5 Remarks on Religion, Violence and Extremism

After last week’s coordinated terror attacks in Paris, people were quick (too quick for my taste) to debate the implications for how “the West” should view a) Islam and b) Muslim immigrants. Some regard it as self-evident that a religion used to justify the murder of innocents must face intense criticism and scrutiny. Others believe it to be obvious that the attackers abused a faith that millions of people practice peacefully to justify their own morally depraved agenda. Again others go one step further and draw consequences for migration policies, particularly those concerning the current Syrian/Middle East refugee crisis. Here are some thoughts on the matter:

1. There are problems with managing a huge influx of refugees, but if you are looking for a reason to advocate restrictive asylum policies, the Paris attacks don’t seem to be a particularly good one: Yes, one of the people involved had a fake Syrian passport and entered Europe via Greece as a refugee. But most others did not, and a huge organization (ISIS) was apparently behind the terror attack. It seems implausible (which in this context should be taken as a polite expression for: “bugfuckingly insane”) to argue that it depended on one single person whether or not the attack would have happened or not. If you object that letting in a large number of Muslims is going to increase your country’s risk of domestic terrorism nevertheless, I refer you here for a response (tailored to the US situation, but a lot of it applies to other nations, too). My point in this post is that I don’t think recent events should significantly influence your view of the issue: On rational grounds, you should assess the risk of more terrorism due to acceptance of refugees the same way you did one day before the Paris attacks. (Sadly, for some who exploit the tragedy for political gain, that may actually already be the case.)

2. There is a human tendency to identify with groups one belongs to to the point that one sees attacks on that groups basic characteristics or philosophy as attacks on oneself – and then reflexively dismisses every criticism of it, even if it is justified. If you think about all “tribes” you are a member of (nationality, gender, ethnicity, political affiliation, profession, social class, religion, subculture…), I am sure you can find at least one to which you have a strong enough allegiance to react in that manner. Moreover, many, many people are attacking the Islamic religion only to hide a thinly-veiled contempt for people from Muslim or Middle-Eastern countries. For these reasons, it is completely understandable if many Muslims resent people who want to “make this about Islam”, or express worries about Islamist rejection of, say, religious freedom, homsexuality, legal equality for women etc., and that many well-meaning non-Muslims join them in claiming these are just abuses or perversions of their religion.

3. On the other hand, it is conceivable that some features of contemporary Islam have a negative impact on our society, just as medieval Christianity might have had a negative impact on the society of that time, or communism on Soviet Russia. I don’t see a good solution to the problem that honest discussion of such matters will inadvertently contribute to some ethnicities’ experience of discrimination and prejudice, and that some actual racist propagandists will manage to ride on its coattails. (I admit that I myself have lost track of the necessary distinction here at times in the past, and defended people I probably shouldn’t have defended.) The only thing that can be done about it is to acknowledge the difficulty.

(I should also clarify that in commenting on how harmful some religions might or might not be, I am of course not demonstrating that they are not true, so if you are a follower of any of them, I don’t expect such an argument to convince you that you should abandon them.)

4. Many of the usual well-meaning, well-educated, liberal-minded suspects are currently circulating a 2014 video of American Muslim sociologist and religious scholar Reza Aslan where he purportedly sets straight those who believe there is a connection between his religion and repressive practices, extremism or violence. He makes some good points, but also several very, very dubious ones. While I am not qualified to comment on many of the details of what he says (I refer you here for a dissection of his factual claims instead), I think this quote is a good summary of how many people defend Islam – and religion in general – against the charge of inciting violence:

Islam doesn’t promote violence or peace. Islam is just a religion, and like every religion in the world, it depends on what you bring to it. If you’re a violent person, your Islam, your Judaism, your Christianity, your Hinduism is gonna be violent. There are Buddhist — marauding Buddhist monks in Myanmar slaughtering women and children. Does Buddhism promote violence? Of course not. People are violent or peaceful, and that depends on their politics, their social world, the way that they see their communities, the way they see themselves.

