Armed Conflict & Compliance in Muslim States, 1947–2014: Does Conflict Look Different Under IHL?

By Corri Zoli, Emily Schneider, & Courtney Schuster*

(Re-published from the North Carolina Journal of International Law & Commercial Regulation, 40:3 (Spring 2015))

We shall not enter into any of the abstruse definitions of War used by publicists.1

One of the central challenges confronting international relations today is that we do not really know what is a war and what is not. The consequences of our confusion would seem absurd, were they not so profoundly dangerous.2

If one asks what may cause war, the simple answer is ‘anything.’3

Regions with large Muslim populations in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa are no strangers to conflict and warfare, including protracted strife.4 Yet, remarkably few datasets have focused on Muslim states in their conflict behavior, and even fewer studies in the now expansive field of quantitative conflict research have examined the role of state compliance with the international law regulating armed conflict (international humanitarian law) as a variable in such conflict behavior. The slim inquiry on Muslim state conflict and compliance behavior contrasts with otherwise intensive study of closely related subjects: political violence in Muslim societies, democracy deficits in the Arab world, political Islam and stability, Arab resource and development dynamics, ethnic identity and religion in civil war, and so forth.

Addressing this paradox raises intriguing questions at the intersection of international relations, public international law, and security studies, and injects an empirical baseline for assessing now commonplace claims that Muslim-dominated areas disproportionately experience conflict, political violence,lawlessness, and instability. Recent political upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have only increased the need to examine such patterns rigorously and in ways that add emergent variables—such as law and compliance—to the existing literature.5

Likewise, cross-national inquiry on Muslim inter- and intra-state conflict dynamics may help to identify important related developments, such as the effects of compliance on post conflict stability and the rise of irregular armed groups with a Muslim state locus (i.e., as a safe haven, conflict zone, or training site).6 Toward these ends, the article introduces a new Muslim State Armed Conflict & Compliance (MSACC) dataset7 that provides an overview of modern armed conflict and international law compliance behavior for all Muslim states from 1947-2014.8

The MSACC dataset tracks each modern Muslim state, defined by voluntary state membership in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC),9 in both its armed conflict history and compliance record with international humanitarian law (IHL), and the universal international regime governing conduct of hostilities during armed conflict.10 The dataset encompasses all international (IAC) and non-international (NIAC) armed conflicts as defined by IHL in which a Muslim state acts as a major belligerent party.11

In using an IHL-based definition of armed conflict, the dataset is distinctive in several ways. First, it relies upon a legal, instead of a political–sociological (i.e., battle deaths) framework for understanding and defining armed conflict. Second, it disaggregates the complex contemporary conflict spectrum into two streamlined types, international and non-international conflicts, as required by respective threshold triggers under IHL. Third, it focuses holistically on self-identified Muslim states in their actual conflict and compliance behavior, rather than on variables of presumed importance (i.e., regime attributes and other proxies). Finally, it correlates conflict and IHL compliance data in ways that offer new insights into traditional problems of conflict and war. By utilizing this data, one can examine Muslim state conflict trends, including by region, time period, and conflict type (i.e., IAC or NIAC), and provide baseline data for Muslim states that may be correlated with other data (e.g., development reports, security expenditures, human rights).

In what follows, we introduce the data, its IHL-based assumptions, and discuss resulting differences from extant datasets. By using bivariate analyses, we then demonstrate spatial and temporal patterns in the conflict behavior for Muslim states, and, finally, conclude with a discussion of future research on the subject …

To read the entire article, click here.


*Corri Zoli is the Director of Research at INSCT. Emily Schneider (LAW ’13) is a research associate at New America and Courtney Schuster (LAW ’13) is a research assistant with INSCT.

1 CARL VON CLAUSEWITZ, On War, in THREE VOLUMES 1, 1-2 (1918).

2 Hew Strachan, Chichele Professor of the History of War, All Souls’ College, Oxford, The Changing Character of War: A European Lecture Delivered at the Graduate Inst. of Int’l Relations 2 (Nov. 9, 2006).

