Review: Hassner’s War on Sacred Grounds

Ron Hassner’s new book, War on Sacred Grounds, is an important step forward in the scholarly exploration of religion in the shaping of domestic politics. This work is particularly valuable to this effort in that it introduces two key testable propositions: that religious claims to sacred spaces are significantly less divisible than other territorial disputes and that religious leaders play a unique and powerful role in the construction, mediation, and resolution of these disputes.

Drawing from interpretivist, materialist, and constructivist traditions, Hassner constructs a coherent interdisciplinary approach to this problem of religious conflict and its rootedness in physical space. This diverse theoretical underpinning allows him to appreciate the transcendent spiritual value ascribed to these sites which defy simple material partition, how the social construction of the centrality of these sites becomes self-enforcing over time, and why the perceived indivisibility of these spaces incentivizes their manipulation by political elites seeking power over religious groups. By providing “believers” with concrete spaces through which they believe access to the divine is possible and political elites access to physical focal points by which they may manipulate religious groups and beliefs, sacred sites supply convenient resources to spark and sustain political mobilization.[1]

Indivisibility, he argues, stems from the convergence of two factors: centrality and vulnerability. The more central a sacred site is to a religious group’s ritual practice and belief in proximity to the divine, the more important it will be to believers.[2] The more vulnerable a site is to desecration, the greater restrictions a religious group will place on access to it. High values on both indicators entail significant risk that foreign presence or conduct in its environs will be regarded as offensive and a challenge to its integrity. Multiple claims to these spaces, he argues, are therefore more likely to spark violent intergroup conflict than similar contested claims to non-sacred spaces.[3] Once such sites move to the heart of disputes, their indivisibility renders resolution difficult if not impossible.[4] The only instances where these spaces can conceivably shared, he insists, are where the sacred site is of little importance to all claimants or a powerful, neutral third-party can intervene to force coexistence.[5]

The particular role of religious figures, in turn, in determining the character and mediation of these disputes is shaped by their “monopoly over the interpretation and manipulation of sacred parameters.”[6] These leaders are constrained in their ability to redefine sites by the prior determination of their importance by the religious community, and the magnitude of the shift they wish to affect, and the material authority of political actors.[7] Yet, Hassner asserts, they are uniquely empowered to shift these parameters by their charisma and religious-scholarly credentials especially at critical historical junctures.[8]

Although making a convincing case for the indivisibility of sacred sites and the potential of religious leaders to alleviate these disputes in the short to medium term, Hassner’s argument is limited in at least three key respects. First, his characterization of sacred sites as drawing their political mobilizational power from their promise of access to the divine unduly prioritizes the religious character of these sites over their often secular national importance. Second, his emphasis on the intermediary role of religious leaders between secular political elites and believers posits an artificial distinction between these two realms of social power and overestimates the capacity of religious and secular figures alike to affect long term change with regard to popular understandings of sacred sites. Third, Hassner conflates domestic and international conflict. In doing so, he fails to consider how external claims, particularly those supported by powerful state actors, can render sacred spaces more vulnerable and thereby less amenable to partition or shared control.

In any dispute over sacred sites, there will be religious adherents who truly believe that such spaces offer a unique window to the divine which must be defended from non-believers at all costs. However such devotion is rarely shared to such a degree by all actors who are committed to the indivisibility of the site. This is well illustrated by an examination of one of Hassner’s own in-depth case studies, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Despite some 65% of Jewish Israelis who consider themselves secular or religiously non-observant, upwards of 75% reject ceding sovereignty over this site in any eventual peace deal with the Palestinians even if Israel preserves its control of the Western Wall.[9] Even if is assumed that all self-identified Jewish observant Israelis cling to this inflexible position, what can account for the remaining 40% of non-religious respondents who share their view? Surely it cannot be the promise of access to the divine toward which they are agnostic at best. Nor can it be the authority of religious leadership which arguably has had marginal influence on their personal preferences and beliefs. While there may be a reasonable argument to be made that seculars defer such decisions of religious import to “the experts,” in an environment as political charged as Israel and with regard to an issue so pivotal to the peace process this seems unlikely.

