DOES RELIGION CAUSE TERRORISM
Religion as a Source of Terrorism. Media sound images of a Muslim terrorist shouting “Allah is the greatest! Allah is the greatest!” as one of the four 9/11 hijacked jets was spiraling toward the ground in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, left an indelible mark of association between Islam jihadists and terrorism. Such a connection is not unique to Islam. Comparable images were etched in people’s minds about Christianity by the Crusades and the Inquisition, by John Brown’s nineteenth-century killings of slave owners in the name of Christ, and more recently by fundamentalist Christians who killed people at abortion clinics. Similar connections have been established with other religions: Hindu militants slaughtering Muslims, a Jewish extremist spraying machine-gun fire inside a Muslim mosque, and Buddhist extremists poisoning passengers in a train in Japan. It is tempting to conclude from such events, as many have, that religion is a source of conflict in general and an important
cause of terrorism in particular.
There can be little doubt that religious extremism and intolerance have contributed to serious acts of terrorism. Still, religious intolerance and violence begin typically, and often most violently, within rather than between religions. Sunnis and Shi _a have killed many more Shi _a and Sunnis than they have Christians or Jews, as have Muslim militias in Afghanistan and elsewhere throughout the Muslim world. For many centuries, Christian fundamentalists have killed other Christians who departed from a prevailing orthodoxy, labeling them as “heretics.” More than 3,000 Christians were killed by other Christians during the strife between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s. Wars have often had strong undercurrents of religious intolerance among different sects within major religions. The killing is often justified by references to sacred text, typically involving literal interpretations of passages that are often invoked out of context, separated from the larger meaning of the surrounding text.
Killing has become increasingly common as well between major religions. After centuries of relative calm among the religions of the world following the Crusades, battles have raged for decades between Muslims and Hindus in the twentieth century, both within India and, after the creation of Pakistan in 1947, between India and Pakistan. Then, what had been a fairly low-level struggle in the Middle East exploded into a major conflict with the 1967 Six- DayWar between Palestinians and Israelis. Subsequent conflict in theMiddle East has been fueled largely by Iranian support of Palestinians and Lebanese factions since the Iranian Revolution of 1979; what were once primarily local conflicts have now escalated into a far more dangerous and expansive one between the world of Islam (consisting of more than a billion people) and the West, consisting predominantly of Christians (more than two billion) and Jews (about 15 million).
It is the extreme militant factions of any particular religion that are the source of most episodes of religious conflict that lead to violence, both within and between religions. Militant extremists are typically fanatical and fundamentalist, but religious fundamentalism is generally less of a problem than militant extremism. In the domain of comparative religion, fundamentalism refers to the strict, literal interpretation of sacred texts – for Christians the Bible, for Muslims the Qur_an. Generally, fundamentalists who read the text literally take strong positions against modernism. But religious fundamentalists may have no interest in resorting to violence to defend their positions, whereas militant extremists typically do – it is, after all, the willingness of some religious fanatics to resort to violence that makes them militant. If the sacred text says that killing is forbidden, many fundamentalists will not kill; militant extremists are more inclined to find passages that can be interpreted as providing a justification for violence.
Some scholars see religion as the major impetus behind today’s wave of terrorism. Mark Juergensmeyer, for example, sees religion as “crucial . . . since it gives moral justifications for killing and provides images of cosmic war that allow activists to believe that they are waging spiritual scenarios”. He goes on to say that, although most people feel that religion should provide tranquility rather than terror, “all religions are inherently revolutionary . . . capable of providing the ideological resources for an alternative view of public order”. He argues that religion provides “the motivation, the justification, the organization, and the world view” to facilitate acts of terrorism. Juergensmeyer sees the “drama of religion” as “especially appropriate to the theater of terror.” Terrorists act out of religious and symbolic images: they play the martyrs, and their targets are the demons.
Edward O. Wilson, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning biologist – the father of biodiversity and sociobiology – makes a similar point, contrasting religious thinking to the thinking that emanated from the Enlightenment. Wilson sees reason and ethics offering a more direct path toward moral behaviour and away from violence than does religion: “Religion divides, science unites. In particular, religious dogma amplifies global conflict, and humanism based on science offers the only sure way to ameliorate this malign effect.” Wilson posits that, although the epic of scientific discovery tends to bring people together, the human brain is hard-wired through evolutionary forces in a way that induces humans to engage in myth-making and religious passion. He grants that religion has contributed to culture and to the ideals of altruism and public service, but that these gains are more than offset by the dark side of religion:
The essentially tribal origin of religions renders them forever and dangerously divisive, a fundamental and intractable flaw that has persisted into our own time. Our gods, the true believer asserts, stand against your false idols; our purity of soul against your corruption; our true knowledge against your error. This discordance, whether expressed as hate or mere humanitarian forbearance, continues in spite of the manifest absurdity of the mythologies that underlie traditional religion.
