Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Causes of Religious Violence and Ways to Combat Them

  By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

What causes religious violence?  Is it a propensity for violence that motivates most religious
terrorists, or is it poverty, underdevelopment and despair?  Or could it be radical religion that motivates fanatical zealots to kill unbelievers?  Or could it be all of the above?  In any event, unless we know the cause of religious violence, we cannot combat and defeat it.

Fareed Zakaria has asserted that terrorists are radicals with a propensity for violence before they become religious.  The Aga Khan, the leader of Ismaili Muslims, has asserted that “Islam and terror have not the slightest thing in common” and that “Poverty, underdevelopment and despair are without doubt among the most important causes.”  But those Muslims recruited by ISIS from the U.S. and Europe are neither criminals nor victims of poverty.  They are educated Muslims who have become radicalized.

It appears that radical religion is the primary cause of religious violence, but the Obama administration has obscured that cause by denying the religious nature of ISIS and referring to it as ISIL.  In order to counter the radical Islamism of ISIS, moderate Muslims must undermine its legitimacy with Islamic doctrines of peace and justice; but that requires the freedoms of religion and speech that are absent in Islamic cultures.  It took the Reformation and the Enlightenment to undermine the legitimacy of an oppressive Church, but most of its many variants now embrace libertarian democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law.  Islam is overdue to experience its own reformation and enlightenment.

The first requirement in combatting religious violence is a government that is willing and able to enforce secular laws that prohibit violence, such as assault, rape, kidnapping and murder.  That applies to Christians who kill abortion doctors, Jews who kill Palestinians, and Islamists who kill unbelievers.  Where ISIS, al Qaeda and Boko Haram thrive and promote violence, governments are either unwilling or unable to enforce secular law, and moderate believers don’t have the freedoms of religion and speech to challenge the legitimacy of radical Islamism.  It is a problem of legitimacy, and the moral and legal standards of legitimacy are shaped by religion.

Standards of legitimacy define justice, which is the ultimate measure of any religion; and when religious radicals define justice with violence, religion fails the test of legitimacy.  Radical Islamists assert that God’s justice is defined by a sacred rule of law (Shari’a) that preempts libertarian democracy and human rights and sanctifies violence.  But claiming that violence is the will of God doesn’t make it just; and where ISIS, al Qaeda and Boko Haram thrive and commit their violence with impunity it isn’t because most people believe it is God’s will, but because of ineffective and illegitimate government.

In order to promote peace and justice a religion must advocate standards of legitimacy, law and politics that condemn violence and maintain peace, and in today’s world, that requires libertarian democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law.  Modern Judaism and Christianity have embraced those principles of libertarian democracy and human rights, but in Islamic cultures those libertarian principles are subordinated to the ancient and immutable Islamic law of Shari’a, which includes apostasy and blasphemy laws that preclude the freedom of religion and speech. 

Shari’a is remarkably like Jewish (or Mosaic) law, which reflects their common Semitic roots, but since the Enlightenment most Jews and Christians have subordinated their ancient religious laws to the secular law and human rights of libertarian democracy; and where those libertarian principles have prevailed, radical religious movements have not gained political traction. (Hitler’s Third Reich and Stalin’s Russia were oppressive regimes that arose in Christian cultures, but were not religious in nature)

A minority of Christian and Jewish fundamentalists continue to assert the supremacy of their holy laws over the secular laws and human rights of libertarian democracy; and they frequently cause political repercussions, as with their support of Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz in the U.S., and with periodic outbursts of violence against Palestinians in Israel.  But so far religious fundamentalists have remained a minority in libertarian democracies and unable to undermine human rights and equal justice under law.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam are pluralistic religions that include progressive, conservative and fundamentalist sects, and most Muslim leaders are quick to disclaim any relationship with radical Islamist violence.  Nevertheless, radical Islamism is a primary motivating force for ISIS violence.  In libertarian democracies that violence can be controlled through the enforcement of criminal laws, and cooperative efforts between law enforcement and Muslims can identify and deter young Muslims attracted to ISIS. 

In Dearborn, Michigan, law enforcement has worked closely with Muslims to identify and deradicalize young Muslims attracted to ISIS.  In Europe there is less assimilation of Muslims, and neighborhoods like Molenbeek, a suburb of Brussels, Belgium, have become havens for radical Islamists and produced terrorist attacks.  More assimilation of Muslims and cooperative efforts with law enforcement are needed to counter Islamist violence in Europe.

The real challenge for combatting Islamist violence is not in the U.S. or Europe where Muslims are minorities who can be assimilated to libertarian values, but in Islamic cultures where governments—even those in Islamic democracies—subordinate secular law and human rights to Shari’a with its apostasy and blasphemy laws, and are either unable or unwilling to prosecute the violence of radical Islamists. 

Religious violence can thrive wherever religious laws take precedence over libertarian human rights and the secular rule of law.  Until Shari’a is considered a voluntary moral code of legitimacy for Muslims rather than a code of positive or coercive law, it will preclude libertarian democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law in Islamic cultures, and Islamist terrorists will be able to promote their violence with distorted interpretations of  Shari’a.     

Notes and References to Related Blogs:

On related blogs, see Religion and Reason, December 8, 2015; Faith and Freedom, December 15, 2014; Is Religion Good or Evil?, February 15, 2015; Religion and Human Rights, February 22, 2015; Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, April 12, 2015; De Oppresso Liber: Where Religion and Politics Intersect, May 2, 2015;  Religion, Human Rights and National Security, May 10, 2015; Moral Restraints on the Freedom of Speech, May 17, 2015; Jesus Meets Muhammad Today, June 14, 2015; Freedom and Fundamentalism, August 2, 2015; Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities, August 9, 2015; How Religious Fundamentalism and Secularism Shape Politics and Human Rights, August 16, 2015; The European Refugee Crisis and Radical Islam, September 6, 2015; The Power of Freedom over Fear, September 12, 2015; Politics and Religious Polarization, September 20, 2015;  Taking Lives and Liberty in the Name of God, December 19, 2015; Resettling Refugees: Multiculturalism or Assimilation? December 26, 2015; Who Is My Neighbor?, January 23, 2016; The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves, January 30, 2016; The American Religion and Politics in 2016, March 5, 2016; Religion, Race and the Deterioration of Democracy in America, March 12, 2016; Religion, Democracy, Diversity and Demagoguery, March 26, 2016; and The Freedom of Religion and Providing for the Common Good, April 2, 2016.

On the commentary of the Aga Khan that “Islam and terror have not the slightest thing in common” and that poverty is a major cause of religious violence, see

On the cooperative program between Muslims and law enforcement in Dearborn, Michigan, to identify and deradicalize young Muslims, see

For a compilation of Islamic laws (Shari’a) and Jewish Mosaic Law, see the Appendices to The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy (the J&M Book), posted in Resources at at pages 469-651.

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