Accordingly the Temple Mount is better understood as “civil-religious sacred space” rather than a purely religious one over which religious leaders have lost a monopoly to define its place in the discourse of national identity.[10] Hassner understands these spaces much in the same way as Benedict Anderson’s with regard to the census, map, and museum as a means to consolidate the identity and territorial space of emergent post-colonial states.[11] Like sacred spaces, civil-religious sacred spaces offer opportunities to commemorate and enshrine the history and identity of the national group it honors. Political elites may attempt to “sanctify” such sites thus raising the value of disputed territory, however he maintains that “the political authority required to define and shape ideas about disputed territories is far more diffuse than the religious authority requires to shape ideas about sacred space.”[12] As the polling data highlights, this distinction may be unsustainable.

The Temple Mount’s status as a religious space gave the Israeli Rabbinate significant authority to issue rulings which restricted Jewish access to which even secular Israelis have deferred.[13] However, it is the site’s status as a focal point of national identity that has prevented the Israeli government from engaging in substantive negotiations that would result in ceding sovereignty over it in international peace negotiations. Such emotionally affective sites offer political and religious elites alike ample opportunities to manipulate and control public opinion, but they are hardly free to reconstruct the meanings associated with these sites in ways which contravene such strong mass attachments. Hassner agrees on this point, but a revision is necessary. Where such sites assume national importance in addition to their sacred one, political elites are as directly beholden to and constrained by public knowledge and belief as religious leaders. Comprehension of the religious meanings of these sites may be important in crafting specific policies and day-to-day arrangements to ease conflict over them, a role uniquely suited to religious authorities. However, elites wishing to preserve their popular mandates must also ensure that the site itself remains under the state’s sovereign control. This signals a commitment not only to defending the religious values of believers over whom the state wishes to exercise control, but to preserving the popularly accepted identity of the nation as a whole. As with disputes over “purely” religious sites, spaces perceived to be integral to national identity cannot be readily shared or divided with other parties.

It is here where Hassner’s failure to distinguish between religious disputes over sacred spaces in the domestic sphere and those which occur in the context of international territorial conflict is particularly problematic. Domestic conflicts, simply put, are much easier to manage than those in which the ownership of the site or territory in question is contested on the international stage. Where the state exercises effective power (de facto or formal) to determine the status quo, violence can be quashed and questions of ownership can be muted even in spaces deemed central to conflicting religious parties. Hassner’s own examples of the Babri Masjid in India and the Grand Mosque in Mecca are evidence of this. Violence in the early 1990s at the Babri Masjid resulted in its destruction by Hindu radicals who believed the mosque to be built on the ruins of an ancient temple to Ram. Muslim radicals still carry out occasional violent acts near the site, but the Indian government has preserved the uneasy status quo placing the site under lock and key with limited public access.[14] While undeniably an instance of failed conflict resolution, it is difficult to claim that “war” is still being waged over the site. Similarly, the Saudi Arabian military’s expulsion of Islamist rebels from the Grand Mosque in 1979, although controversial and religiously suspect, has not been followed by comparable violent challenge to Saudi control of the site.[15] In neither case did external state actors or international bodies play a substantial role in mediating or diffusing the conflict.

