Violence in the Name of Religion: Origins Recent Developments, and Transformations

[These are my notes from the 6th Annual Al-Alwani Lecture in honor of Dr. Taha Jabir Al-Alwani delivered at the El-Hibri Foundation by  Dr. Amr Abdalla of the Minaret of Freedom Institute Board of Directors. These notes are not a transcription, but a paraphrase intended only to give my perception of the lecture, response, and discussion. Responsibility for any errors is mine alone.]

Violence in the Name of Religion: Origins Recent Developments, and Transformations

Larry Golemon, Washington Theological Consortium (introducing the speaker). Religion is sometimes an obstacle, also a mask, and sometimes a resources.

Amr Abdalla, Addis Ababa University. Some of the people I interviewed as a prosecutor after the assassination of Anwar Sadat are now seen as the founding fathers of the current violence. I learned that, while they were evil, they were not crazy and they thought they were in the right within their cultural ideological and religious foundations. Understanding them without agreeing with their motivations, I was disillusioned with the methods used to counter the problem they posed.

People blame ignorance, poverty, etc., for religious violence, but I do not see that. One factor I do see is their perception of Islam’s glorious past. Islam was in part about liberation of the oppressed, and the prophet was opposed by the political elites of his own city. It was in exile that Muslims started their own city-state. By the time of his death he controlled religiously and politically the entire Arabian peninsula. His immediate successors expanded Muslim territory from Spain to India, establishing both an empire and a civilization, though not really a state. Eventually Muslim civilization fell as European civilization rose, and the period of colonization began.

Starting with the Napoleonic conquests Muslims began to ask what went wrong. The simple answer some came up with was that we were on top when we were good Muslims, and now we are not. Then the answer is to become good Muslims again, but what does it mean to be a good Muslim? There are many answers to this question, but there are two factors that keep coming up: that we are oppressed by local dictators and that they are supported by foreign powers. From their point of view they are fighting to restore their greatness by fighting oppressors and their foreign enemies. Those who turn to violence rely on a methodology called abrogation: they argue that the peaceful passages of the Qur’an are abrogated by a later call to militant jihad, whether viewed defensively or offensively. This leads to an ignoring of 90% of Islamic teachings in order to insist on the application of a few verses out of context. Poverty does not correlate with violence, and lack of education actually anti-correlates. When I worked in criminal prosecution so many of the accused could not read and write that we needed a rubber stamp to take their thumbprint as a signature. In prosecuting political militants, however, that rubber stamp was not needed a single time. All of them could read and write.

The Iranian revolution showed the fallacy of seeing the future as a choice between Communism and Capitalism. Confronted with this wild card the U.S. deployed Saddam Hussein against Iran and the jihadists against the Soviet Union. They thought they could unleash the genie to do their work and then put the genie back into the bottle. But you can’t put a genie back into the bottle.

Some of those whom we imprisoned in connection with the assassination of Sadat have repented of their old doctrine and developed a new one calling for peaceful resistance based on the Qur’an and Sunnah and they have persuaded thousands of young would-be jihadists as well. But doctrinal revision by itself will fail unless accompanied by addressing the grievances which the jihadists resist.  The four Doctrine Revision books (in Arabic) they developed available online.

Amb. Anthony Quainton, Diplomat in Residence & Professor of Foreign Policy, School for International Service, American University. I am not an expert on violence or religion, but I was in Clinton and Carter administrations. In 1095 in Claremont France, Pope Urban urged his audience to go to the Holy Land to reclaim it for Christendom, beginning centuries of bloodshed. Pope Urban promised a place in heaven to all who would’ve their lives in the First Crusade. This has an echo in ISIS’s call for an Islamic state.

One can argue that a thousand years of religious wars had little to do with religion but cannot deny that wars in the name of religion had been around for a long time and will be around for s long time to come. Yet we would do well to remember hat occurs not just between. Muslims and Christians. We can remember Hindus and Buddhist Sunnis v Shia and catholic v Protestants. And the most baptized are of the world I have heard it said Is Rwanda. In Sudan different Christian denominations are associated with different tribes. A foundational hymn in my youth was onward Christian soldiers which had been deleted from most hymnals. Lift high the cross is still sung despite its militant imagery. The enemy is not Islam, but the devil, but some see jihadists as part of satan’s forces.

One suggested solution is an intense reading and analysis of each other’s scriptures. Few Christians have read he Qur’an cover to cover, but then few have read the bible cover to cover. Certainly few Muslims have read the bible cover to cover. Unlike our friends in the Buddhist, Hindu, or Confucian traditions we Muslims and Christians claim to hold the Absolute Truth. This leaves little room for compromise and where there is little room for compromise violence is often the result.

Confronting Political Islam by John Owen suggests we take containment strategy that calls for patience. He exhorts Western societies to be true their highest ideals. But will the materialistic hedonistic values of the West only engender greater resistance from the extremist Muslims?


Quainton. Forgiveness requires reciprocity at some level. This is difficult given our mutual ignorance.

Abdalla. On the Islamic side we are struggling to understand forgiveness despite the richness of the text. The problem is the legal approach to the text that only looks at the legal text. One focuses on the license to retribution when one is wronged but in every case it is followed by the advice to forgive because it better for the one who was wronged, but this is ignored despite the fact that it was what the prophet Muhammad did, only because it does not lend itself to legislation.

Quainton. You have to rethink what is sin. You can only seek forgiveness when you realize you have done something wrong. If you don’t understand what your religion commands you can justify the violence in which you engage.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

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