Until recently, whenever Americans would express concern about religious extremism and violence, it would be in reference to Islam. The problems posed by the politicization and weaponization of religion, however, are deeper, more widespread and more dangerous.
Several years ago, I moderated a panel discussion on “Using Religion to Justify Violence.” The panelists, who included former government officials and prominent media analysts, focused their remarks exclusively on Islam.
When it was my turn to ask questions of the speakers, I attempted to broaden the conversation, asking pointed questions about then-President George W. Bush’s penchant for saying that in executing the war against Iraq he was carrying out “God’s will”; or the growing threat of white “Christian militias” operating in remote areas of the U.S.; or the Christian evangelical movement’s belief that Israel’s conquest of Palestinian land and oppression of Palestinians was justified by biblical prophecy. The panelists would have none of it, and treated my questions as an annoying distraction from their discussion of Islam and Muslims.
Just for the record, I have a Ph.D. in Comparative Religions and have spent extensive time studying both the Abrahamic faiths and the religions of India. With this background, I feel comfortable asserting that all of the world’s major religions have groups and individuals who have used and are today using religion to justify violent behavior and extreme political objectives. In some countries, extremist and violent currents, far from being on the margins, are in the mainstream.
The current ruling party in India, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, headed by Narendra Modi, rode to power on a wave of extreme Hindu nationalism. Modi himself was for many years banned from entry into the United States for the role he played in fomenting anti-Muslim riots that took the lives of over a thousand. And in Sri Lanka, there are Buddhist militias who complain that Muslims are occupying “Buddhist lands” and have, therefore, sworn to wipe out the Muslim threat to their island country.
Christianity, of course, has not been immune from these extremist currents. One need not go back to the Crusades or even to the way the Christian religious language was used to mobilize support for the two world wars and other wars since that time. Back then, as patriotic crowds sang “Onward Christian soldiers,” Americans were taught that we were killing “the Godless Huns.”
In the past few years, we have become acutely aware of the extent to which right-wing extremist groups in the U.S. have come to rely on Christian symbols to validate their racism, xenophobia, penchant for violence and misogyny. Among the proponents of this Christian extremism are members of Congress and Republican candidates for high office — all of whom have embraced what they now call “Christian nationalism.”
And then there’s the problem of extreme Jewish nationalism which has among its adherents numerous influential Israeli parties and political and religious leaders. A number of prominent rabbis have been quoted arguing that because “the souls of gentiles aren’t human” the commandment “thou shall not kill” doesn’t apply to taking their lives.
By definition, faith is different from certainty…. This is radically different from political ideology, which is always certain.
This problem, therefore, of the use of religion to justify an extreme political agenda is worldwide, as is the weaponization of religion — that is, the use of religion to validate violence against others. This is clear enough in the case of the Sri Lankan Buddhist militias, Modi’s incitement against Muslims, al Qaeda’s or Hamas’ acts of violence against innocents or even those of the Jewish settlers who have tormented Palestinians in the occupied territories (one prominent faction of which is called “Gush Emunim” — “the band of the faithful.”)
It is, therefore, of critical importance that we understand, expose, and combat this problem of the politicization and weaponization of religion, which is the exploitation and abuse of religion.
In the first place, we must see it as a universal problem, plaguing all societies. No religion is immune.
Next, we must understand that the reason why it occurs is less the fault of the particular religion in question. There are no justifications that can be found in any of the religions, as they have evolved over time, to justify the slaughter of innocents or the violation of their rights or dispossession of their properties.
Those who pluck a quote from teachings of the Buddha, the Vedas or the Upanishads, the Mosaic Law or the prophetic vision of Isaiah, the Qur’an or the teachings of Jesus to validate their political ideology or justify their behavior are not so much carrying out their faith as they are using the language and scripture of their faith to validate their politics. The reason it works is because religious language is evocative and has power. It’s one thing to say “I’m killing you because I want your land” and quite another to say, as the Sri Lankan militants might say, “this is Buddhist land,” or the Jewish extremists say, “this is the land God promised to us.”
The bottom line is that discernment is in order. Faith is central to the understanding of religion. By definition, faith is different from certainty. It implies a belief in what is unknown. This is radically different from political ideology, which is always certain. When religious language is used to validate political ideologies, the mix becomes a lethal brew. Religion is no longer “belief.” It is abused.
The question “why and how does this occur” has two answers.
In the first place, blame must be cast on groups and leaders who exploit the power of religious language to advance their political agenda. And then there is the need to identify the root causes that lead some to join these groups and follow these leaders.
Both polling we have done and the body of sociological literature on this topic identify several factors. Most of these point to the loss of control that individuals experience, often resulting from severe economic and political stress and social dislocation. In some societies it may be due to the shock of urbanization and the rapid social change that follows. In other instances it may be economic recession, the loss of employment, and uncertainty about the future. Then there are those instances where prolonged disenfranchisement and discrimination result in individuals experiencing deep alienation. In all these instances, individuals lose their moorings, and seeking answers to explain their circumstances, become easy prey for leaders or movements that exploit their fear and insecurity.
By couching their message in familiar religious language, these groups and leaders “explain” to their vulnerable targets the source of their followers’ sense of a lack of control. This usually includes two themes. First there is a call to return to the “old ways” — from which we get the term “fundamentalism.” They will denounce the sinful present while glorifying (and romanticizing) a perfect past. This is often accompanied by the demonizing of another group or way of life that is identified as the source of present problems.
In different societies and at different times, this strategy has taken various forms. The “other” may be a vulnerable minority found within that society whose rise to power is feared; a threatening external foe; or an emerging group within the society that is identified as the cause of social dislocation. It may also be lifestyle changes resulting from social transformation. This pattern holds true in every extremist movement I have studied, whether from the past or the present, the West or the East. This abuse of religion that provides security and certainty to those who are experiencing a loss of control is a universal phenomenon. If merely left there, it would not be a danger. But when it masks a political agenda or when it justifies violence either by groups or state actors, it becomes a danger. To denounce it is one thing. But to limit our criticism to its manifestation in only one faith and to fail to understand and address its root causes, is quite another.
As an interfaith organization, FOR-USA's mission is to organize, train, and grow a diverse movement that welcomes all people of conscience to end structures of violence and war, and create peace through the transformative power of nonviolence.
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