Religion & Violence // A Moment Symposium

By | Oct 07, 2015

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Hector Avalos  / William T. Cavanaugh  / Robert Chazan
Mohammed Dajani Daoudi  /  Fran Danis  / Wendy Doniger
Robert Eisen  /  Steve Emerson  /  Nicholas Gier  / Margo Kitts
Mark Juergensmeyer  /  Doug Pardue  / Ami Pedahzur  /  Steven Pinker
David Rapoport  / Jonathan Sacks  / Stephen M. Walt

Symposium Editor: Wesley G. Pippert
Interviews by: Sarah Breger, Marilyn Cooper, Sala Levin, Wesley G. Pippert

Violence in the name of religion affects hundreds of thousands of men, women and children each year.  A Pew Research Center Religion and Public Life Forum study released last year found that religious hostilities increased in every major region of the world except the Americas, with the sharpest growth in the Middle East and North Africa. In its survey of 198 countries, Pew found that 20 percent of these countries experienced religion-related terrorist violence in 2012, up from 9 percent in 2007. The prevalence of abuse of religious minorities saw a similar spike, occuring in nearly twice as many countries in 2012 as in 2007. Jews were harassed in 77 countries in 2013—a seven-year high—while members of the world’s two largest religions (Christianity and Islam) faced harassment in 102 and 99 countries respectively.

Given the rise of ISIS and other extremist groups since then, we expect these numbers to continue their alarming ascent. And so we ask: Is there something about religion that is inherently violent, or is it a myth that religion leads to violence? And since much of the contemporary religious violence in the news is connected to Islam, is this a Muslim problem—or a broader human one? We posed these questions to a wide-ranging group of thinkers.

Jonathan Sacks

Since 9/11, we’ve had three basic responses to religious violence. Response one, by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, et al., is that religion is a source of violence, and therefore if you want to get rid of violence, the first thing you have to do is to get rid of religion. The second response, the religious one, says violence has nothing to do with religion. Violent men exploit religion: They use it, they manipulate it, but religion per se has nothing to do with violence. And the third response is, “Our religion is terrific, it’s their religion that’s the problem.”

Each of those is palpably false. First of all, the idea that religion is the primary driver of violence is easily refutable by the standard work on warfare, Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod’s Encyclopedia of Wars, which covers 1,800 wars in the course of history and shows that only 10 percent of them were fundamentally driven by religion.  So religion is not the major cause of violence in history.

Secondly, the idea that religion has nothing to do with violence is equally absurd because to understand the violence of ISIS, for example, you have to understand its religious basis, and indeed its religious textual basis, and how religious texts are interpreted. And, thirdly, “Our religion good; their religion bad” neglects or overlooks a rather tragic history. Judaism and Christianity gave rise to violence of not dissimilar intensity in their time.

In fact, I think that violence explodes in the form of religious civil war at the 1,500-year mark of each of the three Abrahamic monotheisms. It is like a clock ticking. It happened in Judaism in the 1st century, if we are to believe Josephus, who said that the inhabitants of the besieged Jerusalem were more intent on killing one another than on killing the Romans outside. That’s about 1,500 years into the history of Judaism. It happened in Christianity in the 16th century with the Wars of Religion, following the Reformation. That’s around 15 centuries into the history of Christianity. And on the basis of that magnificently wide sample of two, I predicted in 2002 that the 21st century would be the century of civil war within Islam, and I don’t think that was wrong. In a sense, all the Abrahamic monotheisms have faced it at the same stage in their development. It’s not, “Our religion good; their religion bad,” it’s that our religion got the bad out of the way before the other did.

Violence stems from identity and groupishness, not from religion, and the only connection between that and religion is that religion is the most powerful creator of groups that humanity has ever devised. To this day it is more powerful than race, the nation-state and political ideologies. It is no accident that religion has emerged as a powerful force in a globalizing age. So that is the connection between religion and violence. It’s bleak, it’s indirect, but it’s real.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks served as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013. His new book is Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence.

