The Problem with Calling Terrorism “Religious”

We need better explanations for the horrors in the world today.

Simple explanations can be comforting, and when atrocities like this week’s tragedies in Paris occur, many people take comfort in the simplistic idea of “religious violence.” Modern Islam in particular is useful in this regard, and also unifying — everyone from the Fox & Friends hosts to Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher can satisfy their questions about the Charlie Hebdo massacre by pointing to only one factor: Islam. Do away with the religion, and the world would be a safer, more peaceful place.

The problem is that such a highly tweetable, soundbite-able claim explains almost nothing. The argument that religious faith, pure and simple, is what motivates the kind of extremist behavior we’re seeing — from Charlie Hebdo to journalist beheadings to the slaughter of Pakistani schoolchildren — is limiting our capacity to examine one of the world’s most intractable difficulties.

“Religion” is a pretty complicated idea for public discourse, because it’s not a very well defined concept. It’s too big. Blaming “religion” for violence is like blaming “water” for thunderstorms. It’s not that there’s no relationship between the two; it’s just that you aren’t getting any closer to understanding the situation.

Our vague understanding of religion is a basic feature of the modern world. As William Cavanaugh has written, over the last few centuries we’ve grown accustomed to this idea that there is something called “religion” that is somehow distinct from “secular” aspects of the world. Religion is that which is irrational and absolutist, a relic of our barbaric, pre-secular past.

The world might be neatly arranged if that were true. But of course, secular ideologies feature irrationalities and absolutisms of their own. Nationalism, communism, and capitalism have been bloody affairs. Witness the twentieth century.

Pointing the finger at “religion” is not just a weak move intellectually. It’s also not very helpful practically. How do you solve a problem like religious violence? By doing away with religion? What could that possibly even mean? Those who talk about religion as if it’s a programming error in humanity speak from positions of great and blinding (and usually white) privilege, punching downward toward people whose conditions they cannot see, or refuse to see.

There’s no doubt that killers like Said and Cherif Kouachi — as well as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, currently on trial for the terror attack at the 2013 Boston Marathon — were motivated in part by religious faith. But these young men did not start as blank slates that were filled with Islam and thus turned into killers. If that was the process by which extreme violence was birthed in the world, we’d have a far more violent world than the one we have.

How do religion finger-pointers explain all the religious peace movements? How do they explain the ways in which religious faith — including Islam and the Qu’ran — motivates countless people toward virtuous lives? How do they understand Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dorothy Day? How about Mohammed Ali?

If religion is our problem, it’s a maddeningly inconsistent problem, like a cancer that sometimes makes you sick and sometimes makes you smell like strawberries.

Some religion finger-pointers are more specific, and point only to radical Islam. And to be sure, the men who committed acts of evil this week in Paris were in fact radicalized Muslims. But why? What made them so? What inspires radical Islam? What are the conditions that give rise to it? Can we repair those conditions? Or is the plan to gather up all the radical Muslims and do away with them somehow? None of these questions ever seem to be addressed in our public dialogue. Having blamed religion, or radical religion, the blamers are satisfied, and ready-set with an easy explanation for the next time terrorists attack.

Refusing to be simple-minded about terrorism and violence is not to excuse it, nor to be an apologist for extremist and dangerous doctrines. Clearly, religion — especially radical religion — can help foment incredible evil. But we need a fuller account of what is causing that evil. We need people who will help us address the political, economic, and historical factors. We need to stop pretending we can so easily understand what’s going on. We need to stop scapegoating religion.

Patton Dodd
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  • Sam

    I concur. We tend to oversimplification as a species.

    I wonder if Fox and Friends would blame radicalized Christians for the violence against homosexuals and the transgendered in Russia or perhaps the slaughter of Muslims in Bosnia. Would Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins blame radical nationalist for the slaughter of native peoples by British and American colonizers?

    Perhaps owning up to the complex psychological nuances would help us deal with all this. And I think that we are ready to do this as a people in many ways. I think we are getting to the point where we need to deal with our humanity and our neighbors humanity in a factual holistic fashion. But first we have to overcome the combination of our fear and sound byte driven society. Only then will we be able to face what we all know is really under the surface.

    • jasonbaz77777

      You sound like a f##ing lobotomy patient.

      • Sam

        What an astounding response.

        What experience do you have the lobotomized? In my understanding they are far more likely to be vegetative and incapable of higher cognitive functions. Perhaps you have experience that is different…?

        I do, however, find this unlikely. I think it is far more likely that you have a deep seated prejudice (read pre-judgement) of ideas that do not reflect your own. I find it more likely that you have given only the most rudimentary thought to opposing ideas because you were raised with and chose (unconsciously, I am sure) the belief that you are the pinnacle of God’s creation and have undoubtedly been blessed with being absolutely correct on near everything, i.e. everything of any import anyhow.

