Posts Tagged ‘War in the 21st Century’

Is Islam More Violent?

June 9, 2016

Is Islam More Violent? A Response to Nils Petter Gleditsch and Ida Rudolfsen


War and civil war have decreased — leaving, primarily, fighting in Muslim countries

—-Nils Petter Gleditsh and Ida Rudolfsen, “Are Muslim Countries More Violent?”



In their article, “Are Muslim Countries More Violent?” authors Nils Gleditsh and Ida Rudolfsen reject the idea that violence around the world is driven by a “clash of civilizations.”[1] They point out that in fact, there is relatively little violence around the world that rises to the level of “war,” and furthermore that almost none of that warfare is between nations. Instead, they point out, most of the world’s large-scale violence consists of civil wars within predominately Muslim nations within a broad geographic swath stretching from central Africa to South Asia. They then consider several explanations that have been commonly offered as to why this is the case. They discuss and largely reject the notion that Islam is itself inherently more violent than any other religion, correctly pointing out that most major religions have both violent and peaceful messages which human agents choose to emphasize to suit their own purposes. Jerry Falwell famously argued on the television show 60 Minutes that Mohammed was a terrorist, while Jesus and Moses were men of peace.[2] The pacifism of Moses would come as a surprise to the Amalekites, or other peoples who opposed Israel on its march towards Canaan; and Moses’ successor Joshua destroyed entire city-states from the fighting men down to even the animals. The pacifism of Jesus is more pronounced, but the pacifism of Christians is largely refuted by the words of the evangelists interviewed by Bob Simon. For example, prominent televangelist Kay Arthur insists that God sanctioned the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin. Christians who, like Arthur and Falwell, wish to find excuses for violence in the name of God are able to do so, largely by mining the apocalyptic literature; those like the Amish or Quakers who wish to push for total pacifism can find other passages, particularly the words of Jesus; and those like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas who wish to argue for a more moderate “just war theology” emphasize other texts, particularly Paul’s letter to the Romans. Other major religions present the same varied inheritance; neither Christianity nor Islam are markedly more or less inclined to violent rhetoric than these others.

Gleditsh and Rudolfsen also consider the argument that the civil wars in Muslim nations have more to do with economics in those societies than their religion. The fact is that the nations with the most violent civil wars are also nations with past histories of being colonized, with the resultant poverty and lack of political development today; they are nations with little industrialization or other economic assets aside from oil; and they are generally nations with a small rich elite while the majority live in poverty with no economic opportunity. Once you control for the economic factors, the argument goes, the Muslim nations are no more violent than are any others. However, the authors ask, what if the religion is itself contributing to the economic and political dysfunction? If that might be the case, is it in fact feasible or truthful to “control for” and ignore the religious issues?

While their article points out some bad questions and points the way towards some better ones, in the end it doesn’t really attempt to answer the question it asks in its title. For me, the most interesting aspect of the article was that it reminded me of a very helpful book I read in seminary, Islam in the World by Malise Ruthven, and particularly of his comments on the intersection of Islam and politics.[3] Written decades before the Arab Spring and even five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, this book offers insights into Muslim history and political theory that prove prescient, while still being accessible to an amateur like myself. One of the first interesting nuggets is his observation that “the Prophet had been his own Caesar.”[4] Western culture is shaped largely by Christianity, and Jesus was utterly lacking in official power or worldly authority. For the first formative centuries of Christian history, the same can be said of his followers. Islam from the start had to work out the relationship between temporal ruler and the bearer of the divine message. This puts the whole discussion of “the secular state” versus “the Mosque” into an entirely different context. Christians had to learn to live under the political sovereignty of pagans long before they had to work out how to faithfully live while wielding political power themselves; Muslims began with the problem of how to wield political authority over themselves and others, and only later had to deal with the crisis caused by largely losing that autonomy to foreign colonizers.

In the 20th Century, strains of thought originating from this well of the original Medina community nourished Islamic responses to the Cold War.[5]            The former colonies were often ideological battlegrounds between Soviet Communism and Democratic Capitalism. In many cases, local responses sided with one or another of the superpowers and adopted an Islamized or Arabic version of some foreign philosophy (Baathism, with its debt to both Fascism and Soviet support, is a good example of this). But for nations that sought an ideology that was truly neutral between the contending sides of the Cold war, political Islam offered an alternative that was truly different and truly rooted in the culture of the people. Drawing not only from the Quran and hadith but also from the history of Islamic civilization and philosophy, thinkers such as Sayyid Abu’l Ala Maududi strove to work out systems of governmental authority and economic interaction that were something other than just adopting authoritarian collectivism or individualist capitalism. And in particular, these Islamic political theorists sought to work out a theory of political-economic society that rejected the secularism assumed by both Soviet and Western societies.

When I started teaching religious studies a few years after reading Ruthven, Germany was united and even Russia and China were moving towards free-market economics. The Cold War was over. At the same time, there was not yet any talk of a “clash of civilizations” to replace that global polarization. I remember remarking, referring to Ruthven’s observation that Islam offered a third ideology for peoples who did not wish to be either Western or Soviet, that with the elimination of the Soviet alternative the only two ideologies were Western secular liberalism and political Islam. At that time, I wondered how that fact might work itself out. Jumping ahead twenty years, today we see two major forms of political violence: terrorism and civil war. And as Gleditsch and Rudolfsen observe, these civil wars are almost all in Islamic countries with at least one party expressly pursuing an Islamist ideology. I suggest that this is not so much because Islam causes the violence, but that people disaffected enough by the status quo to resort to civil war move towards Islam as a political ideology, to provide some conceptual framework and intellectual foundation for their group. Without this ideology, they would simply become the intellectual mirror image of their enemies, with no distinct characteristics of their own.

