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Overcoming Religiously Motivated Violence

March 10, 2015

by Imam A. Rashied Omar
Originally published on*
The dramatic turn of world events at the dawn of the twenty-first century — including the collapse of the Oslo Peace process in September of 2000 in the face of a renewed and ongoing cycle of violence in the Middle East; the terrorist attacks on the United States of America a year later in September 2001, and the Bush administration’s subsequent “enduring” war on terrorism; the attack on the Indian Parliament by alleged Muslim Kashmiri militants in December 2001, followed by the fresh outbreak of Hindu-Muslim riots, in the Gujarat province of India in February 2002—have caused religion and violence to gravitate to the center of international affairs. These distressing world events reinforce the widespread perception that religion is the major cause of violence in the contemporary world. In order for us to discern the veracity of this oft-repeated assertion it might be expedient to begin our analysis with a simple binary Manichean formulation.
Is Religion an Independent or Tangential Variable in Violent Conflicts?
It is unfortunate but painfully true that these days violence is never far from popular understandings of religion. Even conventional academic perspectives regard religion as having a predilection for violence. According to this view, it is religion that is the primary source of contemporary violence.
In direct opposition to this perspective, religious leaders often categorically deny that mainstream traditions have anything to do with terrorist violence. In their view, all violence in which individuals or groups who claim a religious affiliation are implicated is a debasement and vile distortion of the noble and peaceful teachings of religion and true spirituality.
As with all received understandings, there are elements of truth in both of these assertions. The first one largely understates the contemporary socio-political and economic conditions under which religion is implicated in violence, and the second one ignores the fact that virtually all religions are not pacifist traditions and allow for and legitimate the use of violence under certain conditions, the definitions of which may differ from one religious person to the other. It is here that a large measure of the problem lies. Under what conditions does religion condone the use of violence?
Most religious traditions agonize about the question of what might constitute a “just war” and it becomes particularly acute in situations of deadly conflict. Two central points emerge from this that we need to bear in mind if we are to correctly appreciate the relationship between religion and violence. First, it is important for all of us to acknowledge that most of our sacred texts provide opportunities for justifying violence and thus most if not all religions contain the seeds for violence.
I would like to refer to a pertinent example from my own experience and location. Just more than a decade ago, there was a vociferous theological debate in South Africa concerning the Biblical perspective on Apartheid. The white supremacist policy of apartheid was formed in the name of Christianity. Many of the key leaders of the oppressive apartheid regime were devout adherents of the Dutch Reformed Church. The discriminatory apartheid education policy was justified in reference to certain highly controversial interpretations of the Bible and labeled “Christian National Education.” This led an important theological document the Kairos Document (1985), produced by black South African Christians to lament this by posing a challenging question; “Can the Bible be used for any purpose at all?”[1]
The answer off course is yes. This is, however, not unique to the Bible. All sacred religious texts display the same “ambivalence”. Arguing within the context of the Muslim sacred scripture, the Qur’an, the Californian based Professor of Islamic Law; Khaled Abou El-Fadl has provided a cogent response to this question. “The meaning of the text”, he contends, “is often as moral as its reader. If the reader is intolerant, hateful, or oppressive, so will be the interpretation of the text.”[2] The point is that all sacred texts provide possibilities of intolerant as well as tolerant interpretations. The challenge for religious and spiritual leaders is firstly to acknowledge this, no matter how distressing it may be, and then to find authentic ways of dealing constructively with these texts, symbols and rituals that legitimate and sacralize violence.
The second critical point that we need to bear in mind if we are to correctly appreciate the relationship between religion and violence is that the religious legitimization of violence does not occur in a socio-historical vacuum. The University of Chicago-based historian of religion, Bruce Lincoln, provides cogent support for such a view when he contends that most of the post-cold war conflicts in which religious issues have played a role have occurred “in contexts where structural problems inherent to the nation-state have become manifest: specifically the potential contradiction between nation and state.” In such situations, religious actors attempt to reconcile the gritty nature of their struggles with the precepts of their religious beliefs. This is a difficult task and according to Lincoln, entails “highly selective readings of texts and tradition, along with the most ingeniously strained hermeneutics.”[3]
The influential Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict has a similar finding in its report published in 1997. The Commission has offered a simple yet profound argument; that religion does not spawn violence independently of predisposing social, economic and political conditions as well as the subjective roles of belligerent leaders.[4] An increasing number of contemporary scholars have reached a similar conclusion. The former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Graham Fuller, writing in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, powerfully illustrates this point when he asserts that: “If a society and its politics are violent and unhappy, its mode of religious expression is likely to be just the same.”[5]
In summary, in our diagnosis of the issue of contemporary violence, religious and spiritual leaders need to avoid simplistic analyses, but try instead to understand the causes of violence as a complex combination of a number of variables including the socio-economic and political, while at the same time not ignoring or underplaying the religious and spiritual dimensions.
Three Proposals to Overcome Religiously Motivated Violence
