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Q&A: The ‘dangerous misunderstanding’ of violence in the name of religion

conversation with researcher Jon Waind, UN Special Rapporteur Heiner Bielefeldt
clears up misconceptions about the links between religion and violence and why fostering
understanding is even more complex than we imagined.

By: /
16 February, 2016
A copy of the Bible lies on the ground at a clandestine campsite in northern Morocco near the border fence with Spain's north African enclave Melilla. Nov. 28, 2013.REUTERS/Juan Medina

Why should the term ‘religious violence’ be avoided? Is bridge-building possible when opposing sides are not a unified whole? And, what harm is done when we focus on violence in the Middle East?

 Heiner Bielefeldt, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief since 2010, tackles some of those questions here. The professor (currently at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg) and former director of the German Institute for Human Rights discusses the complexities of addressing violence committed in the name of religion in this conversation with McGill University lecturer Jon Waind.  

It is always human beings who bring about the connection between religion and violence,” Bielefeldt says. “And human beings can therefore also challenge and interrupt that connection.”

Waind: How have the twin phenomena of religiously affiliated violent extremism and acts of terror, done in the name of religion, impacted religious freedom advocacy during your tenure as UN Special Rapporteur?  How might we better understand such phenomena and consequently design adequate public policies to address them? 

Bielefeldt: It will not surprise you to hear that these issues have had an enormous impact on my mandate. For instance, last October we had a meeting in the buffer zone in Cyprus, which brought together some 40 experts from the entire MENA region in order to explore the potential of cross-boundary communication (which is more than interreligious dialogue) for de-poisoning the relations between different communities. Given the manifold root-causes and factors underneath violence and terrorism in the name of religion, no one has an easy recipe.

 What we obviously need is a holistic understanding of the phenomena, in order to address all the factors and hold all relevant stakeholders to account. While taking the religious or sectarian dimensions of the conflicts seriously, we should never focus on religion in isolation. Most of the factors of escalation do not just stem from religious struggles that allegedly have existed since time immemorial, but rather have to do with more recent developments and failures, such as a total disenchantment with government institutions in large parts of society, the every-day experience of rampant corruption and cronyism, loss of trust in the fair functioning of public institutions, even of the judiciary, increasing societal fragmentation as a result of political mismanagement, a climate of political despair sometimes bordering on public hysteria, the impact of conspiracy theories and scapegoating mechanisms, a prevailing macho culture, the bitter legacies of colonialism and other factors.

All of these social, cultural, political and economic factors in conjunction provide a fertile ground for messages of religious hatred to resonate in larger milieus. So there is indeed a lot to do.

Waind: [American scholar] Mark Juergensmeyer claims that violence appearing to result from religious extremism is frequently a religionized form of political violence rather than religious violence per se.  What, in your experience, counts as “violence done in the name of religion” as opposed to violence done according to some other, often political, justification that then becomes associated with religion?

Bielefeldt: Like Juergensmeyer, I avoid the language of “religious violence,” “religious terrorism” or “sectarian aggression,” etc. Not even the Thirty Years’ War, which in our history books figures as the epitome of a “confessional war,” can adequately be described by mainly focusing on religious or denominational differences. Otherwise, the Catholic Austrians and the likewise Catholic French would have been natural allies, which they obviously were not.

Even worse, an exclusive focus on religious difference may lead to fatalistic attitudes, i.e. the wrong assumption that those conflicts are some beyond the reach of what politics can manage. Many of the metaphors typically used to describe violent escalations actually invoke the analogy of natural disasters, like the outbreak of a volcano. This conveys the highly problematic message that the hot lava has always been there, as it were, and once authoritarian governments lose their control, the destructive dynamics will somehow “naturally” set in. This is a dangerous misunderstanding. In fact, it is no natural law that Sunnis and Shias are doomed to hate each other, and there are still societies (e.g. in Western Africa) in which Sunnis, Shias and Ahmadis amicably live together and even intermarry with the full blessing of their communities.

However, I would certainly not go so far as to declare the religious dimensions of the various conflicts as mere epi-phenomena that could be ignored in a serious analysis. Religion can and often does become an additional factor of escalation, which warrants systematic attention. The formula I prefer is “violence committed in the name of religion.” While on the one hand acknowledging that there actually is a relationship between religion and violence, the formula on the other hand gives room for inserting other variables. This is important, because violence (or terrorism) does not immediately originate from the various holy books or religious traditions, religious differences, etc., but always implies the intervention of human beings. They are the ones committing acts of violence, and they are the ones invoking religion for justifying such violence.

In short, it is always human beings who bring about the connection between religion and violence, and human beings can therefore also challenge and interrupt that connection. That is why many people speak about the “abuse” of religion for the purposes of committing and justifying violence.

