Challenging the Myth of Religious Violence – the view from ancient Algeria

The recently published Global Terrorism Index 2013 is being reported  as confirming that “religion has become the main driver of terrorism”, surpassing nationalist and other motives. But there is a problem with the analysis. The report tracks the justifications claimed by terrorists for their actions, but this is very different from identifying ‘drivers’. Between the scholarly research and the viral infographic lies an important gap in our understanding.

The idea that religion ‘drives’ terrorism flatters an increasingly popular view that goes like this: religion is dangerous, because it has at its core the rejection of reason in favour of impulsive, self-interested ‘belief’. But there is a difference between a phenomenon’s cause and its after-the-fact justification by actors who want to excuse violent acts.

In fact, research suggests that it is religious moderates, not the outspoken critics of religion itself, who are the key to combating religious extremism. Only they have real credibility in condemning the abuse of religious symbols to justify criminal acts. Attacks on faith itself by outsiders tend, on the whole, to deliver new support to extremists – they merely escalate the sense of moral indignation that allows (some) bystanders to accept the justifications claimed by violent actors.

Also playing a role, here, are misunderstandings about the nature of religious faith. My own research , supported by Research Councils UK and the Leverhulme Trust, has shed light on the historical misunderstanding behind the idea that ‘belief’ itself is the problem.

Many people assume that belief in a supernatural being is what distinguishes those who belong to a religious community from those who belong to none. This is a misunderstanding. In the first place, not all religions involve ‘belief’. Most involve an idea of accountability, but this can be to a community or inner conscience rather than to a supernatural power.

In the three great Abrahamic traditions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – that accountability is to God. (To the same God, as it happens, known in Hebrew as Yahweh and in Arabic as Allah.)  Each has at its root a promise recorded in the Book of Genesis, when out of all the gods of the ancient Near East, this one God chose Abraham and sealed with him a covenant, or treaty of mutual trust.

‘Faith’ in those days was a pledge of loyalty. The term – Greek: pistis, Latin: fides, Hebrew: emunah, Arabic: iman – was also used in banking and military contexts. Ancient writers of all three faiths argued that God’s identity remains a mystery which cannot be reached by reason – but this was not a way of dismissing reason. Rather, it was a way of clarifying the boundary between empirical knowledge and inner conscience.

The salient feature of ‘faith’ was – and remains – accountability. This was true in theology just as it was in banking. To have faith was not to believe in a god’s existence. It was to choose one God from among other gods, dismissing rival gods as idols.

This pledge of accountability is why moderates will sometimes defend extremists as misguided but well-intentioned, when asked to choose between a hostile critique of extremism and extremism itself.

Another problem is that tolerance is incorrectly perceived as a non- or anti-religious value. Among the most cherished principles inherited from the Enlightenment are those of tolerance and equal access to justice. But, surprisingly, our modern idea of secular tolerance derives directly from the efforts of an early medieval Christian bishop to defuse sectarian unrest in what is now Algeria.

It was the fifth-century bishop Augustine of Hippo (now Annaba in Algeria) who conceived of secular values as a pastoral tool to combat identity-based violence. Augustine’s City of God became – and remains – one of the founding texts of political science as a discipline. (In another post I will show how Enlightenment thinkers in France and elsewhere explicitly engaged with Augustine’s thought.)

The thinking can be summarized as follows. In this fallen world (the saeculum: hence: ‘secular’) no human being can perfectly know God’s will. It follows that no government can be perfectly guided by God’s will. Since human knowledge is provisional, human theocracy is always approximate.

A state, he argued, may encourage or even compel righteous behaviour by it subjects. But it is important that those who hold minority views ‘buy in’ to the social contract, so their right to justice must be correspondingly protected. Without perfect human knowledge of the divine will, the principle of mutual respect takes precedence over the desire to impose uniformity.

It is important to remember that secular values have their roots not in the Enlightenment, but in the monotheism of the last years of Roman Africa.

To begin with, there is the matter of cultural justice. Ignorant Western commentators cannot reasonably steal credit from a fifth-century Numidian (Augustine was born in Thagaste, modern Souk Arras in Algeria) and accord it instead to 18th Century Englishmen.

But there is an even more important reason. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism have lessons to offer where violence is concerned.

The most important is that acts of violence have a startling power to ‘stick’ in the imagination. Acts of courage and self-sacrifice are the most powerful of all. The unjust execution two thousand years ago of a single Jerusalem-based religious radical, Jesus of Nazareth, sparked a legacy that is multiplying its reach even today, in both Christianity and Islam. (Jesus is named as Messiah in the Qur’an.)

