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Religions and Violence

Marc Rastoin, SJ - Civiltà Cattolica - Tue, Oct 31st 2023

Religions and Violence

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the world – and not just the West – is living in a time of Islamic-inspired terrorism. After New York, there was Madrid, London, Paris, Nice, not to mention the punishing series of attacks and massacres in Syria, Pakistan, Nigeria and Sri Lanka.

This phenomenon has contributed to associating religion and violence in the minds of many of our contemporaries. But this connection was formulated a long time ago, and Pope John Paul II, at the interreligious encounter in Assisi in 1986, wished to oppose vigorously such an idea and to show the support for peace in the great religions of the world.

The desire to oppose decidedly the prejudice that associates religion and conflict is also expressed in the recent declaration signed in Abu Dhabi, on February 4, 2019, by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmad el-Tayeb, which states: “We resolutely declare that religions must never incite war, hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism, nor must they incite violence or the shedding of blood.”[1]


The problem of such a connection, in fact, has cultural and intellectual sources that arose long before the beginning of the 21st century. It is enough to remember the famous “wars of religion” in 16th and 17th century Europe and the way in which a tradition of political philosophy is built upon a particular reading of such events. And one could research even further back with the crusades and the expansion of Islam.

The question therefore is not new. But does this cliched prejudice have a basis in reality? A necessarily multi-disciplinary investigation is required.

While history is certainly central, the question also concerns anthropology, sociology, law and psychology. One may observe, for example, that the axiom of popular wisdom, “the good does not make noise,” is particularly pertinent in this regard. There are thousands of male and female religious, not to mention countless faithful laypeople, who in the course of history and still today in so many countries dedicate themselves to the good of children and the ill, to the people on the streets and the imprisoned. They are rarely mentioned in the newspapers. But a few individuals, armed with Kalashnikovs, who at times have only “rediscovered” their “religion” a few weeks earlier, have a worldwide resonance with the media, affording a few minutes of horror. We are all aware of the difference, but at times we are unable to evaluate how far this conditions our imaginations, our thoughts and our spontaneous reactions.

It is not easy to distinguish between ‘politics’ and ‘religion’

We begin with some observations of a historical nature. A primary consideration imposes itself from the start: it is not easy to distinguish between “politics” and “religion.” In a certain sense, such a distinction is rather recent in human history. The great empires – that of Rome, for example – were systems of political-religious dominion in which it is difficult to say where the religious aspect begins and where it ends. On the other hand, this aspect has rendered the attitude of Rome toward Christianity particularly complex and variable.

With the birth of modernity in Europe in the 16th century, things were not necessarily simpler. One often meets the assertion according to which the bitter and permanent nature of the creedal conflicts between Catholics and Protestants is behind a new vision of European public law. But some authors have been able to demonstrate that the European nation states in full expansion made use of this “religious” pretext to realize some very worldly and hardly religious ambitions. The discrediting of Christian confessions was equally part of a strategy to reinforce the power of the state and of their sovereigns and to undermine the authority of the Churches.[2]

From the concordat of Francis I of 1516 to the Austrian “Josephinism” at the end of the 18th century, the “Catholic” kings aimed at establishing de facto national Churches, strictly subject to their authority. But who can deny that many conflicts presented as “religious” in fact had entirely earthly motivations?

Material interests at the basis of human conflicts

Although not having a Marxist worldview, we must declare that human beings enter into conflict among themselves often for material interests such as the search for land or oil, gold or silver,  as well as access to water. As is affirmed in the Abu Dhabi document, the cause of conflicts is often “injustice and the lack of the equitable distribution of natural resources, which only a rich minority benefit from, to the detriment of the majority of the peoples of the earth.” At the later stages of  the Roman Empire, the barbarian hordes were looking for land. In Dacia,  the Emperor Trajan was looking for goldmines, just as later on he wanted access to the Persian Gulf in order to control the Silk Road and to reduce the distance to the world around him. The Mongols and Huns went in search of lands and booty. A similar quest was involved in large part of the crusades and the Muslim expeditions (North Africa, Northern India, the Balkans, etc.).

Obviously, this is not to deny that many political leaders knew how to play the religious card for an increase in warlike mobilization. It reminds us of an extremist Stalin, who mobilized the Orthodox faith for the defense of Holy Russia against the Nazi invaders. One may also certainly affirm that the greater part of the wars of conquest or armed conflicts between states were provoked by disputes over material goods. And many of the conflicts which have been presented to us – and are so now – as those of an intrinsically religious nature are in reality of an ethnic nature or, to employ a word that is out of use, “colonial.” A few examples will suffice.

How many times has the Northern Ireland conflict been presented as the result of tension between Catholics and Protestants? In fact, it is a conflict that finds its roots in the period of British colonization of Ireland. The Protestants in the Republic have retained their churches (the old Catholic churches) and live in perfect peace. If the Unionists of the North always defend the union with the United Kingdom, it is not first of all because they are protestant.

We also recall that in Bosnia Herzegovina the Bosnians, at times to their great surprise, were immediately called “Muslims” during the dismembering of Yugoslavia.

On Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019, Sri Lanka was the stage for eight explosions that caused 253 deaths and over 500 casualties. Four hotels, a residential complex and three Catholic churches were hit. The terrible attack was reminiscent of the lethal conflict that divided Sri Lanka for almost 30 years (1983-2009). This has been often interpreted as a conflict between Buddhists and Hindus; in fact, it was a conflict between a minority – the Tamil, who were relatively privileged during British colonial rule – and a Singhalese majority. Contrary to what is commonly thought, modern suicide bombers are not an invention of Muslim extremists, but a weapon of war used between 1987 and 2006 by the warlord Velupillai Prabhakaran (1954-2009), founder of the Tamil Tiger guerrilla movement. The mixture of cultural resentment and social competition explains the roots of the conflict much better than the religious dimension, undeniably endorsed publicly by some monks, especially during the final phase of the conflict.

A last example from our own times is an obvious one: the situation of the Rohingya in Burma. Here the conflict is often presented as a conflict between Buddhists and Muslims. But for the military ,which continue to compete with the elected government for power, it is above all in order to retake control of a border zone inhabited by a population that arrived in relatively “recent” times (between 1780 and the middle of the 19th century).

The Burmese Muslims, who live in all of the principal Burmese cities and who speak the Burmese language, are not targeted. The military’s goal is to dominate  a strategic region occupied by persons still considered “foreigners” and expel them. Their religion is certainly part of the problem, but not its central focus. It is above all a question of a state that wants to have the maximum control over those border areas. In fact, it is almost impossible to disassociate a population and its culture from the religious dimension that animates it.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict

A decidedly emblematic situation merits being examined separately: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is particularly complex, it is true, and often presented in a simplified way. We may say that it is a territorial conflict between two national communities, since the Palestinian national identity was constituted as a reaction, step by step, as the national Zionist entity was being affirmed. The Zionist project was promoted as a national project and was realized by people who did not put religion at the center of their concerns. In the 1960s and 1980s, the Palestinian terrorists were often represented as nationalist fighters, and they themselves belonged to Marxist organizations. They were born Christian or Muslim, but religion was not their primary motivation.

With regard to the Zionists, the majority were either atheists or indifferent to religion, whether they were on the left (the labor movement) or on the right (the Revisionist Zionism movement). It is only in the last 15 years that the religious factor began to be ever more strongly emphasized. In the face of the political and military failure of the Palestinian nationalist organizations, the Islamic ideological movements developed. But what is at the heart of the conflict is above all a land claimed by two peoples. That religion is a strong factor in identitarian mobilization and attachment to that land (where there are holy places, in particular Jerusalem) is rather evident. However, even if, with the wave of a magic wand tomorrow, all the protagonists in the conflict were transformed into dyed-in-the-wool atheists, the concrete basis of the conflict would continue to exist.

On the other hand, it should be observed that some religious Israeli political parties are rather favorable toward peace, while the hawks on the right are not necessarily religious at all. However, as much as the conflict comes to be described by the media as a conflict between Jews and Muslims, so much will it tend to become so in fact, following the logic of  self-fulfilling prophecy. It is also clear that the religious status of Jerusalem for three religions that represent 55 percent of the world population contributes notably to creating a planetary echo for this particular conflict. But this is principally a conflict between two human political communities over specific territory.

