second term—and then without opening a wide conversation about the beliefs on both sides.

Environmental movement . There were some early philosopher-leaders, such as Rachel Carson. But the beliefs aren’t openly articulated. Climate change and population control are poison topics for leaders because those topics conflict with underlying beliefs. For a change in practice, a leader would have to articulate the fears and the beliefs beneath those fears. That’s difficult because a belief is an unspoken, often unconscious, thought.



Governance of our nation is enmeshed in holy wars.  Movements in the Congress and legislatures are based on belief, not on what’s productive or reasonable.  Winning and obstruction have become the objectives.  I received advertising that says, “Stop the GOP now.”  What I want to achieve is more important than stopping anyone.

In an election, the media examines voter statistics, not the issues. Our current governance is a sequence of small holy wars based on belief, intended to force a practice of subservience on the opposing side. You and I can’t have a dialog if my objective is to defeat you rather than to enroll you.

There are many domestic holy wars. Testing in schools. Tort law. Immigration and population. Ask yourself: are these topics articulated, openly and completely–or are they bound by belief systems so that to question is to advocate heresy? If I question immigration, am I regarded as a racist?

Do we have any effective holy wars now in progress? Well, do you see any philosopher-leaders?

Obama. You may be tempted to argue that Obama acted as a philosopher-leader, a characteristic that made him both different and popular in his first election. But the difference hasn’t held up. Now he’s a pragmatist. Where did the philosopher go? The problem is this: One person cannot be both a successful politician and a philosopher-leader.  Philosophical leadership is not a popularity contest.

Let’s look at the health care issue as an example. It started as a concept of universal health care for all people, but ended up as a different arrangement of insurance policies. The focus went from care to insurance, from culture to process, from philosophy to profit. Health care and corporate profit are contrary concepts. Other countries have found their ways around this.

Neither a military general nor a politician can afford to be articulate.  Remember, a holy war takes time. A philosopher would have to articulate the old practice and the new practice, and the underlying beliefs for as many years as Martin Luther King articulated civil rights. But a politician or a general has only a year or two to get a particular thing accomplished. A true revision of health care might require a succession of philosopher-leaders. A Martin Luther King can’t be a president. Or even a senator.

Many people identified with Obama as he voiced their concerns during the election process. Subsequently they were disappointed because their favorite concerns hadn’t changed. They see that we don’t suddenly have a better, more open government. Graft in congress hasn’t been eliminated. Mid-east wars have not been terminated. Health care as a concept got lost. Too many people wanted a messiah, not a president.

For more than 2000 years, western people have looked for a messiah who would magically establish a religious (or political) kingdom of God (or of justice). It won’t happen. We have to alter our practices ourselves.

If you see a current holy war, and you want to predict whether it will be effective, look for a star in the east–look for the emergence of a philosopher-leader who articulates the thoughts and the obstacles on both sides. Although domestic holy wars are not armed struggles, there is a characteristic violence embedded in the larger effective holy wars. Soldiers, if they win a conventional war and survive, are honored as heroes. Philosophers are given the hemlock, the cross, the bullet. On a brighter note, despite the loss of its philosopher, an effective holy war might continue to fulfillment.



The holy war model gives you a means for consciously examining what’s happening around you, and perhaps thereby a means for influencing what’s happening. If you are not conscious of it, if you can’t articulate its features, if you can’t recognize its characteristics, then you are powerless to alter it.

Yes, there is hope. Don’t look for a messiah. Be one. Look to yourself. Articulate the good, articulate the bad, and above all articulate the unmentionable aspects of every issue. Within your own realm, you can be a philosopher-leader. That’s living your faith.

Do it, be it, and take joy in it.