New Internationalist

In the name of GOD

Issue 370

Are violence and religion natural bedfellows? Vanessa Baird weighs the evidence.

My mother had a medical attitude towards religion.

If you didn’t give children a good dose of it early on they might catch a more extreme case later in life.

I’m not sure that Catholicism is quite the vaccine I would have selected, given the choice. Nor am I altogether convinced by my mother’s science. But I do suspect she was right in her basic analysis: religion is powerful stuff and it’s best not to ignore this.

She died a few months before the 9-11 attacks – the events that more than any other have brought to the world’s consciousness the devastating force that faith can have.

Oh God, open all doors for me… God, I lay myself in your hands. I ask with the light of your faith that has lit the whole world and lightened all darkness on this earth, to guide me…’ was part of the prayer Mohammed Atta packed into his luggage shortly before flying a plane into the World Trade Center.1

God told me to strike at al- Qaeda and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did,’ a confident George W Bush later shared.2

Osama Bin Laden was equally sure of his ground when he said: ‘Here is America struck by God Almighty in one of its vital organs, so that its greatest buildings are destroyed.’3

And he went on to promise: ‘I swear by Almighty God… that neither the United States or he who lives in the United States will enjoy security before… all the infidel armies leave the land of Muhammad.’2

A diplomatic Tony Blair commented that the 9-11 attacks were ‘no more a reflection of true Islam than the Crusades were a reflection of true Christianity’.4

Blair’s is a popular and convenient notion. It assumes that there is a ‘true’ version of the faith – and by inference a false one. The first, benevolent. The latter, a violent travesty of the basic goodness of religion.

The trouble is most religions are deeply ambivalent when it comes to god and violence. All have their compassionate and peace-loving messages, but they also possess deeply violent roots and traditions.

Violence in language and deed is an element in every religious worldview,’ says US sociologist and writer on religion Charles Selengut. He includes supposedly ‘non-violent’ traditions like Hinduism, Christianity and even Buddhism.5

Elise Boulding, who has examined peace in major religions, finds that ‘sacred texts are flooded with images of a vengeful and violent god. The warrior-god has dominated the stories of our faith communities so that the other story of human caring and compassion and reconciliation is often difficult to hear.’6

These violence-of-god traditions have been passed down through generations, moulding our individual and collective psyches. As these narratives are told and retold they become part of our cultural and spiritual identity and ultimately condition our behaviour.

Anikan Seri / Panos
Shoulder to shoulder: ultra-Orthodox Jews and an Israeli soldier pray at Jerusalem's Western Wall. Anikan Seri / Panos

Interpretation is not the issue, says Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer: ‘Religiously justified violence is first and foremost a problem of “sacred” texts and not a problem of misinterpretation of texts.’7

Jewish settlers in the Occupied Territories, for example, can find plenty of direct and unambivalent textual authority from God to kill all non-Jewish occupants of the Holy Land. Hittites, Canaanites, Amarites, Girgashites… the list in Deuteronomy 7 is grimly comprehensive.

Of course you can choose the compassionate wisdom of your faith system and use it to temper greed and selfishness; to love your neighbour, share resources, be charitable and forgive those who trespass against you, even if it is the last thing you feel like doing.

But does that mean that those who choose to read and use the violent teachings are being any less true to the texts or traditions of the faith?

Sometimes the traditions are even more violent than the main texts. Though Jesus was Jewish and a pacifist and had nothing at all to say about homosexuality, Christians have had no problem using their violent-god traditions to justify going to war, killing Jews and persecuting gay people.

While the Greek Orthodox Church has even managed to decorate Radovan Karadzic, wanted for genocide and war crimes in Bosnia, as ‘one of our most prominent sons of Our Lord Jesus Christ working for peace’.4

God the sponge

Some argue that faith is rarely the cause of violence. What religion does is absorb the violence of the society in which it finds itself.

