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Debunking the Ideologies of Violent Religious Extremists

“What was it like growing up as a Christian in Lebanon, with so many Muslims around you?”

“How did you handle the pressures of being a minority in a Muslim-majority context?”

These are questions that I have been asked many times while traveling in Europe and North America. The first time I was asked this as a teenager, I was taken by surprise.

My family had lived for three generations in Hamra, a Muslim-majority neighborhood of Beirut. I was born and raised there and went to a school where most of my classmates were Muslim.

When my parents decided to move to the Christian-majority side, due to the relocation of my father’s workplace and the constant dangers of kidnappings and sniping, my most striking memory as a 13-year-old was the way that my new Christian friends spoke of Muslims, as though they were a different species.

Yet as children, my siblings and I often kept the fast of Ramadan in solidarity with our Muslim friends, and once my brother and I asked my parents for permission to go to the mosque with them.

I never experienced Muslims or Islam as a threat. They were simply neighbors and friends who worshipped God with a variant on the theme with which I was growing up.

These days, when people ask me about what it was like to be a persecuted Christian, growing up in Lebanon’s civil war, I reply with a smile that most of the bombs that fell near me were Christian bombs and that the only snipers we feared were Christian snipers, whose gunsights had a cross dangling from them.

The war in Lebanon was a civil war. You feared the fire and violence of the other side, whichever side you lived on, rather than who it belonged to.

Christians were kidnapped and killed by Muslim militias because their identity card said “Christian,” and Muslims were kidnapped and killed by Christian militias because their identity card said “Muslim.”

The violent jihadi group, ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), has killed more Muslims than Christians and Yazidis, and they have destroyed more Muslim shrines than Christian ones.

If they had ever made it to Islam’s holiest city, Mecca, there is little doubt that their iconoclastic mindset would have had them destroy the Kaaba, which Muslims have venerated for 1,400 years as having been set up originally by Abraham and his son, Ishmael.

The ISIS attacks on Christians and Yazidis get more attention because these are smaller groups than the majority Sunnī population. But the latter also suffered tremendously at their hand.

How do we make sense of all the conflicts around the world that, for the majority these days, have taken on a religious color?

One group of people is up in arms against Islam, perceiving it as the root cause of the violence.

Another group finds itself continuously on the defensive, having to argue constantly that the violent groups perpetuating these horrors have nothing to do with Islam.

And Islam is certainly not the only religion in the dock.

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both Judaism and Christianity stand accused as well.

The expansionist policies of Israel are seen by some largely as the result of narrow and fanatical interpretations of biblical promises to the Jewish people.

In addition to this, many evangelical Christians, particularly in the United States, have championed an ideology for over a hundred years referred to as “Christian Zionism.”

This ideology is viewed by many as the primary driver of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East for the past few decades.

Are the conflicts religious then? Are violent groups inspired by religious texts?

Or are the conflicts neither sectarian nor religious in essence, but is religious identity, as some argue, simply “being manipulated and instrumentalized by sectarian entrepreneurs and shrewd political actors”?

This opinion was expressed by political analyst and researcher Hayder al-Khoei, “A Sectarian War Unfolding in the Middle East?” with the Centre on Religion and Global Affairs, Feb. 6, 2017, available online here.

Any simple yes-or-no answer to this question should be viewed with suspicion.

But if there is no straightforward answer to such a complex question, there can nevertheless be some guiding principles for our thinking, deriving from historically informed observation.

Here are a few that come to mind: most conflicts, historically, started not for religious reasons, but rather as a result of clashing visions on economics, culture, language, land boundaries, power and control.

Often conflicts take on a religious dimension, and once they do, they become far more difficult to resolve.

P. Barker and W. Muck argue similarly in “Secular Roots of Religious Rage: Shaping Religious Identity in the Middle East,” Politics and Religion 3.2 (2009).

Religious texts and beliefs are easy to use by various parties of a conflict in order to defend their ideology, as all meaning derives from a particular interpretation, which is subject to specific contextual factors that change with time and location.

Once religion becomes party to a conflict, the resulting intercommunal damage will be deeply rooted and will likely take a long time to heal.

Given this intricate relationship between religion and conflict, no religious group can abdicate its responsibility toward it.

It is unhelpful to claim that religion has nothing to do with a conflict simply because it was not the root cause of it; if any party at any point claims that it is acting in the name of any religion, religion has something to do with this conflict.

People of faith have a great responsibility to counter violent ideologies of those who claim to derive them from the Scriptures and traditions of the same religion to which they adhere.

The claims of some Muslims, Christians, Jews or members of any religion that violent people acting in the name of their religion are simply imposters – and that it is therefore not their problem to address – are suspicious.

By doing so, they adopt the same tendency as violent extremists who essentialize religion, who claim they hold the only correct interpretation of their texts, and who anathematize all others.

In light of the preceding reflection, I argue that people of faith bear a crucial responsibility in the face of conflict.

For the most part, they should not be held responsible for the violence of some who claim to belong to their group, but they do bear responsibility to fight and debunk these ideologies.

Given that they share many scriptural resources with their violent counterparts, they are also the ones best positioned to develop initiatives of change that can be effective in transforming conflict situations.

Editor’s note: This article is excerpted from “Sacred Misinterpretation: Reaching Across the Christian-Muslim Divide” by Martin Accad ©2019 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) Reprinted by permission of the publisher; all rights reserved. You can order the book on Amazon here.

Martin Accad

Martin Accad is director of the Institute of Middle East Studies (IMES) at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon.