Religious Violence is Political Violence

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  1. 1. Religious Violence is Political Violence Brad Stollery The recent murder of a dozen employees of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris by men sympathetic to the Islamic State sadly sustains an ongoing conversation about Islam's role in terrorism. There are more than a few voices in the Western media, like that of atheist pundit Bill Maher, who criticize Islam as a harmful theology. While denouncing all religions, Maher identifies Islam as especially dangerous because in his opinion it legitimizes violence against non-believers, oppresses women, and resorts to barbaric forms of punishment for those who disobey its doctrine. As a student of politics I believe it is my responsibility to offer a clarifying analysis on an issue that is controversial but generally poorly understood. Maher blames Islam for terrorism because he has not dug deep enough into the question. Religion does not provide motivation for wrongdoing it provides a facade of justification. This is a crucial difference. Motivation for violence, at its core, is strictly political. Extremists have political goals and they believe that violence is a necessary and legitimate way of accomplishing those goals. But the leaders of terrorist organizations are powerless if no one will carry out their orders to commit violence: the head of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, certainly isn't going to put himself in harm's way. Instead, extremists like al-Baghdadi frame their political goals in religious language to manipulate naive, angry, disenfranchised and disillusioned young Muslims across the world. Radicals isolate passages out of context from the Qur'an or from poorly cited Hadiths and pass these messages off as divine directives from God to kill those who have strayed from the true path. Consider that Usama bin Laden once famously issued fatwas (religious decrees) calling for the murder of infidels, despite having precisely zero religious authority to do so. Al-Qaeda, and now the Islamic State, hijacked Islam for their own purposes. Needless to say, the same has been done to every religion at some point in history. Religion is political. With the exception of fundamentalists, most religious people understand that ancient scriptures were a product of the epoch in which they were written and must be interpreted as to conform to modern moral standards and reasoning. Interpretation of scripture known as hermeneutics combined with critical thinking is how religion is implemented in real life. Politics is the word we use to describe the process that happens when people communicate about what to do, how to do it, and why they should do it at all. Religion is ultimately a political process because everything we do is a political process. To bluntly blame Islam for terrorism is to implicate every peaceful and innocent Muslim, who of course constitute the overwhelmingly vast majority, along with it. That is entirely folly. It is critical to recognize the intersection of politics with religion broadly, but especially in relation to violence that is draped in religious legitimization. When murderers shout Allhu Akbar it does not indict the entirety of Islam. Instead it points to, in addition to the perpetrators themselves, those who command or inspire the violence in the name of an agenda for which they are willing to sacrifice their own vulnerable followers along with the victims of their attacks. When critics like Maher claim without basis that hundreds of millions of Muslims support terrorism, he is contributing to the very problem he despises. He misunderstands the nature of terrorism while gifting extremists with the political ammunition they need to attract even more followers. Intolerance depends
  2. 2. on and feeds off of mutual intolerance. Staying informed and thinking critically about politics' subtle omnipresence in our lives allows us to transcend the cycle of ignorance and hatred.


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