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National Science Foundation

Why do the weak sometimes attack the strong? It is no surprise that groups with greater power and resources are willing to engage in conflict with their weaker counterparts.  Yet some weak groups—including terrorist groups, ethnic groups, and even states--are undeterred by their significant resource constraints and violently engage much more powerful groups at the risk of incurring great costs. Why? Recent research has demonstrated that weak but religiously-infused groups—groups in which religion permeates many aspects of private and public life—are sometimes willing to engage in collective violence against their more powerful counterparts, yet little is known about why religion affects groups in this way. Understanding the causes, facilitators, and inhibitors of asymmetric conflict—conflict between groups having great disparity in power—has great significance for enhancing the national security of the U.S. and our allies.

Drawing on insights from multiple fields in the social and behavioral sciences, this project investigates nine hypotheses on how differences in religious ritual, doctrine, and context shape the motivations and capacities of weak but religiously-infused groups to initiate conflict against stronger groups. This project employs three complementary and integrated methods to test these hypotheses: (1) case studies comparing two transnational Muslim ethnic groups in the Middle East and South Asia—the Kurds in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, and the Baluchi in Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan; (2) qualitative comparative analyses of 40 relatively resource-weak groups around the world; and (3) lab experimentation in the U.S. and India. Together, these methods will elucidate the factors shaping the circumstances in which resource-poor but religiously-infused groups engage in asymmetric conflict. They will also enable us to discern the circumstances in which religious infusion may lead to more peaceful outcomes.

Project Directors

Steven Neuberg, Professor of Pyschology
Carolyn Warner
, Professor of Political Science