The Qur’an reflects the brutal tribal warfare that afflicted Arabia during the early seventh century,’ points out religious historian Karen Armstrong. ‘The scriptures all bear scars of their violent begetting, so it is easy for extremists to find texts that give a seal of divine approval to hatred.’

In a similar way, she says ‘the Christian Right today has absorbed the endemic violence in American society: they oppose reform of gun laws, for example, and support the death penalty. They never quote the Sermon on the Mount but base their xenophobia and aggressive theology on Revelation.’

Most Muslim extremism today, Armstrong says, ‘is the product of societies that have suffered prolonged, hopeless conflict’. She cites Palestine, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Kashmir. Osama Bin Laden uses scripture that reflects this violent reality.8

You can take this further and assert that what looks like religious violence is in fact about something else. So, for example, the current phenomenon of Islamic fundamentalism constitutes a rejection of modernity and economic globalization. It’s a reaction to the political arrangements in the Middle East and the presence of US troops to secure access to oil. It’s also a protest against corrupt Westernized élites and a lack of democracy. Despite its religious trappings the Israel/Palestine conflict is really a conventional struggle about land and nationalism.

Researchers from Britain’s Bradford University have done an audit of ‘war and religion’ and come to the conclusion that there have been few ‘genuinely religious wars’ in the past 100 years. Even the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat were orchestrated by then Chief Minister Narendra Modi to boost his prospects in state elections. There is also a suggestion that Osama Bin Laden does not fit the profile of a religious zealot but suffers instead from the psychological syndrome of ‘unprincipled narcissism’.2

Many of us will find such interpretations easy to accept. They take us into territory that is more familiar – and comfortable – to the secular mind.

For religious believers too it may be easier – and more comfortable – to interpret such violence as being about something other than their faith. It lets religion off the hook.

But while these interpretations are all valid and reasonable, they tell only part of the story. Those who partake in ‘religious violence’ are, by their own accounts, motivated by faith. Are we to disbelieve them? Nasar Hassan, a social worker in Palestine, tells of a conversation with a volunteer suicide bomber who saw the honour of being chosen as the surest way to a perfect afterlife. ‘So by pressing the detonator, you immediately open the door to paradise – it is the shortest path to Heaven.’5

Nearly all religions have traditions of fighting for one’s faith and supernatural rewards for martyrdom. You have to believe it to do it. And you have to believe that it is what God wants you to do. So religion does not simply justify violence – the suicide bomber’s God, like that of George Bush, orders it.

And it’s not restricted to the context of war. Charles Selengut describes a gentle and reserved guest-speaker telling a class of students that he contributed to violence against abortion doctors and workers (a number have been killed in the US). When questioned on the morality of such killing the speaker calmly replied: ‘I have talked to my pastor and this is what God wants us to do.’5

Sven Torfin / Panos
Health, education, religion all rolled into one in Equatorial New Guinea. This boy is waiting in a village school for a health check. Sven Torfin / Panos

Useful and dangerous

Desmond Tutu describes religion as a knife. You can use it to help feed yourself and others. Or you use it to harm and kill. Knives – and religion – are both useful and dangerous. Care must be taken.

Let’s start with the useful. Some years ago British philosopher Mary Warnock found herself on a committee concerned with the education of severely disabled children. The committee had to justify government spending on educating those who would never be able to live independently. The metaphor that sprang to Warnock’s mind was ‘because we are all God’s children’. She found it a useful shortcut to the basic principle of equality that was hard to express so succinctly in a non-religious way.9

Faith is most robust in countries where there is great social inequality and poor state provision – in Nigeria, India and Indonesia over 90 per cent of people count themselves as believers. This is no accident. In the countries of Northern Europe, with more equality and better state provision, only a minority are believers.10

Where the state fails, religion steps in. And there are many parts of the world where the state is failing – not least in Muslim majority countries. For many disadvantaged people religious organizations provide a lifeline in a harsh and uncaring world. Even today, boys in remote parts of Afghanistan attend Taliban-run madrasas for the simple reason that they get a meal there. Charity work embeds religious groups in the very fabric of society, especially where they provide schools and hospitals.

