How to Discover a Relationship between Religion and Violence

Muslim Indonesian woman caned for getting ‘too close’ to her boyfriend. (Photo: Chaideer Mahyuddin / AFP)

Excerpt from The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism, by Paul Cliteur (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Reprinted with permission from the author.

From Chapter 2: Freethought I: Criticism of Religion

How to Discover a Relationship between Religion and Violence

How can this dispute about the relationship between religion and violence be resolved? Can it be resolved at all? Or will this always remain a matter of opinion, reflecting the personal life stances of the disputants? It would appear that there are at least two ways to discover whether there is such a relationship and, if so, what its nature is. The first “research-strategy” is to examine whether a particular religion is based on a revealed holy book from which the adherents of that religion derive their moral ideas. This is indeed the case with the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religions. The so-called “theistic beliefs” are “religions of the book.”[70] Those religions have a special relationship with three books that reveal the truth about God’s wishes with regard to mankind. Those books are: the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Qur’an. The Old Testament is the most important book for the Jews. The New Testament is of paramount importance for Christians. The Qur’an, finally, is the Holy Book for Muslims.

Anyone who wants to verify whether religion (or a religion) condones or even incites violence should consult those books and try to ascertain whether (and under what circumstances) violence is permitted or even encouraged in the texts. Once this study is undertaken, perhaps backed up with the relevant literature on religion and violence, such as the books Sacred Fury (2003)[71] by Charles Selengut or the book with the ominous title Is Religion Killing us? (2003)[72] by the politician and academic Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer (1951- ), every reader will see that there is much more in the holy writ than just the Sermon on the Mount.

I will not back up this contention with the many passages that are elaborately expounded on and analyzed in works by authors like Nelson-Pallmeyer, Selengut, Sam Harris,[73] Shadia B. Drury,[74] Joseph Hofmann,[75] Christopher Hitchens,[76] James Haught,[77] and many other commentators.

It suffices to illustrate this point with some remarks on just two passages from holy books: one from the Qur’an, the other from the Bible. I will start with the youngest revelation: the Qur’an.

In the Qur’an (24:2) there is a passage on adultery and fornication. The passage runs as follows: “The woman and the man guilty of adultery or fornication, flog each of them with 100 stripes: Let no compassion move you in their case, in a matter prescribed by Allah, if you believe in Allah and the Last Day.” This passage is quoted by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (1969- ), a former Dutch politician and, at present, a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, in an article on a 20-year-old woman from Qatif, Saudi Arabia, reported to have been abducted by several men and repeatedly raped. Judges found that the victim was, herself, guilty. Her crime is called “mingling.” When she was abducted, the woman was sitting in a car with a man not related to her by blood or by marriage. This is illegal in Saudi Arabia. She was sentenced to 200 lashes with a bamboo cane.[78]

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

This sentence will be described by many people as draconian, outrageous, or unjust. Why was this women punished, and not the man? Why was this women given such a harsh sentence? Because Saudi law prescribes this sentence for this specific offence. But why is Saudi law so cruel in this matter? Judging from the fact that Hirsi Ali starts her article with a specific passage from the Qur’an her stance does not leave much room for speculation: she thinks that the passage in the Qur’an has something to do with the way people think, behave, and, in this case, judge in Saudi Arabia. What Hirsi Ali intends with her article, obviously, is to make people aware of the cruel passages in the holy book. She also argues that those passages inhibit the moral evolution of the people living under the guidance of the holy book. But she not only criticizes the book, the judges, and the Saudi penal system but also, as appears from her article, the so called “moderate” adherents of the religion. She criticizes them for two reasons.

The first is that the “moderates” do not speak out clearly against such atrocious acts. They “whisper” (my choice of words) something such as that they do not consider it a good idea to punish women so cruelly for petty crimes. But – and here comes Hirsi Ali’s point – they do not speak out loudly.

The second reason for criticizing the “moderates” is because they obfusate the relationship between the passage in the holy book and the social practice that is – according to Hirsi Ali – based on that book, or at least influenced by that book. She refers to one of the most vocal spokesmen for that moderate approach, the well-known Muslim preacher Tariq Ramadan (1962- ).[79]

Ramadan v. Hirsi Ali

Ramadan is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949), the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which is considered to be one of the sources of Islamist terrorism.[80] He was born in Switzerland and is a Swiss citizen.[81] He has appeared on countless television shows, taken part in public debates, and his messages on cassette have reached a wide audience. Although Ramadan’s teaching has been widely dispersed, there is great confusion about its essence. For some he is a fundamentalist, for others, a Muslim reformer. His message is somewhat ambivalent. On the one hand Ramadan says that Muslims first and foremost belong to the umma (that is the community of believers). They should not do anything that would make them bad Muslims. On the other hand he also says that the allegiance of Muslims in the West should be to the state and country in which they live. The question is whether these two positions are compatible, and one can easily agree with Walter Laqueur’s (1921- ) balanced judgment in his The Last Days of Europe (2007):

