Saturday, November 30, 2013

Religion and Violence

I once mentioned to a colleague that, according to something I had read, if Christianity hadn't happened along, a Roman Emperor might have ended up converting to Judaism. Presumably, the rest of the Roman Empire would have followed. "Wow," he said. "The world would look really different if that had happened."

Only later did I ask myself, "Would it?" Would Judaism have changed the Roman Empire, and the history of the West, and of the world? Or, possibly, would the Roman Empire have changed Judaism? Would Tomas de Torquemada still have been Grand Inquisitor, but as a rabbi--or, perhaps, a Jewish monk--and would Bloody Mary have burned Jewish heretics at the stake?

I am reminded of these questions frequently nowadays when I read all the debate about whether Islam is an inherently violent religion. The claim that it is has become common, mostly in Tea Party circles (here, here and here, for instance), but also among right-of-center Jews and Catholics, and even the occasional left-wing atheist.

To me, this argument seems absurd on its face.  If Christianity is by its nature less violent than Islam, then one would expect this to be true at all different times and places.

Here's the conquest of Jerusalem by the Christians of the First Crusade in 1099:

Writing about the Temple Mount area alone Fulcher of Chartres, who was not an eyewitness... says: "In this temple 10,000 were killed. Indeed, if you had been there you would have seen our feet coloured to our ankles with the blood of the slain. But what more shall I relate? None of them were left alive; neither women nor children were spared".

And this was not an aberration; it went on for centuries. In 1209 there was the crusade against the Cathars of southern France

Prisoners were blinded, dragged behind horses, and used for target practice.... Arnaud-Amaury wrote to Pope Innocent III, "Today your Holiness, twenty thousand heretics were put to the sword, regardless of rank, age, or sex."

In the sixteenth century there was the aforementioned Mary I of England, who executed 283 Protestants, mostly by burning. Her successor is not known today as "Bloody Elizabeth," but she executed hundreds of Catholics.

Obviously, Christianity is not violent like that today. But equally obviously, that is not because of anything intrinsic to its basic nature that makes it different from Islam.

The best test, though, would be if we could find a faith whose canon included no endorsement of violence whatsoever, and yet whose adherents were now behaving violently. Horrifyingly, there is such a case today:

“There are casualties and damage on both sides,” Mr. Thein Sein said on state television.

But according to accounts from the police officer, Lt. Col Kyaw Tint, and a villager who witnessed some of the fighting, the violence followed a disturbingly familiar pattern: sword-wielding Buddhist mobs rampaging through Muslim neighborhoods.

“All the people who were found dead were from the Muslim community,” Colonel Kyaw Tint said.

After flaring up last year in western Myanmar, anti-Muslim violence has spread to areas around the country this year, leaving dozens of people dead, almost all of them Muslims and some of them children. Buddhist nationalist groups have called for a boycott of Muslim shops, and radical Buddhist monks have stoked anti-Muslim feelings in sermons across the country.

That's right. Burmese Buddhist mobs are carrying out pogroms against Muslims. Violence is a virus, and the virus is no respecter of religious belief.

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