Post-Christchurch debate on religion and terrorism

Who is responsible for the violence?

The question of whether religious texts are interpreted in a tolerant or a hostile way is closely tied to the historical context in which the interpretation takes place. The responsibility for terrorism lies first and foremost with people and not with the religious texts themselves, says Assem Hefny, a lecturer at Al-Azhar University

Following an attack by a Muslim or Christian terrorist, there is always a determined effort to link terrorism to a particular religion. At the same time, you will always hear voices on the other side of the debate doggedly denying that there is any kind of link between religion and terrorism.

The brutal attack by a terrorist claiming to be a Christian, which took the lives of 50 Muslims in New Zealand just over two weeks ago, has re-ignited the discussion about the relationship between religion and terrorism. Muslims in particular took the attack as an opportunity to defend their faith and to make it clear that Islam has nothing to do with terrorism. Otherwise, so this argument goes, it would be just as valid to see a general connection between Christianity and terrorism, based on the religious affiliation of the Christchurch attacker.

In the midst of these often emotionally-charged defences, the really important questions are lost – the answers to which could help to shed light on the complex and problematic relationship between religion and terrorism.

Little desire to differentiate

The central question here is: what kind of understanding of religion and its various dimensions allows people to see a direct connection between faith and terrorism in the first place? The following remarks are confined to an exploration of one specific dimension of religion: the social or cultural and historical dimension.

The attempt either to prove or to refute a direct connection between religion and terrorism speaks of an understanding of religion that sees it as independent from the world in which it is practiced. In other words: religion is seen as a corpus of sacred messages, entirely removed from the world in which the faithful live.

People who view religion in this way find it easy to say things like, "That has nothing to do with Islam!" or: "Islam is in no way responsible for such crimes!". They justify this view by citing quotations from the Koran that plead for peace and harmony among all people.

Muslim reading the Koran (photo: picture-alliance)
"The attempt either to prove or to refute a direct connection between religion and terrorism speaks of an understanding of religion that sees it as independent from the world in which it is practiced. In other words: religion is seen as a corpus of sacred messages, entirely removed from the world in which the faithful live," criticises Hefny

Despite their good intentions, they overlook the fact that their opponents are taking exactly the same approach, but aiming in the opposite direction. They, too, remove the texts – and with them, the religion as a whole – from their historical context. Itʹs just that these people concentrate on the hostile content and attempt to use these passages to prove their own point: if you read them on a superficial level, they seem to legitimate violence and wars.

However, this process assumes a clear separation between texts and the world people live in, which is not sustainable: you canʹt read and interpret religious texts "in a vacuum", removed from the specific realities of life. Of course, this applies as much to Islam as it does to Christianity and other religions.

People read and interpret religious texts differently

From an epistemological point of view, it is obvious that you cannot draw clear boundaries between the text on the one hand and its interpretation and use by followers of that religion on the other. People read and understand these texts, based on their cultural upbringing, their environment and their political and economic situation.

This is a view most probably shared by Caliph Ali, from whom a saying has been passed down: it is not the pages of the Koran that speak; it is the people through whom they speak. No text exists independently of the world; texts interact with the world through the medium of people. The conciliatory interpretation of religious writings always wins through at those times when tolerance is also an important component of peopleʹs general attitude.

By contrast, whenever the ideas of human dignity and equality lose their currency, then texts – no matter in which religion – are given a discriminatory and hostile interpretation and can even be used to justify acts of terror. In these readings, difference becomes a reason to hate people of other faiths, ethnicities or cultures. Such hatred is frequently directed toward all these differences, since it can be difficult to separate one from the others.

Engaging with the historical and cultural dimension of religion can help us to understand complex phenomena such as the de-coupling of religious obeisance (prayer, for example) from the attributes which should naturally come with it, such as humility, faith, peacefulness and inner calm, which unfortunately are no longer the pre-condition for this obeisance, but its aim.