If one examines closely the last century, one ascertains that it was ideologies – together with ideas that form a closed system – that brought about the highest number of victims in modern times. It was atheist ideology in two forms – Nazism and Communism – that tried to suppress every religion. Each pretended to be a perfectly rational system, based, one upon a scientific analysis of the economy and the other upon a Darwinian evolutionary vision. In part, these ideologies may appear like caricatures of religion, with their dogmas, their hierarchies and their excommunications, but they fought fanatically against religions. The massacres and abominations committed surpassed all that the history of humanity had hitherto known. And in no way did this this occur in the name of a God or a religion.

The manipulation of religions

It is, therefore, necessary to recognize that no religion is at the origin of most human conflicts, even if it often does play a part. Some leaders endeavor to mobilize for their advantage the social power of the religious phenomenon. As the document on human brotherhood affirms in a dense formulation: “These tragic realities are the consequence of a deviation from religious teachings. They result from a political manipulation of religions and from interpretations made by religious groups who, in the course of history, have taken advantage of the power of religious sentiment in the hearts of men and women in order to make them act in a way that has nothing to do with the truth of religion. This is done for the purpose of achieving objectives that are political, economic, worldly and short-sighted. We thus call upon all concerned to stop using religions to incite hatred, violence, extremism and blind fanaticism.” This key passage of the document shows at the same time the undeniable cultural and spiritual force of religion and how some politicians use it for motives quite distant from religious ones.

We will now look at some contemporary examples. To describe the Tibetan situation as a “religious” conflict is inaccurate. In another context, the possibility that the current Russian government finds in the “national” Church a way of influencing Ukrainian political life does not, however, make the conflict between Russia and Ukraine a “religious” conflict. Or, when some elements of the current party in power in India make use of Hindu rhetoric and symbols, they do so according to an age-old political strategy, aimed at maintaining power. But the majority of Indian Hindus have a peaceful and tranquil relationship with their own religious tradition.

It is worthwhile mentioning one last subject. The attacks, claimed by Islamic fundamentalists, which have taken place in large European cities in the last 20 years – and, let us not forget, in many Muslim countries – have aroused widespread media coverage. When one analyzes the methods of the attackers and their religious and spiritual formation, one perceives that almost none of them may be considered truly educated in the principles of their religion, nor are they respected by their peers. They are very often delinquents with a very worldly lifestyle or recent converts who thirst for recognition. Among them we do not find religious leaders – imams, priests or academics – but on the contrary autodidacts or even religious illiterates. Some commentators have affirmed that, taken all together, such attackers show symptomatically the failings of a materialistic society that no longer knows how to offer a reason for living or dying. In a certain sense, they show the need for a “true” religion rather than its “excesses.”

The contribution of religions to the peace of humanity

Up until now we have tried to show that the basis of the great conflicts of the last centuries is essentially materialistic, the logic of political power and imperialism. Moreover, although it is true that some political leaders in history have known how to mobilize the religious sentiments of humanity, which values religion, it is false to affirm that religious motivations have aroused  a large number of  specific conflicts. It may, at the most, furnish an easy basis of manipulation for leaders without scruples.

But we must look even further into this. It is not enough to affirm that religion does not necessarily fuel human conflicts. It is in fact possible to state that it contributes profoundly to the peace of humanity and to a happier life for hundreds of millions of people. It is fundamentally opposed to the “tendencies that are individualistic, selfish, conflicting” (Abu Dhabi document) in the lives of human beings. In fact, for a large part of believers, religious faith and community constitute positive resources in trials and difficulties. They encourage them to be better, to perform concrete acts of charity toward their neighbors, to find the strength to forgive, to show patience, gentleness, generosity, peace, openness toward all.

Very many adherents of all the religions find in their faith a force that stimulates and inspires them. This logic of charity and openness is especially present in Christianity, but is certainly not limited to it. Asian Buddhism, as, for example, in South Korea, animates powerful charitable organizations. Zakat is one of the five pillars of Islam and contributes to many charitable initiatives in the Muslim world. The same is true for the Jewish Tzedakah. The hundreds of thousands of Catholic sisters who, on all continents, work in hospitals and schools, visit the sick and imprisoned, do not make news. At any rate, they make much less than some terrorists. Why are they not mentioned when someone speaks of religion? The Caritas network of the Catholic Church is certainly one of the most active aid organizations in the world. And there are many examples of great spiritual figures who, from Mother Teresa to Sister Emmanuelle, put themselves at the service of humanity without any type of discrimination.

