At the Intersection of Violence and Religion


Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.

September 11, 2001, brought a new dimension to the conversations about religion in the world. Political pundits and religious thinkers debated about how to respond politically and religiously to a culture where religion and politics are inextricably bound. Moreover, how could political and religious leaders in the United States respond to a violent religious extremism when they had ignored the roots of such religious extremism (Christian fundamentalism) in their own country? Could religious and political leaders even talk to one another productively in their quest for a response? How could religious leaders explain such violence in the name of religion without either condemning it outright or offering irenic solutions to the challenges?

Religious violence is hardly a new phenomenon in the history of the world. As far the first-century Roman Empire was concerned, the streets were full of religious terrorists aiming to overthrow the government by violent means. Knife-wielding assassins, sicarii (named for the style of knife they carried in their cloaks), made their living by running up to petty Roman officials on the street and stabbing them. The Zealots, who were defeated in a battle at a fortress outside of Jerusalem around 70 CE, also advocated the violent overthrow of the empire. Christians have long terrorized other religions and cultures through violent acts. The most famous deeds of Christian violence are of course the Crusades, which sometimes (the Fourth Crusade) pitted Christians against one another. Christian violence can be traced even further back, though, to the fourth century when Constantine declared Christianity the “official” religion of the Roman Empire and so began terrorizing neighboring states in the name of Christ. On American soil, Christians used their scriptures as cudgels against Native Americans and West Indians, terrorizing these communities in the name of God. Until just this year (2007), Protestant and Catholic Christians terrorized each other on the streets of Northern Ireland. Muslims terrorized Byzantium in the seventh and eight centuries CE, eventually winning the territory and incorporating it into their lands. Muslim minorities and fundamentalist Hindus continue to clash in various Indian states, and Hindus and Sikhs continue to terrorize each other in Amritsar. Thus, the use of violent acts by members of religious movements to achieve their goals has always been part of the fabric of almost every religion.
Why, then, given this long history of religious violence in the world, did the attacks of September 11, 2001, surprise so many Americans?  How could religious people in America, whose view of religion largely ignored its violent side in favor of the prosperity and individual spiritual growth echoed in bestsellers like Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Life (Zondervan), understand a religious view that espoused violence as a means to desired ends? What were religious leaders to do, and how were they to respond to the questions of their constituents? Many religious leaders responded by condemning Islam as a religion of extremism. The rhetoric of the Bush administration eerily mirrored the rhetoric of Osama Bin Laden; each leader called for a holy war, a religious war of extremes that brooked no middle ground. Other religious leaders called for understanding and toleration, pleading that the human cost of such a war would be staggering. Still others cautioned that religious extremism could be found in all religions and that a fundamentalist Christian group’s bombing of an abortion clinic was just as much an act of terrorism as the destruction of the World Trade Center; the religious fervor, the use of violence, the destruction of others’ property, the use of God’s name to justify the act, and the loss of life (or even the intention to take life) were the same in both acts.
In the six years since September 11, 2001, the number of books about religion and terrorism or religion and violence has diminished. Today’s religion bookshelves groan more under the weight of books that deal either with the death or the irrelevance of religion Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), Sam Harris’ The End of Faith: Religion, Terrorism, and the Future of Reason (Norton, 2004) and Letters to a Christian Nation (Knopf, 2006) or mammoth books about secularization Charles Taylor’s magisterial A Secular Age (Harvard, 2007) and the shape of religion after the death of God Mark C. Taylor’s After God, (University of Chicago, 2007). However, in the immediate wake of September 11, 2001, a number of books attempted to come to terms with what then seemed to be a new challenge of modern life.
One of the most far-reaching books to appear soon after 9/11 was Aref M. Al-Khattar’s Religion and Terrorism: An Interfaith Perspective (Praeger; $71.95). The author acknowledges that terrorists are often treated as criminals, so he uses criminological theories, interviews with leaders from the Christianity, Islam, and Judaism regarding their holy books, and analysis of the three religious traditions to offer suggestions about how these religions can deal more effectively with questions of religion-based terrorism.
