People are violent. Muslims are people.

Over the last few months I’ve sparred on-and-off with some friends on FB on the question of whether Islam is an inherently violent religion. In this intermittent discussion, a friend sent me this a couple of days ago, in response to the Charlie Hebdo shooting:

Islam Is The Most Violent Religion In The World, But Let’s Keep Calling It Peaceful Anyway

You should take a moment to skim through it, if you’re curious. Matt Walsh is in typical form as a convincing communicator, but a sometimes pitiful fact-checker. There are plenty of other places on the web to find similar arguments, and basically they say this:

Dear Western World,
Islam is a particularly nasty and violent religion, and we should wake up to this reality already.

I’ve only chosen the Matt Walsh post today as Exhibit A, and want to share some ongoing, in-process thoughts on the topic.

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Let’s start with Matt’s thesis, which is summarized in his conclusion:

“No, there’s no way around this. Islam is more violent than any religion that’s ever existed anywhere.”

To start, this statement is so hyperbolic that it’s basically un-testable. We don’t have written records of all religions that have ever existed, much less of how much violence their adherents committed, and especially not whether those adherents claimed religious motives in that violence, or other impetus. But let’s give ol’ Matt the benefit of the doubt, and round his statement to something more empirically testable:

“Islam is the most violent major religion in recorded history.”

A little better. But Islam strictly considered is just a “system” of moral attitudes and cosmological beliefs, so it can’t commit violence by itself. It needs adherents to do that. Let’s change the phrasing again, and hope Matt would still approve:

“Muslims are more violent than adherents of any other major religion in recorded history.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. This is easy to test because (afaik) the majority of all people in recorded history, until the early modern period, were confessed adherents of some belief or another. Let’s take a look at this.

If we look at all historical violence in recorded history, we should see that the largest human death tolls have been caused by Muslims, right? Maybe I’m making a logical jump here, but I think this is a fair way (one of several) to test Matt’s claim. If you disagree with this leap, then please say so in the comments.

Let’s look here:

List of Wars and Anthropogenic Disasters by Death Toll – Armed Conflicts and Genocides

Not surprisingly, WWII ranks at the top of the list. Of the major belligerents in that conflict, none had Muslim civilian majorities or Muslim heads of state. Meanwhile, the principle aggressor state in the West, Nazi Germany, was overwhelmingly Christian at the start of the conflict. Don’t believe me? Look it up.

Religion in Nazi Germany

As we continue down the list we’ll find that even the presence of Islam is somewhat rare among the major wars and conflicts. The only one in the top 10 is the campaign(s) of Tamerlane, who at least made heavy use of Muslim imagery in his leadership. And out of this entire top-45 list, there might only be 5 conflicts or events that were determined strongly by Muslim belligerents, whether defensive or offensive.

So in the course of all violence recorded throughout history, it looks like Muslims have played a relatively minor role compared to adherents of other religions.

So far Matt’s thesis is not holding much water.

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“But,” you or Matt might be saying, “it’s not fair to look at ALL violence, because only SOME wars and conflicts in world history were motivated by religion.”

Okay Matt, let’s play that game. I’ll get us started. Let’s look at the bloody streak that the Christian church has left on history:

I don’t have an exhaustive list of historical wars and violence rendered by Muslims, and to my knowledge Matt hasn’t provided one. But the links above account for tens of millions of lives lost due to wars and actions that were either validated by, or explicitly authorized by, the Christian church. So Muslims throughout history have an enormous deficit to contend with here. My instinct is that, if you were to go find comparable records for violence enacted by Muslim states and peoples, the tally would not come close to balancing out. Probably even accounting on a per-capita basis.

And it’s with this imbalance that my own point begins to emerge here:

If Matt and the rest of us think we’re making a comparative statement here, aka saying that “Muslims are violent [compared to Christians et. al.]” then we would do well to take a long hard look at our own historical legacy.

In other words let’s not be idiots please. We live in the internet age, where all of history is laid out for us like a 24-hour buffet. Let’s study at least some of it for Christ’s sake.
(pun intended)

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“But,” you or Matt might say “while Christians of the past were very brutal, today we have reformed, and are peaceable and enlightened, whereas Muslims are still barbaric and twisted.”

Okay Matt, I hear you. Let’s look at that.

It’s not hard to say this, being a citizen of a modern industrialized state, living in North America or possibly western Europe. Matt (and probably you) is used to living in a society of relatively strong institutions that keep civil law and order, as well as religious freedom and pluralism. Because of all that, it’s relatively rare to find religious fundamentalists committing outright (physical) violence, because it would face immediate public censure and forceful reprisal.

So therefore, sure, Matt is right when he says:

“Can you imagine Christian radicals committing mass murder at The Onion offices because they’re upset about something they found on its website? Can you even fathom such a thing? Probably not, because it never happens.”

Matt thinks this would never happen because Christians would never do such a thing. But I disagree. I think this never happens because we live in a stable, modern, secular state, with strong institutions and legal enforcement. So he’s really not doing much, by comparing Muslim extremists to polite western Christians.

