Since 2020, USIP’s programs on religion and inclusive societies and nonviolent action have been conducting research to better understand the role of religion in nonviolent action campaigns. Many of the most prominent activists and nonviolent movements in history have drawn on religion as they worked to build peace and advance justice. Historical figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi often come to mind. But religious leaders, beliefs, symbols and practices have featured just as prominently in more recent nonviolent campaigns, including the Arab Uprisings, the Spring Revolution in Myanmar and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement.

Despite its prevalent and persistent role, many questions remain about the impact of religion on nonviolent action. To what extent do religious beliefs influence activists’ decisions to start or join nonviolent campaigns? What role do religious actors and institutions play during times of nonviolent uprising, whether through direct participation in a movement or in providing mediation to support conflict resolution efforts? How do religious actors, ideas and practices shape a movement’s strategic choices? Can spiritual dimensions play a role in determining the tactics (e.g., protests, boycotts and civil disobedience) used by nonviolent movements? Might they even influence the success or failure of such efforts? And under what conditions are religious dimensions most likely to exert these influences? 

Protesters share a moment of Muslim and Christian unity as they sit nearby makeshift encampments during anti-government protests at Tahrir Square in Cairo. Feb. 6, 2011. (Scott Nelson/The New York Times)
Protesters share a moment of Muslim and Christian unity as they sit nearby makeshift encampments during anti-government protests at Tahrir Square in Cairo. Feb. 6, 2011. (Scott Nelson/The New York Times)

The Religion and Nonviolent Action Project explores these and related questions through:

A meta-synthesis of past studies in order to capture their common themes, concepts and theories. This qualitative review also identifies a broad series of questions to guide future analysis.

Original data collection on the religious dimensions of nonviolent action campaigns from 1945-2013. This data maps onto the University of Denver’s NAVCO 2.1 dataset and includes new measures of the religious actors, ideas, institutions and symbols of more than 150 nonviolent action campaigns.

Quantitative cross-national analysis that identifies broad trends in the role of religion in nonviolent action campaigns over the past few decades and across geographic regions. Attention is paid to both the general role of religion and the impact of particular religious dimensions, with a focus on how religion influences the outcome of nonviolent action campaigns. In-depth case studies may also explore these trends in particular contexts.

Our findings will be summarized and disseminated through scholarly publications, policy briefs and action guides for grassroots activists and peacebuilding practitioners. Ultimately, we hope this project will:

Encourage more systematic study of the relationship between religion and nonviolent action. For too long, the majority of attention has remained on how religion does or does not contribute to forms of violent resistance. And while peace scholars and practitioners often acknowledge the role of religion, their focus has largely been on peacemaking and peacebuilding rather than nonviolent action.

Support inclusive engagement in peace processes by underscoring the role of religious actors in nonviolent movements. Even when not the cause of a conflict, religious ideas, practices, leaders and institutions can shape the form and consequences of movements seeking to address injustices and initiate economic, political and social reforms.

Featured Resources

Latest Publications

Why the New U.S.-U.K.-Australia Partnership Is So Significant

Why the New U.S.-U.K.-Australia Partnership Is So Significant

Friday, September 17, 2021

By: Brian Harding; Carla Freeman; Mirna Galic; Henry Tugendhat; Rachel Vandenbrink

The United States and the United Kingdom have made the rare decision to share nuclear submarine propulsion technology with Australia in a move seen aimed at China. In a joint statement on September 15, the leaders of the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia announced the formation of a trilateral partnership — AUKUS — that, among other things, seeks to “strengthen the ability of each to support our security and defense interests.” USIP’s Brian Harding, Carla Freeman, Mirna Galic, Henry Tugendhat and Rachel Vandenbrink discuss the significance of the decision and what to expect next.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Global Policy

What Can the Taliban Learn From Past Afghan Conquests and Collapses?

What Can the Taliban Learn From Past Afghan Conquests and Collapses?

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

By: William Byrd, Ph.D.

The Taliban’s lightning conquest of Afghanistan caught many people by surprise, perhaps including the Taliban themselves. However, it is not the country’s first episode of an unexpectedly quick military victory and consequent rapid change in regime. Historical examples may provide relevant lessons for the victorious Taliban as they begin to govern the country, including pitfalls to be avoided in their own and the nation’s interest.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Fragility & Resilience

The Need to Build on Security Gains in Mozambique

The Need to Build on Security Gains in Mozambique

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

By: Thomas P. Sheehy

The Rwandan armed forces and police deployed to the Cabo Delgado province in northern Mozambique have made impressive gains combatting the Islamic State-affiliated al-Shabaab militants that have devastated the area. These 1,000 or so forces secured the key port city of Mocimboa da Praia in August, and the militants — who have committed grave atrocities, killed thousands and driven nearly a million people from their homes — have been forced to retreat from several areas of this natural resource-rich region. 

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & Prevention; Violent Extremism

Making Sense of North Korea’s Missile Test

Making Sense of North Korea’s Missile Test

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

By: Frank Aum

North Korea announced on September 13 that it had tested long-range cruise missiles over the weekend. It described the missiles as a “strategic weapon of great significance.” The test caused alarm in North Korea’s neighbors — South Korea and Japan, both U.S. allies — as the revelation now puts both countries within striking distance. But despite the test, a spokesperson for the Biden administration said the United States remains prepared to engage with North Korea. USIP’s Frank Aum discusses the significance of the tests, the arms race on the Korean Peninsula, and what signals North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may be sending to the United States with this latest test. 

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & Prevention; Mediation, Negotiation & Dialogue

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