Ahmed Afzaal

Religion and Organized Violence (2)

The next issue that needs to be dealt with is to define “violence.” I suggest we start with as broad a definition as appropriate for our purpose, and then narrow it down by adding various qualifications and developing categories and types.  The advantage of this way of defining violence is that we do not have to make moral or legal judgments at this stage; we can defer those judgments until later while we start with a generic definition that covers both moral/legitimate and immoral/illegitimate forms of violence.

slide13I define “phenomenon” as any observed or observable event or process that can be documented, described, and perhaps even explained.  Violence is any phenomenon that is humanly caused and leads to some kind of harm to its object.  A lion killing a deer or zebra is not violence, according to this definition, nor is a human death caused by natural causes.  A phenomenon is to be labeled violence  only if it is directly caused by human actions or if the chain of causation includes particular human choices as a necessary condition.  To harm someone or something is to obstruct the natural unfolding of its inherent potential.  According to this understanding of violence, taking an antibiotic to kill infection causing bacteria is an act of violence, so is eating meat, smoking, driving a car, or dropping a bomb.

Violence, broadly defined, can now be categorized according to the predominant kind of harm involved, as well as according to its object and whether or not it is preceded by extensive planning and preparation.  Thus, we can talk about physical, emotional, structural, and symbolic forms of violence, just as we can talk about violence that is self-directed (such as smoking), inter-personal (such as rape), spontaneous (such as a brawl or a feud), and organized (such as gang violence, terrorism, torture, and warfare).  Furthermore, we can talk about violence in terms of its primary motivation (such as political, economic, personal, or religious) and in terms of the kinds of judgments we make about its permissibility (such as legitimate or illegitimate, legal or illegal, moral or immoral), etc.  Our judgment about permissibility is obviously an important variable, for it seems that we use two different sets of words to describe what may be phenomenologically indistinguishable events.  Thus, we use words like “war” or “counter-insurgency” when large-scale organized violence is deemed OK, and we use words like “invasion” or “assault” or “terror” when large-scale organized violence is deemed not-OK.

slide18Let’s move on to the key term “organized violence.”  From this point onwards, I am concerned only with organized violence, which I define as having the following characteristics: (1) it is aimed at, and frequently results in, death and/or physical injury; (2) it takes place between two or more groups, as opposed to, for example, a fist fight between two or more individuals; (3) it is intentional and deliberate, which means that causing physical harm is a major, even primary, aim of at least one (and usually both) groups; and (4) there is extensive planning and preparation involved, a condition that excludes a feud between two families but not gang violence.  Needless to say, but I will say it anyway for the sake of completing the definition, organized violence involves humans on both sides, even though trees, animals, soil, water, and air may also become a secondary target of such violence, usually as a means to indirectly harm the targeted people.

Notice what is missing from the definition.  There is no mention of motivation and there is no mention of legitimacy, either moral or legal.  I want to employ a definition of organized violence that is, once again, as broad as possible within the confines of this discussion.  The implication of using such a broad definition is that it emphasizes the phenomenological aspects of what we are talking about; in other words, such a definition brings into focus what is actually observed or is potentially observable, rather than what is inferred, guessed, imagined, deduced, or judged.  Thus, the phenomena of planning, intention to harm, and the actual physical harm are all observable realities; motivation is not directly observed and neither is legitimacy, which is why these two have no role in the definition.

The very first thing we ought to notice is that this definition, which is entirely neutral and objective, does not allow us to distinguish between war and terrorism.  We can make that distinction on the basis of additional criteria, but not on the basis of the minimum phenomenology of “organized violence.”

In our everyday world, we are all familiar with the linguistic reality that “terrorism” is a bad word and “terrorists” are bad people.  On the other hand, “war” is usually a good word, or at least a neutral word, and “warriors” are frequently our greatest heros.  The word warrior has connotations of courage, charisma, adventure, risk-taking, and moral righteousness, and so many of us would wish to be warriors; on the other hand, none of us admits to being a terrorist, nor do children dream of growing up to become terrorists.  They may dream of growing up to be warriors, or freedom fighters, or soldiers, but not terrorists.   This gives us all the clues we need to recognize that, for all practical purposes, the word “terrorist” is a profanity, it’s a curse word, it’s a word we throw at our enemies to hurt and insult them.  Like other curse words, the word “terrorist” is not used to convey information or meaning; it is used to convey emotion and judgment of a negative kind, and it is used to arouse particular sentiments in particular groups of audience.  This is why, it seems, that “terrorists” do not exist outside of this particular language game, only the allegation and accusation of terrorism exists, for no one seems to acknowledge that they are, in fact, the referents for the word “terrorists.”  Incidentally, both “us” and “them” can play this language game, irrespective of who constitutes “us” and who is referred by “them.”  All one has to do is follow a simple assumption: We are warriors and they are terrorists.  Hence the “war on terror.”