If we really want to compare apples to apples, we should look at how professed Christians behave in countries that resemble what we commonly call “the Muslim world” — countries that are poor, dominated by corruption, rife with tribalist loyalties, and lacking strong institutions. I wonder if Christians in those places would ever commit heinous violence and crimes against humanity. Humm …

  • Christianity in the Rwandan Genocide looks at how the churches of Rwanda played a key role in enabling the extermination of up to 20% of the population in 1994
  • The Second Congo War or “Great War of Africa” is the largest armed conflict in the world since WWII, and has killed more than 5 million people … all while happening in a region where more than 90% of the population identifies as Christian

My point here is that violence is mainly conditioned by societal factors, much more so than by religious doctrine taken in isolation. In fact, religious doctrine itself is highly conditioned by societal factors. Because duh.

In other words, we should expect that the kind of Islam practiced in stable and prosperous historical periods might appear just as enlightened and benevolent as (we think) we are today in the West. It turns out this isn’t hard to find:

[ … anyone know where the word algebra comes from? … ]

Meanwhile by the same reasoning, we should also expect that Christian societies have been especially brutal and militaristic during times of scarcity and conflict. Is this true? Duh it’s true. There are a billion links up above that show this.

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Finally, Matt might say: “Okay fine, even Christian civilizations will do terrible violence, but today and in recent memory, Muslims are the worst offenders for explicitly claiming religion as the motivation for their violence.”

Let’s pick up that thread. I don’t know exactly how we want to define “worst”, but what if we just went with the total number of deaths caused by explicitly-confessed religious motivations?

Start here:
George Bush: “God told me to end the tyranny in Iraq”

And end here:
Why They Hate Us

“… a reasonable upper bound for Muslim fatalities […] is well over one million, equivalent to over 100 Muslim fatalities for every American lost.”

So … yeah.

If you still insist on viewing the Christian west as a white knight, and modern Islam as a scourge that has been black from its beginning, then please help me understand why, in the comments section below. I can’t understand how this view can persist, when we have clearly rendered so much more violence as supposed Christians — whether implicitly or explicitly religious. Let us look in the mirror together, and consider our own sins before condemning our international neighbors.

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Speaking of neighbors, my last point will focus on human relationships, rather than violence and war.

In another part of his post, Matt said:

“… we [should] stop putting Jihad into context and [we should] stop making excuses for it. These [Muslim extremists] are bloodthirsty barbarians. They don’t have a point. They don’t need to be understood. They don’t deserve any considerations at all.”

Yikes dude. Let’s spend a little time here before we finish this up.

Unless I’ve misunderstood him, Matt writes as a believing Christian as much as anything else. But his statement here is so far from my understanding of Jesus’s teachings that I don’t even find it recognizable.

If while saying this, we imagine that Matt had a big beard and was speaking Arabic, we would assume that he was an extremist himself. Interesting.

What would Jesus say to Matt, and to all of us? At very least, Jesus said we should not resist those who do evil; we should never call anyone a fool; we should care for our neighbor, even when we think our neighbor is our enemy. And above all that and more challenging than all of that,

He said we should love our enemies.

… And I admit … doing so is hard. For some reason in western Christendom we tend to gloss over such “basic” teachings of Jesus and focus on more complex topics like the nature of salvation, eschatology, and so forth. But I am humbled here by the simplicity and weight of Jesus’s words. One could easily spend a whole lifetime to learn this straightforward, challenging axiom.

… But Matt seems to have thrown it all out the window. Perhaps he doesn’t think it’s possible to love those who do harm to us. Instead, he unwittingly encourages the very same tribalism that actually motivates most of the ongoing violence in the Arab world (among other places). He draws a line in the sand labeled US and THEM; and he seems here to have decided that them Muslim extremists are insane animals who should no longer be loved, understood, or cared for.

I wish Matt would see that a huge chunk of extremist demographics (perhaps even a majority) are young poor men who face marginalization, unemployment, fear of everyday violence, and lack of any hopeful future. These are individuals who, because of myriad regional forces beyond their control, have been presumably denied exactly the love, care, and hope that Jesus teaches all humans deserve. They are instead manipulated and encouraged into militias from that state of vulnerability. And to be sure, they are responsible for their own actions as much as anyone is. But they face few other prospects that offer any hope to them.

And then, under the command of clerics and warlords who are often more motivated by power and politics than they are by the teachings of Islam as such … they are sent to kill, and to die.

In turn, they are burned in effigy by vitriolic western bloggers like Matt. And people here feel relieved when he does so, because like dominant whites in the Old South on a night of lynching, they are utterly terrified.

What Matt forgets, and what we all forget, is that all of humanity is thoroughly broken, and that Jesus had the closest fellowship with those who were most broken. If one day (like today) we look in the mirror and think that we see an image of Christian righteousness, we are likely instead seeing only the outside of the dish, masking an interior of fear, greed, and self-serving rhetoric.

Perhaps Matt thinks that by writing with such ardor, he is doing his part to preserve something worth fighting for. All too often, he is preserving nothing but the fight itself. He perpetuates this conflict to all of our detriment.

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Post scripts:

  1. Do you think there’s an important message in this post? Great, I do too. I see today’s anti-Muslim sentiment as just another manifestation of fear, bigotry, and specious groupthink. If you agree, you should re-share this post.
  2. Did you find this thought-provoking? Want to talk more? Great. Let’s do it. Light up those comments below, or message me directly via any means you can find. I’d love to continue kicking this around. All thoughts are a work in progress.
  3. Recommended further reading: The Myth of Religious Violence
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