Karen Armstrong

When the revolutionaries in France created the first secular state in Europe in the late 18th century, they first disestablished the Catholic Church and confiscated its property. Next, they made la nation a religious value. It became less acceptable to die for your religion but admirable to die for your country. Nationalism was infused with religious feeling: We certainly see this in the United States with “God Bless America” and the hand on the heart during the Pledge of Allegiance.

But the establishment of the nation-state and the banishment of religion to the private sphere have not brought peace to the world. In the late 19th century, British historian Lord Acton pointed out that the stress on ethnicity, language and culture in the nation-state meant that ethnic minorities could be vulnerable—in some circumstances they could be enslaved or even exterminated. The Armenian massacres and the Holocaust have proved that he was right. This is equally true of so-called religious violence today. Religious wars always have a political factor. That has applied to the Crusades, the Inquisition and the so-called Wars of Religion. Osama Bin Laden was absolutely clear that he had political goals as well as religious ones. The Islamic State may sound very religious, but from what we can tell from those hostages who have been released, its culture is markedly secular. Many of its key leaders were members of Saddam Hussein’s secular Ba’athist army.

No religious tradition has not succumbed to violence at some point. But our traditions also insist on the importance of compassion and justice and that one cannot have compassion simply for one’s own group. You must love the stranger, says Leviticus; love even your enemies, says Jesus; reach out to all tribes and nations, says the Quran. We must bring that to the fore in our religious discourse and give heed to all the voices who speak out against the violence committed by co-religionists—they often get very little attention in the press.

Karen Armstrong is a former Roman Catholic religious sister and author of  Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence.

The inevitable disputes between neighbors, when they touch on religious doctrines, become matters of infinite moral importance, making compromise impossible. Moral worth is invested in souls, not lives, so it’s easy to sacrifice a life for eternal paradise.

Steven Pinker

The goals of most religions—at least the Abrahamic ones—are tribal loyalty, obedience to divine and ecclesiastic authority, following arbitrary laws and rituals, belief in entities for which there is no evidence, and the safeguarding of purity against various threats of contamination. Happiness, peace and fulfillment play no role in the Ten Commandments, the majority of halachic law, the acceptance of Jesus as one’s savior, or making the word of Allah the law of the land. It’s only with modernity and the reforming of religions in humanistic, liberal and ecumenical directions that individual happiness, peace and fulfillment became prominent parts of the major religions.

It’s no surprise, then, that religions have led directly to violence, as in the Hebrew Bible conquests, Christian Crusades and European Wars of Religion, and much of the Islamic world today. The inevitable frictions and disputes between neighbors, when they touch on religious doctrines, become matters of infinite moral importance, making compromise impossible. Moral worth is invested in souls, not lives, so it’s easy to sacrifice a life for eternal paradise.

Different religions have evolved in different ways on different timetables. Most religions have reformed and liberalized, but at different rates. Islam has largely resisted reform. But certainly the long-term trend is toward the liberalization of religions, even the most reactionary ones, and it’s unlikely that Islam and the major radical sectors of Christianity and Judaism can escape this current forever.

The rise of literacy, science, cosmopolitanism and public forums of reasoned debate have made religious dogma and insularity increasingly untenable. Also, the world has learned bitter lessons from sectarian strife, as reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which followed World War II and the Holocaust. There’s less war overall, but more of the war that does take place is attributable to religious motives.

Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist and professor at Harvard University. He is the author of The Better Angels of Our Nature.

Fran Danis

We must distinguish between the terrorism that pits one force or group against another force—such as in the Middle East—and what I call the “intimate terrorism” of domestic violence. “Intimate terrorism” occurs in all three major Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), often in the same proportions.

We know several things about the intersection of abuse and religion from studies of women who have experienced abuse. Batterers use religion as another tool of power and control, including pressuring the victim for forgiveness, isolating the women from participating in their faith or using religion to reinforce their position as being the “head of the household.”

On the other hand, the victims of domestic violence often turn to religious leaders for comfort or solace, and sometimes these religious leaders become enablers for the perpetrators by affirming the perpetrators’ point of view. We need religious leaders to emphasize that the marriage covenant is broken when violence is used, and institutions of faith can be sources of support by making safety their first priority.

