With the recent terrorist attacks in Belgium, Turkey, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and many other unreported places around the world, I think it is about time we reopen the age-long discourse on religion and violence. In a recent lecture series titled “Does religion cause violence?”, professor William Cavanaugh of DePaul University, Chicago, gave a reasonable explanation that debunks the myth of religious violence. He reasoned that popular secular and western liberal assumptions about religious violence does not correspond to the facts on ground, and that, when a thorough distinction between what is “religious” and “secular” is done, the assumptions that seem to posit religion as the cause of violence would be trumped as the political agenda of those making the argument. But on a more serious note I do not think that such distinction can ever be made. In many cases religious and secular reasons for violence are so intertwined you can’t really say it is one or the other.
Besides I do not think that religion causes violence. It might sound circular, but rather we should think of this type of violence as a result of, or response to, other equally violent acts. This is because when the lives of people are interrupted by brutal disruptions and war-like events, they will seek out ways to find security and emotional support in such time of crisis as a way of coping. Often a victim of extreme cruelty may find safety in an object, deity, or something much stronger than themselves which then needs to be defended and revered at all cost. To stay with the topic of religion, faith-based conversions are remarkable experiences that often start with a need to identify with something or someone that would assure security and comfort in a time of difficulty. This is explained in psychiatrist John Bowlby’s attachment theory. Bowlby described attachment as one of the motivational bases for human behaviour, which provides an explanatory framework for understanding relationship dynamics. The attachment phenomenon explains how social relationships are determined by the nature of the internal working models of an attachment system, which are the mental representations of ourselves in relation to others. Internal working models initially develop through the effects of a particular set of activating triggers (like our mental states or environmental demands and opportunities) during a parent-child bonding experience through means of bodily stimulations. This sense of attachment resonates with each and every single one of us, and as a result, when we are deprived of quality attachment by an attachment figure or in need of emotional security, we often seek out ways to compensate for an unavailable relationship somewhere else or decide, on our own volition, to explore a new relationship in a stronger and wiser substitute attachment figure standing in proxy as our attachment figure. Generally, relationships with attachment figures are maintained due to the attachment functions they provide in relation to a general set goal, for example from being a target of our proximity-seeking behaviours, to acting as a safe haven for our security, and serving as a source of emotional strength and support in times of difficulty. These attachment functions mirror the phenotypic resemblances and qualities of our parental attachment experiences as well.
There is no limit to what an attachment relationship may look like, nor who or what should be an attachment figure. Psychologist Mary Ainsworth defined attachment as an “affectional bond which shapes a relatively long-enduring tie in which the partner is important as a unique individual and is interchangeable with non-other.” Psychologist Lee Kirkpatrick was of the opinion that this long-enduring tie between two relational partners can also be developed with the divine or anything that assures safety for dealing with an attachment difficulty during a time of crisis. Theologians Fraser Watts and Ryan Williams in their article “Attributions in a spiritual healing context” were equally in agreement that attachment can also be formed with other broader religious attributions that may include ritual practice, faith community, religious place, prayer, scripture reading, and other attachments of religious significance.
Psychologists of religion explore religious experience as an attachment phenomenon that sees religion as proximity-seeking behaviours with religious objects and divine attachment figures that are symbols of emotional support and security within a religious community. Some attached individuals might go to the extent of keeping to the moral and religious demands of their divine attachment figures as a way of maintaining their relationship with them. This is where I think the connection to religious violence comes in. In an attempt to secure and sustain their relationship with a divine personality or religious object that had given their life some sort of emotional meaning in their times of difficulties, religiously attached people may show extreme allegiance in support for their divine personality or religious object. This is why Muslims flip out when someone attacks their Allah or the Quran. The same happens within Christian communities as right-wing believers or even left-wing pacifists defend the cause of Christianity even to extreme proportions. A good example is the case of Pastor Terry Jones of Dove World Outreach Center who was arrested in Mulberry, Florida, right before he planned to burn 2,998 Qurans on the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, similar to the agitations of the Al-Qaeda and ISIS terrorist groups who are willing to defend the cause of Allah even at the expense of their own lives. They see this violent act as a religious duty. Christian extremist and Muslim terrorist groups share similar features. They are both defending the cause of their different divine personalities as a way of maintaining their attachment with them, they are religious extremists keeping to the religious demands of their respective divine attachment figures, their normal lives were disrupted by political violence through war-like events that led to their displacement and feelings of insecurity, etc.
Some Muslim terrorists were once victims of war and political violence. They survived because their divine attachment figure gave them hope. This salvation only took a turn of reciprocity. Given this, I think a much better way to look at the issue of religious violence would be to see Muslim terrorists (or any other religious extremist groups) as unrepentant and religiously attached ‘survivors’ committed to their divine attachment figure, who seems to be the source of their strength and emotional support during the most difficult times of their lives. Unfortunately, the difficulties they had faced were man-made and came as a result of decisions by elected policymakers.
Before the emergence of ISIS and Al-Qaeda, religiously motivated violence was kept under control. Then the world’s superpowers and its allies insisted on disrupting the lives in the Middle-East with the war against Saddam Hussein, the invasion of Afghanistan, killing Libya’s Gaddafi, and the list goes on. Western disruption of social systems in Middle-Eastern and Northern-African countries got us where we are today and has planted time-bombs that are exploding around us today. Political scientist Erin Wilson, in her article “The Problem is Religion – but not in the way we think”, mentions some of these human-constructed brutalities by western powers that are causing outbursts of religious violence today. Think, for example, about the “indiscriminate bombings of military and civilian targets alike by western powers, uncritical support for the Israeli state, the imposition of sanctions that lead to starvation and otherwise preventable deaths amongst civilians”.
I think the focus should not be on religious violence in itself but on attachment-related violence and religious attachment as a whole from top down. We need to start asking some fundamental questions like, ‘What did our government do that interrupted lives of people who are now terrorists’, ‘How can we regulate and study attachment-related religious violence, often unconsciously carried out towards people of other faiths’, and ‘In an attempt to defend the image and cause of our respective divine personalities, how can we relate to people of other faiths as fellow ‘attached’ individuals who are equally victims of violence protecting their source of strength?’
My point of departure from this article would be to avoid initiating any form of violence in order not to initiate a religious-motivated violence. Religion does not cause violence, but it might create a deep commitment to a divine personality or religious object; an attachment bonding that could eventually influence religiously motivated violence. When a divine personality or religious object is experienced as a source of security and a way of reconciling with a painful past, such salvation could generate into cumulative dangerous commitment and reciprocity towards the divine personality and religious object. This is very likely when someone is not properly discipled or instructed about their faith. It might be a matter of time until belief becomes like an opium turning a regular person into a religious extremist, willing to die for that which gave them strength in testing times. To solve the problem of religious violence we must start by questioning the initial perpetrated acts of violence orchestrated by people of power that have led to the collapse of societies and plunge various peoples, once known as being peaceful, into misery and violence. Peace and reconciliation scholar Joram Tarusarira suggests adopting what he calls a common victim and perpetrator identity, as we come to terms of fact that we are indeed common victims and perpetrators of the conflict of religious violence. This, I believe, would be an ideal way of looking at religious violence as an effect of politically-motivated disruptions in a world where nobody wants to be identified as the perpetrator since everyone claim to be the victim.