Useful’ religion can easily slip into ‘dangerous’ religion. Religious groups wield tremendous power over the uneducated and dependent poor. Clerics may be viewed as learned authorities. Loyalty and unquestioning obedience are an expectation. This is stunting and can be abusive – especially to women and children. And not just in the poor world. Some 1,000 Catholic priests are under investigation in the US alone on child sex abuse charges11; 200 such cases are being investigated within Australia’s Anglican Church.12 Both churches have protected the perpetrators, rather than the victims, by simply moving offending clerics to other parishes.

At an emotional level religion appears to offer much to people in need. It can foster a sense of belonging and – crucially – identity. Abd Samad Moussaoui is the brother of Zacarias Moussaoui, an al-Qaeda member accused by the US Government of being connected with the 9-11 attacks. Abd Samad’s story of their shared childhood as Moroccan immigrants in France is illuminating.

The boys were not accepted as French and suffered racist abuse and attacks. But their inability to speak Arabic and ignorance of Islam meant they were never fully accepted by the North African community either.

Abd Samad believes that the first time his brother entered a mosque was when he went to England to study. It was a time of loneliness and hardship – until he came into contact with Wahabism, the type of religious fundamentalism in which al-Qaeda is rooted. He was taught Arabic so he could read the Qur’an. It gave him a sense of identity.

Abd Samad thinks his brother was then sent to a training camp in Pakistan where underfed recruits are pushed to the limits of endurance and made to feel guilty and incompetent when they fail to meet expectations. They are constantly bombarded with stories of heroes and martyrs who have given their lives to the cause.13

Religion gets in deep – and not just if you’re a fundamentalist. Indeed, some religious moderates – including the late rabbi Hugo Gryn and Muslim writer and broadcaster Zia Sardar – question the use of the word ‘fundamentalist’ to describe religious extremists. They point out that all believers should be considered ‘fundamentalist’ if they are committed to the basic beliefs of their faith.

Such certainty, kept at a personal level, can nourish and ground an individual. But religions, by their nature, tend to be communal, social. If you believe – as more than half of the US population does – that your particular religion is the one and only true faith sanctioned by the Almighty, you are carrying around with you one hell of a pious power charge. And while not all religions evangelize, the two most widely held to in the world today – Christianity and Islam – seem to have had great difficulty distinguishing between spreading the word and spilling the blood. Today we are witnessing a new evangelical crusade coming from the West which has been dubbed ‘evangelical capitalism’. This is more than laissez-faire economics: it sees ‘the hand of God’ in economic liberty, which in reality turns out to be the unfettered freedom of huge corporations to dominate national and global markets. The gospel according to Halliburton.14

Pitch this against the surge of Saudi-financed Wahabist fundamentalism imposing its all-conquering version of the only true Islam, and it’s hard not to get trampled underfoot.

So what is to be done?

Social and economic inequality does not necessarily produce religious fundamentalism, but it provides the most fertile breeding ground for it. The failure, yet again, of the G8 – the economic leaders of the rich world – to agree debt relief to poorer countries has a toll that stretches beyond the obvious. It provides further proof of a selfish West with only its own interests at heart. Little wonder Muslim idealists, who want to change the world, see religious radicalism as their only choice.

Bombing and invading Muslim majority states such as Iraq and Afghanistan simply endorses the perception of Muslims as victims. Co-ordinated police intelligence work to prevent further terrorist attacks is crucial. But current ‘war on terror’ strategies that target individuals on religious grounds and then violate their rights provide little useful intelligence while provoking a great deal of anger. The humiliation and abuse of prisoners at places like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib simply compound this fury.

