I write this only a couple of days after the bombings in New Jersey and New York that injured numerous people, as well as the stabbing of multiple others at a Minnesota mall. Both incidents were carried out by young men who were legal citizens – either born here or who had lived almost their entire life here – young men who were also raised in the faith of Islam.
And because of that last fact, within minutes the same, tired call and response began once again. On one side, members of the media, along with political and religious leaders, condemned Islam as a “religion of violence”, while other members of the media, along with other political and religious leaders, proclaimed that Islam is instead a “religion of peace”.
It is, as I see it, an unhelpful, if not harmful litany. That is because neither statement is in and of itself true, just as neither statement would be in and of itself true if we replaced “Islam” with the name of other religions.
It is true that the data clearly points to there being more violence perpetrated throughout the world in the name of and by those associated with Islam in recent times than any other faith. That makes the claim that Islam is a “religion of peace” difficult for many to find credible. But at the same time, there are important concerns with going from that statistical reality to a blanket assessment like “Islam is a religion of violence”. To reiterate two that have been offered before – first, the vast majority of Muslims do not and have never engaged in violence. In addition, while proponents of the “religion of violence” position point to several passages in the Koran which promote and even demand violence on God’s behalf, the Jewish and Christian Bibles are littered with similar writings. And what then are we to make of the rise of violence in some parts of the world carried out in the name of Buddhism, a faith whose sacred texts are largely absent references to violence?
However, there is a much more significant consideration in all this. The main reason why the “religion of violence”/“religion of peace” debate is ultimately pointless and worse, unhelpful if not harmful, is that it proceeds from the flawed assumption that Islam, or any religion for that matter, is a “thing” – a monolithic, homogenous institution that can be described in either/or terms throughout. While Islam, as is the case for all religions, certainly influences the cultures and communities it interacts with, it is always just as much, if not more, a product of those cultures and communities.
History clearly shows us that where there is political, economic and social turmoil; where there is extreme political instability or authoritarianism, poverty, and restrictions on education – as is the case with a significant amount of the world where Islam proliferates – the extremism which encourages and carries out violence, whether in the name of religion or not, is much more likely to be found.
The debate over Islam as a “religion of violence/religion of peace” is, and continues to be, a waste of time and resources in the struggle against extremism and terrorism. Instead, we must focus on why and how Islam – or any faith – interacts with political, economic and social factors to produce the conditions and environments that encourage and support violence.