        This self-assurance and lack of critical thought have left you with the inability to articulate, or much less even conceptualize, why you think what you “know” is accurate and how other things are “wrong”. This leads to the inability to not only accurately understand what lobotomy is but also to use it in a derogatory and aggressive fashion to support your unsubstantiated beliefs.

        It is a difficult thing to use your imagination and critical thinking skills if your whole life you have avoided doing so in order to leave unquestioned the very beliefs you were handed by your elders, whether racial, religious, nationalistic, or otherwise.

        If you wish to actually reply with a real rebuttal then please do so. If you are either unwilling or unable then that is your prerogative, but I will continue this conversation as long as you wish.

        Thank you for your time.

  • bakabomb

    Much of this oversimplifying, it seems to me, is merely an attempt to make it easier to demonize The Other as someone “who’s different from us”. Terrorism, as well as its lesser cousins intolerance and repression, are all too easily attributed to Anyone Except Us. Christians point to modern Islam but conveniently ignore the Crusades. Atheists point to both — actually, all — religions and seemingly forget that Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot — among others — were nonbelievers.

    The simple fact is that we need to set aside all these labels that define us for the purpose of including or excluding us, and look at what’s not really a “religious” (or “secular”) issue but a spiritual issue. Nor is it a product of modern society; the merest glimpse at any history book (or the Old Testament, or Greek mythology, or the Bhagavad-Gita) makes that abundantly clear.

    All across the human spectrum — fundamentalists to secularists to atheists — we’re in dire need of a spiritual revolution. We must recognize our human kinship and set aside these seductive but false notions of our own particular elitism and specialness. Creed is utterly irrelevant to this recognition. And time is crucial, because the advancement of our technological skills at the expense of our spiritual growth has brought us to a tipping point. “This fragile earth, our island home” is bursting at the seams with too many people, while we squander our resources lopsidedly and abuse our Mother. Unwittingly and unthinkingly, we’re becoming the agents of our own destruction. Only in finding our essential unity will we reclaim our true birthright as the family of humankind.

    • georgex9

      Part of the problem is when religion is used to ignore the humanity, pain, happiness of the “others”.

      • bakabomb

        Thanks for the comment. I agree we too often ignore the needs of those “different from ourselves. Almost every significant religion says that it’s virtuous to help those in need — especially the oppressed/marginalized and the stranger. I’d chalk this problem up to the hypocrisy of individual followers who ignore this virtually-universal mandate, rather than pointing to the religions themselves.

    • jasonbaz77777

      LOL…but “different from us” you mean that we don’t rape children and behead people…yes…we are different from you.

      • Sam

        Who doesn’t rape children? Christians in America and throughout the world?

        Who doesn’t head? Christians in Africa and Latin America?

        Perhaps substantiated facts or an honest, critical eye would be of use here?

      • bakabomb

        “We” are different from “you”? You don’t know me or anything about me, yet you automatically sort yourself into your very own “We” — and me into “The Other”.

        QED. Thanks for personally exemplifying the issue … and thereby illustrating my contention.

        • Guest

          Sorry…are not not a Muslim? If you are, then yes I was right.

          • bakabomb

            I decline to identify my religious faith to you, because I refuse to offer you another opportunity to self-define You vs. The Other. You’ve already revealed yourself to be quite capable of doing that in a fact-free environment anyway. No, you’ll just have to keep using guesswork.

          • Hana

            Is that all what you know about Islam? Are they the only people who kill or Rape in this world? if yes that’s mean your are not leaving in this world. Islam never ask people to rape and kill innocent people. when you write a comment please use a precious knowledge about a subject.

  • 大胆不敵なリーダー

    Great Article, its like a breath of fresh air.

  • georgex9

    Christopher Hitchens pointed out that the religious moderates provide some just ground in which radicals can be encouraged.

    But when societies that are rigid in an ideology don’t allow for any criticism the society can become more radical, unearthly and more restrictive.

    Raif Badawi had postings on his website that Islamic leaders in Saudi Arabia didn’t like so he was sentences to 10 years in prison and to 1,000 lashes and a fine of $267,000. The lashes are to be administered in front of a mosque at 50 per week after Friday prayers. How can a religion be bought into to 21st century with this kind of suppressive control? Radical ideas flourish when contrary views are not allowed to be expressed. International.

    The U.S. government complained and asked that the sentence be suspended.

    No doubt extremism and the terrorists were inspired by religion.

  • jasonbaz77777

    Sorry…you can be an apologist all you want. You can’t change facts. It is a religion of terrorism. And yes…it is one and only one religion that does this.

    • Sam