Religion and Violence

President Obama has cautioned all of us not to misinterpret the “Islamic State’s” beheadings and other outrages recently reported: “Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”

Yes, it is estimated that 1000-3000 individuals were executed during the centuries when the Inquisition prevailed, and there were possibly three million casualties, combatants and non-combatants, during the centuries of the Crusades, which were called to repel militant Muslim invasions into the Holy Land.

For comparison purposes, we could discuss the estimated 270 millions of deaths caused by incursions of Islam into Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East over the centuries. And bringing the records up to date: In 2007 the British Secret Service, MI6, put the number of Christians being persecuted in 60 countries at around 200 million; and in January 2012, Reuters estimated “100 million Christians persecuted worldwide.”

But this is not a numbers game, nor is it about body counts. The question is: what does religion have to do with this? Certainly violent individuals have always existed, but does this or that religion actually encourage violence? Let us look at the facts:

In the case of Christianity, the answer is definitely in the negative. If you read through the Gospels and the entire New Testament, you can’t find one sentence advocating violence against unbelievers. Revelation describes the massive warfare of the angelic hosts against the evil spirits and their minions. But the closest we get to incitement to violence on terra firma is St. Paul’s inimitable advice in Rom. 12:20 urging Christians to go out of their way to be charitable to their enemies, for by doing this they will “heap coals of fire over their heads.”

The Hindu Upanishads discourage violence as inimical to one’s karma, while the Bhagavad Gita states that spiritual perfection is sometimes compatible with the defense of justice. The Buddhist sutras are generally considered models of pacifism, although there are some that support the paradoxical idea of the “compassionate” killing of unbelievers.

In the Old Testament, there are passages seeming to grant God’s blessing on the practice of “the ban,” herem (what we moderns would now call “genocide”) in onslaughts carried out by the Israelites against enemies preventing their entrance into the “promised land.”

No one claims Yahweh wrote the Old Testament verbatim, but the authors or redactors of the Bible write that Hebrew heroes like Moses and Joshua received divine authorization for these actions. (See Dt 3:2, 7:2-5, 20:16; Josh 6:21, 8:26-28, 11:20, 1 Sam 15:3.) In any case, there are no divine mandates for the Israelites to go to war and kill unbelievers in general.

Unfortunately, there are such mandates in the Qur’an, which is not considered to be just the work of divinely inspired human authors, but a direct transcript of words dictated by Allah himself (via an angel) to the prophet Muhammad. There are multiple cases in this scripture where general mayhem against all unbelievers is recommended.

ISIS murderers leading Coptic Christians to their executions
ISIS murderers leading Coptic Christians to their executions

For example, Sura 2.191 of the Qur’an commands Muslims, “Kill [unbelievers] wherever you find them, and drive them out from whence they drove you out.” In Sura 8:12, Allah says, “I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them,” and Sura 9:5 commands, “When the sacred months are over, slay the idolaters wherever you find them. Arrest them, besiege them.”

Many other mandates to kill Jews, Christians, and all pagans or “polytheists” who refuse to convert or pay a special tax to Muslim overlords, are found in Suras 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 17, 33, 47, 48, and 69). How is a devout Muslim expected to react to such orders from Allah himself?

As I mentioned in an earlier column, Nonie Darwish in her book, Cruel and Usual Punishment, concludes that “Islam as a whole is not a religion. It is Arab Imperialism and a protectionist tool to preserve what they believe to be a supremacist Arab culture.”

I, however, would suggest that Islam might be better characterized as a worldwide religious cult. As in a cult, adherents in Muslim-majority countries are prevented as much as possible from exposure to other religions; and those who leave or convert to other religions are at best ostracized and at worst executed.

Islam is not a religion of love or peace. The antipathy towards unbelievers, as evidenced in the Qur’an and the Hadith, is great, and the Encyclopedia of Islam recommends their forcible subjugation: “The spread of Islam by arms is a religious duty upon Muslims in general. . . . Jihad must continue to be done until the whole world is under the rule of Islam. . . . Islam must completely be made over before the doctrine of jihad can be eliminated.”

What can be done about this religious threat to destroy all other religions? I suggest four possible avenues within our reach at the present time:

  • We must get beyond hagiography to get information about the real Muhammad – which requires a critical analysis of original sources. I suggest Understanding Muhammad and Muslims, by Ali Sina, or Twenty-Three Years, by ‘Ali Dashti.
  • Make the New Testament available in multiple languages in the Middle East, through the Internet and clandestinely distributed paper copies.
  • The Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule do not exist in the Qur’an, but the consciences of reasonable Muslims can be influenced by appeal to the natural laws of respect for life and pursuit of the truth.
  • Internet and wireless technology are spearheading the present global information revolution, and can be an inestimable benefit for many previously prevented from information about Christianity.

There is no way of preventing individuals in even the most peaceful religion from committing acts of violence. But we must expose and defang a religion explicitly advocating violence on “unbelievers.”

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.