Unfortunately, religion plays a very large role in violence around the world. Looking at practically every major and ongoing conflict in the world right now, from Darfur, to Iraq, to Afghanistan, to Chechnya, to Israel/Palestine, to the ongoing communal violence between Hindus and Muslims that afflicts India and has for years, religion is a cause of violence, and violence is exacerbated by religious tendencies and beliefs.
In our world right now, we witness violence in the name of Islam in many places. However, it is important to understand that religion and violence is not only linked to Islam – on the contrary, violent reactions in the name of religion stem from all religions.
History proves this in the horrific accounts of the Crusades, the Inquisition, as well as the Holocaust. Today, we witness violence in the name of religion in Judaism, with violent Jewish settlers in the West Bank, in Christianity, with fundamentalist religious cults, and in Hindu religious extremism dominating parts of India, oppressing and killing Christians in the state of Orissa.
The religious extremist in any religion believes that God condones violence in His name. This is due largely in part to a distorted view of holy texts and literal interpretation, as well as not understanding the context in which these texts were revealed.
What is really important to distinguish is the difference between the religious fundamentalist and the religious extremist.
The religious fundamentalist is the person or group that speaks on behalf of God, with condemnation toward a group of people, using their faith, with literal interpretation of the holy texts, as their guide and their mantra. A Christian fundamentalist that comes to mind is Pat Robertson.
Mr. Robertson, an Evangelical Christian, blames many societal issues in the world on homosexuality, as well as targeting other faiths, such as Islam. A religious extremist is a person or group that develops those fundamental beliefs one step further and acts on them, almost always with violence. An obvious example of an extremist group that utilizes religion as a vessel for their violent acts is Al Qaeda. As a theologian who has studied conflict around the world and how religion and conflict relate to each other, what I find to be the biggest issue with violence in religion is the tendency to relate the issues surrounding conflict to retribution.
Examining reactions of any conflict, religiously exacerbated or not, be it when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, to when Russia dug up Muslim gravesites in Chechnya, to the “War on Terror,” after 9/11 – these conflicts illustrate retributive actions, much more than say, a thought process that might lead to some sort of reconciliation, not only within religion, but within society as well. An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind!
I often wonder how this issue of retribution and violence in the name of religion can be rectified. Who is responsible for fixing an unjust, violent situation that is exacerbated by religion? It obviously depends on the situation. Take the example of the ongoing violence between the Sunnis and the Shi’as in Iraq. Although this situation began long ago, the government of Iraq, especially under Sadaam Hussein, clearly favored one group over another.
” Religious Civil War”
The outcome of this favoritism, along with international presence in Iraq since 1991, has led to more violent outbreaks between the Sunnis and the Shi’as in what I now refer to as a “Religious civil war.”
Another example of the lack of leadership in addressing religious violence is the current situation in Somalia. With tribal leaders warring over territory, as well as Islamic extremists struggling for power, and no stable government, the country is literally in anarchy and headed for more serious issues.
Last, another prime example of religion leading to violent tendencies is something I recently personally witnessed. In March, I was in Hebron in the West Bank with a peacemaking delegation. The Jewish Settlers of Hebron are completely out of control, claiming that Hebron is originally a Jewish city, therefore, their taking over of the Old City of Hebron is part of the land that God has promised to the Jewish people.
With that, the violence is so bad that as you walk through the old city, there is chain link fencing covering the walkways of the market. Why? To protect the Palestinian shoppers below from being injured by the items the Settlers throw from above, including dirty water, garbage and cement cinder blocks – one which killed a Palestinian in February.
All this violence in the name of God.
I have to ask – would God truly approve of any kind of hurtful act toward another human being in His name? I think not. Religion is beautiful—it’s humans that make it ugly and violent.
What each individual human needs to understand is that their religion is theirs-it doesn’t make their religion right, or true, or better than another’s religion. Respect of another’s belief, I feel, can lead to less violence in the name of religion. Yes, there is much more to conflict that is religiously exacerbated – such as development, poverty, disease, culture, geography and so on.
However, when reflecting on the question, “How far do you find religion leading to violent reactions?” The fact is, that our world has always had an issue with religion leading to violent reactions.
What must be remembered is this – it truly does not matter what religion someone is, where they live, what their skin color is – God created all of humankind to live on this planet. If He wouldn’t have, then there simply would not be such a diverse set of humans with such diverse religious and cultural beliefs inhabiting the world.
It is up to all of us to live as fellow human beings, with faith, grace, compassion, love and harmony, and to understand that God never condones violence in His name. Ever.
Currently, Karen teaches and lectures at colleges, high schools and churches, as well as with various organizations about Islam, global Christian-Muslim understanding and relations, Al Qaeda, Theological responses to terrorism, Islamophobia, and Discrimination Against Muslims Post 9/11.