It is very easy to fall into the above linguistic trap.  To see the trap before one falls into it, and to recognize this usage of “war” and “terrorism” for what it is, i.e., a language game, we must appeal to what is actually observed or is observable in principle.  It so happens that both the phenomenon called “war” and the phenomenon called “terrorism” belong to the larger category of “organized violence.”  The closer we look at the matter, the more we should be able to realize that the line separating war and terrorism is really, really thin . . . and very often that line seems to disappear altogether.  It may not disappear in our minds and in our theories, but it does cease to exist in the observed and observable reality.  Unfortunately, it takes great courage to take a closer look.


My main contention here is that organized violence should be understood primarily in terms of its effects on the recepient or object, in terms of the harm that it causes, and not in terms of its supposed motivation or any judgments as to permissibility.  It makes no difference to a dead man whether he was killed for religious reasons or political reasons, whether the killer was wearing a uniform or civilian clothing, and whether the bomb that killed him was dropped from a plane or whether it was planted in a bus.

A child who is killed “inadvertently” during a military campaign is as dead as a child who is killed “deliberately” in a terror campaign; the fact that the bomb in question was made in an industrialized country by sophisticated engineers or that it was a crude device made by an illiterate person in his basement has absolutely no relevance for the fact that a child has been killed violently.

It would give a person little consolation if his or her family is killed by the “surgical strike” of a “smart bomb”  rather than in a randomly carried out attack by an ill-trained group of “dumb” insurgents.

A woman who loses a limb because she stepped on a landmine ends up exactly as handicapped as the woman who loses a limb as a result of the injury caused by a suicide bombing.

From the viewpoint of the victim, it makes no difference whether the violence he or she has suffered is to be deemed legal or illegal, moral or immoral, whether it was carried out in the name of God or in the name of democracy, whether the perpetrators were religious fanatics or well-behaved soldiers.

Think of a physical injury, or an amputation of your limb, or third-degree burns, or the murder of a loved one, or an experience of torture, and try to imagine if the intensity or the duration of your pain would be any different if the violence you suffered was ordered by a gang leader as opposed to a four-star general.  Or if the people who hurt you were motivated by a religious ideology as opposed to a secular ideology.  Or if the decision that led to your suffering was debated by a democratically elected body as opposed to a small council of religious fanatics living in a cave.  Would any of these variables have the slightest affect on your pain?

In all our judgments distinguishing just war from unjust terrorism, we have all too often neglected to take into account the viewpoint of the victims.  Once the victims’ viewpoint is taken into account within the context of organized violence, we should soon come to the realization that our artificial, if sophisticated and nuanced, distinctions between moral and immoral forms of organized violence have absolutely no meaning or relevance.  These would then turn out to be devices that serve no function other than masking and disguising our guilt and our complicity, transforming our villains into heroes and our murderers into leaders.  The question then would not be as much about jus ad bellum and jus in bello as it would be about which group of people is to be deemed more human than others, whose injury is to be prevented at all costs and whose is to be tolerated, whose death should be mourned and avenged and whose death should be drowned in statistics, whose suffering should be commemorated in monuments and whose should be forgotten in an instant.

At this point we may feel a strong wave of moral revulsion at the thought of judging some human lives to be more valuable than others; should that happen, we would have to acknowledge that if all human lives are equally worthy than no form of organized violence can be justified, no matter what words we use to cover its ugliness.  If we choose to say that all human beings are born equal, then we would have to admit that all people enjoy the same God-given and therefore inalienable right to be free from all humanly caused harm, i.e., violence.  The conclusion would be that “our” violence against them is no more justifiable than is “their” violence aginst us, even if we call it “war” in the first instance and “terror” in the second.

Religion and Organized Violence (3)

Religion and Organized Violence (1)

The following is an expanded version of my presentation in the Science, Religion, and Lunch Seminar held on February 24 at the North Dakota State University.


That religion very often plays a significant role in the etiology of organized violence is indisputable.  But the claim being made here goes beyond not only what is historically accurate but also beyond what can be realistically demonstrated.

In order to identify religion as a causal agent in relation to any given phenomenon, whether that phenomenon is a desirable one or an undesirable one, we have to first agree on a working definition of what constitutes religion.  We do not need a full and comprehensive definition but we do need to agree on exactly what kind of phenomenon are we referring to when we use the word “religion.”

Is “religion” a system of beliefs and practices that exists somewhere in a vacuum, independent of historical and social changes, shielded from political and economic realities, from where it affects our thoughts and actions but is itself immune from any external influences?  Or is it an attitude or orientation that we carry within ourselves, that lives and grows and changes in response to the contingencies of life and history and society?