He could not very well remain the idol of the Muslim Paris banlieues and at the same time of liberal intellectuals: He had to adjust himself to his audience, giving different talks, often inconsistent and even contradictory. While basically he remained a fundamentalist (as shown in his attacks against Muslim liberals and reformers), he understood that reforms were necessary to some extent if European Islam wanted to keep the loyalty of a younger generation exposed to Western influences.[82]

Analyzing the work of Ramadan is beyond the confines of my topic, but what he writes in reaction to Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s article on the Saudi woman accused of mingling is pertinent to the theme of this book. Apparently he had read the article by Hirsi Ali and, ten days later, he answered her indictment in a rejoinder quoting the same passage from the Qur’an that she had used. In his reply Ramadan gave a defense of his position that seems to me characteristic of a widely dispersed attitude towards religious criticism among contemporary intellectuals. Ramadan writes:

What kind of message does she [Hirsi Ali] exactly want to convey by quoting a verse referring to corporal punishment? That Islam, per se, is advocating violence? That violent Muslims or the so-called Islamic governments acting undemocratically are in fact genuinely implementing the Islamic message? Through her text, the message becomes clear: Islam is an archaic religion, the Qur’an is a violent text and the only way to reform Islam is simply to “deislamisize” the Muslims.[83]

This kind of response to critics of religion, of Islam in particular, has been repeated many times in recent discussions on this issue. Ramadan advances some consequences of Hirsi Ali’s reasoning that seem to him (and with him many others) simply unacceptable or unwelcome. Let us analyze the most important aspects of Ramadan’s answer.

Tariq Ramadan

First, Ramadan asks “what kind of message does she exactly want to convey by quoting a verse referring to corporal punishment?” A strange question. For the message conveyed by Hirsi Ali is crystal-clear: passages in the Holy Book do actually influence behavior. That is what she wants to say. This may be true or untrue (that has to be the subject of our analysis and should be the focus of Ramadan’s answer as well), but Ramadan can hardly fail to understand, or feign not to understand, what issue is at stake. We can frame it like this: the issue is whether Sura 24:2 is indeed the basis of or, to put it more cautiously, influential in the Saudi penal system and the harsh punishments it inflicts on Saudi women. What (if any) is the direct or indirect impact of Sura 24:2 on the ideas of the Saudi judges and the Saudi law? Ramadan avoids addressing this question directly. He answers with a move that directs attention away from Islam. In an elaboration of the passage quoted before he writes:

Would it not be possible to quote here tens of passages from the Bhagavad Gita, the Torah, the Gospels and the Epistles that are violent without reaching the conclusion that Hinduism, Judaism or Christianity are violent per se? Is it difficult to understand that this is a question of interpretation and that to condemn in such a way a religion, by its very essence, is not only unjust but deeply counterproductive? It does not help the inner dynamic of reforms.

This answer is illuminating because it is characteristic of many other answers that are given to the indictment that violent scriptural passages have an influence on actual cruel behavior. Therefore, we should carefully analyze what Ramadan says explicitly and what suggestions are implicit in his answer.

The first explicit contention in this second quote from Ramadan’s article is that he can produce violent passages from the holy books of other great religions. That necessitates two questions. First: is this true? Second: is it relevant?

Would it be possible, for instance, to quote from the Gospels, as Ramadan explicitly contends, passages from which it appears that Jesus Christ is in favor of the same harsh punishments as indicated in Sura 24:2?[84] On this point Ramadan does not provide examples but uncritically supposes this to be the case. I doubt whether he can provide examples from the Gospels that are similar to the one quoted from the Qur’an, but that he would be able to quote passages of that nature from the Old Testament seems clear enough, as will become evident later when we analyze a passage on freedom of religion (or rather the lack of it) derived from the book of Deuteronomy. The problem with this reasoning, however, is something else. It has to do with the relevance of his response. The main problem, so it seems, is that it is no answer to Hirsi Ali’s indictment. The fact that other religions prescribe violent behavior as well as Islam, does not exonerate Islam. What Ramadan seems to do is to accuse Hirsi Ali of selective indignation. His message seems to be: “because other religions are violent you have to castigate them all before you have the moral right to criticize one specific religion, i.e. Islam.” This is not a strong defense for the simple reason that the direct occasion for Hirsi Ali’s criticism was the Saudi woman being convicted of “mingling.” If the whole discussion had been ignited by the imminent flogging of a Jewish woman in Israel convicted in a Jewish Court, the focus ought rightly to have been on the Old Testament and whether the Israeli judges could have been influenced by a passage from Deuteronomy or any other notoriously violent texts from the Old Testament.[85] But this was not the case.

