Security Studies Program Seminar

Religion and Secular War

Prof. Ron Hassner
University of California, Berkeley

March 3, 2010



Prof. Hassner opened his talk by describing the 1993 siege on the Branch Dividian compound in Waco, TX. The siege began with a failed assault that was bungled from the start. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) had an insider who informed them that they should enter on Sunday when men were in the chapel praying. Unfortunately, they missed the salient detail that the Branch Dividians were Seventh Day Adventists who don’t go to church on Sundays. This was a huge mistake that underscored the importance of security forces to better understand religious timing.

Religion pervades war, not simply just as a part of the onset and a key element is sacred time. Sacred time can shape the willingness or the ability of believers to participate in war. The initiators of conflict have often timed their surprise attacks to coincide with significant dates in the religious calendars of their opponents in the belief (correct or mistaken) that doing so might give them an advantage.

For a long time there has been a major gap or deficit in the literature. The problem is that the field of international relations has largely ignored religion prior to 9/11 with the exception of a few spikes, but then in the post-9/11 phase, the literature has focused on the use of religion in extreme cases—those  like terrorism and insurgency—rather than how it structures a broader array of activities in conflict.

What is Sacred Time?

Sacred time simply means holy days – times of fasts, feasts, days of commemoration—usually connected to the mythical calendar of that religious group. It can pertain to recent events or a long historical memory. How do we know it is sacred time? Durkheim argues that it possesses one distinguishing characteristic: the separation of sacred from the profane time by virtue of mandated practices that are usually prohibited. Thus, actions that are otherwise permitted or prohibited are the opposite in sacred time and the religious objective is to preserve those boundaries.

Sacred time provides believers with meaning and access to the divine in three ways:
1. it provides the ability to distinguish special times
2. it provides gifts from god
3. it provides insight into religious meaning
Thus sacred time functions as a force multiplier in conflict. And if you mis-time an event or action, then it could prove disadvantageous.

These beliefs and practices allow believers to re-attain and re-experience mythical time. It is important to recognize that they are not just commemorating but re-participating and re-living sacred events, which then allows them to draw emotional and arguably even physical strength from it.

Four Effects of Sacred Time Combat

This can be laid out in a two-by-two table:




Advantage for Initiator



Advantage for Target



1. Motivation
Believers may draw on symbols to motivate a religious group. For instance, Muslims draw on Ashura to mobilize. And the battle of Badr – recounted in a 14th century manuscript – has been used to justify war to retake land. States often believe that timing can have effect on capabilities, and even if there is no actual effect, the belief that it does is interesting nonetheless.

2. Constraint
During World War I, groups from all sides engaged in trench warfare halted all actions on Dec 25th 1914 for the Germans, French, and English to come out of their trenches in a sort of temporary “truce” to sing Christmas carols. Similarly, the U.S. military practices have learned to constrain fighting in the Middle East during the holy month of Ramadan.

3. Vulnerability
This often involves catching the enemy off guard when they are celebrating their sacred day. The timing can have minimal effects (for instance, the Yom Kippur War effect remains unclear) or devastating ones (e.g. the Tet Offensive during which 50% of South Vietnamese forces were on leave for celebration, significantly weakening their capabilities and delaying mobilization due to the confusion of conflict with celebratory firecrackers). In theory, the holiday was supposed to be a truce, but the South Vietnamese were caught off guard. Another example is the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on a Sunday. More ships remained anchored and undermanned on Sunday, and the Japanese also expected that since Americans won’t move ships on Saturday and Sunday, the intelligence gathered on Thursday and Friday would still be valid. (This turned out to be spot-on.)

4. Outrage
However, the exploitation of sacred time by an aggressor can trigger outrage internally and externally. Part of the infamy of the attack on Pearl Harbor, besides the fact that it was a surprise attack, is that it happened on a Sunday, which triggered tremendous blowback. The Indian Military’s Operation Blue Star which stormed the Sikh’s Golden Temple in 1984 was a strategic disaster due to a complete failure of the Indian Military to understand sacred space. The operation unfortunately happened to fall on the most auspicious time for pilgrims to bathe in the temple’s holy waters as well as the day of martyrdom of a major religious leader. The reckless choice of date triggered Sikh outrage and mass killings. While the military was able to kill the Sikh leader, Bhindranwale, and most of the insurgent leadership, this short-term benefit triggered long-term blowback.

Some assailants don’t particularly care about the consequences. Many jihadists are purposefully seeking to provoke outrage and resentment hence they pick holy days to attack. Ritualistic practices can be an advantage or disadvantage for those who try to exploit them. If that ritual is exploited, it can bestow a short-term advantage but trigger a blowback effect by both the religious group as well as outside observers.

Avoiding Selection Bias: Evidence from Iraq, 2003-09

How do we know that the relationship between sacred time and conflict is not spurious or a result of selection effects? After all, Catholics assigned religious significance to nearly every day of the year and Jews and Muslims have done the same for nearly 80% of the year.

Data on insurgent and sectarian attacks in Iraq from 2006-08 reveals a statistically significant correlation between sectarian attacks peaking during the most sacred time for Muslims, the holy month of Ramadan, and then dropping the month after. This timing is particularly interesting since this peak and valley effect drifts with respect to the Julian calendar indicating that it is not quite “seasonal” but does generally correspond to the Islamic calendar.

Avoiding Spurious Correlation: Evidence from 1973

While we know that this is not merely a spurious correlation, how do we know about causation? Evidence from the 1973 Yom Kippur War provides this. Accounts of the Egyptian High Command reveals that they explicitly believed that Yom Kippur would be the ideal time to attack since the army was demobilized and people were on leave. This turned out to be quite wrong radios could be quickly turned on at the first signs of attack and since fasts were not that long, and the streets were empty allowing for rapid mobilization. Since it coincided with Ramadan, the Egyptians believed their troops would be more motivated and that the Israelis would not expect the attack coming from Muslims on their holy month. But Israelis did not realize it also coincided with Battle of Badr. The case is illuminating as it reveals the problem both sides have is one of mirror-imaging. Both states were secular, socialist states with professional militaries and both were planning an execution of military operations skewed by perceptions and misperceptions about sacred time.

Who Cares?

In the past few years, there has been a sudden rise in writings on religion and Islam in Library of Congress, as well as in International Security. Of course, Islam is dramatically covered and in much higher numbers than other religions and their relationship to conflict. Moreover, content analysis reveals that Islam is mentioned three times more today in the New York Times than prior to 9/11.

The problem with much of this “scholarship” is that it is selecting on extreme outcomes. Instead work needs to be done to systematically evaluate a range of elements for a more complete picture, including:
Theology – formal beliefs
Hierarchy – leadership
Iconography – symbols
Knowledge – what do people actually believe

In addition religion should also be studied in the advantages it accords through sharing information and facilitating coordination. Finally, variations on monotheistic, polytheistic, and secular religion should be studied including motivations, intelligence, and scriptural inerrancy.

Rapporteur: Sameer Lalwani

back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Spring 2010