In the first case, we treat religion as a well-defined entity, a circumscribed “thing” that we immediately recognize as such as slide6soon as we set our eyes on it.  In the second case, we treat religion as an integral part of our earthly, embodied, existence and of our earthly, embodied experiences.  In the first case, we treat religion as a noun, in the second case we treat it as an adjective.

When we think of religion as a noun, we imagine it to be a discrete thing that has clear boundaries and that is easily distinguishable from other discrete things.  There is no confusion, for example, between Religion A and Religion B, just as there is no confusion between religion on the one hand and politics or economics or culture on the other hand.

Unfortunately, this way of looking at religion has become normative, mainly because it helps us categorize our concepts and ideas into neat little compartments, but it is also extremely deceptive and misleading, mainly because it completely fails to represent the messy reality.slide8

A better way to understand religion is to approach it as an attitude or orientation, as an adjective rather than as a noun.  When we approach religion as a human disposition, we recognize it as a set of phenomena that lacks well-defined boundaries, phenomena that are characteristically human.  To say that religion is a set of human phenomena is to emphasize that it is too nebulous and too fuzzy to be captured and imprisoned in a net of rigid categories.  Historically speaking, there has been too much contact, interaction, and mutual influence among apparently distinct religious traditions for these to have remained genealogically pure entities; there is always too much contact, interaction, and mutual influence between religion and politics, between religion and economics, and between religion and culture for any of these to be identified as discrete entities, except for the limited purpose of conceptual clarity.

Religion as a noun, as a discrete entity with clear boundaries, is mainly an abstraction that is created primarily by academicians, scholars of religion, for purely academic purposes.  It is a very useful concept, but we should never mistake a concept for the real thing.  Nowhere in the real world is there any such thing as “religion,” nor is there any such thing as Religion A or Religion B; you won’t find it no matter how long or how hard you look.  It’s just not there.  What’s there in the real world is a wide variety of religious phenomena that always exist in and through particular human beings, phenomena that are in a state of constant interaction with innumerable other phenomena, including history and politics, economics and culture.  These religious phenomena are real, and they are worth studying, but they are also too restless and too dynamic to remain still long enough for us to catch them, isolate them in their pure form, and draw clear boundaries around them.  They are more like processes, fluid and ever-changing, than they are like things we can be grasp.

So, when it is said that religion has caused more violence than any other institutional force in history, the first thing we need to do is to clarify whether we are using the word “religion” as a noun or as an adjective.  If we are using this word as a noun, then we are referring to religion as a reified concept, as an academic abstraction, which has no causal efficacy simply because it doesn’t exist in the real world.  On the other hand, if we are using the word as an adjective, then we are referring to a very wide variety of religious phenomena that are never found in their pure form, but are always mixed up, and hopelessly so, with an even larger variety of social, historical, cultural, political, and other variables.  Furthermore, even these religious phenomena, by virtue of their sheer number and diversity, are quite ambivalent when it comes to particular issues; there are violent religious phenomena and peaceful ones, for instance, and who is to say which one predominates in any given culture or tradition or historical epoch?  I guess some sort of judgment can be made for relatively restricted times and places, but in that case we shouldn’t be using the word “religion” at all, for it covers phenomena that are too many and too complex and too diverse to allow any monolithic judgment.


Given this background, is it even possible to say that a particular religion is violent or that it is peaceful?  Strictly speaking, the answer has to be an emphatic No!  For “religion” as an abstraction is too unreal to be either violent or peaceful, and the same is true for other reified concepts like “Religion A” or “Religion B.”  On the other hand, religious phenomena are undoubtedly real, and religious beliefs can and do play an important role in shaping behavior.  However, they are too complex and too diverse to be realistically placed in the category of violent or peaceful.  Either way, “religion” is not an independent variable whose effects can be meaningfully isolated from the effects of innumerable other variables and then judged as desirable or undesirable, violent or peaceful, conservative or progressive.  Again, this is not to say that religious beliefs have no power; it is to emphasize, instead, that the power of religious beliefs can be appreciated only in relation to particular contexts.

A more accurate but cumbersome way to frame the question would be as follows: Can a particular interpretation of a particular teaching of a particular religious tradition predispose particular believers to either violent or peaceful actions?  This is a question that may be answered in the affirmative, but only with significant qualifications.  Since religious phenomena never exist in pure form, and since human motivations are always complex and multi-layered, religious beliefs can have a real influence on motives only in association with other motives and only in the presence of other facilitating or predisposing or contributing factors.  To ignore these other factors is to make religion into an independent determinant of human action, which it is not.

What should never be forgotten in any examination of particular religious beliefs as possible motivating “causes” is the concrete historical setting within which that motivation is said to have been operative.  The importance of the historical setting is underscored by the fact that the same religious belief can have very different, even diametrically opposite, consequences under different social and historical contexts.

Religion and Organized Violence (2)

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