Violence and Religion

Pope Benedict XVI, recently discussing the concept of jihad and violence in the name of religion, quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor, Manuel Paleologos. The Holy Father was not endorsing the statement per se; in fact, he described what the emperor said as “brusque.” The emperor said, “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

The pope continued, “The emperor goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable…. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul.”

According to new reports, the Vatican’s spokesman, Reverend Federico Lombardi, clarified that the pope was not presenting Islam as “something violent,” but he (Lombardi) did say that the religion contains both violent and nonviolent strains. It was an important issue to address, and Pope Benedict XVI deserves credit for having the courage to address it in such a direct fashion. Certainly, Christianity is a religion that truly abhors violence.

Say so though, and someone is quick to single out the Crusades as the Christian equivalent to Islamic jihad. But this criticism is severely misplaced. It betrays not only a glaring ignorance of the authentic motives behind the Crusades (summoned to alleviate the besieged Christian communities in the Holy Land) but also of the very teachings of Christ, as found in Scripture. Nowhere can a passage be cited that presents Christ advocating violence as a means of conversion. No matter how numerous were the atrocities of the Crusaders, no verse in Scripture can be found to justify them. The Crusaders’ trail of destruction and horror, from Constantinople to Jerusalem, reveals a clear betrayal of every letter of Christ’s teachings.

It is simply inaccurate to equate Islamic jihad with the Crusades, but that has not stopped people from doing so. Bill Clinton once elaborated upon his understanding of violence in the name of religion in light of the Crusades during an address at Georgetown University:

First, we have to win the fight we are in and in that I urge you to keep three things in mind. First of all, terror, the killing of noncombatants for economic, political, or religious reasons has a very long history as long as organized combat itself, and yet, it has never succeeded as a military strategy standing on its own, but it has been around a long time. Those of us who come from various European lineages are not blameless. Indeed, in the first Crusade, when the Christian soldiers took Jerusalem, they first burned a synagogue with 300 Jews in it, and proceeded to kill every woman and child who was Muslim on the Temple mound [sic].

What Clinton said about Crusader atrocities was true. They did occur. However, his remarks imply that episodes of jihad (“holy war”) perpetrated by Muslims today are simply another manifestation of the same type of religious-inspired violence that Christianity has struggled with in the past. It completely overlooks the clear-as-day fact that violence in the name of Christianity is absolutely incompatible with the words and example of Christ. The betrayal of Christ’s message by misguided Crusaders hardly proves that the Christian religion is an inherently violent one. Were that the case, it would then be left to us to suppress the latent violent strains within Christianity. But the truth is simply that there are no violent underpinnings to be found in the core tenets of the Christian religion. Can the same be said of Islam, Mohammed and the Koran? There is ample room for a robust discussion of the matter.

The “mainstream” Muslim rightly deplores acts of terror in the name of Islam and adamantly claims that “jihad” ought be understood, symbolically and metaphorically, as both an inner struggle for the believer and a battle at the intellectual and rational level with unbelievers. Anything that would transform jihad into an actual war against infidels should be categorically rejected outright as a perversion of the true Islam. Any Muslim that would endorse terror in the name of Islam is not a true believer and does not represent the faith, so the “mainstream” Muslim would argue.

On the other side of the debate are the Osama bin-Ladens of the Muslim world, who would state in no uncertain terms that jihad means jihad, a holy war against the “Crusaders and Jews” of the world. They have made their vision of a global Islamic empire emphatically clear. They take literally the words of the Koran and follow the example of the martial Muhammad, who bravely led his fellow Muslim warriors into the battlefield, conquering and expanding by the sword. These Muslims would assert that any Muslim who believes otherwise is not a true Muslim.

The Gordian knot of the issue seems to be the troubling passages found in the Koran. How should they be interpreted? With no central authority in Islam, how can a correct exegesis be hammered out so definitively as to command universal acquiescence by the Muslim world? How should the following passages be understood?

• When you meet the unbeliever in the battlefield, strike off their head and, when you have laid them low, bind your captives firmly (Sura 47:4).

• Fight for the sake of God those that fight against you, but do not attack them first. God does not love the aggressors. Slay them wherever you find them. Drive them out of the places from which they drove you. Idolatry is worse than carnage (Sura 2:190-191).

• When the sacred months are over slay the idolaters wherever you find them. Arrest them, besiege them, and lie in ambush everywhere for them. If they repent and take to prayer and render the levy [the special tax for non-Muslims], allow them to go their way. God is forgiving and merciful (Sura 9:5).

The second passage may be offered as a justification by some, as it seems only to endorse violence within the parameters of defense. But precisely how is “defense” to be defined in the minds of radicals? Couldn’t the mere existence of an infidel be deemed a threat to the spread, if not the very existence, of Islam and offer sufficient reason to go on the attack? Bin-Laden himself said as much in 1998 when he declared war on the United States. “All these crimes and sins committed by the Americans are a clear declaration of war on Allah, his messenger, and Muslims.” So it is clear that the perceived “crimes and sins” of the enemy offer ample reason to launch jihad, according to bin-Laden. The existence of an alleged threat gives the green light to claim that one has been placed in a defensive position and therefore must act accordingly.

Muslims around the world urgently need to reach a consensus about the meaning of jihad, for their sake and the world’s. Acts by terrorists must be condemned unequivocally by every imam, in every mosque. Muslims also need to grapple with the difficult history of their own religion as well and reconcile it, somehow, with the verses found in their holy book. Pope John Paul II repeatedly expressed his regret and sorrow over the atrocities committed by the Crusaders. But this sorrow is often misunderstood by secular pundits; the late Holy Father’s expression was not so much rooted in the original intent of the Crusades, which, again, sought to provide protection for fellow Christians, but rather for the egregious deviations taken by the marauding Crusader armies, that ended up murdering innocents and pillaging holy cities and sites. Christ did not preach violence; His sublime example is the antithesis of the harsh dictates of violence and He expects no less from His followers.

© Copyright 2006 Catholic Exchange

Maldonado-Berry is currently studying Social Communication at the University of Santa Croce in Rome. He also works for Vatican Information Service (VIS) and Rome Reports, a news agency in Rome that covers Church events.

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