The role of religion in the life of man has not always been in the best interests of humanity. Some of the oldest examples of terrorist actions are attributed to people claiming to act in the name of religious ideals. When the Romans occupied Palestine, a Jewish sect called ‘Zealots’ reacted by carrying out horrific acts of violence against the Romans. In the late 11th Century, a Muslim Ismaili sect calling itself ‘The Assassins’ killed Christians so as to usher in the new millennium quickly. In fact, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism, Hinduism and other major religions all over the world have witnessed violent acts in their long history. So, the unholy marriage of religion and violence that we witness today is not new or surprising.
However, it is also worth remembering that most of these dastardly acts happened before the 19th Century. For the most part of the 20th Century, religious terrorism was absent in most parts of the world. According to Byron Bland, the rise of secularism in the West could be attributed to people’s reaction to the religious violence in the 16th and 17th centuries. Unfortunately, religion inspired violence has made a huge comeback in the last few decades.
In 2001, a great loss was suffered by Americans when they witnessed the annihilation of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The attack was carried out by 18 terrorists associated with Al-Qaeda. In the process, the attack shattered the confidence and security of millions of people. The Sinhala Buddhists in Srilanka encouraged violence against Christians and Tamils when the LTTE crumbled. India witnessed fresh religious terror on November 26, 2009. For many people living in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan, religion instigated deaths and violence have become a way of life. Religious extremism is taking roots in the West as well. America’s extreme right wing conservatives are spreading the same fire of anger and animosity. Just a few weeks ago, law enforcement arrested 3 individuals on terrorism charges.
The fact that we are living in a post modernistic society but are witnessing the restoration of archaic religious wars is as shocking as it is hard to fathom. How can we have globalization on the one hand and the exact opposite on the other? If religion instigates communal violence, it is pertinent to have questions concerning faith, religious organizations and religious leaders. Holy Scriptures of every religious community calls for peace. Why then are their followers engaged in so many violent disputes?
The answer to this contrast could probably be found in the heart of every religion. Religions have always had to balance the doctrine of peaceful coexistence with the need to establish themselves through force. On the one hand, religion preaches love and respect of all. On the other, they also teach that it is acceptable to burn the heretics. Also, religion requires its followers to stick to a stringent moral code. So, while religion tells people that they must love their neighbors, it also sanctions extreme actions if done in the name of preserving the word of God. There is a strange dualism in the heart of every religion in the world.
As a result, religious violence has become the most dangerous issue facing our society today. The mass killing of fellow beings for the sake of justifying individual belief systems is nothing short of shocking. Millions of human beings have already lost their lives in violently shocking ways as wave after wave of religious terrorism and extremism sweeps across the world. Once unimaginable, suicide bombings have become so common that society has almost accepted it as one more type of warfare. While millions of people die due to direct violence, billions become indirect victims of the carnage that is carried out in the name of religion. They die too – of poverty, unemployment, misguidance and sheer ignorance. Today, there is an unvoiced yet tangible fear of religious extremists using nuclear weapons to subdue the ‘non-believers’.
As the world becomes equipped with lethal weapons that can wipe out life for millions of kilometers around, it is all the more necessary to carry out some introspection regarding our common perceptions about religion and the direction it is leading us to. Should we allow ourselves to become mere puppets of our religious beliefs? While it is sometimes good to follow the path of a chosen religion, where do we draw the line of distinction and determine what is right and what is wrong?