Fran Danis is a professor of social work at the City University of New York. She is the co-editor of Domestic Violence: Intersectionality and Culturally Competent Practice.

Batterers use religion as another tool of power and control, including pressuring the victim for forgiveness, isolating the women from participating in their faith or using religion to reinforce their position as head of the household.

Doug Pardue

Religion is rarely an overt cause of domestic violence. From our studies of domestic violence, we have found that religion serves as an undercurrent in many relationships and attitudes, such as that a wife should obey her husband. Such attitudes can result in outbreaks of anger or violence brought on by other reasons when a man thinks he may be losing control of his spouse. But religion probably plays a greater role in explaining why many women stay in abusive relationships. To them marriage is a sacrament.

Doug Pardue was part of a team that won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service this year for the series, “Till Death Do Us Part.” He is a reporter for The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina.

David Rapoport

There have been four waves of terrorism in the modern era. The first was anarchism, which began in Russia in the 19th century and quickly spread through Europe and Asia. The second wave involved gaining freedom from Western overseas empires. The third wave was provoked by the Cold War and the struggle in Vietnam. Each of these waves lasted a generation or so.

Islam is at the heart of the fourth and current wave. Islamic groups have conducted the most deadly international attacks and have influenced religious terror groups elsewhere. After Islam erupted, Sikhs sought a religious state in India. Jewish terrorists attempted to blow up Islam’s most sacred shrine in Jerusalem and committed a variety of attacks, including the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Christian terrorism, based on racist interpretations of the Bible, also emerged. In true medieval millenarian fashion, armed rural communes composed of extended families withdrew from the state to wait for the Second Coming and the great racial war. The violence produced by those groups has not been significant, apart from the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

Now the Islamic wave of religion and terrorism is virtually on its last lap, and I feel optimistic that it could end in the next ten to 15 years—out of sheer weariness and if the West refrains from over-involvement. But we haven’t fully learned our lesson: It’s very common in the history of terrorism for all states to overreact. Just as Protestants and Catholics learned to live together, the Shiites and the Sunnis—who lived together during the Ottoman Empire—may learn the same thing, helped by their common foe, the West.

David Rapoport is professor emeritus at UCLA and founded its Center for Study of Religion. He is the founding editor of the scholarly journal Terrorism and Political Violence. 

William  T. Cavanaugh

There is no essential difference between religious violence and secular violence. Religion is said to be peculiarly absolutist, divisive and non-rational, but so-called secular ideologies and institutions can be just as much so. In fact, the religious-secular distinction is a modern Western invention and has been used in different times and places by different people according to different interests.

Take Iran, for example. The way the story gets told, the religious turbulence in Iran began in 1979. What is overlooked is that the Shah’s secularist reign of terror began 26 years earlier. In fact, those who propound the myth of religious violence are enablers for secular nation-states and other secularists who heap blame on the religious person. The myth of religious violence thus becomes a justification for the use of violence. Violence labeled “religious” is always seen as irrational, particularly virulent and reprehensible. Violence labeled “secular,” on the other hand, no matter how regrettable, is often considered necessary and sometimes even praiseworthy for the job it does in defending “us” from religious violence.

Among those who identify themselves as Christians in the United States, there are very few who would be willing to kill in the name of the Christian God, whereas the willingness, under certain circumstances, to kill or die for the nation in war is generally taken for granted.

I don’t deny that people can and do use their faith to do frightening and barbaric things, but people use their faith in “freedom” or “the free market” to do the same.  I don’t see either one abating in the near future, but I hope the kind of leveling I try to encourage helps defuse binaries such as religious-secular or rational-irrational, and perhaps it ratchets down the demonization of others a bit.

William T. Cavanaugh is the director of the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology, and professor of Catholic studies at DePaul University. He is the author of The Myth of Religious Violence.