Wilson regards this as a cause for optimism. Arguing that “the more fantastical mythic beliefs are growing harder to swallow by all but the ignorant” and that educated people have a natural evolutionary advantage, he predicts that the naturalistic perspective, based on science, is likely to spread and “will secularize the foundations of moral reasoning: tragic conflicts make it clear that religious dogmas are no longer adequate guides”.
In a similar vein, theologian Peter Berger sees religion tipping the balance toward more violence, not less:
It would be nice to be able to say that religion is everywhere a force for peace. Unfortunately, it is not. Very probably religion in the modern world more often fosters war, both between and within nations. Religious institutions and movements are fanning wars and civil wars on the Indian subcontinent, in the Balkans, in the Middle East, and in Africa, to mention only the most obvious cases.
Sam Harris takes this view a few steps further. He argues, first, that most of the major religions tacitly encourage violence by diminishing their followers’ appreciation for the value of life in the here and now, elevating the status of life in the hereafter and thus discrediting what is ordinarily regarded as rational thinking to preserve life. Preference for heavenly immortality over a mundane mortal life becomes particularly harmful to society when the believer perceives that the path to eternal life is enhanced by righteous intolerance of nonbelievers and the courage to act out against infidels. Harris goes on to argue that this link between religion and violence is exacerbated by taboos, especially in the West, on criticizing either religion generally or the religion of a particular person:
On this subject, liberals and conservatives have reached a rare consensus: religious beliefs are simply beyond the scope of rational discourse. Criticizing a person’s ideas about God and the afterlife is thought to be impolitic in a way that criticizing his ideas about physics or history is not. And so it is that when a Muslim suicide bomber obliterates himself along with a score of innocents on a Jerusalem street, the role that faith played in his actions is invariably discounted. His motives must have been political, economic, or entirely personal. Without faith, desperate people would still do terrible things. Faith itself is always, and everywhere, exonerated.
Harris concludes: “For anyone with eyes to see, there can be no doubt that religious faith remains a perpetual source of human conflict. Religion persuades otherwise intelligent men and women to not think, or to think badly, about questions of civilizational importance”. As for the relationship between religion and terrorism in particular, a few scholars see the connection as largely illusory. Robert Pape, for one, after a careful analysis of 462 suicide terrorist cases from 1980 to 2004, concludes that more than 95 percent of the cases were motivated by a secular rather than a religious goal: to compel democracies to withdraw their military forces from the land the terrorists regard as their homeland. It is, moreover, all too easy for people with strong political agendas to attempt to legitimize their acts under the cloak of religion. As the lines between the eligious and the secular thus remain largely muddled, distinctions among religious, political, and megalomaniacal motives for acts of terror will continue to be difficult to assess.
Religion as a Source of Moral Behavior. Religion is also widely seen as a source – and for many the ultimate source – of moral behavior. Devout practitioners of all the major faiths tend to see their beliefs and practices as a source of moral strength. Sacred texts of all the major religions include sets of prescriptions for good behavior: tolerance and restraint, love and charity, forgiveness and redemption, humility and kindness, faithfulness and fidelity, discipline and restraint, reflection and reverence, the ability to listen and attend to human diStressFreeFast.com” rel=”StressFreeFast.com”>stress, and so on. Accounts of sinners discovering the truth are often stories of people discovering moral lessons in passages from the sacred texts. They discover the value of reforming themselves through faith in a transcendent power – sometimes to go to heaven and avoid an afterlife in hell, sometimes to discover the richness available in the here and now, but always to experience a more profound meaning in their lives than is otherwise apparent or available.
We have noted that eminent scientists such as E. O. Wilson hold dissenting opinions on this point, but other scholars, including some physical scientists, see religion as a net stimulus for morality. Physicist Freeman Dyson, for example, puts it as follows:
In church or in synagogue, people from different walks of life work together in youth groups or adult education groups, making music or teaching children, collecting money for charitable causes, and taking care of each other when sickness or disaster strikes. Without religion, the life of the country would be greatly impoverished.
Dyson concludes, “My own prejudice, looking at religion from the inside, leads me to conclude that the good vastly outweighs the evil.”