The idea of martyrdom celebrates the moral authenticity of an individual’s willingness to live – and die – for the greater good. It is an idea that has great appeal, especially to young people looking for moral authenticity.

But who chooses which ideas and values can borrow the electric charge of the martyr’s sacrifice? Here, too, religious moderates can play an invaluable role.

For the most part, religious populations – in the UK and elsewhere – are thoughtful people who are trying to honour values handed down through generations. In fact, it is precisely the peaceable instinct to keep faith with inherited values that makes traditional faith communities so valuable in the battle against extremism.

Suggesting that these people should reject inherited sacred traditions because others claim to have found inspiration to violence there doesn’t really make sense. Given the will, similar inspirations could be discovered in the Iliad – or Shakespeare.

This essay is reproduced, by permission and with minor editing, from the Manchester Policy Blog

Related Posts:

Re-Thinking the Link Between Religion and Violence

Martyrdom and Terrorism



  1. Great post and really articulates why I hope my research on the archaeology of supposed religious violence in late antiquity is relevant to the mainstream. It’s amazing how often you still see scholars who maintain the assumption that the ‘Christianisation’ of the Roman Empire was predominantly a violent process – ‘we’ve got a temple with broken statues, therefore it must be from the time of Theodosius’ – yet there is actually such little archaeological evidence to support this.

  2. Will look forward to hearing what comes of your project! Of course Augustine himself gives evidence that there was a distressing level of violence in the towns and villages, and that religious justifications were claimed. But if an actor claims religious justification this is by no means clear evidence of the root of the conflict – that’s where scholarly analysis is needed. So I don’t mean to suggest that there was no violence or that religious loyalties were not invoked. But in analysing both ancient and modern conflicts, scholars need to avoid imposing a familiar ‘story-line’ on the evidence. Sounds like this is what you are trying to do, and wonderful to bring material culture into the discussion!

  3. Kile Jones · · Reply

    Can’t people be motivated to do horrible things, not by belief, but by their sense of this “accountability”? (cf. Abraham). I know you do Antiquity, but you might be superimposing your interests onto intellectual history. I’m not sure Augustine (who you know holds some rather vile views on many subjects) can be thought of as the father, or founder, of secular justice (it exists all over, first of all). Similarly, it’s not just one 18th century man, but a whole host of enlightenment thinkers who would be rather appalled at Augustine’s justifications for a secular state. And if human theocracy is merely approximate, I would hate to see what happens when it hits the nail on the head. Just a few thoughts. All the best.

    1. Many thanks for your thoughtful comments. I think your point that the sense of accountability can lead people to do terrible things in good conscience is terribly important. Yet any study of totalitarian regimes shows that God isn’t necessary to create that sense of duty – the idea of duty to a political figure or one’s country can work in just the same way.
      One slight clarification: I don’t think it’s Augustine’s justifications for setting aside certain areas as ‘secular’ rather than theocratic that would have appalled the Enlightenment writers, but they did rightly see him as having laid the foundations for the medieval Church’s doctrine of ‘release to the secular arm’ in dealing with heretics. Of course it’s important not to ‘explain away’ the fact that he came from a very brutal world (the later Roman Empire in North Africa), and we have to accept that the legacy of the Enlightenment did not lead to ‘enlightened’ behaviour by the French colonial power in Algeria, who seem to have been just as brutal as the Romans before them. (For my own part, the idea that freedom of speech and thought should be protected is the greatest legacy of the Enlightenment.)

  4. I completely agree that to call religion the “main driver of terrorism” is largely incorrect. The best exposition of this question I’ve ever heard vis a vis Muslims was in anthropologist Scott Atran’s interview for On Being, recently re-aired. . He has studied and spoken to the actual people involved in some of these incidents for over a decade and notes that a lot of them were basically non-religious types before they committed whatever they committed. He also comments on “the official” view of the problem that something like the GTI represents and reflects. Anyway, I think the interview is worth listening to in full and his book, Talking to the Enemy, is also

    1. Many thanks for this link – Atran’s work is so important and I did not know this video. The sociological research seems to consistently suggest that individuals who don’t have close ties to a religious community are disproportionately at risk for joining extremist movements. Evidently the best protection against extremism is engagement in a moderate multi-generational religious community. It makes sense that ‘unattached’ individuals are more prone to involvement with destructive ideas. But to speak less scientifically, I suspect that young people who have watched sympathetic elders cope with the day-to-day ethical problems of creating a just society ‘on the ground’ may also simply have better judgement!

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