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Mohammed Dajani

My family in the 1950s and 1960s was traditional but not extremist—typical of Muslim life at that time. Muslims were “religious inside, secular outside.” I remember a lot of togetherness, friendships, intermarriages. It’s different today. Now incitement is through religion. Religion on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is used as a tool for a political agenda. So what happened? It’s simplistic to say, “Israel happened.” Rather, two events contributed to radicalism—the First Intifada in 1986 and the rise of Hamas. Religious extremism intoxicates Palestinians, offering them an escape from their wretched reality. In addition, in the West, the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union in the 1990s resulted in a search for a new enemy. Islam became the target. I am a realist, but I am optimistic about the future. Of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims, only 5 percent pray five times a day. And of this 5 percent, only 5 to 10 percent are radical.

Mohammed Dajani is the Weston Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. While teaching political science at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, he founded the Wasatia Movement of Moderate Islam.

Robert Eisen

Religion has always been related to violence. Some religions believe that violence is one of the means needed to achieve that final era of messianic peace. In Judaism, we have the concept of the birth pangs of the Messiah, which refers to a period of violence prior to the coming of the messianic period in which God’s enemies are vanquished. In the last book of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation, the Christian vision of messianic peace arrives only after God punishes those who have rejected Christ. In Islam as well, the messianic era is preceded by the violent punishment of sinners on the Day of Judgment.

Religion is like any other form of group identity that has within it the potential to treat outsiders harshly. Furthermore, over the centuries, religion has often had a complex relationship with other forms of group identity such as ethnicity and nationality. When religious identity overlaps with these, there is even more potential for violence. In the 16th and 17th centuries, this kind of violence was terrible in Christian Europe, at which point Catholics and Protestants killed each other in large numbers. Religious violence waned until the end of the Cold War, when religion made a comeback, in part because secularism didn’t solve the world’s major problems.

Robert Eisen is the chair of the religion department at George Washington University and the author of The Peace and Violence of Judaism.

John Esposito

The connection between religion and violence cuts across all religions. People used to say that you don’t see religious violence in Hinduism or Buddhism, but today you see militant Buddhists in Myanmar and in India. If you look at the interaction between religion and violence, more often than not the primary driver is not religion but political or socioeconomic conditions. In societies where religion is a significant part of social identity, both state and militant non-state actors use it for credibility and to inspire others to fight and die for what they believe in. Abuse or misuse of religion is a very effective tool in legitimating and mobilizing one’s agenda.

During the Crusades, for example, the emperor had political motivations. But even though Pope Urban said, “God wills it,” he was competing for power with the emperor. In the case of Israel and Palestine, there are land claims and other concerns on both sides, but there are also religious leaders who are motivating sectors of the population solely in the name of religion, claiming “God wants us to have this land; it’s our holy site.” The same applies to the people who belong to ISIS. Yes, there are those folks for whom religion is an overriding motivator, but there are also a lot of secular ex-Ba’athists or Sunnis, former military or police who lost their jobs when the United States invaded Iraq or who feel persecuted.

John Esposito is a professor of religion and international affairs and of Islamic studies at Georgetown University. His books include Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam.

Those who propound the myth of religious violence are enablers for secular nation-states and other secularists who heap blame on the religious person. The myth of religious violence thus becomes a justification for the use of violence.

Nicholas Gier

One might say that Buddhists and Hindus learned religious fundamentalism from their colonial masters: the British, the Portuguese and the Dutch. These peaceful believers were confronted with foreign powers that believed they themselves had the one true religion, which they propagated at the point of a sword. All over the world, Christian missionaries preached the idea that one religion was true and pure, and all others were false. In the late 19th century, British missionaries taught this to Hindus who started preaching that Buddhists, Muslims and Christians would have to convert to be true Indians. That led to lots of violence, mainly directed against Muslims and Christians. Before the colonial incursions, conflicts between Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists were rarely based on religion.

Burma [now Myanmar], too, was a relatively harmonious society of Buddhists and Hindus and Muslim traders until the British arrived. All peoples and religions were accepted. The British brought in Indian Muslim civil servants, farmers and laborers who displaced native Burmese, which led to resentment against the British, Buddhists becoming fundamentalists and, in the 1920s and 1930s, anti-Muslim animus. This animus has recently exploded, and the main target has been the Rohingyas in the southwest part of the country close to the border with Bangladesh.