By contrast, it can be argued that conflict over the Temple Mount between Israelis and Palestinians has not been resolved precisely because of the international attention paid to it. Lacking serious external intervention to force the issue, both Israelis and Palestinians enjoyed their respective fictions of exclusive control. The Waqf was free to claim the Mount as an exclusively Muslim space, and the state was able to appease majority national and religious sentiment with the knowledge that it remained ultimately under Israeli sovereignty. Where international arbiters intervene to shift the status quo, however well-intentioned, they will almost invariably raise the stakes of conflict and set off precisely the ethnic and religious political outbidding and violence they are seeking to limit or prevent. It comes as no surprise then, that the rabbinical ruling which restricted Jewish access to the Temple Mount so successfully for decades following 1967 have unraveled as major international powers have forced the question of Jerusalem’s territorial and political division back onto the negotiating table. Rather than contributing to peace and stability in the region, it is quite possible that by problematizing the status quo of Jerusalem, American administrations from Oslo onward have made conflict more intractable and the site less functionally divisible.

This highlights an important aspect of vulnerability to which Hassner pays little attention. Rather than conflict stimulated by a fear that others might desecrate a given site, international disputes over such sites question a country’s very title to it. While “owning” a sacred site certainly bolsters the state and religious establishment’s ability to restrict access thereby limiting desecration, it more importantly augments believers’ personal spiritual security. A group which feels it has access to and control over its sacred sites will no doubt be less agitated and more willing to functional share it with competing parties. Such has been the case in conflict over sacred sites like the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the Tomb of Rachel, and the Tomb of Joseph. All have been the subject of religious and nationalist violence by both Israelis and Palestinians. The most significant incidents, namely the massacre of 19 Palestinians by Baruch Goldstein in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994 and a Palestinian mob’s destruction of the Tomb of Joseph in 2000, both occurred at critical junctures where international negotiations over the status of the cities in which these sites are located were at their height.[16] Yet when international pressure has been focused elsewhere, now on bigger ticket issues like Jerusalem and the isolation of Hamas, Israel in cooperation with the Waqf has effectively ensured functional religious cohabitation of these sites.

Counter to Hassner’s argument, it seems that a reasonable level of coexistence is possible even in sites of ostensibly high centrality and vulnerability where external pressures are absent or focused elsewhere.[17] This suggests that a key factor ensuring peace and stability in these cases is much less the exclusion of competing claims than it is the institution of predictable routines and authority structures which govern shared use of and access to these sites. The policy implication is not to despair that conflict over sacred sites are irresolvable but rather to identify those parties who are best able guarantee shared use, preferably without significant international intervention so as to not raise the stakes for parties already in conflict. In such cases, preserving an imperfect status quo may ultimately be preferable to opening Pandora’s box.


Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities : Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1991.

Ben Meir, Yehuda, and Dafna Shaked. "The People Speak: Israeli Public Opinion on National Security 2005-2007." 96. Tel Aviv: Institute for National Security Studies, May 2007.

Hassner, Ron E. War on Sacred Grounds. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009.

"Israeli Opinion on Religious Matters." Jewish Virtual Library,

[1] Ron E. Hassner, War on Sacred Grounds (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009), 2-3.

[2] Ibid., 28-30.

[3] Ibid., 31-32.

[4] Ibid., 50.

[5] Ibid., 66.

[6] Ibid., 97.

[7] Ibid., 99-104, 07-10.

[8] Ibid., 102-04.

[9] "Israeli Opinion on Religious Matters," Jewish Virtual Library,; Yehuda Ben Meir and Dafna Shaked, "The People Speak: Israeli Public Opinion on National Security 2005-2007," (Tel Aviv: Institute for National Security Studies, May 2007), 58.

[10] Hassner, War on Sacred Grounds, 166-68.

[11] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities : Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991), 163-86.

[12] Hassner, War on Sacred Grounds, 168-69.

[13] Ibid., 123-29.

[14] Ibid., 78.

[15] One notable exception was a riot by Iranian pilgrims in 1987. This incident resulted in far more deaths than the 1979 operation. Yet the protest itself was less a challenge to the political authority of the Saudi Crown than an expression of intercommunal conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

[16] The 1997 Hebron Agreement in which it was agreed that the Israeli security forces would turn over most of the city to Palestinian Authority control significantly did not include Jewish settlements nor the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

[17] Ibid., 66-67.

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