Assessing Religious Terror

Since 9/11 numerous books have been written about religiously motivated terror. Many have been vitiated by the excessive keenness of their authors to play down the role of Islam in motivating it or else to exaggerate that of other religions in instigating it.

One such author is Mark Juergensmeyer. Widely heralded as an authority on “Christian terrorism”, Juergensmeyer has described Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh as a Christian terrorist, without any evidence religion entered into his motives for carrying out the bombing. He has similarly denied that the Muslim faith of the Tsarnev brothers inspired them to carry out the Boston Marathon bombing.

In their book about religious violence and conflict, Juergensmeyer is rightly taken to task by its authors, Rodney Stark and Katie Corcoran, colleagues at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University which also published it. Unencumbered by constraints of political correctness, their self-appointed task is: “to impose the discipline of real data on discussion of worldwide religious hostility. How many people are dying because of their faith? Where? Killed by whom? Why?” Adherents of Islam, Stark and Corcoran conclude, are by far the largest perpetrators of acts of religious terror.

They begin by delineating the relative size and geographical distribution of the various different world faiths today. Drawing on Gallup Poll surveys which exclude China on account of its forbidding polling on such a sensitive issue, Christianity turns out by far the world’s largest religion. Its nominal adherents constitute 40 per cent of the world’s total population (minus China’s). Following next at some distance behind is Islam with 27 per cent, then Hinduism with 19 per cent, and after that Buddhism with 5 per cent. In last place is Judaism with a mere 0.3 per cent. Other religions account for an additional 2 per cent, while those with no religious affiliation form the remaining 6 per cent.

Christianity is similarly the largest religion in terms of the active involvement of its adherents. As well as the world’s largest religion, Christianity is also the one most widely spread out. As our authors observe: “There are only trivial numbers of Muslims in the Western Hemisphere, and in Eastern Asia, but there is no region without significant numbers of Christians… [e]ven in the Arab region of the Middle East and North Africa… although… probably only half as many [Christians] as lived there a decade ago.”

Having said all that, Christians are predominantly located in North and South America, Europe, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Muslims are largely concentrated in the Middle East and North Africa, South Central Asia, South Eastern Asia (Indonesia), and Sub-Saharan Africa.

So much for the numbers and distribution of the world’s different faithful. Which are most heavily implicated in religiously motivated violence, whether as perpetrators or victims?

To establish a basis for global comparisons, our two authors decided to “attempt to assemble a list of all attacks that occurred during 2012 that resulted in a fatality… motivated primarily by religious hostilities… [excluding] incidents… perpetrated by government forces… [as well as] several thousand events for which religious motivation was not certain.”

Much to their consternation, Stark and Corcoran found: “nearly all cases involved Muslim attackers, and all the rest were Buddhists.” As they report:

We searched diligently for incidents involving attacks committed by Hindus, Jews, Christians, or, for that matter, atheists… Finally, we did find three incidents in Nigeria in which Christians killed Muslims… [in] reprisal for Muslim attacks on Christians, which have become commonplace in this large African nation… In the end, we assembled 810 incidents of religiously motivated homicides, in which 5,026 people died.

As well as accounting for practically all religiously motivated homicide in 2012, Muslims also accounted for most of its victims too. Of the 5,026 fatalities, 3,774 were Muslim, 1,045 Christian, 110 Buddhist, 23 Jews, 21 Hindus and 53 were secular. As Stark and Corcoran explain:

The fact is that for all of the concern in the West… religious terrorism occurs almost exclusively within Islam. Of the 810 incidents… 70 per cent took place in Muslim nations – a third in Pakistan alone. In addition, 75 per cent of the victims of religious atrocities during 2012 were Muslims killed by Muslims.

Samuel Huntington once famously spoke of Islam’s “bloody borders”. It would also seem its interior no less fails to live up to its billing as Dar al-Salam (‘region of peace’). At the root of so much Muslim-on-Muslim violence lies the long-standing mutual antipathy between Sunni and Shi’ah which goes  back to a seventh century dispute between Muhammad’s followers as to which of them was to be his rightful successor  or “caliph”, as successors to him were known. As our two authors explain:

The Sunni are by far the larger group and dominant in most Muslim nations, while the Shi’ah are the majority in Iran and Iraq. In addition, both the Shi’ah and the Sunni have produced many additional sects, including the Sufis, Wahhabis, Ahmadi, and Salafi. … Relations among those groups remain so bitter that whenever official repression weakens, murderous conflicts erupt among them.  

Next to fellow Muslims on the Muslim hit-list—or, more accurately, next to self-professed, but not true, Muslims in the eyes of their Muslim killers—are Christians, victims of twenty per cent (159) of the 810 incidents of religiously motivated homicide identified by Stark and Corcoran as having occurred in 2012. Half took place in Nigeria at the hands of the fanatical group who call themselves ‘Boko Haram’ meaning “Western education is forbidden”.

