Do Devotion and Brutality Go Together?

First, let me quote a passage. Then you try and guess what it refers to. And then we will talk about it together.

A race absolutely alien to God has invaded the land of the Christians, has reduced the people with sword, rapine and flame. These men have destroyed the altars polluted by their foul practices. They have circumcised the Christians, either spreading the blood from the circumcisions on the altars or pouring it into the baptismal fonts. And they cut open the navels of those whom they choose to torment with loathsome death, tear out their most vital organs and tie them to a stake, drag them around and flog them, before killing them as they lie prone on the ground with all their entrails out. What shall I say of the appalling violation of women, of which it is more evil to speak then to keep silent?

On whom, therefore, does the task lie of avenging this, of redeeming this situation, if not on you, upon whom above all nations God has bestowed outstanding glory in arms, magnitude of heart, litheness of body and strength to humble anyone who resists you.

Let me pause here while you reflect on what this is all about.

Is this for real?  Is this some madman frothing at the mouth?

Hold your breath. The year is 1095; the place is Clermont, France; the speaker is Pope Urban II.

This was the speech that launched the First Crusade as Pope Urban “called upon Catholic Europe to take up arms and prosecute a vengeful campaign of reconquest, a holy war that would cleanse its participants of sin” with the promise “that those fighting as ‘soldiers of Christ’ would be purified by the fire of battle.”

Pope Urban’s impassioned description of the barbarity of savage Muslims propelled “some 100,000 men and women, from knight to pauper, to take up the call – the largest mobilization of manpower since the fall of the Roman Empire” – and march 3,000 kilometers to Jerusalem “leaving the air afire with their battle cry: God’s will! God’s will.”

This is the quote that begins the remarkable and highly acclaimed account of the First Crusade by Thomas Asbridge (The First Crusade: A New History, Oxford, 2004).

And here is Thomas Asbridge’s punch line on page 3 based on his meticulous research:

The image of Muslims as brutal oppressors conjured by Pope Urban was pure propaganda – if anything, Islam had proved over the preceding centuries to be more tolerant of other religions than Catholic Christendom.

And here is the psychological puzzle:

How could the crusaders demonstrate a capacity for “intense religious devotion” as well as “appalling brutality” at the same time?

Why are these things relevant for us today?

Because nothing much has changed except the geography. In an earlier post (How Far Behind is South Asia?) we had estimated that South Asia was about 150 years behind Europe as measured by material development indicators. But when we look at it from the perspective of mental attitudes could we say that the gap is as much as a thousand years.

Here we are almost 1,000 years after 1095 and we have Osama bin Laden telling the same types of exaggerated untruths about Christians and Jews and an army of believers willing to blow themselves up for the cause – intense religious devotion mixed with appalling brutality.

And what about the amazing happenings of the 1947 partition of British India? Neighbors who had coexisted for decades suddenly decided to demonstrate devotion to their faith by massacring those belonging to a different one. Is that how one shows devotion to the truth? (See the excerpt from Urvashi Butalia’s book in the post Ghalib- 8 and read Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan.)

There is always someone inciting people to a holy jihad and there are always followers available to answer the call mixing intense religious devotion with appalling brutality.

Why are people so ready to be conned so easily? How come people see devotion in brutality? Any answers?

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  • Clark Bunch
    Posted at 02:27h, 17 September Reply

    I’m not saying that the medieval Christians have an excuse, but the truth is most of them were illiterate. Only a handful of monks that were copying the Bible could read at all. The Church was corrupt, and the Crusades were about grabbing land and wealth. The common Christian in Europe was at the mercy of the religious leaders to tell them what to do and how to do it. Urban II made a good speech, and the lure of wealth combined with building the Kingdom of God on earth was too much to turn down. What I’m saying is, they were dooped because they didn’t know any better. The result of course was 10,000 Muslims being slaughtered while they prayed in the temple at Jersulem. And Christians in America wonder why Muslims don’t trust us.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 03:34h, 17 September Reply


    I see your point but I am a bit leery of the illiteracy argument. Americans today are all literate but they have swallowed the connection of Saddam Hussein with Al Qaeda and 9/11. And many Muslim professionals subscribe to the allegations of Osama bin Laden.

    Ashis Nandy, a leading political psychologist in India, has ascribed the responsibility for the communal violence in Gujarat to the educated middle class. And Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer, a respected social scientist in Mumbai, has asked why the educated middle class is more bigoted than the illiterate masses. His answer – because they are educated. The content of the education is a key determinant of behavior.