1. Developing Theologies of Tolerance and Religious Pluralism: A number of contemporary analysts have argued that religion is often implicated in deadly conflict because of its inherently exclusivist claims. The Catholic theologian, Edward Schillebeeckx argues that:
The sense of superiority which religions, certainly not excluding Christianity, have in fact repeatedly shown proves to be one of the greatest obstacles to the human cohabitation of different religions within the same state frontiers, as is increasingly the case in our day.[6]
The challenge for religious and spiritual leaders is to champion theologies which are authentic, and yet do not deny the right of others to hold beliefs and views which are radically different to their own. Applying this to my own tradition, I would contend that a denial of the right of others to hold beliefs and views which are different to my own is tantamount to a denial of Allah himself. In support of my contention the Glorious Qur’an, chapter 10, verse 99, Allah, declares:
If your Lord had so desired, all the people on the earth would surely have come to believe, all of them; do you then think, that you could compel people to believe?
The challenge which the principle of freedom of belief and thought holds for me as a Muslim is to amplify this Qur’anic teaching and to work hard to make it an integral part of the fabric of contemporary Muslim culture.
2.From Extrinsic to Intrinsic Motivations for Interreligious Dialogue[7]: For those inter-religious activists who have long campaigned that inter-religious solidarity should be accorded a more prominent place in the programs of religious institutions, the irony of the post September 11 reality is painful. Inter-religious activities have indeed ascended near the top of the agenda of a number of religious institutions all over the world, but it was triggered by an escalation in violence and barbarism.
There are numerous examples the world over of interreligous cooperation and dialogue developing in response to situations of conflict. Now these external factors, or what I would like to call extrinsic motivations may be helpful in getting an interreligious dialogue started but it is insufficient to sustain the movement in the longer term. In order for inter-religious movements to become self-propelling and sustainable, it needs to find intrinsic reasons from within faith commitments for promoting good relations with people of other religions and spiritualities. Intrinsic motivations lie at the heart of genuine and sustainable interreligious solidarity. Intrinsic motivations however continue to be the most elusive goal for inter-religious movements all over the world. But what exactly are intrinsic motivations all about?
Intrinsic motivations deal with challenging questions of intentionality. Why and for what purpose are we motivated for the encounter with the “other”? Is the purpose merely instrumental? For example, does a need exist for interreligious dialogue if there is no conflict or external problem to be dealt with collaboratively? Intrinsic motivations for interreligious solidarity, moreover deals with the difficult and challenging questions of evangelism and mission. Does one engage in interreligious work in order to covertly attempt to convert the other to your faith? Is the interreligious encounter legitimated by or compromising our deep-seated beliefs and theologies?
These difficult questions cannot simply be swept under the carpet. They are of primary importance, because, unless they are clearly and unequivocally answered, we run the risk of having an outwardly agreeable dialogue that does not dispose of mistrust and suspicion. Being superficial, it does not lead us to the goal of peacebuilding.
Building interreligious trust and developing intrinsic motivations is one of the most important strategies for overcoming religiously motivated violence. This is so because interreligious peacebuilding emphasizes and is dependent on long-term relationship building with a broad spectrum of religious adherents, rather than a kind of “quick fix” superficial solution to a crisis. The problem of the latter strategy has been usefully captured by the title of a discussion on religious peacebuilding held by the World Council of Churches in Geneva recently that aptly read, “Interreligious dialogue is not an ambulance.”
3. Interreligious Global Action Campaigns: Last but not least, we will not be able to overcome violence unless we work towards a just global order. In particular, the vast inequalities between the developed and underdeveloped world needs to be urgently addressed and corrected. In situations where structural violence is endemic, the attainment of sustainable peace has to go beyond a political settlement. It needs to alleviate and ultimately eliminate both the causes as well as the legacy of the structural violence. It needs to address the structural and institutional legacy of inequality. One of the most vocal global campaigns aimed at directly addressing this legacy of inequality was the Jubilee 2000 anti-debt campaign. The manner in which the Jubilee 2000 anti-debt campaign was taken up by diverse religious communities is a particularly instructive example of how interreligious action campaigns at the global level can be effective mechanisms for promoting economic justice and global peace.
The world is badly in need of many more such creative initiatives. May such efforts be blessed, and the interreligious seeds that we sow today bear the fruits of peace for tomorrow.
[1] The Kairos Document: Challenge to the Church: A Theological Comment on the Political Crisis in South Africa. (1985) Rev. second ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.
[2] Khalid Abou El Fadl (2002), “The Place of Tolerance in Islam: On Reading the Qur’an-and misreading it.”(Boston Review, 2/25/2002)
[3] Bruce Lincoln (1998), “Conflict” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies edited by Mark C. Taylor. (University of Chicago Press), pp. 57-8.
[4] Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict: Final Report with Executive Summary, Carnegie Corporation of New York, December 1997
[5] Graham E. Fuller. 2002. ‘The Future of Political Islam”, in Foreign Affairs March/April2002, Council on Foreign Relations, New York, pp. 60.
[6] Edward Schillebeeckx, “Documentation: Religion and Violence,” in Concilium 1997/4, Religion as a Source of Violence, eds. Wim Beuken and Karl-Josef Kuschel. (Maryknoll: Orbis Books), 130.
[7] For a more extensive discussion of this point See, Omar, A. Rashied, “Opportunities & Challenges for Islamic Peacebuilding after September 11”. In Interreligious Insight: A Journal of Dialogue and Engagement, Volume 1 Number 4. October 2003.
* This paper was first presented at the Montserrat Assembly of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, July 5-7, 2004, Barcelona, Spain.

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