So, religion does not incite violence in Aslan’s opinion, it’s just something on which people project their own impulses and desires inclining them toward peace or violence. It is easy to note that if we were talking about political rather than religious ideas, nobody would make this kind of claim: Political ideologies can and often do promote violence and extremism. So, is there a justification to distinguish between the two? I suppose people like Aslan would reply that political movements generally have a (comparatively) unified and coherent philosophy and doctrine, while religions are composed of various, often contradictory, traditions and are thus open to interpretation. And how followers of Islam, Christianity or Buddhism will interpret their holy scriptures depends solely on their social and personal circumstances in that view.

It is certainly not incorrect that such factors influence how religious adherents practice their faith, but it seems incomplete to me: Just because the societal context is important for how people will interpret a framework of ideas doesn’t mean its actual contents as put forward by its (in this case, usually canonized) original adherents magically cease to matter. And many people, not the least of whom are the violent extremists themselves, have outlined that there is troublesome content in the holy scriptures of both Islam and Christianity. If you are a believer in either of them you can, of course, hope that you are able to convince all or most adherents of your religion of a nonviolent exegesis of such passages: You might, for example, very plausibly make the point that God’s calls to war in the Bible or the Quran sanctioned such actions in a specific time and place, and do not mean a modern-day terrorist – who is not a god – gets to justify his or her atrocities, committed without any such sanction. (You may read a Christian theologian arguing something along these lines here.) But even so, you’ll have to admit that elements that can lead someone to support violence, intolerance or oppression exist in your scriptures.

Bottom line is: If the fact that your beliefs are derived from a bundle of traditions rather than a single coherent doctrine works in your favour when you claim that they can be interpreted in a moderate or liberal way, it also works against you when you claim this is the only possible interpretation.

5. Which brings us to another problem: If we concentrate on the three monotheistic religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam (not sure to what extent the following applies to some polytheistic creeds), the most defining feature of them is that they all believe in a perfect being, in both the sense that it is morally infallible and that it is almighty, with no power in the universe able to stand in its way: God (or Allah, or Yahwe, if your prefer). The second-most defining feature, which gives these religions practical import, is that this being is not indifferent toward humanity: It requires us to behave in certain ways, embrace certain practices, believe in and cherish its existence.

I claim that, logically, that should have two consequences: One, even if there are clearly various ways to construe a faith’s holy scriptures, it is hard to advocate the idea that an omnipotent being deeply cares about humanity living according to its will, but can not make clear what that will even is – “The Lord works in mysterious ways”-sermons nonwithstanding. Thus, people who advocate an interpretation of a religion should be expected to insist that their exegesis is very obviously the correct one – even if it’s not at all that obvious -, and that their theological rivals are sorely misguided, perhaps even malicious. And two, once someone believes to have figured out what the divine being he or she believes in wants, there is no possibility to argue with it anymore: It has been dictated by a god who is morally perfect, even when commanding his followers to commit atrocities, and since this god is almighty, no one can ultimately stop him from imposing his agenda, anyway. Thus, faith in the religions we are discussing here should act as a reinforcer for a person’s moral convictions, to the point they can no longer be doubted or criticized. And if these moral convictions are derived from a holy book that the person in question believes to support violence against infidels, beatings of children, persecution of cartoonists and the like, that is very bad news.

It goes without saying that these two attitudes aren’t fully embraced by any but the most ardent/fundamentalist followers of religion (not all of whom are violent or bad people, by the way). Nevertheless, at least for Islam, Christianity and Judaism, they are logical consequences of its core ideas, and there is a danger of a significant chunk of followers of these faiths drawing them at any time and in any place. Moreover, I admit that unwavering committment to certain ideas or principles is not universally negative: It may, for example, give people the courage to resist a brutal dictatorship rather than adapt to it. But I believe if there is a range of possible strengths someone’s convictions could have, “beyond discussion and criticism” is definitely not the optimal choice of intensity, and the negative effects of such a dogmatic attitude, from legislation on stem cell research to fanatics trying to establish a caliphate, will outweigh the positive ones.