Religion and Violence
When President Obama asked the public to reserve judgment about the motives behind the shooting this week at Fort Hood, he predictably elicited the ire of detractors who were quick to castigate him for “whitewashing” what was clearly an act of religious violence. Obama, according to this accusation, was trying to obscure the fact that the shooter, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, was a Muslim extremist whose violent outburst could only have been rooted in his religious beliefs. This perspective is consonant with two widely held, but unsubstantiated, views about links between religion and violence. One, trumpeted especially loudly by today’s best-selling atheist critics of religion, is that religious outlooks in general have an inherent tendency to lend themselves to violent expression. The other is that Islam in particular has a stronger propensity than other religions for violence. Each of these views fuels misconceptions and misunderstandings about religions, conflict, and peace.
An important new book, William Callahan’s The Myth of Religious Violence, takes both of these views to task. By showing that religion is not a generic, universal phenomenon appearing in a singular form in all times and places, Callahan undercuts the idea that there is a fixed, transhistorical structure to religion that might be integrally linked to violence. He then goes on to demonstrate how power disparities between Western and other countries contribute to a dynamic that casts Muslims, in particular, as fanatical religious “others” whose occasional resort to violence is irrational, even evil, and hence categorically different from the violent acts committed by the secular West in the rational pursuit of peace.
An equally erroneous view of the matter holds that there can be no genuine connection between religion and violence; that the “terrorists” cannot possibly be true representatives of the religious traditions to which they claim to belong. This was the claim set forth by President Bush in the months following September 11, 2001, when he averred, for example, while addressing the UN, that “the terrorists are violating the tenets of every religion, including the one they evoke.” It was likewise reflected in the manifesto “What We Are Fighting For,” issued by an impressive cadre of public intellectuals in support of the U.S.-led attack on Afghanistan, which included the statement that the violent ideology of radical Islamists “betrays religion.” To insist that true religion cannot possibly sustain violence is to engage in a form of wishful thinking that sanitizes religion and ignores its complexity. Again, on this point Callahan has it right: religions, while not inherently violent, can nonetheless certainly underwrite, or at least contribute to, violent actions under certain circumstances. This might have been the case with Major Hasan; and yet, he might just as easily have been impelled by mental illness, or motivated somehow by a response to the “secular violence” characterizing the theater of war to which he was about to be sent.
On the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is worth pondering the mirror image of Bush’s thesis: that nonviolence can be presumed to have religious roots. The central claim of George Weigel’s book The Final Revolution: The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism, for example, is that the peaceful transformation of Eastern Europe two decades ago was spurred, not by economics or power politics, but by the nonviolent social reform program of the Catholic Church. This is, quite simply, to claim too much responsibility for religion in regard to peace. Certainly religion played an important role in the dramatic events of the time. But that the churches in East Germany and elsewhere lined up on the side of nonviolent change was determined more by the happenstance of a particular constellation of social, political, and cultural factors than by some inner requirement of religion in general or Christianity in particular.
Whether we are talking about the fall of the Wall or the murderous rampage of a soldier, references to “religion” provide no easy explanations and can tell, at best, only part of the story.