After fellow Muslims and Christians, next in line for the chop in 2012 on account of their faith were Buddhists. “Seven per cent (58)… incidents… involved Buddhist victims. Nearly all of these (76 per cent) took place in Thailand… several provinces [of which contain] a substantial Muslim population, although Thailand as a whole is more than 90 per cent Buddhist… In addition, Muslims in Thailand often kill other Muslims for failing to support jihad or for “heresies.”

Hindus were victims in 23 of the 810 incidents in 2012, although most such incidents involved a Muslim victim too. Eleven of the 810 incidents involved a Jewish fatality only four of which occurred in Israel.

At the root of all such religious violence, our authors contend, is what they term religious particularism and by which they mean a belief by the adherent of some faith that it is the only true one, something all too easily assumed in the case of all three Abrahamic faiths. As Stark and Corcoran observe: “particularistic religions always contain the potential for dangerous conflicts because theological disagreements seem inevitable.” From this they infer that: “the decisive factor governing religious hatred and conflict is whether, and to what extent, religious disagreement – pluralism, if you will – is tolerated.”

The key, then, to ending religious conflict, therefore, is for adherents of all particularistic forms of faith to be brought to tolerate those of other faith. No easy task. One of Stark and Corcoran’s more startling findings was that Muslims are not nearly as moderate as polls at first suggest. While a majority of them have been found to consider the destruction of the Trade Towers unjustified, the same polls reveal that, in many Muslim countries, only a very small minority believe jihadis carried out the attack:

A Pew Research Survey of seven Islamic nations conducted in 2011 found that only 28 percent of Lebanese Muslims believed that Arabs did it, and belief was lower elsewhere… [While a] Gallup World Poll … [found that] 22 percent of the world’s Muslims … [consider] that these events were justified… the large majority in each nation who thinks the whole thing was staged by Americans is unlikely to think it justified.

In any event, the numbers of Muslims who consider the events of 9/11 justified is alarmingly high:

[I]n several [Muslim] countries a very substantial minority agreed it was justified… In most of the Islamic nations in Africa and the Middle East, 20 to 30 per cent of Muslims believe that the events of September 11th were justified… even 6 or 7 percent [of Muslims in Europe] supported the suicide attack.

The large number of Muslims who approve of what happened on 9/11 cannot be explained by their lack of education, since Gallup World Poll data reveal the same proportion of college-educated Muslims approved as those without a high school education. The same holds true of their degrees of support for Sharia law being imposed on non-Muslims. The respective figures in the two cases are 22 per cent and roughly 40 per cent for both categories of Muslim.  As Stark and Corcoran sum up their findings:

[I]t is incorrect to claim that the support of religious terrorism in the Islamic world is only… small… Granted, most citizens of Islamic nations do not commit such acts… the activists enjoy more widespread public support than many have believed.

As to the consequences of such religious fanaticism and intolerance, as well as bringing death (most of it involving Muslims killed by Muslims), they bring fear and flight:

Christians are leaving North Africa and the Middle East to escape vindictive Muslim majorities. Jews are leaving Europe to escape vindictive Muslim minorities… [T]he great majority of the more than million Iraqi refugees are Muslim as well.

Since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria we can add a further estimated 3.8 million refugees.

Religious particularism need not cause religious conflict; it can be combined with tolerance. America provides living proof that it can, a society high in religious affiliation to particularistic faiths, but low in religious conflict. The key to combining such forms of faith and tolerance, according to Stark and Corcoran, is that no one religious denomination should be so powerful in a society as to be able to succeed in imposing its version of religion on others. This requires both a secular state, meaning one that refuses to promote any one faith, plus so wide a plurality of different faiths as preclude any from being to dominate the rest.

It was Adam Smith, Stark and Corcoran conclude by observing, who first propounded this solution to the problem of religious strife in commending pluralism and state neutrality in religion. They quote as follows from Part 3 of the first chapter of the fifth book of his Wealth of Nations:

The interested and active zeal of [the] religious… can be dangerous and troublesome only where there is, either but one sect tolerated in the society, or where the whole of a large society is divided into two or three great sects… But that zeal must be altogether innocent where the society is divided into two or three hundred… of which no one could be considerable enough to disturb the public tranquillity…

It is, of course, the United States which first instituted official religious state neutrality at the federal level because of the plurality of its equally matched denominations. Religion has by no means been entirely banished from the public squares there but rather assumes the form of civil religion, meaning “expressions of religion to which everyone (or nearly everyone) making up the public can assent.”

The sting in the tail, of course, is that this arrangement is not readily exportable to those parts of the world which need it today. Yet at least America is proof that people of different faith can live in amity and peace. As Stark and Corcoran conclude in their timely and instructive volume by observing: “here stands the American example, giving the lie to any claims that an end to religious hostility is impossible.”