Is religious violence real? The anniversary of 9/11 is over, but the question remains.

Sep 12, 2012

Some insist there is no problem with religion, or that religious terror does not exist. Others insist that religion is the problem or that one tradition -- Islam -- is inherently dangerous and violent.

Neither the apologists nor the haters are right, nor will they make the world any safer.

Brad Hirschfield will live chat with readers at 1 p.m. ET about this topic.

He will explore long-term violence in history directed at specific groups as well as recent religiously motivated violence.

Submit questions and opinions for Brad to respond to now.

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When I decided late yesterday to focus this week's discussion on relgious violence, neither Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, nor the three others staffers at the US consulate in Libya, had been murdered by religion-inspired terrorists.  Nor had the world known as much about the hateful film which roused the murderers' rage.  Tragically, yesterday's important question is today's pressing news.


Religious violence is real, and so is hatred of both religion in general and of specific religious traditions.  In fact, proponents of each, make use of the other to justify their own ugliest words and deeds -- including murder. 


What do you say about religious violence, what causes it and how to address it.  These are questions which we simply cannot avoid.


Let's go.

The answer to me is unfortunately yes. Unfortunately because we demonize entire groups for the actions of a few. Unfortunately because we attack religions as a whole because we don't understand them. Unfortunately because we attack others because we feel they are insulting our religions. Unfortunately because we neither turn the other cheek nor focus our anger properly. Unfortunately because we don't temper the strength of our convictions with the necessary strength to accept others may not agree with us and we cannot change them. Religous violence and the fear thereof unfortunately is real- look no further than the synagogues and mosques with police cars parked out front- but is unfortunately nothing more than a human failing.

Let's assume you are correct that the abuses you describe are endemic to the human condition, even though I think you may be confusing historical record with biological, psychological or spiritual necessity.  Even if it is essentially human to do all the things you describe, do we need to accept it, or should we not be working to curtail, if not erradicate, such behavior?  In other words, 'Don't Give Up!"


Religious violence is real -- and more accutely so over the last 24 hours than some might have been willing to admit.  That said however, there are things we can do to work against it, but doing so means taking both religion, and it's flaws, very seriously. 


No more battels between haters of faith (or any faith in particular) vs. apologists for faith (or any one faith in particular).  That approach gets people dead.

Of course religious violence is real. It has happened throughout human history with all religions, but it is telling that most religious violence/terrorism these past few decades have been in the name of Islam.

Sadly, you are right on both counts.  Of course, that means that the problem is not a function of one tradition even if it currently manifests more in one tradtion.  Unfortunately, when you point out your first point, the Islam-bashers call you a fool.  When you point out your second point, you are often called an Islamophobe.  Having been called both, I know.


The challenge lies in creating a culture of honest critique -- one which protects a faith and it's followers, the vast majority of whom do NOT have a problem, while challenging them to take the lead from within, in addressing the problem which does exist.

The real problem isn't religion but absolutism and authoritarianism. That describes some religions and some believers, but far from all of them, and it also describes some secular ideologies and some of their adherents.

Aemn!  Faith is like a fire -- it can warm your home and cook your dinner, or it can burn down the house and kill a bunch of people in the process.  The issue is not faith per se, or any one faith in particular, it is how the faithful weild their faith.  The absolutists burn everything down, themselves included, when given enough time.

With the deadly attacks in Libya yesterday, I'd say yes, religious violence is real.

And while we settled on this topic before the murders, it makes this conversation that much more critical to have.  Sadly, too many responses from the Middle East refuse to accept that.  President Morsi in Egypt exhonterated the United States from "guilt" for the hateful film which inspired the attacks, but stilled called for the makers to be punsihed for their "outrage".  So much for appreciating freedom of expression.  And worse still, Sheihk Hassan Nassrallah, leader of Hezbollah, decried the film but not the murders!


The film, at least the parts I have seen, is grotesque and people should say so.  But the rersponses of these and other religious leaders is pretty disturbing, to say the least.

Oh, it's real alright. Start with the Crusades or start with 9/11, but killing in the name of god is a long-time practice. The next question is the one I would like religious leaders to address more directly: what is your church - temple-mosque, and what is your entire institution, doing about it? For all the good that religion provides in people's lives, regardless of the faith, the fact that so many faiths inspire violence makes me question . . . that sometimes the costs outweigh the benefits.

The costs outweighting the benefits, often is a matter of whom you ask.  The fact is, that in many cases, the worst offenders in terms of relgious violence and oppression of others, are often people who use religion as forces for incredible good within their own community.


I think your initial point is the important one.  We need to ask every relgious institution and culture what it does to mitigate violence and oppression of those who do not share their views.  The treatment of those outseide one's camp is real test of the ethical health of any spiritual community.

Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia executed a woman for witchcraft. In Iran, the minimum marriage age for girls is nine. These are not nations of illiterates who live in mud huts, they're among the most prosperous non-western countries on earth. How can literate people believe such things are right? It's only possible because they accept that a 7th century text was written by the most supreme intelligence in the universe, and enforces the death penalty on those who say otherwise. At what point can we stop respecting the beliefs of those who don't respect the right to dispute them?

If your point is that elements of Islam are deeply problematic, we agree.  But I would say that their are serious problems with other ancient tradtions when they are used as direct arbiters of contemporary nations and the laws which guide them.  In other words, theocracy is bad.  About that, we agree.


The respect issue is complicated if you are asking must a genuine pluralist extend greater understanding to non-pluralists than they give us.  The answer is yes and no.  Sorry to be so talmudic, but that's the way it is. 


We offer respect, even to those who may not respect us, for our own sakes as much as for theirs.  We show thenm respect because it refelcts our values to do so.  The limit on respect for others is not a function of reciprocity, but vulnerability.  In other words, when they move from disrespect to coercion, then we move from respect to working against them. 

It seems to me that almost any aggrieved group, religious, tribal, national... Will generate some amount of fanaticism. How widespread it becomes is probably affected by the role of authority both official and unofficial in either opposing or supporting it. In recent history some level of official and unofficial leadership within Islam has given either tacit or clear approval for terrorism. Religion and maybe more specifically in the monotheistic faiths might be more effective incubators of fanaticism than other social groups because religion is so important in many people's lives. Monotheistic faiths might be more prone to fanatical terrorism because they can more easily create and sustain a manichean view of life; that my/our view of God is right and that yours is wrong and should be attacked or suppressed

Your point that it is fanaticism which kills, is correct.  It's why, in additon to describing my own spiritual and politcal journey, the sub title of my most recent book is "finding faith without fanaticism".


That Monotheistic tradtions are inherently more dangerous than other tradtions is likely not correct, as a full read of history demonstrates.  Not only that, but the non-God-centered ideologies of the 20th century -- think marxism, naziism, maoism -- killed more people than all those killed in the name of faith in the previous 1 0r 2 thousand years!  Something to think about.

I'm far from an expert on this topic, but as a politically liberal Christian American (if it makes any difference, which I'm not sure it does), it does seem to me that Muslims are very quick to take offense, and violent offense at that, to any perceived slight to their religion. I think a telling comparison is one of the protesters asked a CNN reporter, "How would Americans feel if a film were made attacking Christianity? Or attacking Abraham Lincoln?" I can honestly say I would feel absolutely zero compulsion to protest or attack anything if I came across such a film. I would probably make a mental note that I disagree, and then move on. I wouldn't give it another thought for the rest of the day. (Also, perhaps this person didn't realize that there have been quite a few recent, popular films denigrating U.S. presidents...) So the problem here seems to be more cultural than religious. I think in the West, we're used to people saying all sorts of crazy and offensive and untrue things about ideas we hold dear, and we value the right of the freedom to say those things more than the "right not to be offended." This cultural value seems to be absent in cultures that are also influenced by Islam. I realize I'm veering dangerously close to Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" argument that my fellow liberals love to hate, but the fact is that there is *something* about the culture there that us Westerners just fundamentally don't understand. But this stems from cultural differences, not religious ones. To be sure, religion is a large part of a culture, but there's nothing inherent to Islam that compels its adherents to go on killing sprees when they hear something they don't like. There are larger cultural forces at play here, I think.

If the term "larger religious forces" is used to get either Islam or Muslims fully off the hook, then I reject the use of the term and find it quite dangerous.  If the term is meant to reflect that all relgious systems are also cultural systems and, as you wrote, "there's nothing inherent to Islam that compels its adherents to go on killing sprees when they hear something they don't like", we agree agree 100%


Islam is a rich and wonderful traditon -- one equipped with more than enough spiritual and intellectual tools to  fight against certain current trends within the culture.  The issue is not the faith per se, but it is a faith issue when people make it more religious to fight against the insult than to educate against it.

Yes, religious violence exists, but I have always felt that religion was not just about which god you believed in. Religion, or at least organized religion is intrinsically tied to a people’s culture, which is tied to a people’s politics or economics. When violent occurrences happen, it’s not just about religion, or not just about economics or just about politics or just about culture. It’s combination of all those things mixed together. Why else is the U.S’s relationship with Islam so different in Malaysia than it is in the Middle East?

Humans exists within larger contexts.  We call those contexts, cultures.  The only problem is when the followers of any faith refuse to take any measure of responsibility for the role their faith has in toxifying the culture.  The same people who want to go on about the positive contributions of whatever faith they follow must be the same ones who shoulder the burden of it's misdeeds.  Without that, they are dangerous apologists providing cover to the worst elements of their faith community, even of they don't approve of them.  and to be crystal clear, that problem can be found among all believers -- whatever tradition they may follow.