Jonathan Sacks sees this good as long-lasting and indelible. He regards the long-term survival of the great faiths – the fact that they have outlived nation-states for centuries – as indirect evidence that they speak to something enduring in the human character. He observes that it was religion that first taught human beings to look beyond the city-state, the tribe, and the nation to see instead humanity as a whole. Holy texts, including the Bible and the Qur_an, advise followers to treat others as they would wish others to treat them. Rabbi Sacks reports meeting religious leaders from all the major faiths who embrace the tradition of unity worshiped in diversity, a spirit he calls “the dignity of difference.” We may be more alike than we are different, and we could use a universal “theology of commonality”; but to the extent that we are different, we can acknowledge the dignity of this too and can respect both the commonalities and the differences. For Rabbi Sacks, this is a deeply held religious belief, one that leaves little room for clashing civilizations: “Religion binds.” Difference is not to be merely tolerated; it is to be celebrated. It enlarges the sphere of human possibilities. The test is to see the divine presence in the face of a stranger – a capacity that builds trust and civility and may, in the process, inoculate societies against terrorism.
Given this prospect, how can religion possibly be invoked to justify violence? One answer is that it is done typically by people for whom political or genocidal goals underlie avowed spiritual expressions. The Ku Klux Klan’s justification of its savage racist acts in the name of Christianity is a case in point. Sacks sees Saddam Hussein as another such case: “Saddam Hussein’s Iraq is a good example – religion is invoked by essentially secular leaders as a way of mobilizing and directing popular passions. There are some combinations that are incendiary, and the mixture of religion and power is one”. He elaborates as follows:
The great tragedies of the twentieth century came when politics was turned into a religion, when the nation (in the case of fascism) or system (communism) was absolutized and turned into a god. The single greatest risk of the twentyfirst century is that the opposite may occur: not when politics is religionized but when religion is politicized.
We noted in the previous section a complementary explanation by Sam Harris: in giving people hope for salvation in an eternal hereafter, religion diminishes their appreciation for the value of living fully here on earth. This creates an opportunity for religious moderates and leaders to step up and control their extremist brethren and to distinguish in a public way those who use religion to legitimize political motives from those who are true first to their faith. Moderates are better positioned than others to constrain the most radical members of their own faiths. Therefore, Rabbi Sacks sees that moderates have an essential responsibility to maintain moral integrity and legitimacy: “Religious believers cannot stand aside when people are murdered in the name of God or a sacred cause. . . . If religion is not part of a solution, it will certainly be part of the problem” (emphasis in the original).
Along a similar line, Daniel Dennett likens religion to a swimming pool: those who derive the benefits of ownership must also be responsible for the harms that result when people are lured into causes that can kill others. Dennett sees it increasingly difficult to exercise this responsibility in an age of information and communication technology in which religious intolerance can spread and mutate like a pandemic virus.
How to exercise this responsibility raises a deep, ancient philosophical dilemma. Under what circumstances, if any, should religious intolerance be met with intolerance? Tolerance does have a downside. Knowledgeable observers attribute the establishment of Britain as a hotbed of radical Islamic violence to its tradition of tolerance, especially during the 1980s and ’90s, when it became a major refuge for political outcasts and expelled preachers of hatred from around the world. The large influx of Pakistani and other Muslim immigrants into London over this period resulted eventually in people referring to the city snidely as “Londonistan.” Then, after a series of terrorist attacks originating from these populations in the years following the 9/11 attack, Britain began a difficult process of deporting some of the most radical of these immigrants. Under such circumstances, the commonsense interests of self-preservation can outweigh the exercise of tolerance.
Another answer to the moral component of the dilemma – whether it is right to be intolerant of intolerance – may be suggested by a Christian teaching from the book of Matthew: turn the other cheek. One historical anecdote suggests that, when used skillfully, such a strategy can be not only moral but also effective. Walter Isaacson writes about how Benjamin Franklin dealt with the intolerance of Puritans in New England: he reacted not with intolerance, but with an ingenious mixture of tolerance and humor. Franklin put his capacity for tolerance to good use at the Constitutional Convention, displaying a willingness to compromise some of his core beliefs to help produce a near-perfect document. Isaacson observes, “It could not have been accomplished if the hall had contained only crusaders who stood on unwavering principle.”7 Franklin’s idea of confronting violent intolerance with humor was echoed a century later by the journalist Ambrose Bierce:
“War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.”
In the end, whether religion, on balance, produces more or less moral behavior remains an open question. Freeman Dyson sees “no way to draw up a balance sheet, to weigh the good done by religion against the evil and decide which is greater by some impartial process.”