In other words: it is not the violent passages from the holy book that are the focus of our attention, it is the combination of scriptural authority with contemporary social practices. Scriptural passages advocating violence that are not heeded by believers in the twenty-first century because they are considered to be poetry of some kind give us less cause for concern.

Excerpted from The Secular Outlook by Paul Cliteur. Copyright © Paul Cliteur, 2010. All rights reserved.

Part II: Religion “per se”


[70] Fernández-Armesto, Felipe, “Books of Truth: the Idea of Infallible Holy Scriptures,” in: Fernández-Armesto, Felipe, Ideas That Changed the World, Dorling Kindersley, London 2003, pp. 106-107.

[71] Selengut, Charles, Sacred Fury. Understanding Religious Violence, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Lanham, 2003.

[72] Nelson-Pallmeyer, Jack, Is Religion Killing Us? Violence in the Bible and the Qur’an, Trinity Press International, Harrisburg 2003.

[73] Harris, Sam, The End of Faith. Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, The Free Press, London 2005.

[74] Drury, Shadia B., Terror and Civilization. Christianity, Politics, and the Western Psyche, Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke 2004.

[75] Hoffmann, Joseph R., ed., The Just War and Jihad. Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY 2006.

[76] Hitchens, Christopher, God is not Great.

[77] Haught, James A., Holy Hatred and Holy Horrors.

[78] Hirsi Ali, Ayaan, “Islam’s Silent Moderates,” The New York Times, December 7, 2007. As a result of a worldwide protest the woman was not punished in the way indicated.

[79] Ramadan is often criticized for an alleged “double agenda.” I will not enter into this subject and only comment on what he writes in response to Hirsi Ali in the newspaper article indicated before. See on this: Berman, Paul, “Who is Afraid of Tariq Ramadan? The Islamist, the Journalist, and the Defense of Liberalism,” in: The New Republic, June 4, 2007, pp. 37-62. In the Netherlands in 2009 there was a vehement discussion of Ramadan’s ideas on homosexuality, equality between the sexes and other topics. Many commentators considered him unfit to act as a mediator in the city of Rotterdam, although he received an assignment from the municipal authorities for precisely that purpose, a contract that was, despite vehement resistance, prolonged till 2011 (although it ended in 2009; see the subsequent notes).

[80] See for different perspectives: Lo, Mbaye, “Seeking the Roots of Terrorism: An Islamic Traditional Perspective,” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Vol. X, Summer 2005, pp. 1-13; Esposito, John L., Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam, Oxford University Press, New York 2002.

[81] See: Laqueur, Walter, The Last Days of Europe: Epitaph for an Old Continent, Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Griffin, New York 2007, pp. 88-95.

[82] Ibid., p. 93. In August 2009 Ramadan was fired by the University of Rotterdam and the Rotterdam municipal authorities as well because of his ties to the Iranian regime. He worked for the Iranian-sponsored Press TV.

[83] Ramadan, Tariq, “A Response to Ayaan Hirsi Ali: A Case of Selective Hearing,” The International Herald Tribune, 17 December, 2007.

[84] One of the passages often quoted (e.g. by Frégosi, Franck, Penser l’islam dans la laïcité [Thinking Islam in the Secular State], Fayard, Paris 2008, p. 34) is John 15:6-7, where Jesus says: “If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” This could be interpreted as metaphorical perhaps. But that is more difficult with 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9: “This is evidence of the righteous judgement of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering – since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” That means the gospel is not something one can voluntarily subscribe to but should be “obeyed.” Vengeance is justified even with regard to people who are of a different religious persuasion.

[85] Many examples are assembled in: Nelson-Pallmeyer, Is Religion Killing Us? Reading these is unlikely to lead us to the conclusion that T.H. Huxley was right when he wrote: “All that is best in the ethics of the modern world, in so far as it has not grown out of Greek thought, or Barbarian manhood, is the direct development of the ethics of old Israel. There is no code of legislation, ancient or modern, at once so just and so merciful, so tender to the weak and poor, as the Jewish law.” (Huxley, “Agnosticism and Christianity,” p. 187).

Paul Cliteur is professor of Jurisprudence at Leiden University, the Netherlands. He was also professor of Philosophy at the Delft University, the Netherlands (1995-2002), and visiting professor of Philosophical Anthropology, Ghent University, Belgium (2014). Prof. Cliteur’s research is in the field of ethics, the philosophical foundations of the law, more in particular moral dilemmas around multicultural society, fundamental rights and the relationship between law and worldviews. He is the author of The Secular Outlook (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2010).

The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism
By Paul Cliteur
Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (13 August 2010)
ISBN-10: 1444335219
ISBN-13: 978-1444335217
£20.69

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