Are some religions inherently violent?
People usually ask this about Islam in the light of the terrorist acts committed in the name of that religion. You’ll find many debates online between those who argue that Islam is a religion of violence and those who maintain that it is a religion of peace. For one of the best check out:
Indeed, some atheists take delight in recounting the history of violent savagery of all religions.
Islam, like any other faith, is a religion of neither peace nor violence. You can find enough passages in the Koran or Bible, or indeed any holy text, to justify anything.
A religion is what its followers in any given place or time make of it. All religions arise and are practised in particular societies and cultures. For example when I was recently in India I attended mass in Catholic churches in which you removed your shoes before entering (a universal sign of respect in many Asian cultures) and the women and men sat separately in the church.
The Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) arose in tribal societies in which, for example, women were considered inferior to, and the property of, men; and punishments for flouting laws or customs were severe. Hence you will find a lot in those texts to justify both the oppression of women and barbaric punishments such as stoning to death and dismemberment for acts that in most societies today would not even be a crime. And even those who consider these texts to be literally the word or revelation of God, would have to concede that such revelation had necessarily to be interpreted in terms of the existing culture with all its limitations. Hence the need for religion to be accompanied by a theology that constantly reinterprets the faith for the times, trying to distinguish the universal from the parochial.
Religion can easily become a source of identity politics. Catholics and protestants in the Caribbean live peacefully side by side. In Northern Ireland they are at each other’s throats and shouting hateful stereotypes of the other’s religion.
Throughout history religious groups and sects have developed political ideologies based on, and in their view justified by, the particular holy writ to which they subscribe. Ideology (a set of beliefs that guides your thoughts and actions) becomes particularly dangerous when some of its simple-minded adherents are convinced that their actions, however reprehensible and inhumane, are serving a higher cause (History in the case of communists, the Nation in the case of fascists, and God in the case of religious persons). When you then couple such an an ideology with a social or national situation in which there is a high level of grievances and anxiety, you have the potential for a dangerous explosion, especially if there is another group that can become a scapegoat, as with the Jews in Nazi Germany, immigrants in Donald Trump’s America, and the rest of the world in ISIL’s perverse notion of a caliphate.
Those who, out of fear of offending Muslims, refuse to associate Islam with the terrorist acts that are made explicitly in the name of Islam, do a disservice to both Islam and the fight against terrorism. Yes, of course, the vast majority of Muslims disapprove of the Islamist (not Islamic) terrorists, but we still have to understand why these murderous acts are undertaken in the name of Islam.
From what I understand there is a whole tradition of sophisticated and scholarly theology and jurisprudence based on the Koran and the Hadith (the sayings and traditions associated with the Prophet Muhammad) that seeks to understand and interpret Islam in a wholistic and progressive way. But the modern day Islamists ignore this and rely on selective quotations to support their own ‘purist’ and fundamentalist versions of Islam. Their’s is essentially a political ideology anchored in their religion. Yet most Muslims reject the politico-religious ideology of Islamism and seek to combat it actively. I can do no better than quote one such group of Muslims:
“We are Muslims who live in the 21st century. We stand for a respectful, merciful and inclusive interpretation of Islam. We are in a battle for the soul of Islam, and an Islamic renewal must defeat the ideology of Islamism, or politicized Islam, which seeks to create Islamic states, as well as an Islamic caliphate. We seek to reclaim the progressive spirit with which Islam was born in the 7th century to fast forward it into the 21st century. We support the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was adopted by UN member states in 1948.
“We reject interpretations of Islam that call for any violence, social injustice and politicized Islam. Facing the threat of terrorism, intolerance, and social injustice in the name of Islam, we have reflected on how we can transform our communities based on three principles: peace, human rights and secular governance.”
Similarly In Indonesia,a large Muslim group has initiated an international strategy to counteract the Islamist ideology of ISIL. The group is Nahdlatul Ulama, or NU, a 90-year-old Sunni social organization with fifty million members. They recently released a film that refutes ISIL and its Wahhabist-rooted fundamentalism. The grisly massacres celebrated in so many jihadist videos are denounced in this film as an appalling perversion of Islam that the Muslim world must not tolerate.
The main goal of these extremist Islamist groups is to create a narrative of an end-of-the-world clash between Islam and the West (including Muslims who subscribe to democracy and universal human rights), so that when someone like Donald Trump deliberately stirs up Islamophobia, this plays right into the hands of ISIL.