I am writing this as I return from a seminar at Oxford University on the threat posed by terrorism today. Forty individuals from many different disciplines and a diversity of nations and cultures convened for a week to present their current research on this topic. Immediately a difference of opinion surfaced between those who felt passionately that Islam was significantly and essentially more violent than any other world religion and those who adamantly rejected this claim. I was struck by this because only a few weeks earlier, at a conference on religion and violence at a major Midwestern University, a very bright guy confronted me quite directly on exactly the same issue.
As someone who has taught world religions for several decades, it seems uncontestable that every world religion has sponsored horrific acts of violence and inhumanity (and the same religions have also sponsored heroic acts of self-sacrifice and humanity). To take one obvious example: this discussion would look very different if it was occurring in Europe and the Middle East in the Middle Ages. Then Moslems, Christians and Jews lived peacefully together in many Moslem controlled countries and Christians were busy butchering Moslems, Jews, and other Christians in the crusades. Taken in terms of their entire histories and full manifestations, no religion can claim to be completely a religion of peace and no religion can be castigated as simply a religion of violence. A comparative study of violent religious groups reveals many common themes in such groups across traditions. Often they share more in common with each other than they share with more mainstream elements of their own traditions [many examples can be found in my book Blood That Cries Out From the Earth: The Psychology of Religious Terrorism (Oxford, 2008)].
Of course al Qaeda is rooted in Islam. But al Qaeda is rooted in Islam in exactly the same way that the Christian Identity movement and the militias (and the killers of health care workers at women's clinics) are rooted in Christianity. The same way that the Jewish Defense League and Gush Emunim (Party of the Faithful) are rooted in Judaism; or the Hindu Nationalist Party is rooted in Hinduism; or Aum Shinrikyo is rooted in Buddhism. They all represent the merger of their religions with virulent nationalism and/or apocalyptic passion and what the historian Martin Marty calls "the selective retrieval of tradition."
So why are some Americans (all the people at the conference who argued for the equation of Islam and violence were Americans) attracted to this position? Is it that they haven't studied world religions? Is it that they commit the fallacy of over-generalization based only on recent events? Or is this a recurrence of what Richard Hofstadter called in the fifties "the paranoid style in American politics" (in a book by that name)? That Americans need to see the world in apocalyptic terms as a battle between the righteous and the demonic (perhaps as a result of America's early religious heritage). With the collapse of Stalinist communism in Russia and Eastern Europe, America needed to find another enemy to demonize in an absolutist and totalistic manner. Islam (not just al Qaeda) was scripted to fill that role. Perhaps?