Violence in Islamic and Western Societies

Mutual Anxiety

Germany's Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations has brought forward an intercultural study on political violence in the West and the Islamic world, past and present. This study, worked on by one German and two Arab scholars. Mona Naggar read the study

Terror in Sharm El Sheikh, 2005 (photo: dpa)
Sharm el Sheikh July 2005 – The lack of self-criticism in the Arabic world is especially visible with Islamic-legitimized violence, says Amr Hamzawy, political scientist

​​In his attempt to open a dialogue with the Islamic world political scientist Jochen Hippler critically examines modernity and its relation to violence. Since the Enlightenment the hope has existed that societies and states would be able to resolve their conflicts with a minimum of violence.

The Western world has in fact struggled hard to reduce interstate violence during the past few centuries. This is connected above all with the development of state orders, functioning judicial systems and internal mechanisms for regulating violence.

​​But the modernization process has also produced violent phenomena of unimaginable magnitude such as colonialism, Stalinism and German fascism. Non-Western societies, too, experience on their path to modernization genocide and wars of varying magnitude, such as the Armenian genocide at the beginning of the twentieth century or the division of Pakistan in the 1970s.

Hippler believes it is essential to realize that "the civilization process may have either a positive or a negative effect on the willingness to use violence or force, because as long as violence succeeds in accomplishing something, a war to obtain provinces, countries, influence, resources, as long as this is a possibility, it will most assuredly continue to be an invitation to resort to violence. At the same time we have developed courts of first instance with the United Nations, international law, human rights in order to create rules, but so far these have been less than satisfactory."

Lack of self-criticism in the Arab world

Self-critical examination of their own crimes on the part of the Western and Islamic countries is essential for any dialogue on violence. According to political scientist Amr Hamzawy, the Arabs lack the willingness to examine the mistakes they have made over the past centuries. Hamzawy criticizes their inability to examine the failure of attempts to democratize in past decades and to learn from them. This lack of self-criticism is especially visible with Islamic-legitimized violence, he says. "The mere mention of Islam acts like a blockade."

Amr Hamzawy (photo:
Amr Hamzawy, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington D.C.

​​Jochen Hippler criticizes Western efforts to date in processing their own crimes: "What is interesting is that our own crimes have been processed very selectively and not to the same extent in every country. I also believe that our processing has been, interestingly, very euro-centric. We primarily refer the violent crimes committed in the Second World War, in the Holocaust, to those against Jewish Europeans, perhaps also against the Polish, but rarely to those against the Russians. We relate them to our society, to our European civil war excesses, but very rarely do we bring these crimes into an intercultural comparison."

What about European terrorism of the 1970s and 1980s?

Since the attacks of September 11 and the terrorist attacks with Islamic background in Europe, Hippler has also observed that European societies tend to close their eyes to their own developments that inspire violence. This becomes particularly clear if you compare the current discussion on Islamic-inspired violence with the discourse on the left-wing radical terrorism of the 1970s and 1980s:

"Now we have a group of culprits, some of whom were born in Europe, others in Lebanon. And here emerges the psychological difference that we are fairly successful in treating the same form of abhorrent violence as not our problem and are able to project it on to others. This time it is not German society that is responsible for the violence, but Muslims, Arabs, Persians, and whatnot."

Religious or political violence?

For Jochen Hippler religion is not a source of violence. Only its misuse by people and political and socioeconomic conditions in particular give religion a mobilizing and violent character. Although Osama Bin Laden wraps his messages in religious concepts, the core of his demands are political in nature, according to Hippler's interpretation.

This analysis contradicts both Arab commentators on the study. Amr Hamzawy believes that one cannot detach the phenomenon of violence from its milieu. Political scientists can only understand the phenomenon of Islamic terrorism in the Arab-speaking world if they understand the importance of religion in the respective societies and are familiar with contemporary Arab thought and discourse: "The phenomenon of violence in jihadist tendencies grew, formed and is still gaining more and more adherents and sympathizers in the shadow of a cultural environment that depicts itself as chosen and unique and justifies the separation of Arab societies from the narrative of the democratic era by virtue of its special nature."

Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid (photo: Ikhlas Abbis)
Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid says religious texts must be interpreted in their historical context

​​Egyptian Islamic scholar Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid is convinced that one cannot use the precepts of classical Koran interpretation to condemn terrorism: "The inability to see religious text as an historical text is the core problem of Koran studies in the Islamic world today. This inability makes it impossible to counter terrorism."

Abu Zaid calls for Muslims to come up with alternative interpretations: "If we do not remind people of this historical context, there is no point in having a dialogue. The people who justify terrorism with religious texts will continue to do so, and those who wish to remove the religious foundation from terrorism will not be able to place the texts in their historical context."

Mona Naggar

Translated from the German by Nancy Joyce

© 2006

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