Terror, Violence & Religion: The International Conference at the Leiden Institute for Religious Studies

Terror, Violence & Religion: The International Conference at the Leiden Institute for Religious Studies

Ten years after the September 11th event and the beginning of the global war on terror, bombs are still blasting and innocent people are being killed under the banner of terrorism. Most of these sinister, threatening events are motivated by religious claims or are taking place in religiously affected places. Is religion the main cause of terrorism, or does terrorism still arise because of leaders who brainwash and coach future terrorists so they kill under the banner of religion? Religious imagination seems to hold here an influential power in the creation of “delusion,” which orients “bigot” believers toward fulfilling their religious duty against those who are religious in a different way or not religious at all. Religion, in this sense, is tightly allied with political aspirations as it can be seen in most current instances.

Terror and Violence

In spite of sacred pretexts justifying acts of killing, more “enlightened” religious leaders and religious-minded people believe, and argue, that religion is a source of peace and mercy. For them, sacred texts must be read from a “humanist” perspective because the whole of religion is ultimately, so they claim, about human beings who are all equal and created by the same God.

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This is the attitude of manyreligious people today, i.e. that God is merciful and compassionate, and the religious tradition thus praised would never allow religious hatred, intolerance and resentment. Nor do scriptures provide any rationale, so they say, for one-sided and self-serving interpretations or interpretations that promote aggression against others. If religion falls short, they continue, of mercy, compassion and peace, it falls into ideological dogma and stoned-headedness. Therefore, those interpretations that justify aggression and acts of killing are the shallow and purposeful readings of the religious texts aiming at political intentions, so more benevolent advocates of religions might plead.

Whatever reading of religious traditions one might advocate, it cannot be denied that in practice, religion and “violence” are often closely associated. The central question of an international conference at the Leiden Institute for Religious Studies (Netherlands), May 18-19, 2011, was what a religious studies perspective (rather than religious advocate or representative) can contribute to the deep links between religion and terrorism. The conference title was Root Causes of Terrorism: A Religious Studies Perspective. Nortia Press is publishing selected contributions.

The following themes have been discussed:

  1. Religions and Non-Violence (ahimsa, etc.)
      All major religions have tenacious traditions of non-violence, however distorted these might have become through religious practices throughout history. How do these non-violent traditions relate to the violence justified by other adherents of the same religions?
  2. Violence and Sacrifice
      There is no religion without sacrifice. Does the very concept of religion itself, relating a this-worldy orientation to another-worldly, entail some kind of sacrificial practice differing only in degree of “violent” accomplishment?
  3. Violence and Apocalypticism
      Monotheistic traditions have introduced a new notion of “time” and, henceforth, of “history.” All contain ideas about apocalyptic violence inaugurating the end of history and the definitive realisation of a divine kingdom. How “active” are these apocalyptic ideas within different religions? Do they form an undercurrent that can erupt at any moment?
  4. Religious Wars
      Among the many wars and combats in this world, some have been explicitly motivated by religious urges. How did (do) these urges afflict concrete warfare? Are religious wars worse than economic or political wars? Can these be distinguished?


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Regarding religion itself, how can the aforementioned questions be dealt with without falling into the trap of political rhetoric?

In his Réflexions sur la violence, the Marxist sociologist and philosopher Georges Sorel (1847-1922) quotes Durkheim, who is reputed to have made the following statement: “One cannot suppress the sacred element within the moral and [. . .] what characterises the sacred is that it is incommensurable with the other human values [les autres valeurs humaines]”.2 To this Durkheim had added, Sorel continues, that with this statement he closely approached the Kantian position. As we know, Kant has affirmed that in religion we acknowledge all our duties as divine commandments. The divine forms duty’s depth dimension – its commanding or demanding element. A purely utilitarian position will never be able to explain the notion of duty or obligation.3 What the sacred is in itself is indicated by Durkheim as something incommensurable with other human values. The incommensurable partakes of the commensurable. Durkheim never explains how the relationship between sacred and moral should be conceived. The sacred resides “within” (dans) the moral. But, this can mean both that it is part of it and that it is at odds with it.

It could be worthwhile to look at the context in which Sorel quotes Durkheim. Sorel makes a distinction between the morality of the religious majority and of the religious elite. He focuses on the Christian religion, although I think the essence of his distinction applies to any religion:

“Religious moralities pretend to possess a resort (ressort) which lay moralities (morales laïques) are supposed to lack; but we have to make a distinction here if we want to avoid an error made by many authors. The mass of Christians does not follow Christian morality, the one which the philosopher considers to be special to their religion; the ordinary people (les gens du monde) who profess Catholicism are primarily occupied with probabilism, mechanic rites and procedures more or less akin to magic, and appropriate to assure their present and future happiness despite their mistakes.” 4

In other words, according to Sorel, there is a dimension in religious conceptions of morality that withdraws itself from the ritualism and moral mechanics in the mass of believers. Paradoxically, ritualism or moral mechanics resituate “religious” morality within the secular sphere – a sphere that is, in virtue of its ritualism, closely akin to magic. Subsequently, magic and secularity permeate the ressort religieux, the religious domain. About this domain itself we do not get any more information here, but the least we can say is that it does not amount to probabilism, ritualism or mechanics. One may wonder if the proper religious “rules” and “commandments” can be outlined at all, and if so, whether this is desirable. The ressort religieux resembles an esoteric sphere that can only be communicated to outsiders in a concealed way.

I will give now another, almost shocking, fragment from the Reflections on violence. This fragment makes things perhaps even more insightful. Talking about the “higher moral convictions” within religion, like those upheld by monks who pretended to continue early Christianity’s martyrdom, Sorel states:

“They do not depend upon reasonings or upon a formation of individual will; they are dependent upon a state of war (état de guerre) wherein men freely engage and which is translated in detailed myths. In Catholic countries, the monks support the struggle (combat) against the prince of evil who is triumphant in the world and who would like to subject it to his wishes; in Protestant countries, small exalted sects play the role of the monasteries. These battle fields (champs de bataille) allow Christian morality to maintain itself with this character of sublime (caractère de sublime), which fascinates many spirits even today, and give it enough brilliance to enhance some pale imitations in society.”5

What is striking, perhaps even shocking, in the quotations from Sorel is the direct association between religion, violence and state of exception. The ritualistic or magical aspects of religious ethics are in fact not appropriate; they rather form a “small ethics,” an etiquette, than an ethics proper. However, Sorel claims, both dimensions co-exist within “religion.” If we take Durkheim into account, we might even say “within ethics as such.” For Durkheim had maintained that the sacred amounts to morality’s depth-dimension – morality being unable to sustain itself. It lays and affirms a bond between heaven and earth (cf. The Hamas Charter: “[Hamas] raises in the skies of the Homeland the Banner of the Lord, thus inexorably connecting earth with Heaven”). It relates the universal rule to a preceding sphere of sacredness.

If Durkheim is right in that each moral value is endowed with a sacred dimension, then we might have to expect the peril of such a dimension – i.e. the peril of a self-contained, insulated sacredness – to lie not only in the behaviour of Muslim extremists or of certain other religious fanatics such as Jigal Amir, the Jewish-orthodox murderer of Rabin, or Hindu nationalists in India or Sri Lanka. The peril of the sacred, then, is an unalienable property of any type of morality. Each morality is potentially terroristic, although in some cases this seems both hard to believe and highly improbable as well, and in spite of the fact that most of its adherents would strongly reject this suggestion.


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