Recent terror attacks in Istanbul, Dhaka and Baghdad in which hundreds of people have been killed and on the eve of the Muslim celebration of Eid have revived the contentious question of the role of religion in provoking violence – and, more specifically, the assumption that Islam is in some way synonymous with violent religious fanaticism.
Many people, including myself, have already pointed to the mosaic of Europe’s Muslims and to the risks inherent in homogenising and stigmatising (or suspecting) whole communities for the actions of a few fringe dwellers.
At a time when we appear to be living in a climate of fear in which the messages of self-styled experts and vote-fishing politicians thrive to the detriment of public debate, more caution is needed in establishing links between religion and violence. We must try to avoid drawing rushed conclusions which could lead to irreparable damage for our societies and the future of interfaith relations.
The gravity of terror attacks calls for a general unequivocal condemnation of these actions as criminal by everyone, regardless of their personal beliefs – whether they are based on faith or whether they are secular. Of course, it can be beneficial for religious leaders and resources to become involved in countering violent narratives, but faith should actually be put to one side – we should denounce these violent actions first and above all because they are criminal. It should be secondary – perhaps even irrelevant – that the perpetrators presented them as “religious”.
Don’t blame anyone’s God
Most of the time these atrocities are anti-religious and irreverent rather than pious acts of duty towards one’s faith, as their perpetrators would like to depict them. Anti-religious, not only because the terrorists pledged to target civilians but also in relation to their own faith. By presenting their actions through a religious rationale in the way that Islamic State, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Boko Haram and the like tend to do, the instigators actually take a rather arrogant and non-religious or sinful position towards their own faith. Besides committing the sin of taking the lives of innocent people, they have committed the gravest sin of playing God, of pretending to know the deity’s supreme will and to impose it on others.
The key principle of Islam – as in other monotheistic religions – is that God’s sovereignty is above us, that God is infinite in justice and mercy, the only being with access to truth. In short, as God is above all human logic, it is presumptuous (the centuries-old Faustian struggle) to attempt to act in his name; it would be like replacing God with a self-centred idol.
These attacks can only stimulate disgust, not admiration, among those people of faith who truly believe in a God that is much bigger and merciful than humans – a God who created the world in its multifaceted diversity and freedom. Let’s remember that monotheists believe that, after creating humans, God left them totally free to decide how to organise their lives. This notion of free will is perhaps broader than the freedoms articulated in secular understandings of human rights because it demands that the individual alone – and not any limited man-made convention or norm – decides on their actions before their own conscience and the immensity of God’s knowledge and justice.
So, in our human, limited attempts to make sense of tragic events and to devise workable strategies of survival, for states and individual citizens alike, we should leave religion at the margins of the explanation (though not necessarily completely outside).
For some people, these latest tragic events, like their precedents in Paris, Brussels, Orlando, Lahore, Peshawar and the rest raise the spectre of the clash of civilisations. But it is crucial to remain resilient and not to fall prey to this tunnel vision – which, paradoxically, seems to be equally shared by extremist groups of all orientations, whether religious or not, whether they are left or right-wing oriented – and which gives rise to shouts of “us versus them”. We must all resist the temptation to respond to radical messages with confrontational tones and battles over whose values are right or dominant.
After all, faith traditions and humanist beliefs have in common a deep concern for the human condition and the importance of both individual and collective responsibility. These values can be useful resources to move on.