Is Islam Violent?

Islamic Terrorism has made news and focused minds in the recent weeks. It did not help that a section of the Turkish Military tried a coup against its Government - perhaps in the Secular cause against the Islamic politics of Mr Erdoğan - and it counted as another instance of Islam being violent. The Egyptian government is intent on putting to death more than a hundred Muslim Brotherhood leaders and members - the Government is tacitly backed by the Americans - but it also is counted as Islam being violent. As someone told me recently, "All Muslims may not be terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims", as if that proves Islam is a violent religion. I did tell him, after the religious scholar Reza Aslan, that taking one example and generalising it to a whole community is indeed bigotry, but this is unlikely to stop him in the future. Using a term which is now very popular in India, he called me 'psuedo-liberal'.

I am fascinated by this term, not least because I get this label all too often. And, I am risking earning it again by writing this post. But, so be it: I like the fact that those who use the label think being Liberal is a good thing (and, therefore, being a 'psuedo-Liberal' should be bad) and each post I write on my political views, I think, would betray my liberalism. [Indeed, I am aware that this is a vain hope and the term, 'psuedo-Liberal', only shows how hopeless hateful vocabulary can be. For those who use the term, I am both 'psuedo' and a 'Liberal', just doubly bad!]

But, anyway, these claims should be considered and questions should be asked whether (a) all terrorists are Muslims; and (b) Islam promotes violence. 

To be sure, many terrorists in the recent months are of Muslim faith. But this can be equally because how we define terrorism. For example, when a mentally ill Lufthansa pilot crashes a plane in the Alps, we chose not to call it terrorism. Ditto for the East Ukranian separatists downing a Malaysian Air Jet using a missile. We also exempt the American man who gunned down several people at an abortion clinic, and the young man who massacred school children using an Automatic Rifle or even the Norwegian who wiped out an entire summer camp of young people because they were 'liberals', but count in when a mentally ill person commits a terror act in Germany, a deranged man drives a truck through a festival crowd in Nice or a gay man kills several in a gay bar because they were all Muslims by faith. We do not even count how many of these terror acts were committed by mentally ill, and talk about the Mental Health problem in our societies. And, indeed, as a newspaper helpfully tried to remind, we do not really look at what is most common attribute of the terrorists - they are all men - and start questioning whether the male stereotype that we have built our societies around is the problem. 

As for the second claim, I know of people who can tell you exact passages of Koran, and the ideas in it which are particularly violent. But then, I also know of people who compared The Bible and The Koran and came up with the pointless insight that The Bible has more references, and justifications, for violence than the Koran. The faith I was born into, Hinduism, is also supposed to be built around tolerance and acceptance of diversity, but then we have a book, one of the most important, Bhagbad Gita, which is basically a cosmic justification of violence and killing, even one's own kin, for the right cause. Now, we can indeed endlessly argue about the nature and degree of violence in each of the texts, but the essential argument should be different. I would much rather defer to a scholar of religion, Reza Aslan (or if you prefer a Christian scholar rather than a Muslim one, you may try Karen Armstrong), who argues that a religion is not, can not be, violent in itself - it is the person and what he (it is always he in this context) brings to it. A viable religion survives because, within the context of its world-view and living ethic, it still accommodates a range of aspirations, ideas and attitudes - and that is indeed its difference from what we will call a 'cult'. To see a religion that guides the lives of 1.6 billion people worldwide as a terrorist cult is nonsense.

In context, it is also important for us to consider what violence is and how it is perpetrated. We all recognise what Slavoj Žižek would call Subjective Violence, the immediate physical violence committed by a clearly identifiable agent - all those guns, bombs, trucks and planes that caused mayhem and all those terrorist mugshots in the newspapers! However, there is another, more prevalent, widespread and equally damaging violence that happens everyday: Žižek would call it Objective Violence, the systemic and symbolic violence. Getting shouted down as a 'psuedo-Liberal', a label that seeks to reposition my reasoning as some sort of justification of violent acts, is one of the more blatant examples of such violence: Claiming Islam to be a violent religion - with the hope that most people would accept the claim on face value - is another. The prevalence of Objective Violence does not justify the Subjective Violence, and I am not bringing it up to justify all those terrible acts and making a claim to some kind of victimhood. In fact, if anything, violent groups such as ISIS want to take advantage of these unexamined claims - all those claiming Islam to be a violent religion are actually working as recruiting agents for violent cults such as ISIS, as more and more marginalised people may chose to take out their anger on the rest of us by adopting an ISIS identity (just as we may have seen in the recent incidents in France and Germany).

One final point: Violence is an instrument of power and all those seeking power over our minds, bodies and imaginations use violence as its means. Claims such as 'all terrorists are muslims' and 'Islam is a violent religion' are designed to make us part of a worldwide landscape of violence, by coopting us as victims or tools. And, by living an examined life, by making these claims subject to reasoning and enquiry, we can gain control over our own ideas and futures. This, as a proud 'psuedo-Liberal', is my only plea.


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