On the other hand, frustrations can come from within faith communities themselves. In a letter to The Times Dr H Tabar lets fly: ‘The cowardice of our clerics in pushing their heads firmly in the sand, not confronting the misguided and the extremists amongst us, is an affront to all that I regard as holy. If they have not the courage to declare the Islamic suicide terrorists as apostates, then perhaps they would be good enough to declare me as one, for I would rather burn in the eternal flames of Hell than share a Paradise with the likes of them.’15

Meanwhile priest and peace activist Oliver McTernan calls on religious leaders to re-examine their fundamental beliefs and loyalties and put ‘the sacredness of life and the right to religious diversity at the top of the faith agenda in this age of conflict’.

Religions should respect life – not take it.

Until each faith group is prepared to promote actively a respect for the gift of life above all other beliefs, dogmas and interests, religion will always have the potential to be an exclusive, divisive and destructive force in the world.’ He includes his own religion, Christianity, as one that has failed to face up to its own attachment to violence.4

For some nothing can redeem religion, except possibly its demise. For them the actions of religiously inspired terrorists are symptomatic of the pathology of religion itself. Scientist Richard Dawkins sees religion as a ‘virus’ and he looks forward to the day of its eradication. Many humanists and sceptics take a less hostile view and respect the existence of diverse philosophies and belief systems. But if such faiths do not themselves respect human life or basic rights, then respect for religion is likely to be withdrawn. This is a problem facing many established faiths today.

There was a time, not so long ago, when religion may have seemed a fairly benign affair. Events of recent years have shocked us out of this comfortable complacency. What we do with that awakening is up to us. We can lash out at the ‘unholy’ other à la Bush-Laden. Or, we can engage with each other, use our imaginations, expand our understanding and try to strengthen our bonds of shared humanity.

Hisham Shihad is living proof that it’s never too late. He was recruited at the age of 13 by an extremist Muslim group in Lebanon. For many years he was a militia fighter, shelling and sniping in Christian neighbourhoods.

One day he had what he calls ‘a moment of truth’ when ‘through my lens I saw three people running for cover: an old woman and two boys. One looked like a cousin of mine. The woman reminded me of my grandmother. My conscience told me that they were people like us. I refused to follow orders and decided to quit. No causes are worth that bloodshed.’

With a friend, Hashim set up an NGO dedicated to dialogue between Muslims and Christians.16

  1. David Boulton, The Trouble with God, John Hunt Publishing, Alresford, 2002.
  2. Greg Austin, Todd Kranock and Thom Oommen, God and War: an Audit and Exploration, Department of Peace Studies, Bradford, 2003.
  3. Bruce Lincoln, Holy Terrors, University of Chicago Press, 2002.
  4. Oliver McTernan, Violence in God’s Name, Darton, Longman and Todd, London, 2003.
  5. Charles Selengut, Sacred Fury, Alta Mira Press, Walnut Creek, 2003.
  6. Elise Boulding, Cultures of Peace: The Hidden Side of History, Syracuse University Press, NY, 2000.
  7. Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, Is Religion Killing Us? Violence in the Bible and the Qur’an, Trinity Press International, Harrisberg PA, 2003.
  8. Karen Armstrong, ‘When God Goes to War’, The Guardian, 29 Dec 2003.
  9. Bel Mooney, Devout Sceptics: Conversations on Faith and Doubt, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 2003.
  10. BBC, ‘What the World Thinks of God’, Survey February 2004, http://www.bbc.co.uk
  11. Business Week Online, ‘The Economic Strain on the Church’, 15 April 2002, http://www.businessweek.com
  12. Kathy Marks, ‘Australian Church apologizes for cover-up, The Independent, London, 22 June 2004.
  13. Abd Samad Moussaoui, Zacarias Moussaoui: the Making of Terrorist, Serpents Tail, London, 2002.
  14. Paul Kurtz, ‘The Free Market with a Human Face’, Free Inquiry Magazine, Vol 24 No 2, http://www.secularhumanism.org
  15. The Times, London, 10 November 2001, reprinted on http://www.secularislam.org
  16. Abduljahil Sajid, Why Terror? 19 Muslims Speak Out, Caux Books, Caux, Switzerland, 2004.

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on In the name of GOD

Leave your comment