Problem is Islam still functions as if we were still in the 13th century in many parts of the world. Now Roman Catholicism still believes its right before the Reformation but at least it doesnt resort to violence except in Ireland which is justified. Problem is most of the Muslim world is a lack of democracy caused by Islam and no jobs also caused by Islam, A move to early 20th century by Islam might help. BTW if I am going to paradise the heck with 20 virgins I want 20 porn stars. Never understood Islam's fetish for virgins.

Go slow.  For starters, Islam is a deeply democratic tradition.  It has little centralized authority, and it is Islamists who have been at the forefront over the last decades, in leading democratic movements.  the problem is that democracy is not the same as the kind of liberal (small "l"), rights-driven, individual-respecting systems which we equate with democracy.  People can, and do, select oppressive regimes through democratic processes.  The often go so far as to reaffirm them because they have no concern about what "toqueville called, "tyranny of the majority".


Finally, the role of reformation is a crucial one.  Interesting, Judaism had one at about the 1500 year mark in its history, and so did Christianity at the 1,500 year oint in its evolution.  that is exactly where we are today relative to the start of Islam.  That is, by no means, an excuse but it might be a helpful explanation and lense through whcih to view contemporary challenges.

The violence is real whether it is called religious violence or domestic violence both are related because of the violence. Giving it a noun modifer may soften the real word which is violence. I do this in the name of religion because it excuses my violent behavior. What religion condones violence? None. Power hungry, controlling, fearful, hate-filled, and violent people always have an excuse for their behavior and hide behind supposedly religious values and religion. Actually, they have no values and have no religion. They only have violence. And really, their true religion is hate.

I wish it were so, but you are just wrong.  In fact, virtually every major faith condones violence -- certainl y the case for Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Each has texts which justify violence, and each has used them to terrible effect at different points in their respective histories, not to mention right now. 


All these thigs are to be found in each of tradtions because they are in each of us.  Most importantly, we can only address the problem of relgious violence on terms that are meaningful to these who practice it, so whether we like it or not, that means taking the claim that the violence is genuinely religious, at least for those practiciing it, is necessary.

As a Christian, I would hope that Muslims not define me with Koran burner Terry Jones. So why do so many Christians define all Muslims by their fanatical elements?

Each side is filled with those who love to compare their best to the "other" side's worst.  They do so because when that is the comparison one makes, their own tradition always "wins".  The real challenge, teh challenge to haivng a mature faith is being able to love your own tradition while seeing it's worst and appreating the best of those traditions you don't choose.

Mitt Romney is condemning the Obama administration over the press release from the Cairo embassy. Is the press release truly an apology? What constitutes an apology anyway?

Having read the President's remarks, I don't think they constitute an apology by any means.  That said, I think Gov. Romney was responding to the President's decision to focus on the film which inspired the murderers before the bodies of teh murdered were even cold.  Context counts, but so does timing.  the Adminsitration seemed to appreciate the first, but not the second. 


The fact that Sec. State Clinton called the attacks "surprising" was more concerning to me.  Sadly, there really isn't anything surprising about violent mobs arising in the face of what is percieved of as disrespectful media, let alone genuinely  anti-Muslim media such as the film.  It's tragic, but not surprising.

I don't know why these filmmakers keep on making films depicting Mohammed in such a bad light, knowing that they insite violence. It's like yelling "fire," in a crowded theatre. These fundamental Islamists do not know how to react other than by violence; we know it; so just stop it...even if it does impinge on some rights. The killing of our Ambassador and his staff is horrendous and the fundamentalists are stupid enough to want to spread violence. Let's not give them the ammunition.

Your argument sound dangerously like appeasement to me, and that is a VERY dangerous road to go.  To be clear, the reason not to make films like the one which got the crowds going is NOT because it will upset them, but because the film is hateful, stupid and ugly. 


Decent people, especially those who appreciate the real challenges in significant segmants of the global Muslim community should be at the forefront of decrying the film and it's message.  We should protest the film and any of it's ilk not because they anger some Muslims, but because they pollute our public culture and degrade decent human beings.

We could go on for a long time -- especially based on the quality of the comments and questions that remain in line, but our time is at hand.


We can continue this conversation if you find me on facebook or follow me on twitter @bradhirschfield.


'Til next week, and I say this as a prayer as much as anything else, this week especially,



In This Chat
Brad Hirschfield
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is an author, radio and TV talk show host, and President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His On Faith blog, For God's Sake, explores the uses and abuses of religion in politics and pop culture. He wrote "You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism." Named as one of the nation's 50 most influential rabbis in Newsweek, and one of the top 30 "Preachers and Teachers" by, he is the creator of the popular series, Building Bridges, airing on Bridges TV, and co-host of the weekly radio show, Hirschfield and Kula: Intelligent Talk Radio. For more information see
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