Historical Ethnic & Religious Conflicts: Discussion & Examples

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  • 0:00 Conflict Throughout History
  • 1:02 Cultural Conflicts
  • 2:19 Religious Conflicts
  • 3:59 Ethnic Conflicts
  • 5:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, let's examine cultural, ethnic, and religious conflicts throughout history. We will identify examples of these types of conflict, and we will analyze the dynamics involved. Key themes and developments associated with these conflicts will also be addressed.

Conflict Throughout History

Let's pretend you're more of an urban type of person. You don't really like doing outdoor activities that much. You prefer to read a book inside your downtown loft while drinking artisan coffee. Your style of dress reflects your personality. You prefer fashionable, tailored clothing. One of your friends, however, is the complete opposite. This person loves hiking, hunting, and other outdoor activities. This person dresses in an almost country style and doesn't care about fashion. Maybe you and this friend even practice different religions, or are of different ethnic backgrounds.

The great thing is that these difference in no way hinder your friendship. The two of you don't try to beat one another up just because you're different. Sadly, this type of acceptance hasn't always been true throughout history. If we examine history, we see many examples of conflict arising from cultural, religious, and ethnic differences. Different groups of people have gone to war precisely because of these differences. Let's look at some examples.

Cultural Conflicts

The American Civil War is a perfect example of a conflict stemming from cultural differences. The American Civil War was fought between the Northern United States and the Southern United States between 1861 and 1865, over the issues of slavery and the rights of states. In early America, the issue of slavery reflected profound cultural differences between the North and the South. By the time of the Civil War, abolitionism, which was the movement to abolish slavery, had become popular in the North, while the institution of slavery had become a vital part of the Southern economy. The Northern economy was based on manufacturing and industry, while the Southern economy was based on agriculture, hence their reliance on slave labor.

In some respects the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union from 1945 to 1991 can be considered a conflict stemming from cultural differences. The U.S. favored a democratic government with a free market economy, while the Soviet Union favored communism and a state run economy. These differences led to nearly 50 years of intense tension and competition. Through negotiation and compromise, however, the U.S. and the Soviet Union successfully avoided a direct war, although the Cold War spawned numerous proxy wars, such as the Korean, Vietnam, and Afghanistan Wars.

Religious Conflicts

Religion is a powerful force in the world, so it's not surprising it has resulted in tremendous conflict throughout history. One of the most notable conflicts stemming from religious differences were the Crusades, taking place between Christian Europe and the Muslim-controlled Middle East region between the 11th and 15th centuries. Under the leadership of Pope Urban II, Christians in Europe sought to regain control of the Holy Land, what is now Israel, which at that time was Muslim-controlled territory. The Crusades were actually a series of wars, with some being more successful than others.

The Thirty Years War, taking place between 1618 and 1648, is another example of a religious conflict, this time fought primarily between Catholic and Protestant Christians. The war broke out when the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand II, tried to impose Roman Catholicism on all his subjects, causing Protestant Christians to rebel. Many of the battles were fought on German soil, but numerous European countries were involved in the war, including Sweden, France, Spain, and Austria. The war involved widespread atrocities and resulted in millions of casualties. The Peace of Westphalia ended the conflict, and ultimately reshaped the European map, allowing for the emergence of new nation-states.

Today we can see that religious conflict continues. This is especially true in the Middle East, where various religious groups compete for territory and influence. Terrorist groups like ISIS are usually considered to be motivated by religion. In other places, however, religious conflict is avoided through compromise and negotiation. The country of India, for example, has a diverse religious make-up, including Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and others. Here in the United States we're fortunate to practice the religion of our choice freely.

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