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Religion  and  Violence


Today's guest blogger is Ola Mohamed, a senior Political Science and International Studies double major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ola is also the President of UNC's Muslim Students Association and an '08-'09 Interfaith Youth Core Fellow. Ola is active in interfaith service work, diversity education, and civil rights initiatives, and she is interested in traveling, hiking, ice skating, and writing.

Of course religion is problematic. It discriminates between those who believe and those who do not. It stereotypes. It divides. It says I am right and you are wrong, or you are right and I am wrong. It judges people. It motivates wars. It even kills. The track record of religious violence is long and bloody and too public to deny. But religion also gives life. It heals. It guides. It gives many people a sense of purpose and direction. It builds inner peace and outer altruism. It is compassionate to the poor, the orphan, and the needy. So, if we look closely enough, we can find an equally long track record of religion promoting peace and human prosperity.


What, then, is the final verdict on religion? Is it good or bad?


In his book The Ambivalence of the Sacred, author Scott Appleby writes:

"The either/or method of analyzing religion--built on the assumption that one must decide whether religion is essentially a creative and 'civilizing' force or a destructive and inhumane specter from a benighted past--is no less prevalent for being patently absurd. Both positions on religion smack of reductionism. The cynics fail to appreciate the profoundly humane and humanizing attributes of religion and the moral constraints it imposes on intolerant and violent behavior" (10, emphasis provided).

In answering the question "is religion good or bad?" we must cautiously avoid two pitfalls of logic: 1) personifying religion and 2) objectifying religion. Religion is not a person. It cannot divide, stereotype, judge or kill. By the same token, it does not give charity or serve food at soup kitchens. Therefore, we cannot blame or praise religion as a monolithic and tangible entity responsible for the good or bad in our societies. Religion entails belief and belief motivates action. Religion requires human agency to put its principles into practice, and it is through the filter of human agency that religion takes on its character as "good" or "bad." Like Ronit Avni, filmmaker and human rights advocate of Just Vision, has said, religion in itself is neutral. Our interpretation of religious texts and traditions and our application of them is what give religion its true color.

In assessing its role in our lives, we must also avoid objectifying or essentializing religion. As Appleby argues above, religion should not be confined to the narrow categories of "good" and "bad." Religion is complex. Just as religion has undeniably motivated people to commit grave injustices in the past, from the Atlantic Slave Trade to September 11th, religion has also undeniably mobilized people to uphold justice and give graciously to their fellow humans in need. From Mother Theresa and Mohandas Gandhi to millions of individuals who are moved by their faith to do charitable works every day, the ambassadors of religious compassion are many.

It is easy to look at religious conflicts and quickly propose that if we take religion out of the picture we would no longer have conflict. Take religion out of the Kosovo, out of the Kashmir, out of Ireland, out of Palestine and Israel, and there would be no conflicts in those parts of the world. This line of thought, however, overlooks the potential of religion to dissolve the very tensions it 'creates.' People are passionate about religion. We cannot simply erase it out of their lives and existence. An even better approach may be to invest in religion as a solution. This approach takes courage and creativity. It embarks those up to the challenge on an arduous adventure, a bumpy but rewarding ride.

Sometimes the adventure is not in Kosovo or Kashmir. Sometimes, it's close to home. In 2002, students, faculty and administration at the University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill (UNC) experienced firsthand the bumpy road of religious conflict. As part of the annual Summer Reading Program, UNC freshmen were asked to read Michael Sells' book Approaching the Qur'án: The Early Revelations and attend discussions on campus at the open of the Fall semester. On June 22, the conservative Christian group, Family Policy Network (FPN), and three anonymous freshmen filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Greensboro against the discussion program. The assignment, they argued, violated the First Amendment's call for a separation of church and state. The defendants were further angered because the book made no reference to Qur'anic passages about jihad, and therefore, to the defendants, presented Islam in a deceivingly peaceful light.

The Approaching the Qur'án controversy threw the UNC campus into heated debate. Religion was front and center in the crisis. In a nation still shaken by the horrific events of September 11th, many read the controversy as the clear and continuing manifestation of Islam's incompatibility with American values and religious tradition. Perhaps Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" was an accurate analysis? Amid the tense air of the time, this was an easy example of religion being a contentious force. Religion was responsible for September 11th, and now it was responsible for a lot of bickering on our college campuses and legal showdowns in our courts.

However, with the dedicated efforts of administrative personnel, students, and community leaders across faith lines, the UNC controversy cooled, even in the midst of the Carolina August heat. As a University Gazette Online article, "Reading Story Makes News" (Sept. 2002) stated, on August 19--only hours before the discussion groups were set to meet--the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Va., "upheld a district court finding from a week before and denied the FPN's request for an injunction to prevent the discussion groups." That day, students met at 160 locations across campus and delved into dialogue.

Is religion good or bad? As a student at UNC, I have seen religion lead to divisiveness, and I have seen it inspire amazing cooperation across the grand divide. History, too, has many stories to tell about religion, some goodand some not so good. When all is said and done, I believe the answer to the question before us depends upon how we translate faith into action.

Words work in many ways, and how we choose to put them to work in our daily lives is what makes all the difference.


The content of this blog reflects the views of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views of either Eboo Patel or the Interfaith Youth Core.

By Eboo Patel  |  April 15, 2009; 3:25 PM ET

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