Is religion violent?

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Does following a religion lead to violence and strife? Do religions preach violence? Violence is due to vested interests, not religion, asserts Ram Puniyani. And he goes on to prove his statement.

We are living in times when violence in the name of religion is a major phenomenon in the world. From last nearly two decades, violence under the cover of religion has been dominating the world mind space. It came to great prominence after the attack on the twin towers in the United States, which led to the tragic death of nearly 3,000 innocent lives. In the aftermath of that, Osama bin Laden thanked Allah for this and called this tragedy as Jihad. Subsequently, the US media coined a phrase ‘Islamic Terrorism’. Violence in the name of religion has been dogging the South Asian states from the last many decades, leading to persecution of Hindus and Christians in Pakistan, Hindus and Buddhists in Bangladesh, and Muslims and Christians in India. What has religion to do which such varieties of violence?

Religion and human society
As such, religion has been one of the major phenomena of human society since 3,000 years. Its rise had two major foundations; one, the moral values, and two, the faith and rituals. The moral values brought in the norms of human behaviour in the society. The institutions and ideology which developed around religion have been used by the feudal power system to derive legitimacy to rule the society. In earlier times, we can see that probably all the religions were used by kings to expand their empires. It is not just Christian kings who had Crusades, Muslim kings resorted to Jihad and Hindu kings Dharma Yudh. These were bloody acts of violence.

Genesis of terrorism in oil rich countries
Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan in the 1970s triggered a reaction from the United States. As the US army was demoralised due to their misadventure in Vietnam, US resorted to encouraging fundamentalist forces to fight Russian armies in Afghanistan. For this effort, some Madrassas located in Pakistan were made the base of indoctrinating the Mujahidin, which later went on to become the Al Qaeda. The indoctrination was done by using a version of Islam, Salafi Islam, where the primary focus is given to the fighting against apostate through violence: Jihad. Theologically, Jihad stands for spiritual struggle against sin; in contrast, the meaning drilled into young recruits was that to kill ‘non-believers’ is Jihad. The project was funded by the US. It is this breed which came to be led by Osama bin Laden, who initially fought against the Soviet army, and later also became the fountainhead of other terrorist groups like the Islamic State or ISIS.

The major victims of this type of violence in the name of religion have been Muslims, and this violence is primarily located in West Asia, which is the storehouse of oil. While there are many other Muslim majority countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, the major events took place and are focused in West Asia. Today it has become like a cancer, spreading to different West Asian countries. The Maulanas in India and Islamic theologians of various streams have called this terrorism as ‘un-Islamic’. They quote from the Koran (chapter V, verse 32) which tells us that even if you kill a single innocent person, it is like killing entire humanity. The global lust for oil resources by countries led by the United States, in conjunction with Salafi Islam and the Madrassas located in Pakistan, are the three foundations of this Islamist violence. A phrase that gained currency was, “All Muslims are not terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims’, thereby associating Islam with terrorism. As such, people from many religions have been undertaking acts of terror, be it the Irish Republican Army, the LTTE, the Khalistanis, the terror acts by many Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka-Thailand, and also such acts by the likes of Andres Behrling Brevik in Norway.

Violence in the name of religion
Back home, one has witnessed the anti Sikh violence of 1984, the mass exodus of Kashmiri Pundits in 1990, the Mumbai violence of 1992-1993, the Gujarat carnage of 2002, the Kandhamal violence of 2008, the Muzzafarnagar violence of 2013, etc. These are just a few of the horrific acts of insanity which we have seen taking place in the name of religion. As such, India has been a plural, diverse society since centuries. Here, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Parsis and Buddhists among others have been living in the spirit of togetherness. No doubt, there have been incidents of ethnic strife earlier like between Shaivites and Vaishnavites, between Shias and Sunnis. Some rift between Hindus and Muslims has also been present, but the violence in the name of religion began after the coming of the British, as they introduced their ‘divide and rule’ policy, brought in communal historiography, where the rule of kings is seen through the prism of religion.

A large section of Hindus was shown the selected incidents of tyranny of Muslim kings. The interpretation of history was picked up by the communal organisations, which primarily came from the declining sections of Raja, Nawabs and the feudal elements from both the religious communities. They were joined by a small section of upper caste/elite classes, and a few from the middle class. Some contemporary issues related to pig in the mosque and beef in the temple, music in front of mosque etc., were used to whip up communal hysteria, and violence resulted. Interestingly, the source of this ideology was based in Hindu nationalism and Muslim nationalism, emerging from declining sections of society who felt threatened by the upcoming changes of education among the Shudras and women and the low caste, slipping away from their hegemony. The violence acted as a polarising factor in the society along religious lines.

Indian nationalism versus sectarian nationalism
It will be interesting to know that during this period, a majority of Hindus and Muslims were part of the national movement led by Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi can easily be called the greatest Hindu of his times. Muslim leaders like Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, in matters of nationalism, were upholding the pluralism and diversity of the country. They also tried to assuage the wounds inflicted by the communal violence. The core values of Islam and Hinduism promote non-violence values like ‘Vasudaiva Kutumbakam’ (Hinduism) or ‘All men are brothers’ (Islam).

Sectarianism today
Currently, communal tendencies among Muslims have been emerging and getting a boost from the feeling of insecurity. The majoritarian nationalism has become stronger around the issues of identity of Hindus like Ram Temple or the holy cow. As such, what looks as battle between religions is as such a struggle between the values of pluralism, which are based on liberty, equality and fraternity on one side, and the modern version of feudal hierarchical values, communal politics, on the other. Sectarianism wants to harp on the great ancient glory where the society was marked by inequality, particularly of caste and gender.

One can say that the morality of religions is the biggest casualty of terrorism in the name of Islam. Same applies to communal violence in South Asia, including India.


Ram Puniyani

Ram Puniyani a former Professor at IIT, Mumbai, is also involved with social issues, particularly, those related to preservation of democratic and secular ethos in our life.

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