Tibet and Japan have a history of religious violence without colonialism. Tibetan Buddhists fought wars over the centuries; the primary motivation was religion. The little country of Bhutan followed the Red Hat sect, and the dominant sect in Tibet was Yellow Hat. Yellow Hat armies invaded Bhutan nine times to overthrow the Red Hat sect and were defeated in every instance. The Dalai Lama admits that there was this violence in his religion’s history, and he says the reason why Tibet has struggled so much is because they are paying off their bad karma from those centuries of violence. The religious violence in Japan came during World War II. That was when Shinto, the state religion of Japan, enshrined the emperor as the embodiment of the sun goddess. The emperor needed to be obeyed in all respects, so it could be said that the Japanese invasions of Korea and China and elsewhere were based on religion.

Nicholas Gier is professor emeritus in the department of philosophy at the University of Idaho. His books include The Origins of Religious Violence: An Asian Perspective.

Wendy Doniger

People unfamiliar with Indian history often assume that Hindus, unlike members of most other religions, have never been violent, that they meditate all day and do yoga and are vegans. One might have thought that the 1947 massacres of Muslims by Hindus, and Hindus by Muslims, following the partition of India into India and Pakistan, would have set people straight. But this knowledge is somehow elbowed aside by the extraordinary example of Mahatma Gandhi, with his policy of non-violence, which deeply influenced Martin Luther King, Jr., and his interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita (a text that many, though not all, Hindus nowadays regard as their most sacred text) as a book that preaches non-violence.

Not so. The majority of Hindus are not vegetarians, let alone vegans. Yoga was practiced by no one but acrobats and magicians in India until it was made respectable, in the 19th century, by British, Swedish and American body-builders. It is the Jains, not the Hindus, who have always taken extraordinary steps to avoid hurting animals. And the Gita is a book that urges the hero Arjuna to return to a battle in which he will kill many of his close friends and relatives; Hindu nationalists, in the 19th and 20th centuries, used the Gita to rally fighters to attack the British.

There are ancient roots to this violence. The Vedic Hindus, from around 1500 BCE, sacrificed animals to the gods, and some Hindus do so to this day. Hindu asceticism has often involved self-torture of various sorts, such as staring at the sun until you go blind or driving a spike through your tongue and/or cheeks. Thieves and other criminals were often executed by being impaled.  And there are many more examples of systemic violence in classical Hindu culture.

The source of the belief that Hindus are not violent stems, I think, from the fact that some Hindus have always cared about non-violence and talked about it, and some of their religious leaders have always urged it.  Indeed, it is this deep and abiding concern about violence, in theory, that is evidence that Hindus had a problem with violence in reality. Why speak against it so much if it does not exist? This often profound meditation on the need for the control of violence—both within each human being and in the community at large—is something for us to pay attention to and to learn from.

Wendy Doniger is a professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago. Her books include The Hindus: An Alternative History.

Hector Avalos

Religion causes or is a factor in violence when a violent action can be traced to a religious belief. For example, if someone wants to harm gay people on the basis of the belief that God or the Bible does not approve of homosexuality, then that would be an act of religious violence. It is very difficult to say that harming gay people is due to some economic or political threat that gay people pose. In that sense, religious violence is not a myth.

Religion, however, does not always cause violence and is not the only cause of violence. All conflict is driven by the effort to maintain and/or acquire a scarce resource, real or perceived. The scarce resource theory can explain conflicts from the smallest units of human organization (e.g., insufficient love within a family) to the global scale (e.g., insufficient energy supplies). It applies to religion, although unlike conflicts over resources that actually exist (such as water, food, or oil), religious ones involve resources whose existence is created only by belief in them. For example, “eternal life” cannot be proved to exist, but many people are willing to die to attain it.  Similarly, the belief that a space is “holy” for a god can lead to conflict when multiple groups cannot share that space.

Since conflicts over a god’s desires cannot be adjudicated by objective means, violence becomes the means to settle differences. Indeed, the tragedy of religious violence is that believers can come to justify the destruction of existing human lives to acquire or maintain resources that may not exist at all.

Hector Avalos is a professor of religious studies at Iowa State University and author of Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence.

