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

© 2019

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

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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