Waind: In your 2014 report on violence committed in the name of religion, you identify education as a method the state should employ for promoting a “culture of respect, non-discrimination and appreciation of diversity within society” (p.12).  How does religious education – education about religious traditions and/or instruction in a particular religion – both fulfill and complicate that mandate? 

Bielefeldt: Religious education can sensitize students to the wealth within their own religious tradition – and within other religious traditions as well. The way extremist organizations invoke religion is typically “under-complex,” to put it very mildly, in that they reduce religious messages to simplistic polarizing slogans. It’s all black or white, believers versus non-believers, orthodoxy versus heresy, and no space remains for intellectual criticism, serious exchange, authentic experience or expressing doubts.

Giving students a more comprehensive understanding of various religious traditions can contribute to building resilience against simplistic slogans and dualistic messages. As pointed out before, I do believe that theology matters when combating the root-cause of violence perpetrated in the name of religion, although – let me repeat again – one should never focus on religion in isolation, in this regard. A second, possibly even more important aspect of school education is that it can bring students from different religious, denominational and also non-religious backgrounds together on a daily basis. Having real communication with real people on a regular basis remains the most important antidote to ideological image-construction, including religiously colourized conspiracy theories. School education has a key role to play in this area, since school is a place where the young generations meet.

Waind: Could you explain what you mean by the state’s employment of “informal education” and “community outreach” methods for addressing the problem of violence done in the name of religion?  What forms do these methods take and how can the state encourage them?

Bielefeldt: Inter-religious dialogue projects often presuppose a clear and unambiguous identification of all participants within a religion.

For instance, the assumption is here are Muslims, there are the Christians, and now we have to build a bridge that allows them to meet. Of course, you can replace Muslims and Christians by other religious backgrounds, which would not alter the general idea of a dialogue occurring between unambiguously defined religious groups. I am not against such projects, but I would like to complement them by communicative efforts that allow for more ambiguity. It is important to also take on board those people who may not even be able or willing to express their positions in religious terms or who prefer not to be identified mainly with a particular religious orientation or background. Personal identities and identifications can be very complex, and inter-religious dialogue projects sometimes do not really accommodate that full complexity.

“The language of bridge-building often implies that we have to have solid pillars on both sides – meaning a clear understanding of our respective religious identities.”

Take the metaphor of “bridge-building,” which is so popular. It somehow suggests a bipolar situation of two groups of people living on two sides of a river or valley, but maybe that river or valley does not even exist. Moreover, the language of bridge-building often implies that we have to have “solid pillars” on both sides – meaning a clear understanding of our respective religious identities – in order to base the bridge on those pillars. Although I do also use the metaphor of bridge-building myself from time to time, I would like to see more experimentation in the area of dialogue, including by leaving the issue of religious background undefined. This is what I have in mind when talking about “informal” types of cross-boundary communication.

Waind: It has been argued by some – for instance, Saba Mahmood and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd – that state sponsored advocacy for and promotion of religious freedom puts national governments in the position of actually defining that freedom.  This, they argue, is particularly worrisome for minority groups. 

Should state control over religious education generate the similar concern that through public policy it is defining which does or does not count as violence done in the name of religion?  Are potential risks related to state mandated education about religions worth the rewards associated with such education (e.g., the potential flourishing of pluralist society and waning of violence done in the name of religion)?

Bielefeldt: Freedom of religion or belief is a right held by human beings, and they are the ones who, first of all, have to determine what matters religiously to them. It is true that some governments, while proclaiming religious freedom in their constitutions, unilaterally define which “legitimate” religious options their citizens may have. Some governments (like Egypt or Jordan) merely accept “divinely revealed religions”; others (like Russia or Georgia) distinguish between “traditional” religions, which they recognize, and “non-traditional” religions, which they would not like to see in their territories; yet other governments (like Vietnam or China) create tightly monitored channels within any religious practice is supposed to remain.

Let me make it very clear that this has nothing to do with freedom of religion or belief, which is a human right to freedom after all. Right holders are human beings, not governments. That is why, the starting point for any application of freedom of religion or belief is the self-understanding of human beings. They have to say how they see themselves religiously and how they want to be recognized by others and by the State. This is not always the end of the story, since governments and in particular the judiciary has a role to play in shaping the concrete contours of human rights in such a way that everyone can enjoy these rights on the basis of equality. That is why sometimes limitations may be necessary. But again, governments do not have carte blanche to impose limitations as they see fit, but they have to honour the criteria set out in international human rights law for such limitations to be justifiable. Shakman Hurd’s criticism is not even based on an attempt to understand the logic of human rights and thus misses the point entirely.

Waind: In your report to the UN, you observe that developing “action plans against violence in the name of religion” is no simple task:

“Building resilience requires a broad range of activities, including educational efforts, early warning capacities and policies on crisis preparedness, by establishing channels of communication that enable relevant actors to respond strategically and swiftly” (p.12).