If someone wants to harm gay people on the basis of the belief that God or the Bible does not approve of homosexuality, then that would be an act of religious violence. It is very difficult to say it is due to some economic or political threat.

Ami Pedahzur

Religion per se is not a cause of violence—it’s the way religion is translated to different audiences by agents, namely religious leaders, or self-proclaimed leaders, that changes the way it is perceived. In the case of Israel, there are several extreme rabbis in settlements and elsewhere who hold fundamentalist religious beliefs. They turn the complexity of religion into a zero-sum game—a war over the sacred grounds of the promised land between the “rightful owners” (the Jews) and their adversaries (the Arabs).

After the 1967 war, the West Bank became a focal issue for religious Zionists. Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, their spiritual leader, inspired the settling effort in the “liberated” biblical landscapes by invoking theological rhetoric. Parallel to this process, Rabbi Meir Kahane, who arrived from the United States in 1971, added a new layer of radicalism. He was less interested in settling the land than in separating Jews from Arabs and replacing the democratic rule with a theocracy. Unlike Rabbi Kook, Kahane legitimized the use of terrorism as a means to meet his goals. In the 1980s, core members of the settler movement perpetrated terrorist attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank. Some of them saw the use of violence as a means to escalate the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and derail any prospect for reconciliation. Others were messianic. They believed that the mosque on the Temple Mount had to be destroyed in order for the Messiah to come. It didn’t matter to them how the Palestinians or the world would react. They didn’t worry about escalation, because to them this was another step on the path to redemption.

In 1995, two years after the signing of the Oslo Accords, Yigal Amir assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Amir manifested a convergence of Kook’s and Kahane’s theopolitical legacies. The very idea that Rabin, a secular leader, would give up part of the Holy Land delegitimized the government in Amir’s eyes. He thought Rabin was a traitor, which was a religious justification to kill him.

Ami Pedahzur is a professor of government and of Israel and diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of The Triumph of Israel’s Radical Right.

Robert Chazan

Violence is not intrinsic to religious movements, but they always contain the potential to become violent. When adherents of a religion are committed to overarching ideals that they consider to be of enormous significance, it follows that they will believe they should use every single possible weapon at their disposal. The Christian crusaders of the Middle Ages are a good example of this. They thought that what they were doing was of such importance that extreme violence was perfectly appropriate and absolutely necessary. Christianity, unlike Islam, did not initially rise to power through military might, but rather through persuasion and missionizing. Originally Christians were the objects, rather than the perpetrators, of violence. But Pope Urban II’s announcement of the Crusades in 1095 marked a significant change. He declared that the military actions needed to reclaim Christian territories conquered by the Muslims were important acts of religious devotion. Crusading, therefore, was Church-sanctioned violence. 

An idealization of martyrdom is at the core of the Christian tradition, beginning with Jesus as the ultimate martyr who was prepared to sacrifice his life to fulfill a divine demand. The soldiers of the Crusades saw themselves as literally following in Jesus’ steps. They were “soldiers of Christ” willing to sacrifice lives—their own as well as those of others—for the ideal of a Christian world. They justified, for instance, the massacre of Jews by claiming that they were actually trying to save the souls of the Jews from damnation, and that the Jews were given the option to convert to Christianity before they were killed. 

Many medieval Christians argued that the Crusades were a violation of Christian ideals, not a fulfillment of them. And Church leadership overall formally rejected the idea of crusaders committing violence against Jews. But the Crusades demonstrate that once people are purposefully stimulated into killing others, the resulting violence becomes almost impossible to control.

Robert Chazan is a professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University. He is the author of Reassessing Jewish Life in Medieval Europe.

Steven Emerson

Religion is not inherently violent. The Quran, for instance, has some violent verses and exhortations to carry out violence, but it also has non-violent verses and calls upon believers not to carry out violence. The problem lies in the fact that Judaism and Christianity—both of which have the same parallel violent and non-violent verses—have undergone reformations, while Islam has not. And in general, those reformations have led to secularism, separation of church and state and religious pluralism. On the other hand, there are those who follow a strict literal mandate of the Quran who are wedded to following verses that are extremist and violent. That explains why, according to statistics of U.S. intelligence agencies, an average of about 65 to 70 percent of all international terrorism has been carried out by Islamic terrorists for the last 15 years.  But at the same time, there are many Muslims who don’t subscribe to those violent verses and are peaceful. Religion is an abstraction. It is what you make it.

