Role of ‘Religion’ in violence [1 of 3]


Examples of violence by the strong on the weak are many and come from the very earliest times of known history. Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Persian, Arab, British, French, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, Italian, and Russian empires come easily to mind. World wars were fought for the resources of colonies. Post WWII, with weakening of the Colonial powers, the USA took up the role and intervened directly by naked aggression and through surrogates.



by Dr. Syed Ehtisham


Organized religion is like organized crime, it preys on people’s weaknesses, generates huge profits for its operators and is almost impossible to eradicate (Mike Hermann).

One does not have to agree with the above to see that religion is used more frequently to cause mayhem, than any other attribute of human kind.

Examples of violence by the strong on the weak are many and come from the very earliest times of known history. Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Persian, Arab, British, French, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, Italian, and Russian empires come easily to mind. World wars were fought for the resources of colonies. Post WWII, with weakening of the Colonial powers, the USA took up the role and intervened directly by naked aggression and through surrogates.

In Western countries, violence is attributed variously to fanaticism, clash of cultures, poverty, lack of education etc. Muslim residents of Western countries, by and large, condemn acts of violence against innocent people, but would want the people in the West to understand the reasons why a person would deliberately sacrifice his life.

Jews were persecuted by followers of practically all religions. Romans persecuted Christians, and Muslims, after their fall from power, were subjugated by all comers including people of their own faith. But violence in the name of religion was first definitively documented in the late fifteenth century Papal Bull which authorized the king of Portugal “to attack, conquer and subdue Saracens, pagans and other non-believers who were inimical to Christ; to capture their goods and territories; to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to transfer their lands and properties to the king of Portugal and his successors”. 

The common thread that runs through all aggression is greed or fear that the new creed would supplant the old one and control the means of production. When resources were no longer at stake, diverse beliefs were tolerated as during the period of Muslim rule in India. The British did send preachers to “spread the word of God” and when natives killed an odd missionary, gunboats followed.

Resistance to aggression against heavy odds is equally common.

All animals practice aggression against their own kind, and against other kinds, to a greater or lesser degree. The complexity of the practice appears to be directly related to intelligence. Lower orders generally kill members of other species for food. Others may injure/wound rivals for the affections of a female or to control several comely ones, but generally do not kill them.

Violence for greed is the exclusive domain of Homo sapiens.

All religions reacted to the prevailing milieu, and confronted the established order. They appealed mainly to the dis-empowered, the destitute and the poor. The rich, the powerful, and the learned had all the privileges already. They initially ignored the emergent creed, did not see any good reason for change, which would, in any case, affect their interests adversely.

When the belief system gathered enough strength to challenge the established order, they tried to suppress the new forces with naked force, bribes and temptation, whatever would work. The prophet of Islam was offered riches, women, and positions of authority, if he would only give up his “pointless” preaching. They failed in every instance with all the prophets.

Religions initially attempted to eradicate social evils, and economic inequities. The ruling classes took measures to preserve their authority. They controlled the “administration, the legislature, and the judiciary”[i]. They treated the poor abominably. The ruled had no recourse. All the levers of power were in the hands of the ruling class. If they ran away and were caught, the punishment would be worse than death. If not caught, starvation would be the fate of most.

It must be clearly understood that religion did not hit at the root of privilege. It only aimed at amelioration of the living conditions of the powerless. Private property remained sacrosanct. Slavery was not abolished; the owners were exhorted to treat them humanely. Women remained the underclass, though they were lulled with virtual honors like the paradise is at the feet of mothers or that their word was law as in ancient India[ii].

Having overcome the establishment, all religions organized their own hegemony. The adherents then proceeded to use the faith to advance their own cause. Hegemony inevitably develops a class structure. Jewish priests objected vehemently and violently to Jesus Christ bucking the trend; challenging their right to privileges and a life of luxury.

Voodoo practitioners keep their hold on popular mind by subjecting the deviants to exorcism. Christian priests accumulated great wealth, land, and authority rivaling that of Kings, the Popes actually had their own country; vestiges can be seen even now in the Papal state in Rome. The clergy firmly aligned themselves with the landed gentry, supported the established order, exhorting the poor to obey the ruler, suffer deprivation cheerfully, palming them off with the lure that the Kingdom of heaven will be theirs, as long as they do as they are told in this life.

It was symbiotic existence; feudal class supported the clergy and was legitimized by the latter.

Islam ordains that one should obey the ruler, as long the ruler does not interfere with the private practice of the faith.

Among the divinely inspired religions, only Islam founded a political state in its early infancy. The late advent of a political control though did not prevent the followers of other belief systems from going forth, marauding and plundering in the name of the faith. Conspicuous in this behavior were the Christians. But first in the field of colonization in the name of their faith were the Muslims. Jihad, and proselytisation were among the core articles of the faith.

Energized by the conviction that everlasting salvation lay in the true path, they managed to conquer most of the known world in a matter of a few decades.  They did not object if in the process riches, land, and women fell into their lap.

The vanquished did not surrender with out a fight. Resistance was in fact fierce. There is credible evidence that after the main battles, people fought on in guerrilla fashion

[iii]. History is being repeated in Iraq, Afghanistan and many other countries. Not able to confront the aggressor directly they have developed a culture of suicide bombing and other such similar measures.           

With decline of Muslim power, Christian cast their covetous eyes on the riches of the East. Advent of the Industrial revolution in the same time frame made them invincibly potent. They went forth as traders for spices [iv] and paid in gold, as India did not need any handicraft they could produce.


 Next:  Post WWII: British pass their legacy of Divide and Rule to the US

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[i] These offices did not exist in their current form, but members of the ruling class did administer, make rules and sit on judgment.

[ii]  An ancient Indian lore has it that four brothers went hunting and found a stray but comely girl. They brought her back to serve their mother and told her that they had a gift for her. The mother said that she was too old for gifts and they were to share it among themselves. Gods blessed the polyandrous alliance with a unique concession. She would regain virginity after each cohabitation. Firaq Gorakhpuri’s rather irreverent verse;

“Hazar bar zamana edher say guzra hai

Nai nai si hai teri rah guzar phir bhi”

[iii] Nasim Hijazi was a prolific novelist of Urdu. He wrote numerous nostalgic tomes in which nubile girls in Spain invariably fell in love with Muslim warriors, converted to Islam and lived happily ever afterwards in which heroines chaffed at being forced to accept Islam and were forever on the look out to reconvert to the true faith. I have come across Christian equivalents as well of Nasim Hejazi novels.

[iv] Their fixation with spices can be easily understood. It was critical. Their own land was cold, relatively infertile and productive only during short summer months; they had to keep food for long periods of time. There was no refrigeration, natural ice and snow not being consistently reliable, food, especially fish, often went bad. Its odor had to be suppressed, hence the value of pungent spices.


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6 replies to “Role of ‘Religion’ in violence [1 of 3]

  1. All muslims are not terrorist but all terrorist are muslim.
    The above observation clearly establishes role of religion in spreading voilence in the form of an instinct among the members of a particular community towards the destiny of self-destruction.

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