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Religion and Society

Religious Violence, Founding Myth of the West?

With the increase of Islamic extremism, the tendency to identify the religion with violence and the search for secular and anti-religious solutions present themselves once again

Westfaelischer Friede in Muenster (Gerard Terborch 1648)

It’s different to talk about “violence in the name of religion”, or to talk about “religious violence”. No one can in fact deny that there are violent acts perpetrated in the name of religion. It’s even noticeable, throughout history and in our current times that among the most horrifying violence and terrorism are those who tend to legitimize themselves by religious argument. […] […] The American catholic theologian William Cavanaugh argues that: “The violence of religion belongs to the founding mythos of Western identity because it helps establish an absolutist and irrational ‘other,’ against which Western secular political and social arrangements appear modest and rational. The myth is used to legitimate the spread of Western ideals, even by violent means.” Despite its incoherence, the idea that religion is prone to violence thus enforces a binary opposition between “the secular West” and a religious other who is essentially irrational and violent. The conflict becomes explicable in terms of the essential qualities of the two opponents, not in terms of actual historical encounters. Once can understand that the roots of such ideological positioning are in the era of “war of religions” in Europe, that left large number of victims and destruction in the continent during the XVI and XVII Centuries. Radical secularism that emerged in this framework considers that this experience showed us how “religion” can be source of extreme violence, and thinks that only a secular approach and authority can bring peace to society. This opposition of rational and irrational, secular and religious, Western and Muslim is not simply descriptive, but helps to create the opposition that it purports to describe. This opposition is part of a larger Enlightenment narrative in which defining reason requires its irrational other. In other words, the opposition of “religious” violence to “secular” peace-ableness can lend itself to the justification of violence. Of course the two world wars in the XX Century with its Nazi and Communist destructive ideologies prove that violence can’t be framed in one social category as religion, and it is even dangerous to believe this. However, we need to acknowledge that the rise of violence to an extreme level in the current period, namely thinking about terrorism and Daesh atrocities pretending acting in the name of Allah and Islam, is a renewal of the same challenge criticized by Cavanaugh, where people can tend to identify again religion with violence and seek secular and anti-religious solutions. History teaches us too that the most destructive violence for religious credibility is the one that operates upon the divides within a religion, like the Catholic-Protestant wars or the current so-called Sunni-Shiite conflict. Therefore, accepting the analysis of Cavanaugh is not a sufficient argument about the innocence of religion vis-à-vis violence. As far as religion is being used to justify or legitimize violence and especially intrareligious or interreligious violence, or being incapable to establish peace, the problem of linking violence to it remains actual. […] *Exerpts of Fadi Daou's speech, President of the Adyan Foundation, at the Seminar of the Joined Committee for Dialogue between the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and al-Azhar.

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