In an earlier post (Do Devotion and Brutality Go Together?) we wondered how some people could be convinced that it was acceptable to commit acts of appalling brutality in the name of religious devotion. We will pursue this thought further in this post.
The example we had used to motivate the argument was the launching of the First Crusade in 1095 by Pope Urban II rousing Christians to avenge oppression by Muslims in far away Jerusalem. Pope Urban’s exhortation was based on false propaganda but it succeeded in its objective.
A reader commented that the First Crusade was about grabbing land and wealth and the Crusaders were misled because they were illiterate and had no way to verify the truth. It must have been natural to take the word of the Pope for truth.
This is a valid observation. The author of the book we used as a reference himself remarked that the “fevered spontaneity” of Bohemond (one of the leaders of the First Crusade) “was almost certainly a façade masking calculated ambition.”
Nevertheless, the fact that Pope Urban II exploited religious sentiment to achieve his objectives suggests he must have felt it the most potent feeling to exploit in the situation.
The reader also correctly pointed out that the motivations behind the First Crusade were different from those that drive today’s Islamic jihad. What is in common is the appeal to religious sentiment that has the power to convince a sizable number of people to commit acts of immense violence and also to sacrifice their own lives in the process.
We still don’t understand why religion has this power. One of our readers has suggested that amongst our many beliefs and opinions, religion is the one we are most sensitive about and when it is questioned we tend to react violently.
This seems correct as an observation but in the case of the Crusades and jihad we are not talking about situations where individuals were or are questioning each other’s faith. Rather we are dealing with situations where groups are incited to violence against others. These groups could well have been co-existing peacefully for years participating in each other’s religious festivals and rituals (see the earlier post Hindu-Muslim or Muslim-Hindu?). However, when incited, the groups end up massacring each other in defense of their respective religions.
Does this have anything to with religion or is it a function of the context? Is it imaginable, for example, that someone could incite Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs to begin killing each other in Southall, London, where many of them are neighbors?
It seems unlikely and not because the religious sentiments are any weaker in Southall than they were in India. On the contrary, all evidence seems to suggest that religious identity is strengthened amongst migrants, at least first generation migrants.
The explanation must be the knowledge that such kind of incitement would not be tolerated in the same way in Southall as it was in India. This brings us to the comment by a reader of the earlier column that perhaps the solution to containing violence lies in good governance with a mix of liberal and tough laws.
There is little doubt that recent ethnic violence in South Asia has often been condoned, if not supported, by the state. The very recent violence in Pakistan is a blowback of earlier support of jihadists for political purposes.
The one conclusion of our discussion seems to be that we need to shift the focus from the reform of the individual to an examination of the state. What kind of state promotes violence and why? And how does the world control such a state?
Of course, we are still left with the question of why religion provides such an easy handle for manipulation. But this may not turn out to be the most important question if we succeed in controlling the state that is instrumental in the exploitation of the sentiment.