Gleditsch and Rudolfsen also point out that while Islamic terrorism gets a lot of attention from the Western press (and is intended just for that purpose), by far most of the victims of Islamic violence are themselves Muslims. Furthermore, FBI statistics suggest that most U.S. terrorists are not Muslim, but anti-government, or white supremacist, or Christian dominionist agents.[6] If you are in America, you are far more likely to be killed by a self-avowed Christian terrorist (like Timothy McVeigh or Eric Rudolf) than by a Muslim terrorist.

Perhaps what we see here is that with the collapse of Communism as a viable political ideology for terrorists, would-be insurrectionists are turning to other ideologies and “tribal” loyalties to justify and conceptualize their violence. And in doing so, they generally turn to some theme within their own culture. In Islamic nations, this means Islamism. In the U.S. this more often means some sort of Christian Dominionism or Christian Identity. “Christian Identity” refers to any of a group of pseudo-Christian groups that believe non-whites are subhuman, that the British people are descended from the biblical Israelites and are the only true heirs to the messianic promise, that Jews are Satanic and that Jesus wants his followers to start and win a race war. They generally are not much of a threat to our democracy for the simple reason that they are so obviously dangerous. The white hoods or Nazi tattoos serve much the same purpose as the bright colors of a wasp.

Christian Dominionism more insidious. Followers of this ideology state that their goal is to use democratic means to elect leaders who will then abolish democracy and establish a Christian theocracy. The more intellectually honest among them argue that the religious tolerance advocated by the Founding Fathers was a mistake; the more willfully schizoid argue that this is a Christian nation founded by Christians and religious tolerance was never intended to apply to atheists or pagans, or to Catholics who include too many “unbiblical” practices such as prayers to saints, or to moderate Protestants who are too tolerant of Catholics and non-Christians. They simply choose to ignore Jefferson taking a pair of scissors to the Bible to cut out all the miracle stories that he thought too silly, or the other Deists, as well as a few Catholics and even an atheist or two who were prominent leaders of the American Revolution and the later Constitutional Convention. If Rev. Rafael Cruz had been an avowed racist (leaving aside for the moment that the Christian Identity movement wouldn’t accept a Latino), his son would never have been a serious politician without first loudly and repeatedly renouncing this poisonous theology. But as a Dominionist, Rev. Cruz can reject the Constitutional separation of Church and State, and insist that God wants Christians to impose their religion and morality on others by force, and his son Ted can be elected a U.S. senator.

Am I saying that Ted Cruz has ties to Christian terrorism? No! But, I am saying that the divide that leads to civil war in some Islamic countries is also inspiring division and even violence in this country, too. The primary ideological opposition to Western democracy is no longer Soviet Communism; it is theocracy. Rafael Cruz, Cliven Bundy, Tim McVeigh and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi are all on a continuum, and the essential similarity between them is more decisive than the fact that some claim to be Christian and others claim to be Muslim. So I say that the question is not whether Islam is more violent than Christianity. One could argue that Mohamed was a general and political leader who ordered the execution of whole tribes, while Jesus was a pacifist who submitted to an unjust death sentence; but in fact, Christian Dominionism undoes that difference by leaping ahead to the prophesized return of Jesus, and seeks to make him Caesar now. The same dynamic can be seen in Buddhist and Hindu nations as well; where there is a modern group and another group that resents them, those often turn to some religiously-justified ideology.

In his article, “Why They Hate Us,” Fareed Zakaria writes, “Islamic terrorists don’t just hate America or the West. They hate the modern world, and they particularly hate Muslims who are trying to live in the modern world.”[7] The same can be said of Christian terrorists who bomb abortion clinics or Olympic Park; they hate modernity, they hate and fear the changes that are occurring in the world that clash with their preferred values and lifestyle, and they hate their fellow Americans and fellow Christians who disagree with them. And this is a phenomenon that transcends nationality and religious identity today. In every major religion there are those who accept that the world is changing and try to navigate lives of faith given these changing currents, and others who rage against the tides.





[1] Nils Petter Gleditsh and Ida Rudolfsen, “Are Muslim Countries More Violent?” The Washington Post May 16, 2016 (

[2] Bob Simon, reporter, ”’Zion’s Christian Soldiers,’ The 60 Minutes Transcript;” Washington Report on Middle East Affairs December 2002 (

[3] Malise Ruthven, Islam in the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984)

[4] Ruthven, p. 29

[5] Ruthven, pp. 326-29

[6] See Zalid Jilani, “While King Targets Muslims, There Have Been Twice as Many Plots since 9/11 from Non-Muslim Terrorists;” ThinkProgress March 9, 2011 ( and Washington’s Blog, “Non-Muslims Carried Out More than 90% of all Terrorist Attacks in America;” Global Research; centre for research on globalization May 1, 2013 (

[7] Fareed Zakaria, “Why They Hate Us,” CNN, May 24, 2016 (