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Islam and Christianity: different ideology around conflict and violence

The contrast of the Old Testament’s Cherem wars with the Quran’s ideology of Jihad is striking. This will help understand the current debate in Sweden – and elsewhere.

FEATURES AUTOR 241/Olof_Edsinger 25 DE AGOSTO DE 2023 13:30 h
A mosque in Iraq reduced to ruins by the war with the Islamic State. / Photo: [link]LM Clancy[/link], Unsplash, CC0.

The issue of religion and violence has returned to the agenda. This time because of the Muslim world’s reaction to the Quran burnings and - not least - the capital of violence represented by Islamist groups within this community.

Linked to this, it is natural to discuss the role of religion in armed conflicts. And compared to the general picture, it is a research area that offers several surprises.


War and religion in the past

The Swedish historian of religion, Mattias Gardell, for example, has been able to show that more than 90 per cent of all armed conflicts in the world between 1945 and 2001 had something other than religion as their primary driver. 66 per cent of the conflicts were also between parties who nominally had the same religious affiliation (Christians fought Christians, Muslims fought Muslims, and so on). And not least remarkable, given the prevailing Western narrative: the religion that was most over-represented among the armed conflicts of the period was Buddhism.

[destacate]Most of the mass killings in the 20th century were atheistic rather than religious in nature [/destacate]Moreover, most of the mass killings in the 20th century were atheistic rather than religious in nature. In Mao’s China alone, between 35 and 45 million people may have died, often violently. To this can be added other Communist regimes such as the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin (around 8 million each) and Pol Pot’s reign of terror in Cambodia (2 million) - all with an atheist ideology. By comparison, the Spanish Inquisition led to between 3,000 and 5,000 executions in 350 years, a drop in the ocean compared to 20th century Communist leaders.

This is not a defence of religious violence. And especially when it becomes a state religion, Christianity also has blood on its hands. The most common reference is to the Medieval crusades, but the Thirty Years’ War deserves a special mention in terms of the number of deaths.


Old Testament wars

And doesn’t the Old Testament talk about both war and killing in the name of God? Let me here clarify the concepts of the Old Testament war texts, and then compare them with the Quran’s message on the subject.

Any reader of the Old Testament will notice the presence of war. Certainly, this is not unique to Jewish historiography. War means that the welfare of the nation is at stake, which makes it natural for historians to dwell on these events. What possibly stands out in the biblical texts is God’s active presence in what happens. However, this too is not unique to the Old Testament - claims of divine presence and protection in the context of battle are a standard feature of war stories of this period.

A type of war that arouses greater moral indignation, however, is that fought in connection with the entry of the Hebrews into the land of Canaan. Here we can read about the judgment of rejection, cherem, which, at least on the surface, seems to have involved the total extermination of the local population: “However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them – the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites – as the Lord your God has commanded you” (Deuteronomy 20:16-17, NIV).

Research in recent decades has shown that these wars were probably not as brutal as they seem. Here again, the contemporary traditions of war writing come into play, where ‘spare no one’ can in some cases be compared to a football coach telling his team ‘let’s crush the opposition’. This is what is sometimes called hyperbole - rhetorically motivated exaggeration. Three times as often as there is talk of “exterminating” the Canaanites, there is also talk of “expelling” them. But no matter how the cherem texts are interpreted, it is clear that we are dealing with a form of war that is difficult for a modern reader to digest.

[destacate]No matter how the 'cherem' texts are interpreted, it is clear that we are dealing with a form of war that is difficult for a modern reader to digest[/destacate]The explanation for this, according to the texts themselves, is that the Canaanites have earned God’s judgement. They have engaged in child sacrifice, occult practices and all kinds of sin, and for that they have forfeited their right to the land. The Cherem wars are thus not ordinary wars but acts of judgement in connection with God allowing the Hebrews to settle in the area where the state of Israel is still located today.

This may not make things easier for a contemporary reader of the Bible. But it has major implications for the contemporary Judeo-Christian view of violence. Put simply, the religious wars of the Old Testament were geographically limited to the land of Canaan and essentially took place under the leadership of Israel’s rulers Moses and Joshua. In other words, the biblical texts describing the Cherem wars can be characterised as descriptive, since there is no expectation that this warfare will be repeated by later generations.

The contrast with the Quran’s ideology of Jihad is thus striking. Well aware that moderate Muslims are strongly opposed to all forms of violence, it is a fact that Jihad is formally directed against the entire non-Muslim world (also known as the “house of war”, Dar Al-Harb), that it lacks historical and temporal boundaries, and that the Quranic texts on the subject are perceived as prescriptive - i.e. Muhammad’s warfare is seen as exemplary even for today’s warriors of God.

I am not claiming that moderate Muslims support this attitude. However, it is an explanation for why we today feel a well-founded fear of Islamist attacks, while very few Swedes have any expectation of similar behaviour from Christians.

[destacate]The past is proving to hold crucial keys to understanding contemporary events[/destacate]In fact, even the Crusades were not motivated by the Old Testament war texts, but rather by the New Testament discourses of love, self-sacrifice and taking up one’s cross and following Christ. The background to the first Crusades was several hundred years of wars of conquest by the Muslim world, where previously Christian areas in the Middle East, North Africa and Spain had been Islamised. The campaigns were launched when the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Comnenos appealed to Pope Urban II for military assistance at a time when the Christian presence in Asia Minor was in danger of being completely wiped out.

The relationship between religion and violence is complex and, like most areas of research, deserves in-depth study. But it is also an area where the past is proving to hold crucial keys to understanding contemporary events.

Olof Edsinger, Secretary General of the Swedish Evangelical Alliance. Author of the book 'The Wars in the Old Testament: An attempt to understand' .




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