Violence and (the Muslim) religion — some real data (for humanists) to chew on

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by Neil Godfrey

In 2007 34% of Lebanon’s Muslim respondents to a Pew survey felt suicide bombings could be justifiable.

One in three people sounds horrific, but compare with the survey 5 years earlier.

In 2002 74% of Lebanon’s Muslim respondents to a Pew survey felt suicide bombings could be justified.

The figures are taken from the Pew Global Attitudes report released 24th July 2007. (Interestingly the second largest Muslim population in the world, that of India, is not included in the survey.)

Had Lebanese Muslims become any less devout between 2002 and 2007? That is what some popular literature against religion, and the Moslem religion in particular, would lead us to logically infer.

Rather, as I have attempted to point out in some of these posts, religion is a Protean beast that adapts itself to the social and politico-economic issues of the day. I recently wrote in The Problem with Some Muslims something like:

Christianity has both practiced and condemned slavery and racism, supported and fought against war and oppression of women and children, argued both sides of capitalism and socialism, according to the time and society in which it found itself.

Could it be the same with the Moslem religion?

With that in mind look again at those two wildly divergent percentage figures.

If one is looking for an explanation for the drop in support of suicide bombing one might note that the 2002 survey was taken when Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon was still fresh in memory after their 1982 invasion. The Lebanese resistance movement intent on expelling the Israelis pioneered the tactic of suicide bombing in 1985, and the results of their efforts eventually paid off in 2000. Terror campaigns do often, if not immediately, achieve their goals. (Generally the practitioners of terrorist tactics will eventually reach a point where they achieve such “victories” that they are empowered to evolve into non-violent political actors.)

I think the survey figures are strong evidence that attitudes towards violence are not inherent in religion itself, but that religion is quite capable of engaging with real-life facts-on-the-ground in socially and psychologically explicable ways.

Other figures in the recent Pew report confirm this interpretation. Turkey no doubt has a higher ratio of its population registered as Moslems than we find in Lebanon, yet in 2002 the same Pew survey found 60% fewer Moslems in Turkey thought suicide bombing was justifiable in some circumstances.

Looking at the rest of the Pew figures one sees a huge divergence across the Muslim world in attitudes towards suicide bombing. In 2007 they range from 70% (Palestine) to 8% (Egypt).

So how would one begin to attempt to understand the difference between just these two “end-point” cases? Both are Arab. So it doesn’t look like a racial factor here. And both are Moslem. So . . . it’s not religion, least of all the Moslem religion, it would seem, that is the fulcrum factor.

But there is of course a nose-on-your-face noticeable difference: the Palestinians are suffering ongoing foreign occupation (and all the humiliation and brutality that necessarily must be inflicted to sustain that occupation) while the Egyptians are “free” by comparison (although Egypt’s government does support the main power who supports the occupation of other miscellaneous Arab and Moslem peoples in the Middle East).

The Point of All of This

The latest Pew Global Attitudes survey offer data to belie the claims of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins that religion itself, and the Moslem religion in particular, breeds violence. This claim does a disservice to rationality, I think.

We do more for the cause of humanity when we demonstrate that religion is, by far, more a product of the all too human societies that shoulder it than it is of some divine breath.

To attribute to religion some power capable of “super-naturally” possessng the psyches of its adherents does not serve the cause of any humanistic study. By all means study religions as “powers of certain memes” if one wants, but don’t violate the basics of all that we have learned from sociology, anthropology, history and psychology in the process.

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Neil Godfrey

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