    Something else is going on besides illiteracy.

  • A Kala
    Posted at 09:31h, 18 September Reply

    I think people by and large are same everywhere. The facade of tolerance in people is only so much deep until there is just the whiff of threat to their cozy existence. Haven’t there been cases of vigilante justice in the aftermath of 9/11! And how old is the Second World War!

    The only religions that were tolerant were those which did not believe in proselytisation and this primarily due to their monumental smugness about the superiority of their faith.

    Any reference to past for the purpose of comparison is bogus; the parameters of existence were totally different.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 12:44h, 18 September Reply

    A Kala:

    You are putting forward some interesting thoughts which would be good to follow up:

    1. People are the same everywhere but comparisons cannot be made over time. How do the varying parameters of existence make the comparisons invalid?

    2. Why is the facade of tolerance only so much deep in people? Do people only become intolerant when their existence is threatened?

    3. Is intolerance only related to religion? Can people of the same religion be intolerant towards one another?

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 17:31h, 18 September Reply

    People in general are same in relation to our basic responses and we can not compare one set with another even during the same period. We are all prisoners of our ethos therefore our responses and thinking are to a large extent defined by our environment. If some demagogue takes advantage of the gullibility of people, they cannot be held responsible.

    Religion was merely used as a paradigm; tolerance stems for our sense of security. The more secure we feel, the more liberal we tend to be because we do not feel threatened that our cherished values will be in peril.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 21:16h, 18 September Reply


    Thanks for the follow up. There is no question of holding people responsible. The pertinent question is why are people so gullible to being duped by demagogues? Clark had attributed this to illiteracy but I am not convinced of that. We need to reach some understanding of this phenomenon if we are to have a less intolerant future.

    I am still not clear why, if people are the same as regards their basic responses, we cannot compare even during the same time period. Does that mean we cannot reach a general explanation of why people can be duped easily by demagogues?

    You have clearly identified security as a key issue. Perhaps better and concrete guarantees of security (which are all included in modern constitutions) are among the necessary steps.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 04:59h, 19 September Reply

    Gullibility is universal and has basis in our greed, fear and working of our mind i.e. looking for simplistic solutions. Our first response to a problem is of simplistic deduction of two plus two is four without going into its complexity; if you ask a man on the street, he will want to shoot the unscrupulous trader, rapist or extortionist on the nearest chowk without trial. And don’t think more developed societies are less prone to gullibility; the hysteria over jobs out sourcing to India and other developing countries is clearly a manifestation of the gullibility borne out of simplistic deduction of fear.

    I have met all kind of persons some very educated, advocating martial law without checking that mostly the system fails due to its unaccountability to people. Some years back, actor Dharmender, who is a member of Indian parliament, said, ”Make me a dictator and I will the set the country right”.

    I don’t understand what you are intending to compare between one set of people with another set, if they profess same basic values!

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 21:22h, 19 September Reply

    I agree you have identified the right characteristics – gullibility and looking for simple solutions. But I am still puzzled by why we are so gullible. Is there anything that can be done to reduce gullibility?

    On the last point, I was reacting to your two observations in your first comment that people are the same everywhere but comparisons with the past are bogus. Then you said in your next comment that people in general were the same and we cannot compare one set with another even during the same time period. I was unable to understand why.

    I was comparing the 1095 Crusaders with the 2005 jihadists to make the point that there behavior was quite comparable – religious devotion coexisting with appalling brutality. And I was trying to understand what would give rise to similar behavior almost 1000 years apart.

  • Clark Bunch
    Posted at 02:05h, 20 September Reply

    I wasn’t making excuses for the Crusaders, just suggesing we keep all the history in mind. The Church in 1095 was corrupt. Urban II was interested in acquiring land and wealth, and large numbers of people could be dupped, partly because of their illiteracy and ignorance of how Christains ought to behave. Greed also figures into the picture, at least for the Crusading Christians. The Jihad must have different motives.

    All devotion does not involve brutality. Look at the Amish. Their intense religious devotion makes them some of the least violent people in history. When their community was struck by violence in recent years, they extended hospitality towards the families of the offenders. The entire community of Amish believers collectivly turned the other cheeck, so to speak.

    Outside of Christianity and Islam are Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. Jains wear masks and sweep their path to avoid even accidentally killing small insects. They believe every living thing has a soul. They may be mistaken, but are none the less very devoted. Who could be less brutal than a Buddhist monk?