Moreover, if one looks at the great religious figures of the last two centuries – without going too far back in time – one observes that the persons truly instructed in their religion and respected within them have insisted on peace and dialogue. A few examples are all we need. Gandhi, the Mahatma (i.e. great soul) of India, is famous throughout the world for having enabled the nation to attain independence through an essentially nonviolent struggle. A profoundly religious man attached to his tradition, he also knew the Gospels and the other religious traditions.

In the United States, in the 1960s, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the great masters in the orthodox tradition of Judaism, joined the fight for the civil rights of black Americans, marching alongside Martin Luther King, who was a Baptist pastor.

Another illustrious figure is Emir Abd el-Kader (1808-1883) in Algeria. A profoundly devout man, he assumed the command of the defense of his land against the French. Although defeated and he and his assaulted personally and then exiled by soldiers who called themselves “Christians,” he always refused to enter into the logic of hate and helped in saving many Christians during the riots in Damascus in 1860.

Continuing on the Muslim side, and taking as an example a living person, we might remember the figure of the ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Although of Iranian roots, he was the highest Shiite religious authority in Iraq and tirelessly sought the end of violence in the conflict between the Shiites and Sunnis and, in particular, the refusal of vendetta while the attacks were multiplying week after week in Shiite neighborhoods. He also called for respect for the Christian minority. It is a shame that he is less known than some pseudo-theologians of much less human and spiritual strength.


Helping human beings to live with greater interiority and solidarity, emphasizing the bonds that unite them more than those that divide, inviting them in general to conduct a more sober life, less materialistic and more altruistic, religions undoubtedly contribute to the creation of a more peaceful environment. But just like all the universal and positive realities of human life – for example, work (which had become infernal in the Roman and English mines of past centuries, not to mention the many factories across Asia today), country, culture, family – these too may be instrumentalized. This key concept is taken up in the Abu Dhabi document: “Terrorism is deplorable and threatens the security of people, be they in the East or the West, the North or the South, and disseminates panic, terror and pessimism, but this is not due to religion, even when terrorists instrumentalize it. It is due, rather, to an accumulation of incorrect interpretations of religious texts and to policies linked to hunger, poverty, injustice, oppression and pride” (emphasis ours).

As a cause for reflection, the analogy with the family is quite significant. In the majority of cases, the family is a place that offers love and protection, promotes sharing and self-esteem, furnishes identity and a sense of belonging: in short, a fundamentally positive reality. However, as we all know, it may also become a sad place, a place of violence and oppression. All the same, the existence of these perversions does not mean the family as an institution should be suppressed. The same is true of religion. Although its homicidal instrumentalization fills the news screens, it ought not make us forget the profound spiritual and human resources that it mobilizes for good. According to the judicious formula of Montaigne, ably taken up by Saint Francis of Sales “là où il y a de l’homme, il y a de l’hommerie”[3] (“wherever there are people, there is corruption of people”).

It seems that one quickly forgets Nazism and Communism and the responsibilities of European intellectuals in the birth and development of these two lethal, atheistic ideologies. If it is legitimate to denounce strongly the instrumentalization of religion and the evil brought about by some of its presumed defenders, it would be foolish to believe that, freeing ourselves, hypothetically, of every religion, we would enter by this means into a kingdom of peace. God invites us to work now with the values of the Kingdom: respect, humility, knowing each other, solidarity, helping each other. As the Abu Dhabi document ends: “God has created us to understand one another, cooperate with one another and to live as brothers and sisters who love one another.”

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 3, no. 6, article 4, 2019: 10.32009/22072446.1906.4

[1] Cf. The quotations that follow are also taken from this document.

[2] Cf. W. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009.

[3] The expression hommerie is the caricature of humanité: where humanity, that is the essence of the human being, would be deprived of all the positive aspects of human action. Hommerie, therefore, expresses abasement, the power of corruption, the egoism of which a human being is capable.



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