Steven Emerson is executive director of The Investigative Project on Terrorism, and author of Jihad Incorporated: A Guide to Militant Islam in the U.S.

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Stephen M. Walt

A key part of ISIS’s ideology is to criticize and attack both non-Muslim religions and interpretations of Islam with which it disagrees. As with other radical versions of religious faith, once you define others as apostate or heretics, you open the door to all kinds of extreme actions. What is different is ISIS’s use of violence as political theater—the ritual beheadings and the publicizing of such actions through social media—in order to intimidate others or to provoke the United States to overreact.

ISIS is clearly a brutal movement, but it is important to keep the danger it poses in perspective. It is a serious danger for the people living under its control, but only a minor danger to others. Both in America and elsewhere, only a very small fraction of disaffected people are attracted to ISIS. This attraction can lead to “lone wolf” attacks, but their overall impact is small. Over the past two years, roughly 500 to 600 people have been killed in countries outside ISIS territory by attackers who claimed some sort of affiliation with ISIS. During that same period, more than 15,000 people were murdered by guns in the United States alone. And if I had to bet, I would say ISIS will not survive for ten years. Controlling territory and population is a difficult business, especially when facing lots of external opposition. These pressures usually force even the most extreme movements to become more pragmatic in order to stay in power.

Stephen M. Walt is a professor of international studies at Harvard’s Kennedy School. His article, “What Should We Do if the Islamic State Wins?” was recently published in Foreign Policy.

Margo Kitts

Religious rituals create a rationalization for acts of violence. They put people into a state of mind in which violent acts that in actuality are entirely against all religious teachings become justified because of the existence of a supposedly extraordinary situation. The rituals elevate what you are about to do and justify horrifying acts. They create a mindset in which anything can happen and in which humans take on heightened, godlike powers. Everyone understands that it is space separate from the rest of normal life—anything becomes possible, including acts of unspeakable horror.

The “last instructions of 9/11 are one of the most powerful and disturbing recent examples of this. Three copies of these “instructions” were found after September 11, 2001—one in a car in a parking lot at the airport in New York, one in the rubble in the field in Pennsylvania and the third in the DC area. These “instructions” didn’t say anything about flying planes into buildings and killing as many people as you possibly can. They spoke of purification rituals such as bathing and instructed the terrorists to rub verses of the Quran on their bodies, luggage and passports. They mandated engaging in weeks of intense prayer and chanting heroic psalms about dying in the course of earthly battles. These prescribed rituals were intended to get individuals in the right frame of mind to commit violent terrorist acts.  They sanctified committing mass murder.

People shouldn’t be so shocked by current manifestations of religion and violence. Religion and violence are a part of the foundation of all world religions. We can, for example, compare it to the biblical story of Joshua and the sack of Jericho. The Israelites marched around the walls of Jericho once every day for six days, carrying the Ark of the Covenant. They went through purifying rituals during those six days, including the circumcision of all males. On the seventh day, they marched around the walls seven times, then the priests blew ram’s horns, the Israelites shouted, and the city walls collapsed. Claiming they were following God’s law, the Israelites took no prisoners and slaughtered every man, woman and child in Jericho, sparing only one Canaanite prostitute. The six days of religious rituals set the Israelites up to commit extreme acts of violence.

Margo Kitts is a professor of humanities and religious studies coordinator at Hawai‘i Pacific University. She co-edited The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence.

Religious terrorism is a response to violations a community feels it has experienced. Often a “religionization” takes place, and the conflict is described in cosmic terms. So terrorism must be “decosmitized.”

Mark Juergensmeyer     

We live in a time of social disruption, and one factor that helps fuel religious terrorism is a changing world. These days there are global markets, a weakening of political authority, a widening gap between rich and poor, as well as social media, which give more people a voice. Religious terrorism is a response to violations a community feels it has experienced. Often a “religionization” takes place, and the conflict is described in cosmic terms. So terrorism must be “decosmitized.”