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 11:59h, 20 September Reply

    Buddhism too has been cruel in Sri Lanka and Hindus are showing their ugly face for some time now. Other religions mentioned by Clark are too insignificant to make any reasonable assessment. It may be mentioned that men behave rather strangely e.g. an apparently very generous person who liberally donates to various causes may be very cruel his wife or servant.

    I don’t think gullibility, greed or fear will ever go. Even religion, though, responsible for maximum mayhem is red herring; man would have found a reason to kill each other even without God.

    What then is the solution? I am afraid the only time tested one i.e. good governance with mix of liberal and tough laws. If there is a sincere government in place we will have reasonable peace.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 15:22h, 20 September Reply


    It was not at all the intention to claim that there is an inevitable link between devotion and brutality. You are quite right about the Amish. But about Buddhism and Hinduism, the same thoughts came to my mind that Anil has expressed.

    I also tend to agree with you that the motivations of the Crusades and the present jihad are not similar.


    I also agree with you that intolerance is not tied to religion. Even without religion, human beings would find reasons for intolerance. You are also probably right in saying that even otherwise reasonable people can have a very short fuse in some dimension. I feel you are pointing in the right direction when you shift the focus away from the reform of the individual to the better governance of society.

    Clark and Anil:

    The real question underlying the post, perhaps not articulated clearly enough, was this:

    How do some people reconcile appallingly brutal behavior with intense religious devotion? I can understand it better in the case of a secular nationalism but not how people can brutalize others in the name of God. What kind of rationalization allows this to occur? Is religious belief so shallow that it can be manipulated to commit the most irreligious acts?

    Let me take an extreme example. Suppose someone truly believes that it is his/her religious duty to kill a non-believer. Does he have to go ahead and disembowel the dead and urinate upon the body as well? What kind of religious belief sanctions these extra barbarisms?

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 17:21h, 20 September Reply

    This is a difficult question to answer, perhaps experts in human psychology could answer this. But at very superficial level it appears to me that religion is unlike our other firmed up opinions which though when questioned upset us but do not simulate violent reaction. Religion goes deeper in our subconscious and works from there. Religion perhaps also triggers our survival response something like there is safety in group and any fear of its weakening evokes irrationality.

    As far as defiling the dead is concerned, well the tormentors feels dissatisfied that there still are others to be taken care of and he feels frustrated at not being able to do that. But why argue over something which is itself irrational, the religion!

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 11:47h, 21 September Reply


    Let’s leave religion aside for the moment and focus on other firmed up opinions. You say that when questioned about these people get upset but not violent. Do you feel that even this tolerance has been decreasing over the last decade or so? There used to be a tradition of debate; now people start quarreling when there is a difference of opinion. What is leading to this decline in tolerance?

    Your speculation on defilement is an intriguing perspective. I find it plausible.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 12:10h, 21 September Reply

    I don’t know, perhaps not true. I suffer from social phobia therefore will not know.

  • SAA
    Posted at 11:35h, 23 September Reply

    In my view no one who actually indulges/participates in these crimes/acts against other communities ever THINKs (and I mean actually think for themselves) about why he/she is doing what he/she is doing – I think a kind of indoctrination/brain-washing is possible with certain personality/brain-types (maybe determined from childhood experiences and exposure – especially that promted by religion based educational institutions) and the ones in power (authorized/legitimate or unauthorized/illegitimate political power) exploit this – hence they are able to leverage this power to encourage the indiscriminate use of violence to promote their own selfish motive of gaining more power. It is not literacy or the lack thereof that makes a difference in breaking these patterns but education – by education I don’t mean degrees and diplomas but an education where the students are encouraged to think for themselves and are exposed to the entire spectrum of differing points of view on religion, political ideologies and cultures. An understanding and appreciation for other religions is probably more crucial than that of one’s own religion – an idea that is currently not promoted or even supported by most institutions of learning in countries or cultures that have in recent years been caught up in this cycle of violence and intolerance and that is where a change has to take effect.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 12:28h, 23 September Reply


    You have introduced a very valuable dimension. The teaching of other cultures and religions early in school can make an important contribution in breaking the power of prejudice.

    Here we can combine the mandate of the state with the reform of the individual if such education is made a part of the basic curriculum. Thus instead of Islamic Studies, one could have instruction in Religions and Cultures of the World.

