Extremism goes beyond religion

Posted Nov. 13, 2009, at 4:59 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:41 a.m.

Of all the charges levied against religion in general, none sticks more than the accusation that it foments violence. U.S. Army psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan provided an all too vivid reminder of that last week, when he killed 13 of his fellow soldiers in a horrific shooting spree at Fort Hood. Hasan is a Muslim, and though he appears to have acted on his own and without any real intent of making a specific political or religious statement, it seems quite clear that his religion played a part in motivating his actions.

Events such as this raise difficult questions about the connection between violence and religion, while offering very little in the way of solutions.

Hasan’s is an isolated case, and, to a very real extent, it has no meaning. To try to extract traditional lessons from Hasan’s actions likely would prove futile, just as previous shooting sprees carried out by disturbed individuals provided no easy morals.

We can talk about how gun control would make such events far less likely. We can talk about how the army should have recognized warning signs. We can talk about how Muslims should not be allowed in the military. I might agree with some of those. I disagree vehemently with others, particularly the last, and it’s fortunate that we now live in a society where such suggestions are considered by most to be beyond the pale. Regardless, however, all of those are not so much meaningful lessons as they are reactions. We can react to the violence, but we cannot really make sense of it, because there is no sense to it.

This does not excuse us, however, from grappling with questions that Hasan’s perceived motivations raise. Muslims everywhere must have felt a pang of misery when it became clear Hasan’s religion was so clearly a motivating factor. And, indeed, it is difficult to view last week’s shooting as completely disconnected from previous occurrences of Islamic extremism, even as it’s clear that Hasan acted alone.

There is something about the way Islam and modern world circumstances interact that creates an abnormally large cross section of extremism. And, to be sure, this is something the worldwide Islamic community has to acknowledge and deal with.

But it would be too easy for people of other religions to view religiously motivated violence as merely an “Islam problem.” Too often I have heard Christians argue that Islam is an inherently violent religion compared with other world religions, specifically Christianity. This simply isn’t the case, and such claims ignore the fact that while there may be a relatively large number of Muslim extremists right now, it is still very, very small compared to the larger Muslim population.

The vast majority of Muslims are every bit as peaceable as the vast majority of Christians, and that’s even more true if we’re comparing American Muslims to American Christians. Wouldn’t it be odd for an innately violent religion to produce so many perfectly nice people?

No, the abnormally large slice of extremism that the Muslim community must deal with now has been faced by virtually every other religion at various points in their histories. Indeed, though a smaller section of the community, Christian extremists exist. After all, it was just this past spring that anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder shot George Tiller to death at his church. The existence of Christians like Roeder no more makes Christianity an inherently violent religion than does the existence of Hasan make Islam one.

But all this focus on extremism almost circumvents a more difficult issue, which is how the large majority of non-extremist religious people respond to more abstract forms of violence. It’s easy to condemn cold-blooded murder, but what about less clearly heinous, but still morally dubious, aggression?

In a study published in “Psychological Science” titled “When God Sanctions Killing: Effect of Scriptural Violence on Aggression,” a team of researchers had a group of people read Judges 19-21. That passage recounts a story similar to that of Sodom and Gomorrah, in which an angry mob kills a concubine, the husband of whom cuts her body into 12 pieces and sends them throughout the land, thus starting a civil war.

The researchers told half the people participating that the verses were from the Bible, and told the other half the verses were extra-biblical. Further, for half of each division, the researchers added a couple of verses not actually in the Bible in which God explicitly sanctions the civil war, thus creating four groups. The researchers then measured the aggression of the participants by placing them each in a competition in which they attempted to push a button faster than their opponents. The losers would receive a blast of noise through their headphones. The winners would get to choose the decibel level of the blast.

The results of the study indicated that those who believed the story came from the Bible were more aggressive than those who believed it was extra-biblical, and those who believed that God explicitly sanctioned the war were more aggressive still. While this was true of both Christians and non-Christians alike, the effect was more pronounced for Christians.

Of course, that’s just an experiment. More disturbing is a Pew Research Center report published in the spring showing that Christians are more likely to support torture than non-Christians. White Evangelical Protestants tended to be the most supportive, with 62 percent of respondents saying that torture is either often or sometimes justified. Both Catholics and mainline Protestants showed a level of support greater than that of the irreligious as well; this from a people whose messiah proclaimed that we are to love our enemies.

So what are the religious to do when someone claims that religion promotes violence? Surely we can’t be held responsible for the Nidal Malik Hasans and Scott Roeders of the world. Were we to somehow do the impossible and purge the world of all religion, various other ideologies would remain, be they cultural or political. And extremism is something any ideology can foment. Just as it would be wrong to view extremism as purely an “Islam problem,” it likewise would be wrong to view it as purely a “religion problem.”

But what of the more abstract aggression religion seems to sometimes urge? We may say religion promotes good qualities as well. And I, for one, believe that’s true. But what moral authority can a people claim when they can be swayed to aggression so easily by a parcel of scripture they’d never even heard before? What moral authority can a people claim when they promote brutality against prisoners who have merely been accused and not convicted? And what do we say when all that seemingly mundane, abstract aggression, shot through with an air of moral authority we perhaps have no right to claim, pours into the mind of a disturbed individual such as Hasan or Roeder?

We can’t be held responsible, of course, for what they do. But it should be enough to make us wonder if maybe we’re emphasizing the wrong aspects of our religion.

Justin Fowler is a student at University College of Bangor. He may be reached at justin.fowler@myfairpoint.net or on his blog burnstheair.blogspot.com. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.

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