Political Violence in the Name of God: Is It Really About Religion?

Responding to: Religion and Violent Extremism: Contending Perspectives

By: Jocelyne Cesari

May 3, 2019

When it comes to political extremism and its intersection with religion, two different approaches can be identified that do not intersect. According to the first one, which is quite dominant in the media, religion is an independent variable, which means that religion per se in its doctrines and values is a major cause of international conflicts. This is a dominant perception, perhaps most strongly expressed in Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations thesis.

The problem is that paying attention only to belief or religious texts does not help us understand the vision and strategy of Al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups. Additionally, there are double standards since we do not go to the Bible to understand some forms of political violence related to Christian religious groups. Most academics have moved away from this first approach and have developed a second one in which religion is a proxy for the real factors contributing to political violence, such as social or economic grievances, failed states, or external political interferences. 

While these two approaches both have some use, they should not be seen as exclusive. Scholars can avoid the needless polarization implicit in choosing between these two methods by taking an entirely different route and looking at the nation-state as a framework to understand politicization of religions in general and of Islam in particular. 

Taking this approach would acknowledge that modern collective identities have been shaped within national frameworks. In simple words, how we say "we" today is the result of different layers of education and socialization within the particular space called the nation, which has changed all identities including religious ones. The nation-state is by definition a secular political project that has transformed all religious debates and values for individuals and for society. There is a tendency among Western scholars to see religion as a private personal affair because of the specific history of religion in Western Europe. But this has not always been the case. Furthermore, even in Europe it is not accurate to view religion strictly as a set of personal beliefs in the light of existing tensions about the legitimacy of the hijab and burqa in public spaces.

The primary role of the state is to regulate social behaviors within the national community. Such regulation may interfere with alternative collective identities and the fact that people are not only citizens, but also part of cultural, ethnic, and religious groups. As a result, conflicts can rise when their “other” collective identities challenge or do not fit within the acceptable social behaviors sanctioned by the state and the national community. 

In this respect, it is important to bear in mind that religion is not only belief, but also belonging and behaving. That is why de-radicalization programs that focus on changing beliefs are usually not successful. Most radical groups do not focus on belief but rather tend to accentuate the belonging and behaving dimensions of religion. 

This is particularly striking in the case of ISIS. The Islamic State has the ambition to regulate people’s behaviors like any totalitarian state. It does not care what people believe. What is important is that citizens/believers should behave in a certain way in the public sphere. The young men and women who join radical groups in the West are not acting based on belief; in fact, most of them do not have any religious background or experience. They are acting because the narrative and the vision of ISIS or Al-Qaeda touch on the questions of “How do I behave?” and “To who do I belong?” - often opposing belonging to the nation-state and belonging to the ummah. 

What is the ummah? As a modern concept, it is defined as the global community of Muslim believers. However, until the Muslim imperial encounters with the West, the ummah was the totality of territories under the authority of the caliphate, which entailed multiple languages, cultures, and religions (unlike what ISIS proclaims).

The secular nationalists within Muslim lands were a very small elite who knew that most of the mobilization on the ground against the colonial powers came from people for whom Islam, more than culture or language, was the defining feature of their political community. So, although these Westernized elites from Turkey to Iraq or Tunisia were not really religious believers, they understood that they could not build a nation without incorporating a belonging to Islam in its fundamental structure. Therefore, the postcolonial nation-states were established as hegemonic Muslim states, in which Islam exercised a hegemonic influence over the public sphere.

Hegemonic Islam occurred in three major ways: 

  1. The nationalization of institutions, clerics, and places of worship of one particular tradition of Islam (for example Sunni over Shi’a); 
  2. The redefinition and adjustment of sharia to the modern legal system, as well as inclusion of Islamic references into civil law (as with marriage and divorce) and criminal law, based on the prescriptions of that particular brand of Islam; 
  3. The insertion of the doctrine of that religion into the public school curriculum beyond religious instruction, that is, in national history textbooks and civic education. 

All hegemonic Muslim states have infused the secular state with some elements of Islamic law and have adopted Islam as the main regulator of national identity (except Indonesia, Senegal, and Tunisia post-Jasmine Revolution).

In conclusion, when formulating programs against radicalization, it is important to consider context, action, and reaction. It is crucial to take into account the cultural and national backgrounds of radicalized actors, particularly how Islam has been included into the public cultures of the countries they come from. Additionally, when looking at processes of radicalization, the aspect of belonging should be taken seriously. The less individuals feel like they belong to the mainstream political community, the more vulnerable they are to transnational groups that provide alternative and positive belongings.

This blog post is adapted from remarks Cesari offered at the "Addressing the Landscape of Terrorism: Towards Formulating Actionable Response" conference held in Bangkok, Thailand, in July 2017.

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Political Violence in the Name of God: Is It Really About Religion?