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Demonstrators chant pro-al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as they carry al-Qaida flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, Iraq. AP/Press Association Images

Opinion A holy war? Examining the relationship between religion and violence

Is a clash of ideologies tearing apart the fabric of world order?

THE YEAR 2014 was marked by a renewed visibility of the question of religion and violence. Draconian terror tactics, extremism and vicious crusades have characterised poignant conflicts across the Middle East and Gulf over the past 12 months.

This issue of religion and violence is not unprecedented: it crops up again and again, after 9/11, after 7/7, after the Salman Rushdie fatwa, on so on. This year, the ‘religion and violence’ question was reinvigorated with the rise in prominence of radical Muslim groups such as Islamic State (IS) who hijacked the hashtag culture of social media usually reserved for snappy headlines, celebrity jibing and witticisms, and used it as a platform to publicise the heinous slaughter of non-Sunnis and non-Muslims.

The infamous #worldcup “this is our football…” tweet, flaunting a severed head, incited terror in the minds of those of us preoccupied by an extravagant sporting occasion, ensuring that we were reminded about an unsettled and ongoing struggle. Like the Morlocks in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, IS emerged from their subterranean abode, reminding us in the west of their existence and their sadistic capacity to make light of brutal massacres.

A backlash against religion

Is religion really to blame for such disturbing barbarity? Is there really a clash of religions, cultures, and ideologies seemingly tearing apart the fabric of world order? Some certainly think so, and since 9/11 in particular, there has been a strong backlash against religion. Over the past decade or so, there has been a dramatic rise in secularism, atheism, anti-theism, and the renouncing of religion as a nuisance causing only despair.

In Ireland, we were going through a process of secularisation anyway, following globalisation and Catholic church abuse scandals, but internationally religion became the focus of intense scrutiny by new waves of secular saviours such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. They pointed to religion as the root cause of many of our ills. Violence, conflict, gender inequality, sexual abuse, repression, and psychological torment were seen as symptomatic of religion and we should now search for the cure. John Lennon’s prophetic anthem was proudly quoted by Dawkins, perhaps suggesting a soundtrack to this anti-religious revolution, summing up its main message: “Imagine no religion… nothing to kill or die for.”

Placing the blame for the inhumanity of IS, Boko Harum and others squarely on the shoulders of religion would be, however, a genuine miscarriage of justice in the court of public opinion. Indeed, such scapegoating can eventually lead to a casual adoption of racism and Islamophobia. Of course religion plays a role in the conflicts in the Middle East – that is undeniable. At least part of the Israel-Palestine conflict has a basis in God’s promise of land to the Jews in the Bible, and suicidal terrorists are often emphatic about how their actions are carried out in the name of religion.

A complex web of political and corporate affairs 

On closer inspection, however, one can see that behind the veil of the ‘Jews v Muslims v Christians’ picture in the Middle East, there is a complex web of political and corporate affairs contextualised by the lingering historical hangovers of British colonialism, US oil interests, the Holocaust, the Cold War, and other western involvements in the region.

Certain cultures and religious groups feel (justifiably, perhaps) bitter at their manipulation and exploitation at the hands of the west. Consequently, they use religion to manipulate people (often young, unemployed and angry) to take up arms for the religious and ideological cause. Religion is a great recruitment tool for such ends. It would surely be more palatable to strap-on a suicide vest to please God and be rewarded in heaven then it would be to do so in objection to inequitable economic policies or for the political recognition of a Jewish or Palestinian State. Dying for God has a better ring to it, a greater sense of nobility, like fulfilling a divine duty or following one’s destiny in some epic fable. It is easier to know what you are fighting for when you are fighting for God.

It is not, then, religion per se that is the cause of violence. Religion can promote fervour in actions either evil or saintly because of its perceived nobility. It acts like somewhat of a mood enhancer. It can be used to recruit IS fighters and supress their conscience as they behead innocent people. It is manipulated and used as a twisted motivational tool of sorts, and a psychologically powerful one.

A mask for more complex problems

Yet, equally, religion motivates people to do good. For example, I recently noticed the tagline of a Muslim food bank charity in Bradford which stated “we feed you seeking Allah’s pleasure only, we seek no reward from you”. In that case, and countless other faith-based charitable organisations, religious belief acts as a motivator to do wonderful acts of good, inspiring peace and charity. So the blame for the poignant conflicts in the Middle East cannot lie solely or even predominantly with religion, yet it is often pointed out as something simple and tangible to blame our woes on.

Look a little deeper. Religion is not the cause of the struggles in the Middle East. It is something convenient and readily available to be used to manipulate people to fight for IS – but this is ultimately a struggle stemming from decades of political strife. Religion merely masks these more difficult and complex root problems.

Dr Gary Keogh is a researcher at the University of Manchester. He tweets at @g_keogh

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