On Religion and Violence

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Jihadists carrying rockets.
Masked Palestinian militants with homemade rockets in the outskirts of Gaza City. Image: Amir Farshad Ebrahimi/Flickr

This article was originally published by Contending Modernities, a blog hosted by the University of Notre Dame, on 25 November, 2014. It is part of Contending Modernities’ “Deadly Violence and Conflict Transformation” series.

The rise of ISIL and the so-called Islamic State in 2014 has given prominence to discussions of religious violence in the media, with much emphasis placed on questions of the relationship between Islam and violence. In his speech to the nation on 10 September 2014, President Obama restated his longstanding view that no one who commits violent atrocities in the name of religion can be considered an authentic believer. Similarly, Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium affirms that in the face of “disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism, our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalizations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence.” Others, however, have responded negatively to such statements, citing, violence in the Qur’an, religious leaders who have promoted violence, and contemporary and historical cases of religious violence linked to Islam.

While I think that no one can judge who is an authentic or non-authentic believer, I also tend to disagree with the latter view, which seems to lean towards a deterministic account of the relation between religion—in this specific case Islam—and violence. The succinct reflections I am about to draw follow from a study that Ron Hassner and I have conducted over the years on Jewish violence.

To begin with, our thesis contrasts with three views that prevail among students of religious violence.  First, those who adopt a deterministic view see violence as inherent in the very institution of religion and traceable to its deep structure and primordial essence.  This view trivializes historical circumstances and leaves actors with little to no agency.  A second group of scholars attribute a violent core to particular religious traditions.  They distinguish between inherently peaceful religious movements and inherently violent ones.  The devotees of the latter are said to be doomed to violence by the immanent nature of their religion. Third, those who adopt a quasi-Marxist or instrumentalist view see religion as an infinitely flexible tool at the disposal of rational agents who engage in violence for practical reasons. In this account, religion is epiphenomenal—a medium for strategic or materialist motives.

In contrast to the static and reductionist theories above, our approach emphasizes the dialectical nature of violence in a religious tradition.  We do not view religion as fully constraining.  Actors engage in a constant evaluation, selection, and reinterpretation of religious ideas from an ever-growing reservoir and, in so doing, contribute to that reservoir.  At the same time, we do not envision believers as cynical and opportunistic actors, unconstrained in exploiting religious tradition at will, distorting and undermining its content as they see fit.  Instead, we view religious tradition as both adaptable and bounded.  Though its boundaries may change gradually over time in response to the choices agents make, they also place limits on what these agents can justify at any point in time.

Our intention is not to depict Judaism, Christianity or Islam as violent traditions.  Nor is it our intention to portray any of the above traditions as non-violent.  The reality is far more complex, as it is in all religious traditions.  Religious tradition includes an abundance of material that has clearly violent implications, but also a profusion of materials that support a non-violent ethic.  Religious motifs are as apparent in the past and present struggle against violence as they are in justifying such violence.  Most contemporary believers have no violent tendencies. In today’s world, not only are there religious movements dedicated to opposing violence but several of the most prominent members of the peace camp justify their conciliatory, moderate, compassionate and dovish positions by means of religious ethics and base their resistance to aggression on sacred texts.

Religious violence is, firstly, violence sponsored or performed by individuals or groups who self-define and are identified by those around them as religious. Secondly, these actors account for their violence in a religious language, invoking religious symbols and referencing religious norms and values.

Tradition, including religious tradition, is a reservoir of ideas and symbols, norms and values, information and moods, handed down from generation to generation and stored in written and oral texts or objects, available for contemporary cultural, social or political use. Past tradition is not just a fixed rigid body—a fossil—imposing itself on passive present consumers of tradition. It is a vital and open-ended organism that lends itself to a wide variety of understandings and manipulations.

The Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions ingeniously preserved a harmony among countless interpretations, homilies, metaphors, sayings, ethical teachings, legends, and stories, which together constituted the material contained within the sacred texts. This included a fair amount of categorical, embellished, and provocative statements which, in their wider contexts, were considered acceptable despite their problematic nature.  With the help of irony and historical perspective, these putatively ridiculous, bizarre, offensive or violent materials could be assimilated tolerably without causing any damage.  Moreover, religious tradition tended to view many passages from the multi-layered Scriptures as general ethical teachings or abstract pedagogical lessons rather than as directives for uncompromising activities or as the foundations of specific political agendas.

All these canonical texts provided a wealth of ideas that proved crucial in the tradition’s survival.  They can be said to contain everything:  Arguments, on all their variants, including their opposites.  This includes an abundance of materials that support violence and an abundance of materials that oppose it.  In other words, this reservoir, limited but large, could be harnessed by a wide range of ideological leanings or historical requirements.  It could legitimate a vast array of interests and moral stances by providing them with a “traditional” authority.

Contemporary users of tradition are not traditional but traditionalist, which means that they can view tradition from a self-conscious, voluntary, selective, adjustive and creative stance.  The traditionalist project confronts tradition with an attitude that ranges from conservation to innovation. Naturally traditionalists that harness tradition to achieve their objectives tend to repudiate its inventive and adaptable nature and have uncompromising pretensions of faithfully returning the present to what they grasp as the authentic representation of the past.

Contrary to its self and public image, present-day religiosity, including the varieties of Orthodoxy, is not traditional but traditionalist. Modern text-centered Jews, Christians and Muslims, like many other traditionalists, rummage through the tremendous archives of their past, choose an existing principle—often subterranean or marginal—and bring it to the surface, to center stage.  This can represent a change in emphases and degrees of legitimization, wrought by presenting a principle outside of its original context in which it might have been balanced or restrained by others.

In the traditional past, textual interpretations were flexible, variegated and had various layers and streams, sometimes contradictory, that, nonetheless, coexisted side by side.  This is what gave religious tradition a richness that facilitated its endurance and customization to individuals, groups and situations.  The traditionalists lost something of this Darwinian survivalist potential due to their proclivity for selective, unambiguous, and obligatory interpretation.  Materials which were “soft” in their original contexts were hardened by the present-day Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox. Legendary materials were transformed at a stroke into theological principles or authoritative commandments.  Believers in pursuit of inspiration and legitimation for their violent tendencies singled out a certain idea out of the many contained in the storehouse of their religion, adopted it and genuinely adhered to it as if it were the embodiment of the only consistent and pure Judaism, Christianity or Islam.

In hindsight, it can be hard to distinguish elements that expressed a purely religious rationale to begin with, from elements that were grounded in a social, political, or economic rationale, but that gradually assumed a religious status. It was a testimony to a realistic and responsible reading of history and a manifestation of adaptability to real-political constraints in its original context, that turned into an a priori religious principle, binding under all circumstances.

In the last two generations, some of these very same categorical imperatives were interpreted anew in a way that turned their practical implications on their head. Radical changes in historical circumstances allowed new understandings of the sacred legacy, particularly with regard to religious violent activism, that were in fact a resuscitation of long-forgotten interpretations.

Gideon Aran is professor of sociology and anthropology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His research focuses on the social scientific study of religion as well as extremism, militancy and violence. His most recent academic publications focus on Jewish religious violence, religiosity and super-religiosity.

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