The Unrelenting and Exhausting Pace of Islamist Violence

Yesterday, more than 130 school children were executed in Pakistan by the Taliban. Now, more than 150 women (some pregnant) were killed in Iraq for refusing to submit to ISIS’ new policy of sexual jihad, which is in some ways reminiscent of Boko Haram’s recent sexual enslavement of 200 Christian school girls in Nigeria. Prior to all of this, we watched “lone wolf” dramas play out regularly on our television screens, including the recent deadly hostage situation in Sydney, and before that the killings of the two Canadian soldiers, and prior to that various attacks in the U.S. (including a beheading of a woman and a hatchet attack on NYPD cops), as well as many other recent examples of Islamist violence or attempted violence against both Muslims and non-Muslims throughout the world (China, Russia, Netherlands, France, etc…). Indeed, there are currently more than 20 nations (over a broad geographical spectrum) where Islamists are planning or actively committing violence (on various scales). These include several nations in the Middle East, but also in Africa, Europe, Asia, etc…

It is unrelenting and exhausting if you try to keep up with this sort of thing (as I try to do because of my occasional opportunities to provide analysis for local news organizations). It also seems that (because of the enormous scale of such violence) we are becoming desensitized to it on some level, which we really need to avoid at risk of accepting this sort of thing as normal or business as usual among Muslims. Along these lines, I recall reading one writer from the U.K. Guardian lamenting the moral “masturbation” of westerners who condemned the slaughter of more than 80 Pakistani Christians by terrorists, effectively arguing it is not helpful. This attitude worries me as I don’t think it does anything to help moderate Muslims who are fighting (and dying) against such movements at home. At the very least, it seems westerners should offer their moral support to moderate Muslims (and much more when possible) by strong condemnations of Islamic fundmentalist violence.

I realize there are violent extremists in other religions, as is sometimes pointed out to deflect from broader criticism of Islam, but this is a weak response. The scale of Buddhist or Christian violence, for example, violence specifically carried out in the names of these faiths or any other, is obviously nowhere on the same scale as what is currently being experienced in much of the world (and reported on almost daily). To be clear, this is not to say that members of other religions do not sometimes carry out religious violence, but it is, once again, nowhere on the same scale as what we currently see in the Islamic world.

Mormons, for example, are not known for beheading heretics and posting the videos on youtube in the way that many Americans, unfortunately, are coming to associate with Islamic fundamentalists. When the creators of South Park produced a play titled, The Book of Mormon, which mocked the Mormon faith, the leadership of the Mormon church issued a charitable statement on the matter embracing first amendment rights to freedom of speech and the play was celebrated in the media with little concern over the feelings of generally non-violent Mormons. Alternatively, imagine if the creators of South Park created a similar play mocking the Prophet Muhammad and the Islamic faith. Few theaters would show it for fear of violence. Consider the death threats directed against Danish cartoonists who dared to draw and sometimes mock Islamic holy images, or Salman Rushdie, whose 1988 book titled The Satanic Verses, which was seen as mocking the Prophet Muhammad, resulted in a number of death threats, including a fatwa being issued against him by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, on 14 February 1989. More recently, Theo Van Gogh, a Dutch film maker who produced a film about the mistreatment of women in Islam, was assassinated in 2004 by a fundamentalist Muslim offended by the film.

I certainly agree that most Muslims are not the problem, as in fact the majority of violence carried out by Islamic fundamentalists is directed toward other Muslims who have, themselves, rejected the fundamentalists on some level. Indeed, they suffer the most. I can also appreciate efforts by westerners to support more moderate or peaceful Muslim communities that feel scandalized by such extremism from their radical co-religionists (e.g. the “I’ll ride with you” campaign in Australia). It’s obviously very charitable. But there is no denying that the Islamic world is experiencing something of a crisis of violence, with an extraordinary number of jihadists claiming to fight for (or because of) their faith. So dismissing such violence by simply arguing it happens sometimes (or has happened) in other religions fails to acknowledge a real problem. Religious violence is not currently carried out by members of other religions on anywhere near the same scale (20 plus countries) as what we are seeing by followers of radical Islam.

There are a number of divisions between Muslims that are the cause of such violence. They include divisions between those embracing so-called “western” values, for example, as related to the rights of women, religious minorities, homosexuality, freedom of expression, etc… and fundamentalists who reject (often violently) the spread of such ideas in Islamic societies. More significantly, the Sunni-Shia religious and political divide, dating back to the death of the Prophet Muhammad, has provided the historic framework for much violence in the Islamic world and continues to do so in the present.

There is something of a western Christian precedent and parallel, perhaps, to the Sunni-Shia divide in the Islamic world. At one point in the 16th and 17th centuries Protestant and Catholic Christians were regularly at war with each other, sometimes resulting in enormous slaughters (e.g. St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre), particularly during the French Wars of Religion or the Thirty Years War. These and other conflicts, like modern conflicts between the Sunni and Shia, often intertwined matters of faith and politics. After more than a century of conflict, Protestants and Catholic states and peoples essentially wore each other out and finally realized they would have to learn to live with each other (e.g. Edict of Nantes, Peace of Westphalia, etc…) if they were going to stop destroying Europe. Religion increasingly became a private matter rather than a matter of the state. While political conflicts continued in Europe, the religious element of such conflicts was tremendously reduced, existing only on a smaller scale in later centuries (e.g. Ireland). One would hope that the Sunni and Shia conflicts are ultimately headed toward a similar conclusion, but I am not sure there is any evidence of this in the short term. The fact that religious faith and governance of the state have been deeply intertwined since the founding of Islam makes the prospect of their separation dim. But perhaps, at risk of sounding too optimistic, such a separation is not necessary if the moderate Muslims can win not only the short term military battles against their militant fundamentalist co-religionists, but also the long-term war over how the Qur’an should be interpreted in relation to human rights and governance of a modern society.

Andrew Holt