Given the scope of Arnauld Blin’s latest monograph, War and Religion: Europe and the Mediterranean from the First to the Twenty-First Centuries, even a seasoned student of religious history might approach this text with trepidation. But Blin succeeds in providing a rich, accessible survey of major shifts in political power and how those shifts were inflected with conflict between monotheistic religious traditions including Judaism and Zoroastrianism, though his study is especially focused on wars between Christianity and Islam, “two principal religions that combined a universal message with political power” (34). Between these two religions and their relationship to warfare, certain similarities (or equivalences) appear to emphasize a fundamental irreconcilability for Blin, not only between Islam and Christianity but between Islam and constitutive elements of Western international law. Through this lens, Blin develops a renewed defense of the otherwise debunked term “clash of civilizations” to describe the Crusades in the 11th century (116).
From Emperor Constantine’s defeat of Emperor Maxentius in 312 CE and his installation of Christianity as Rome’s state religion in the 4th century, to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 after the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), Blin speculates about how monotheistic claims to universal truths have, often violently, shaped the geopolitical terrain of the continent as we know it today. Along the way he helpfully pinpoints when certain shifts in political history are reflected in Christian theology and doctrine.
Perhaps the most important example of this is Blin’s treatment of “just war ethics” (bellum iustum) throughout the text, which begins in chapter 2, “Christianity Becomes a State Religion.” Blin shows how Rome’s adoption of Christianity as its official religion informed the emergence of Christian just war theory, largely derived from Cicero. Christians, in Blin’s words, “held fast to Jesus’s pacifist message” until Constantine’s conversion; then once Christianity was a state religion, “the defense of the faith warranted extreme measures,” according to Ambrose (43).
Formed from the dual notion of jus ad bellum (how a state justifies war) and jus in bello (how warfare should be conducted), Blin argues that “the pacifist strand of Christian ethics would live on, leading almost a parallel life . . . to be resurrected in a secular form at the turn of the twentieth century” (63). That is, the fundamental, constitutive element of Christianity’s innocent, bloodless prepolitical origin story is submerged for most of its history; given this hypothesis, Blin can contend that Christian political violence has always been ambivalent and regretful, whereas “Islam never had such qualms.” (This, despite Blin conceding that Islam “accepts Christ as a prophet”  and that the Prophet Muhammad lived a “pacific” period after his revelations on Mount Hira between 610 and 622 .)
A strength of War and Religion is Blin’s impressive, erudite study of military history from Constantine to the Crusades in the 11th century, then the last Crusade in 1571 between the Holy League and the Ottoman Empire. From the 4th century, Blin argues that jus ad bellum “would inevitably lead to holy war,” and jus in bello would “provide the blueprint for international law,” like that of early modern philosophers like Niccolò Machiavelli, Hugo Grotius, and Thomas Hobbes (67). Blin identifies “a continuum” that lasted until “the accords of Westphalia , followed by various manifestations of religious violence that came to define the political order from 1650 until today” (2). In this sense, the event of modern Western nation-state formation is the genealogical axis around which Blin’s 360 pages turn; as the “end” of Blin’s story, it provides a clear, focused lens through which to tell thirteen hundred years of social, political, and religious history. This also marks a few limitations for Blin’s comparative engagement with Islam, beginning with “the Emergence of Islam” (ch. 3) in the 7th century CE.
One crucial way that Blin aims to show differences and similarities between Christianity and Islam is arguing that the coupling “Dār al-Islam (House of Islam) and the Dār al-Harb (House of War)” is comparable to jus ad bellum and jus in bello (86). Broadly, the Dār al-Harb is the name given to places not governed by Islamic law. In such places, there is a lack of assurance that Muslims can live peaceably and self-governed. Blin’s account emphasizes, “The Islamic equivalent of just war is utterly different from what we find in the Christian tradition, though it is also based on dualistic opposition” (86). Though Blin concedes that Dār al-Islam and Dār al-Harb are “utterly different” from jus ad bellum and jus in bello, he nonetheless draws an equivalence for comparison, inevitably concluding that the former fails to measure up to standards set by Christianity. (But Dār al-Islam and Dār al-Harb is a distinction of place, not of discourse, like jus ad bellum and jus in bello. If Dār al-Harb is something like “permanent war,” as Blin alleges, it is ironically close to what natural law theorists like Hobbes had in mind with the term war— that it is not reducible to “battle” itself, but rather marks a zone of uncertainty in which the possibility of conflict and struggle for survival reveals itself in encounters with unknown others.)
In chapter 8, “In the Name of God: Religious Warfare in Europe, 1524–1700,” Blin impressively situates the Thirty Years’ War, the Peace of Westphalia, and its aftermath in a broader historical survey of modern colonial history. He shows how peace among sovereign European nation states “pushed the more powerful European powers to export their territorial ambitions to other continents, where they built colonial empires” (278). Blin notes that the Thirty Years’ War “began as a religious conflict but ended as a political one” with the Peace of Westphalia.
While Blin provides a fascinating analysis of the treaty, it would be improved by more discussion about how the treaty effectively redefined what wars might be considered religious versus political by allowing for the accommodation of Christianity within the laws of individual European nation-states. Indeed, one important concession of the treaty was the sedimentation of cujus regio, ejus religio into law, or “lining up national and religious identities” (242). In the epilogue, Blin concludes, “So, what now? Notwithstanding a few beleaguered Islamic terrorist organizations, there is little today that foreshadows a revival of religion as the primary driver of world politics” (297).
But as Blin shows throughout the book,political power and religion (or at least monotheistic religion) have been entangled and historically co-constitutive. In other words, one warning from Blin’s history is that, in a post-Westphalia world, what might look like ostensibly secular justifications for warfare from modern Western nation-states might not be so secular after all. Using War and Religion as one model from many, readers will look forward to more work in religious studies that adds to a growing body of scholarship on the intersections of monotheistic religion and nation-state formation in the West.
Danube Johnson is a PhD candidate in religion at Harvard University.
Date Of Review:
January 30, 2022
Arnaud Blin is a French-American historian and biographer. His works are widely translated, and he is the author, coauthor, or editor of many on the history of conflict, including The History of Terrorism: From Antiquity to ISIS. Blin is a Research Associate with the French Institute for Strategic Analysis (Paris).
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