Once, it was the Kharijites; today, itʹs Islamic State: time and again, we have seen movements and individuals whose supposed fear of God, measured by prayers and ceremonial rituals, is surpassed only by their brutality. What is sacred to them is religious observance, but not humans and human dignity, regardless of what religion people follow.

To come full circle on this discussion of the relationship between religion and terrorism: recurring attempts to deny any connection between religion – or religiously-based convictions – and terrorism suggest that there is a link. When the interconnection of two things is debated so fiercely, it suggests there is some difficulty in thinking of one completely isolated from the other.

The merging of religion and culture

The cryptic messages of the terrorist who carried out the attack on the Muslims in New Zealand show the merging of religion and culture in the history of both Christianity and Islam. Perhaps we should also say the history of the West and Islam, insofar as the lines between religion and culture are so blurred that the intuitive opposite of the West is no longer the geographical East, but "the Islamic".

Police officer in front of the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch following the attack on 15 March 2019 (photo: picture-alliance/AP)
The horror of Christchurch: "You canʹt consider a terrorist removed from his cultural environment. Just as you canʹt understand religion without its cultural aspects. And a comprehensive analysis of terrorism isnʹt possible if you leave out the religious dimension," writes Hefny

Although the connotations here are negative, this development canʹt simply be attributed to the Western worldʹs reduction of "the East" to religion; the Middle East also reduces itself to this dimension and defines itself as Islamic first and foremost and only then geographically or ethnically as Arab.

The clarification of this problem, which is connected to the precise definition of identities and the question of primary affiliation, however, requires an in-depth exploration that lies outside the scope of this article.

Muslims are justified in criticising the double standard by which a Muslim attacker is described as an Islamist terrorist, while attacks by Christian perpetrators are categorised as "far-right extremism".

But this criticism also contains within it the need to create a connection between Christianity and terrorism analogous to what has happened with Islam. This means that arguing against a fundamental connection between religion and violence is not a matter of principle.

The conflict between self and other

It isnʹt based on a mature, internalised understanding of religion and its social, cultural, political and cognitive dimensions. Instead, it almost always arises from the conflict between self and other and the accusations of guilt against any opponent that come with it.

The dualism of self and other is inextricably linked with a personʹs own self-understanding as Islamic and the perception of the other as Christian. But how can someone see nothing more than a religion in this other, while at the same time rejecting the otherʹs reduction of him to this one dimension? 

You canʹt consider a terrorist removed from his cultural environment. Just as you canʹt understand religion without its cultural aspects. And a comprehensive analysis of terrorism isnʹt possible if you leave out the religious dimension – although, as I have laid out here, it is disingenuous to hold a religion itself responsible for the actions of a terrorist.

But it is necessary to take into consideration certain cultural factors that have been influential for the terrorist in order to form a comprehensive picture of himself: his socialisation, the religious dimension of his upbringing and the dominant religious discourse in his life.

Because the question of whether religious texts are interpreted in a tolerant or a hostile manner is closely tied to the historical context of the interpretation. The responsibility for terrorism therefore lies with people, first and foremost – it is not the product of religion itself.

Assem Hefny

© Qantara.de 2019

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

More on this topic
In submitting this comment, the reader accepts the following terms and conditions: Qantara.de reserves the right to edit or delete comments or not to publish them. This applies in particular to defamatory, racist, personal, or irrelevant comments or comments written in dialects or languages other than English. Comments submitted by readers using fantasy names or intentionally false names will not be published. Qantara.de will not provide information on the telephone. Readers' comments can be found by Google and other search engines.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.

Comments for this article: Who is responsible for the violence?

"when tolerance is also an important component of peopleʹs general attitude." But that is also subject to a given socio-economic context. Also, where is the tolerance of the major powers when they carry out acts of terrorism (state terrorism) through wars or other means, or when they lay out the foundations of violence through global socio-economic policies? "Terrorism" should be replaced by "violence" in its different forms, because the former has been defined and interpreted by state actors and ideologues who do not apply it the structural violence of the state, be it "democractic" or authoritarian.

Nadeem05.04.2019 | 14:03 Uhr