Religion and Violence   /   Spring 2004   /    Articles

Is Religion the Problem?

Mark Juergensmeyer

Religion’s role has been hotly debated in the public discussion after September 11 among journalists and policy makers, and among academic researchers and observers. Yet there is seldom agreement about the most basic issue, whether religion is the cause of violence or its unwilling servant. For this reason the very starting point in discussions about religious violence often contain assumptions about religion’s role that should be contested. Interestingly, two of these assumptions are diametrically opposed to one another.

On the one hand, religion—Islam in particular—is often assumed to be the problem. Despite the cautionary words of President George W. Bush imploring Americans not to blame Islam for September 11, a certain Islamiphobia has crept into public conversation. The implication is that the whole of Islam has supported acts of terrorism. The inevitable attachment of Islam to terrorism in the ubiquitous phrase “Islamic terrorism” is one example of this habit of thinking. Another is the vaunting of jihad to a place of supreme Islamic importance—as if all Muslims agreed with the militarized usage of the term by unauthorized extremist groups. The most strident expositions of this way of thinking are found in assertions of Christian televangelists such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell that the Prophet himself was a kind of terrorist. More moderate forms are the attempts by political commentators and some scholars to explain—as if there was need for it—why Islam is so political. Even Connecticut’s liberal Senator Christopher Dodd, in a television interview in November 2003, cautioned Americans not to expect too much tolerance from Islam given its propensity for ideological control over public life. He referenced historian Bernard Lewis’ The Crisis of Islam, a book that he recommended to the viewers, for this point of view.11xBernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (New York: Random House, 2003).

The assumption of those who hold this “religion is the problem” position is that Islam’s relationship to politics is peculiar. But this is not true. Most traditional societies have had a close tie between political leadership and religious authority, and religion often plays a role in undergirding the moral authority of public life. In Judaism the Davidic line of kingship is anointed by God; in Hinduism the kings are thought to uphold divine order through the white umbrella of dharma; and in Christianity the political history of Europe is rife with contesting and sometimes merging lines of authority between church and state. Violent Jewish, Hindu, and Christian activists in recent years have all, like their Muslim counterparts, looked to traditional religious patterns of politicized religion to justify their own militant stance.

The public life of contemporary America is no exception. It is one in which religion is very much involved with politics and politics with religion. The evangelical professions of faith of President Bush and advisors such as Attorney General John Ashcroft fuel the impression that U.S. foreign policy has a triumphant agenda of global Christendom. Even more troubling are strands of Christian theocracy that have emerged among extreme groups in the United States. Some employ violence in their opposition to secular society and their hatred of a globalized culture and economy. A neo-Calvinist theology of a religious state lies behind the bombing of abortion clinics and the shooting of abortion clinic staff by Lutheran and Presbyterian activists in Maryland and Florida. The Christian Identity philosophy of race war and a government enshrining a White Christian supremacy lies behind the attack on the Atlanta Olympic park, the bombing of gay bars and abortion clinics, the killing of a Denver radio talk-show host, an assault on a Jewish day care center in Los Angeles, and many other incidents— including Ruby Ridge—perpetrated by Christian militia in recent years. In fact, there have been more attacks—far more, in fact—by Christian terrorist groups on American soil in the last fifteen years than Muslim ones. Despite evidence to the contrary, however, the American public labels Islam as a terrorist religion rather than Christianity. The arguments that agree—or disagree—with this position would not be necessary, however, if one did not assume that religion is responsible for acts of public violence in the first place.

This is exactly the position taken by those at the other extreme in the public discussion over religion after September 11. They deny that religion is the problem and see it as a victim. The implication is that when religion enters into the public arena in a violent way, it is because its innocence is being exploited by nasty politicians. This is usually what is meant when reporters and other observers talk about religion being “used” for political purposes. A U.S. State Department official once told me that religion was being “used” throughout the Middle East, masking problems that were essentially economic in nature. He assured me that if jobs were to be had by unemployed Egyptians and Palestinians, the problem of religious politics in these impoverished societies would quickly vanish. From his point of view, it was unthinkable that religious activists would actually be motivated by religion, or at least by ideological views of the world that were framed in religious language. The assumption of the State Department official was that religion was the dependent variable, a rhetorical gloss over the real issues that were invariably economic or political.

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