    I am aware of one school (The Oneness Family School) in Bethesda, Maryland, that follows this approach. Their vision statement is very enlightening and provides a model for other schools to follow:

    In contrast, schools in Pakistan at present go to the other extreme. It is not that they do not teach anything about other religions; they indoctrinate the children with prejudices and untruths – precisely what you have identified as a major cause of the problem.

    The Pakistani public school curriculum can be seen at:

  • Vikram
    Posted at 18:53h, 12 September Reply

    I think alongwith security, justice is also an important idea. It seems that societies that are more unjust (as in allowing impunity to a few) tend to have more violent reactions than those where there is a more just arrangement. Alongwith that, the flow of information is also important.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 01:56h, 13 September Reply

    SA, I think that human beings at their core are a protoplasm of prejudices and bigotry, not caring and loving beings. It is only a sense of security and justice that keeps the prejudices from maifesting in barbaric forms. One of the primary tools of tinkering and sustaining with prejudices is religion. At the hands of demagogues, that tool gets maximimally utilized. Education, if administered in rote form, only gives the language necessary to articulate and cement prejudices.

    Liberal and inclusive thought is a luxury borne out of well fed and secure bodies.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 07:30h, 13 September

      Vinod: We have gone over this issue in the blog, the last time in this post on cooperation and competition. Human beings would never have survived if they had been all prejudice and bigotry. They would never have evolved to the stage of security and justice. There was always a mix of behaviors: in-group and out-group interactions were of a very different nature. Liberal and inclusive thought may be a luxury borne out of well fed and secure bodies but the point is how does society get to the point where bodies are well fed and secure? A protoplasm of prejudice and bigotry without care and loving is unlikely to get it there.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 10:19h, 02 September Reply

    Vikram: Is Buddhism a violent religion? Is that even a valid question?

    • Vikram
      Posted at 13:29h, 02 September

      Buddhism is as violent/peaceful as most other religious traditions.

      These conflicts are really not about religion per se. They are more about maintaining a certain cultural/political ecosystem, and such tendencies are seen among various groups, religious, linguistic, ideological, national etc. Its a fear of change, most often, rapid, disorienting change that drives them.

      Perhaps only Jainism can truly claim to be a non-violent religion. But that also means there are only 4 million Jains left.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 06:48h, 16 September

      Vikram: It is good you agree that “Buddhism is as violent/peaceful as most other religious traditions” and that “these conflicts are not about religion per se.”

      I am puzzled by your statement that “there are only 4 millions Jains left” because Jainism is a “non-violent religion.” Is the reduction in the number of Jains because others have practised violence on them and the Jains have not retaliated? If so, who exterminated them?

      My understanding is that Ashoka was a Jain when he invaded Kalinga and only converted to Buddhism after the violent massacre. Am I wrong?

    • Vikram
      Posted at 11:26h, 16 September

      SA, scholars are divided about Ashoka’s beliefs before Kalinga, but most agree that he converted Buddhism after that war. Even if he was a Jain, such an invasion would be a clear violation of Jain dharma.

      My comment about the small number of Jains left is in the context of the absolute way in which Jains practice non-violence.

      For example, instances such as these are heard quite often:

      It is extremely common for Jains not to eat after dark since they are afraid of hurting insects that come out at night. They also have a very restrictive diet.

      I dont think anyone specifically exterminated them specifically, its just a hard way of life to follow.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 05:57h, 17 September Reply

    “This history reminds us what Buddhism is not. The Western obsession with Buddhism’s spiritual and mystical qualities has obscured the faith’s more political—and sometimes violent—past. We don’t grapple with the militant Zen Buddhists who promoted imperial Japan’s violent incursions into China as a holy war. We don’t spend too much time thinking about the Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka who blessed soldiers going to fight Tamil Tiger insurgents. And we are shocked in Myanmar today—the country changed its name from Burma in 1989—by the nationalist monks who spark bloody religious riots and cheer pogroms against Muslims. The lesson here isn’t that Buddhism is uniquely violent—it’s not—but that all religions, even seemingly peaceful ones, can be contorted to serve political and sometimes evil ends.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 14:37h, 21 July Reply
  • Vikram
    Posted at 15:33h, 01 November Reply

    “In Telangana’s Warangal, a priest offering prayers at Sivasai Temple has been brutally attacked by miscreants of another community for playing Suprabatham early morning. Dandapantula Satyanarayana was attacked by five men early morning on Friday, 26 October, after he turned the sound system on in the ‘Kagada Harathi’ time.”

    Not one leftist will pay attention to this.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 13:46h, 02 November

      Vikram: Leftists are such terrible people.

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