Reflection: Connection between religion and violence

The latest killings of Palestinian and Israeli civilians in the asymmetric war between Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Israel raises questions about the connection between religion and violence. Hamas emerged from the 1987 intifada as a religiously motivated break-away from Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation. Israel is the Jewish State. How much of what is happening is driven by religious conviction and how much by national self-assertion?

The civil war in Northern Ireland was often spoken of as conflict between Catholics and Protestants though most people perceived the competing nationalisms. The Irish Catholic bishops’ unwavering condemnation of violence limited the IRA’s capacity to use Catholicism in its cause. While CEO of a Catholic development agency, I received a letter from a Maze prisoner requesting books on liberation theology. I sent a small booklet about “The Crucified Peoples”, theological reflections on the people’s suffering in war. On the Unionist side the Rev. Ian Paisley’s violent rhetoric did nothing to interdict Protestant paramilitaries.

If people were asked which of the Abrahamic faiths they associated with violence many would say Islam. According to the Pew Foundation in 2017, 63% of White Evangelicals and 41% of Catholics in the USA thought Islam encouraged violence more than other faiths. ISIS and Al-Qaida’s perverse glorification of violence in the name of Allah and their Islamic claims obviously contribute to these views. Yet the only people who might gain from the killing of non-combatants both in Gaza and the few in Israel are nationalists: Netanyahu, struggling for his political life, the political leaders of Hamas, and their backers, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

Are such public perceptions, correct? Is there a thread linking 9/11 and 611, a year after the Prophet began receiving the revelations which are the content of the Qur’ān, and the beginning of his and his followers’ persecution in Mecca? Brian B. Lawrence in The Oxford Handbook of Religion & Violence (2013) traces Muhammad’s attempts to avoid war and suppress idolatry and social violence – including the practice of female infanticide (Qur’ān 17.31). “He resisted the use of force: neither he nor his followers engaged in war until he was forced to flee his home and become a refugee in Medina in 622”. There, the nascent Muslim community fought for survival though, whenever possible, attempts were made to make peace with rivals rather than eliminate them.


For many today, Jihad has become synonymous with suicide bombings and beheadings. But Lawrence, like many other scholars, portrays Jihad as originally having a personal meaning of spiritual struggle, alongside a communal meaning, as a quest for a higher religious good. The idea that the sweeping expansion across the Middle East and North Africa after the Prophet’s death was a jihad, and the Caliphs who settled in centres such as Damascus and Baghdad made laws exclusively on the basis of Qur’ān, does not hold water.

Warfare was described by Muslim writers of the time in terms of conquest and raids, neither holy nor primarily aimed at conversion. Ironically the term jihad began to be used by Saladin in a mimetic military reaction to the fall of Jerusalem to the Crusaders in 1099. After the Mughal invasions of the 13th century warfare clearly returned to being a State/Caliphate concern while the Caliph himself became the sole legitimate owner and arbiter of the means of coercion. It was in the nineteenth century that Muslim leaders returned to using the term jihad to sanctify violent resistance, this time against colonialism and European culture. In short Muslims, through the centuries, in a variety of contexts, like Christians, have not been averse to finding religious legitimation for conquest and warfare.

Both Christian and Islamic writers developed a body of ethical thinking about the conditions under which war, or Jihad, could be declared – the emphasis was on legitimate authority for mobilising forces and on defence. There was also an attempt to define rules governing warfare and what ought to be conduct towards combatants and non-combatants. A partly shared just war theory is reflected in protocols about targeting today. On the Muslim side, Shari’a has an extensive treatment of these issues. War like slavery was taken as a given.

Pogroms against Jews and repeated Crusades were the product of a particular interpretation of divine revelation. A collective and inherited responsibility for the death of Christ was attributed to Jews for the first sixteen centuries of European Christianity. All this does not make Christianity an essentially violent religion. But it does show the gulf between the different understandings of Christian faith spanning the centuries.

But as former Supreme Court Judge, Jonathan Sumption, said in a 2012 BBC Four Thought programme, we should not see the past in terms of the present. This “marginalises historical events by treating them as monstrous aberrations from the path of truth chosen by our own generation.” As a result we fail to learn from the ‘vicarious experience of the past’ the insights that good history grants.

What lessons should we learn then? First, the obvious, that we are invariably predisposed to legitimise our own violence and condemn that of our opponents, enemies and victims. Second, we need to have a clear picture of the social and political circumstances in which a small minority successfully promotes violence as an integral or necessary part of their faith. Third, we need to support and draw on the religious resources of each faith community to work for mediation, reconciliation, social justice and human dignity.

There is a fourth: we should not provoke violence. Likud leader, and future Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in September 2000 after peace talks had failed resulted in the second, intensely violent, intifada. Muslims see this contested area as a noble sanctuary, a symbol of their religious identity. The Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque are amongst the holiest buildings in Islamic belief. A sure way to tip a faith community, pushed to its limits and already in conflict, into violence are actions seen as desecrating or threatening their holy places and holy days. Pace Lord Sumption, this is almost as true today as it was in 1099. And it is hard to believe Netanyahu was not just as aware of this as Sharon.

(Ian Linden is Visiting Professor at St Mary’s University, Strawberry Hill, London)

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