Similar to the difficult task of tracking and frustrating the plans of sex offenders who have not yet been caught, identifying and disrupting those being groomed to do violence in the name of religion is often complicated by the fact that their very first offense can be catastrophic in its effect.

What promise does education hold for addressing this issue that public policy targeting violence and terror offenses does not?  How might religious education potentially complicate the matter?

Bielefeldt: I am not so naive as to think that education is the key to everything. Education plays an indispensable role within a broader strategy of building resilience against the temptations of violence in the name of religion. And I do not see how quality education could actually complicate matters. Why? Let me recommend in this regard Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching about Religions and Beliefs in Public Schools, which were published by the OSCE in 2007.

“An exclusive focus on the Middle East may feed into the stereotype that violence committed in the name of religion mainly exists under the auspices of Islam. It is necessary to pay more attention to atrocities happening also in the name of other religions.”

But apart from investing in educational quality, we also need early-warning systems, effective crisis management and workable strategies of de-escalation. A good relationship between crisis management experts operating in municipal administrations and influential people working within religious communities can help to stop spiteful or paranoid rumours or conspiracy projections from spreading. I have seen impressive examples of such collaboration, including when simulating fictitious crisis situations in order to test whether the channels of communication work quickly enough. Of course, no preventive strategy works hundred percent. But it makes a huge difference whether religiously colorized messages of hatred click with just a few individuals or whether they attract larger parts of the population who have lost all trust in public institutions.

Waind: The violence of radicalized Islamist groups like ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram and Al Shabaab dominate the media.  Are there extremist groups connected to other religious traditions and working in other sensitive regions of the world that are currently being ignored?  If so, should attention be diverted from the Middle East and Africa to address these groups or does the fragility of that situation simply demand the attention it is receiving from politicians and the media?

Bielefeldt: The attention paid to what is happening in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region is understandable and indeed justified, since many of the most egregious atrocities are currently taking place in that region.  However, an exclusive focus on the Middle East may feed into the stereotype that violence committed in the name of religion mainly exists under the auspices of Islam. This is factually wrong and, even worse, could nourish a dangerous anti-Muslim essentialism. It is therefore necessary to broaden our awareness and pay more attention to atrocities happening also in the name of other religions. The “Lord’s Resistance Army,” who perpetrates acts of violence in Uganda, sees itself as a Christian organization. In the Central African Republic the breakdown of trustworthy government institutions has lead to a political vacuum in which Christian and Muslim militias fight each other. Since the coming into power of the current BJP government in India, Hindu nationalism is heavily on the rise, with violent vigilante groups threatening and attacking religious minorities. In Myanmar militant Buddhist monks have created a climate of hysteria against Muslims, resulting in tens of thousands of people fleeing the country.

 These are just a few random examples illustrating how broad the patterns are. The good news is that you will always find people in all those religious traditions who publicly oppose the invocation of their religion for the justification of violence. I have recently heard statements from Buddhist monks from Myanmar who find it perverse to see Buddhism, which even considers the individual “self” an illusion, turned into an ideology of militant collective selfishness. Likewise, Hindu intellectuals openly oppose the utilization of Hinduism, which traditionally accommodates most different worldviews and spiritual practices, for the purpose of forging a narrow national homogeneity. Most Christians would be unable to recognize any remotely Christian values in what the Lord’s Resistance Army is doing to its victims. More and more Christian theologians (still not enough) fight against homophobic propaganda undertaken in the name of traditional Christian morality. And Muslim organizations across the globe have repeatedly and publicly condemned terrorist violence of organizations like ISIS or Boko Haram.

 This brings me back to the initial point that human beings are the ones making the connection between religion and violence, but they also can and should challenge that very connection. Given the relevance of many other social, cultural, political and economic factors, open-minded theological interpretations cannot be the only answer to violence committed in the name of religion, but it is an important and indispensable contribution.

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Also in the series

Where is religion’s place in the extremism debate?

Where is religion’s place in the extremism debate?


Positioning religious extremism as a variant of
a larger species of modern ideological extremism offers a more balanced and
non-partisan frame for constructive engagement.

Tearing down walls: What a group of Israeli and Palestinian youth teaches us about fighting extremism

Tearing down walls: What a group of Israeli and Palestinian youth teaches us about fighting extremism


While dialogue between those from opposing sides
of war is not always peaceful or easy, it teaches participants how to think
critically, an essential aspect of peacebuilding.

How education, not surveillance, is most effective in countering violent extremism

How education, not surveillance, is most effective in countering violent extremism


extremism is typically fought with expensive and reactive policing. Meanwhile, educational
means are proactive, though they get less attention and, when religion is involved,
can be tricky.