Mark A. Gabriel’s part memoir, part religious history, Islam and Terrorism: What the Quran Really Teaches About Christianity and the Goals of the Islamic Jihad (Charisma House; $13.99), offers an extensive explanation of the ways that some Muslims interpret the Quran as a justification of holy war. A former imam, Gabriel’s conversion to Christianity enables him to offer an insider’s perspective into the mind of a Muslim extremist as well as into the mind of a Christian fundamentalist attempting to respond to Islam. While Gabriel tries to show how deeply embedded the impulse toward terrorism is in Islam, Harun Yahya’s Islam Denounces Terrorism (Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an; $18) debunks the notion that the Qur’an can be used to justify terrorism and asserts that Muslims strongly condemn terrorism. From a completely different perspective, Elie Elhadj, questions, in his The Islamic Shield: Arab Resistance to Democratic and Religious Reforms (Brown Walker Press; $25.95), the political wisdom of replacing Arab dictators with a democratic form of government. His book explores the religious and cultural causes of Islamic terrorism and recommends ways beyond the present impasse that has stalled talks between Islamic leaders and Western leaders.
The history of Judaism is filled with multiple instances of religion-based violence terrorism. Of course, in Israel’s earliest history as recorded in the books of Joshua and Judges, the Hebrews themselves terrorized neighboring territories and tribal confederations in a series of violent advances. Even within the tribal confederation of Israel, the tribe of Benjamin terrorized Shiloh as it sought to gain wives; all of this with God’s sanction! (Judges 19-21) In later history, Jews have been the victims of terrorism, and the continual clashes of Israelis and Palestinians over a holy land have marked almost the entire twentieth century. How do Jews face the challenges of contemporary life? Editors Donniel Hartman and Moshe Halbertal offer several suggestions in their far-reaching Judaism and the Challenges of Modern Life (Continuum; $29.95).
Christians have long struggled with the violence that is at the center of their religion. After all, their faith is founded on a violent murder (the crucifixion of Jesus) and its aftermath. Moreover, Christianity has a long history of violence against others. How can Christians then condemn violent acts perpetrated by other religions? Although Robert Spencer’s Religion of Peace: Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn’t (Regnery; $27.95) largely condemns Islam as religion of violence and praises Christianity as a religion of peace, his book nevertheless raises important questions about the history of both religions and the violence at the core of each one. Christian ethicist Edward Long provides a longer look at the political, moral, and religious dimensions of terrorism in his judicious and thoughtful survey Facing Terrorism: Responding as Christians (Westminster John Knox; $16.95).
By far, however, the preponderance of the most helpful books that have been published since 9/11 have explored the ways that violence is deeply woven in the fabric of religion. Keith Ward asks the simple question Is Religion Dangerous? (Eerdmans; $16) as he argues that religions only become dangerous when their adherents selectively choose scriptures to justify their positions. Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer wonders Is Religion Killing Us?: Violence in the Bible and the Quran (Continuum; $19.95) as he examines the ways that violence is a foundational part of the sacred texts of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. In When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning Signs (HarperOne; $14.95), Charles Kimball contends that religious exclusivism breeds violence while a more inclusive attitude can overcome such violence. Mark Juergensmeyer provides a first-rate account of the rise of religious violence in his Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (University of California; $18.95). Charles Selengut clarifies the relationship between religion and violence by thinking deeply about some of the roots of the relationship in Violence in God’s Name: Religion in an Age of Conflict (Orbis; $20). Finally, Bruce Lincoln’s searching Holy Terrors: Thinking About Religion After September 11 (University of Chicago; $13) interrogates the very nature of religion, exploring various redefinitions of religion in the postmodern world.
As these books make clear, violence and religion are inextricably bound and the degree to which religions exercise violence as a means to an end vary for many reasons. All of these books counsel wisdom and patience in the recognizing the patterns of violence in religion and in the attempts to understand and deal prudently with them.

Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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