I am relatively optimistic that an end to religious violence may be possible. One way to end it is for adversaries to find a minimum level of trust and respect. The most dramatic transformation in the modern period occurred in Northern Ireland in the late 20th century. There was a conviction by moderate people on both sides that there could be trust where there had been none. At about the same time, something similar happened among the Sikhs in northern India. After ten years of a brutal struggle, the violence died off. They got tired of it.

I am certain of one thing: Violence against violence almost never works. When governments abandon their own moral principles in responding to terrorism, they inadvertently validate the religious activists’ most devastating critique of them—that secular politics are devoid of morality.

Mark Juergensmeyer is the director of the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara and author of Terror in the Mind of God.

7 thoughts on “Religion & Violence // A Moment Symposium

  1. John Dickinson says:

    Such a bad start. Sacks knocks down a straw man that he didn’t even set up. “Response one, by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, et al., is that religion is a source of violence”…”Palpably false”… Then some starts on warfare. “So religion is not the major cause of violence in history.”

    1. John Dickinson says:


  2. Harry Freiberg says:

    All proselytizing religions are intolerant and, more often than not, take their intolerance to an extreme level. Some of the faithful just go farther than others in their zeal & enthusiasm to convert and control….

    Every proselytizing religion thinks its Way is the only Way, its Truth the only Truth.

    Until there is an Arab/Islamic analogue to the European/Christian Enlightenment there will never be a lasting “Arab Spring”. Pray that its coming is soon and lasting…

  3. Isaac Cohen says:

    Concentrating on the three Abrahamic religions, if God’s attributes are justice, compassion and mercy he could not be the author or the inspiration of all the texts of the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament or the Qur-an. You can find in all three texts beautiful and horrific statements. Depending on one’s agenda you can use either the beautiful or the horrific statements. One of the greatest dangers of these “sacred” books is to take them literally without putting them in the context of their times. The great medieval rabbi, philosopher and physician Moses ben Maimon or Maimonides warned against literalism that has led over history to the most barbarous wars. This applies to all religious texts whether Abrahamic or not. Societies shaped by specific religions should walk in their times for the sake of their own survival.

  4. Rehmat says:

    A interesting proof of living in ‘self-denial’. The world’s greatest massacres were carried out during the WWI and WWII – over 65 million. Where the leaders of Germany, the US, UK, France, etc. were religious Christian fanatics? The Russian communists murdered over 100 million Christians and Muslims – were the Soviet leaders were religious Jews?

    Harvard historian professor Niall Ferguson in his highly praised 2006 book, The War of the World, claimed that some of the greatest mass murderers of modern times were Jewish. Ferguson’s research, however, centered on the Bolshevik revolution and the Lenin and Stalin era during which Jewish elites in the Russian government and Bolshevik terrorist organs like Cheka, GPU, NKVD and KGB, sent over 100 million Christian and Muslim communities to death camps or rooted out of their native homelands.

    1. Harry Freiberg says:

      A brief answer: No, the leaders of the countries mentioned were not Christian fanatics. Many were, however, anti-semites in countries with recent anti-semitic histories.

      The Soviet Russian Jews who had political power from 1918 until the early 1930s were the antithesis of religious, observant Jews. Communism was supposed to end religious distinctions. Stalin and his fellow Georgians were rabid anti-semites.

  5. Steve Staniek says:

    All 17 authors missed, I mean really missed the violence in religion. Every visit to a Christian church is a sojourn into a violent culture that is founded in violence. The Catholic religion sacrifices its god thousands of times every day before millions of faiithful followers who believe they are eating the physical body and blood of their god. Does it get any more violent? The cross is a symbol of the horribly violent event that is so well known to Christians that only the symbol is needed to act as an emotional hook that keeps participants bonded in blood to their lord and god. How much more violent does religion get? Jewish male newborns undergo a violent, religious ceremony that mutilates their penises by cutting their baby foreskins. Former gods led their earthly armies to war, knocking down walls, and killing first-borns. Is there really a diety so mad for human suffering and pain that he/she forces this physical and spiritual violence on humanity?

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