Muslim Wire

Does Religion Legitimize Violence?

Posted in Politics, Society by muslimwire on October 21, 2009

Exploring the question of whether violence is an inherent aspect of religion, or is caused by various complex reasons, sounds inevitable in studying the relationship between religion and violence.

The so-called historical “religious wars”, current sectarian conflicts, and terrorism make a lot of international intellectuals and politicians blame religion for mankind’s troubles. According to certain views, religions might cause military confrontations, hatred, poverty, backwardness, terrorism, and the list goes on…

Re-examining these assumptions is important in defining the problems of misunderstandings across different political, religious, and cultural boundaries.

John L. Esposito is a key expert who gives a lot of effort and attention to dig deeply into different political and religious causes. He is specialized in Islam, political Islam, and the impact of Islamic movements from North Africa to Southeast Asia. He is responsible for many research projects covering the world’s Muslim population.

After 9/11 and during times of crisis, Esposito was an important voice calling for more understanding of the diversity of both Islam and the Muslim world. Esposito is an Islamic studies professor at Georgetown University. He is the founder and the current director of Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.

In this interview, professor Esposito helps us examine our ideas and enrich the discussion.

IOL: Many people around the world might see that violence is an inherent and structural characteristic of religion. To what extent do you agree with such a viewpoint?

John Esposito: In most cases, political and economic grievances are primary causes or catalysts for violence and religion becomes a means to legitimize the cause and mobilize popular support. Contexts (political and socioeconomic), and not texts, are often the primary causes or drivers. Religious texts or doctrines provide the source for legitimacy and mass mobilization.

Religiously motivated or legitimated violence and terror add the dimensions of divine or ultimate authority, religious symbolism, moral justification, motivation and obligation, certitude, and heavenly reward that enhance recruitment and a willingness to fight and die for a sacred struggle.

While all world religions have a history and track record of religiously legitimated violence and terror, the monotheisms of the three Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), with their sense of a special revelation and covenant with the one true God, sacred land or territory, and in the case of Christianity and Islam, universal mission, have been more prone to exclusivist theologies/worldviews which can be used by political and religious leaders to legitimate imperialist expansion, violence, and terror.

IOL: “Most of the atrocities of the 20th century have been committed by militant secularists, nationalists, or atheists.” Do you think that this statement proves that religion in itself cannot justify or interpret the emergence of violence? Do you think that unlike the 20th century, the atrocities of the 21st century will be motivated by religion?

Esposito: Though most of the wars and acts of terrorism in the 20th century were fought in the name of secular nationalist ideologies or states, that does not mean that there have not been conflicts, wars, and atrocities committed in the name of religion. Since the last decades of the 20th century, religion has also emerged as a motivating and legitimating force used by extremists and terrorists and will continue to do so in the 21st century.

IOL:
If we look throughout history, do you think there has been what we can call “religious wars”, or were there complex political and socio-economic reasons behind these wars?

Esposito: Complex political and socio-economic reasons have been among the major reasons for “religious wars.” However, this should not distract us from the roles that religious differences, nor from the belief that one religion has an obligation not only to spread as a spiritual faith, but as a political force, or to simply eliminate or dominate other religions, have also played as a motivating force.

IOL: In any religious community, does the violent minority (e.g. extremists, Nazis) put a moral and actual responsibility upon the shoulders of the non-violent majority (e.g. Muslims, Germans) or does the majority not have to be accused of the minority’s stance?

Esposito: The majority should not be equated with the acts of terror committed by the minority. However, the majority does have an obligation to marginalize, de-legitimate, and eliminate extremists within their faith or community.

IOL: Do you think that in different societies, politicians make use of religion as a means of getting to power and once their power is secured they may change their stance?

Esposito: Many politicians, Muslims (Zia ul-Haq, Anwar Sadat, Qaddafi, the Kings of Saudi Arabia and others), Jewish (Begin, Shamir, Sharon, Natanyahu), and Christian (Clinton, G.W. Bush, and Barack Obama) use religion (some more than others) to get into power.

IOL: To what extent do you find nationalism and religion to be overlapping in different conflicts (e.g. in Ireland between the Catholics and the Protestants)?

Esposito: Overlap can be seen in many conflicts: Chechnya, Kashmir, Iraq, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and elsewhere. What is distinctive is the weakness, if not failure, of Arab nationalism and secular nationalism and the resultant appeal to ideologies that are associated with Islam.

IOL: Can we simply describe any society as purely secular or purely religious?

Esposito: If we consider the reality, and not the ideological rhetoric and slogans of some regimes and elites, there are few instances in which we can simply describe any society as purely secular or purely religious.

IOL: How do you see the dichotomy of secularism and religion, especially, in Western societies? In light of this dichotomy, how do you see the experience of the “Christian Democratic parties” and the right wing?

Esposito: Western secularism is quite diverse regarding the relationship of religion to the state. In the US, we have separation of church and state, but certainly no necessary separation of religion and politics.

In European secularism, there is a great diversity. Most people do not follow the US model for although secular, many have a state religion, or the government provides funding to religious institutions.

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