3 Kenneth Waltz, Structural Realism after the Cold War, 25 INT’L SEC. 5, 8 (2000).

4 Monica Duffy Toft, Getting Religion? The Puzzling Case of Islam and Civil War, 31 INT’L SEC. 97 (2007); see Jonathan Fox, Are Middle East Conflicts More Religious?, MIDDLE EAST Q. 31 (Oct. 2014) (explaining how conflict in Muslim populated countries tend to be more religiously charged); MOHAMMED M. HAFEZ, WHY MUSLIMS REBEL: REPRESSION AND RESISTANCE IN THE ISLAMIC WORLD (2003); see also Andrej Tusicisny, Civilizational Conflicts: More Frequent, Longer, and Bloodier?, 41 J. PEACE RES. 485 (2004) (discussing the higher likelihood of escalation of conflicts among different civilizations than conflicts within a single civilization).

5 See Int’l Inst. for Democracy and Electoral Assistance [IDEA], An Energy-Rich Region of Increasingly Energized Citizens: The Interplay Between Democracy, Politics, and Energy in the Shadow of Political Upheaval in the MENA Region (June 28, 2012) (ONS Summit) (discussing the political and economic reform MENA region is recently undergoing due to issues involving armed conflict and democracy).

6 Christopher Blattman & Edward Miguel, Civil War, 48 J. ECON. LITERATURE 3 (2010) (explaining in abstract that cross-national studies will benefit our understanding of war and its causes).

7 C. Zoli, E. Schneider & C. Schuster, Muslim State Armed Conflict & Compliance Dataset (MSACC) 1947-2014, 2012, Distributed by Syracuse University, Institute for National Security & Counterterrorism (INSCT), College of Law/Maxwell School of Public Affairs,

8 We define “Muslim state” by membership in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the intergovernmental organization of 57 members, including Palestine, with permanent U.N. delegation status (we exclude Palestine as it is not recognized by the U.N. as a state). See Member States, ORG. OF ISLAMIC COOPERATION, (last visited Oct. 28, 2014) [hereinafter OIC Member States] (enumerating member OIC states). State membership in the OIC is fluid so we determined membership as of 2010, when we began our research. Since then, Bosnia was added to the OIC in April 2013 and Syria was suspended in August 2012. Established in 1969, OIC defines itself as “the collective voice of the Muslim world” designed to “safeguard and protect the interests of the Muslim world in the spirit of promoting international peace and harmony among various people of the world.” We use this framework for two reasons. First, OIC member states are inclusive of the traditional 47 Muslim population-majority states in which the population is at least 50.1 percent Muslim—with the exception of Muslim-majority state Kosovo, which is not an OIC member. In addition to the traditional 47 Muslim-majority states (minus Kosovo), we include the additional 11 OIC countries without a simple Muslim-majority population, largely in Africa: Benin, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Mozambique, Nigeria, Suriname, Togo, and Uganda. Notably, countries with sizeable Muslim populations, India, China, and Russia (though Russia is an OIC observer state since 2005) are not members of OIC, either because they have been blocked (India), or do not see the benefits of identifying as a “Muslim state” for purposes of national identity or intraregional politics. Second, we use this more expansive definition of “Muslim state” to take into account state’s self-identification, as all OIC member states adopt a Muslim state identity, whether for religious, sociocultural, national, economic, and/or policy reasons, including regional balance of power issues. OIC has thus come to project, as per OIC Charter Article II(a)(b), a regional policy agenda expressly affiliated with Muslim states and Muslim notions of governance, particularly for the audience of the international community. This policy projection creates some sense of common purpose among diverse OIC member states, with respect to regional and international issues. See Gairuzazmi Ghani, Does OIC Membership Reduce Trade?, 28 J. ECON. COOPERATION 39, 41-43 (2007) (discussing the background of Muslim-states and incidences of conflict); PEW RES. CENTER’S F. ON RELIGION & PUB. LIFE, (last visited Aug. 12, 2013).

9 OIC Member States, supra note 8 (listing the fifty seven member states of OIC).


11 See generally Rule of Law in Armed Conflicts Project, GENEVA ACADEMY INT’L HUMANITARIAN L. & HUM. RTS., (last visited Oct. 16, 2013) (reporting on every concerned State and disputed territory in the world through the use of a global database to support the application and implementation of international law in armed conflict).