Radicalizing Religion? Religious Identity and Settlers’ Behavior


Does religious identity prompt radical action? This article presents a model of individual-level radical action. Drawing mostly on collective action theory the article posits that organizational membership drives the effect of religious identity on individual-level radical action. Using survey data the article assesses the behavior of Jewish settlers in the West Bank in the face of the 2005 Gaza withdrawal. The article finds that contra the prevailing view, which holds that religious identity alone is sufficient to trigger violence, evidence suggests that organizational membership is a mechanism bridging religious identity and radical action. Longstanding arguments tying radical actions solely to religion may require substantial revision.

Sivan Hirsch-Hoefler  | Daphna Canetti | Ehud Eiran

From the Christian crusades to the recent violence employed by the Islamic State, many conflicts have occurred along religious fault lines And indeed, both popular intuition and much scholarship suggest that religious identity (RI) leads inexorably to radical action (RA), which can include violence.

The purported association between RI and RA relies chiefly on the argument that the inherent intractability and exclusivity of religion leave little room for the negotiation of conflicts, and hence lead by their very nature to RA. Yet, while individuals and institutions sometimes exploit religious claims to justify or inflame violence, others adduce their religious identity in promoting peace, moderation, and prosocial behavior.

Drawing on micro-level data analysis, some scholars offer frameworks, including eliteanalysis and constructivist perspectives, that account for this discrepancy, arguing that RI cannot be considered the sole direct cause of support for RA, violence, and the negation of democratic values.

We contribute to this debate by arguing for a mediating role of networks of mobilization in the link between RI and RA. We argue that a religious identity leads to radical action only if mediated by membership in an organization that has political goals.

To test our argument we conducted a representative survey (N D 517) among Jewish settlers in the West Bank in February 2006—about six months after Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank, in which it removed all settlers and settlements from those territories. Specifically, we tested whether a religious identity made Israeli settlers more likely to adopt radical action against the Israeli government following the announcement of the disengagement plan, and if so, whether the influence of religious identity on radical behavior could be traced mainly to individual beliefs or sentiments or, rather, to networks of mobilization. The Israeli settler population during this period makes a good case study for examining the relationship between religion and political behavior writ large, and the influence of religion on radical action in particular, because this population offers great variation in their engagement in radical responses to the disengagement policy.

Below, we first outline the theoretical justification for our hypothesis that organizational membership plays a mediating role in the relationship between RI and RA. We then describe the setting and background in terms of the Israeli settler population and the particular event which anchors the research (the disengagement). Following that, we report on our study and its findings. We conclude with the implications of our research for the study of religion and political behavior.

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