Individual or State: Who is Behind Violence?

In an earlier post (Do Devotion and Brutality Go Together?) we wondered how some people could be convinced that it was acceptable to commit acts of appalling brutality in the name of religious devotion. We will pursue this thought further in this post.

The example we had used to motivate the argument was the launching of the First Crusade in 1095 by Pope Urban II rousing Christians to avenge oppression by Muslims in far away Jerusalem. Pope Urban’s exhortation was based on false propaganda but it succeeded in its objective.

A reader commented that the First Crusade was about grabbing land and wealth and the Crusaders were misled because they were illiterate and had no way to verify the truth. It must have been natural to take the word of the Pope for truth.

This is a valid observation. The author of the book we used as a reference himself remarked that the “fevered spontaneity” of Bohemond (one of the leaders of the First Crusade) “was almost certainly a façade masking calculated ambition.”

Nevertheless, the fact that Pope Urban II exploited religious sentiment to achieve his objectives suggests he must have felt it the most potent feeling to exploit in the situation.

The reader also correctly pointed out that the motivations behind the First Crusade were different from those that drive today’s Islamic jihad. What is in common is the appeal to religious sentiment that has the power to convince a sizable number of people to commit acts of immense violence and also to sacrifice their own lives in the process.

We still don’t understand why religion has this power. One of our readers has suggested that amongst our many beliefs and opinions, religion is the one we are most sensitive about and when it is questioned we tend to react violently.

This seems correct as an observation but in the case of the Crusades and jihad we are not talking about situations where individuals were or are questioning each other’s faith. Rather we are dealing with situations where groups are incited to violence against others. These groups could well have been co-existing peacefully for years participating in each other’s religious festivals and rituals (see the earlier post Hindu-Muslim or Muslim-Hindu?). However, when incited, the groups end up massacring each other in defense of their respective religions.

Does this have anything to with religion or is it a function of the context? Is it imaginable, for example, that someone could incite Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs to begin killing each other in Southall, London, where many of them are neighbors?

It seems unlikely and not because the religious sentiments are any weaker in Southall than they were in India. On the contrary, all evidence seems to suggest that religious identity is strengthened amongst migrants, at least first generation migrants.

The explanation must be the knowledge that such kind of incitement would not be tolerated in the same way in Southall as it was in India. This brings us to the comment by a reader of the earlier column that perhaps the solution to containing violence lies in good governance with a mix of liberal and tough laws.

There is little doubt that recent ethnic violence in South Asia has often been condoned, if not supported, by the state. The very recent violence in Pakistan is a blowback of earlier support of jihadists for political purposes.

The one conclusion of our discussion seems to be that we need to shift the focus from the reform of the individual to an examination of the state. What kind of state promotes violence and why? And how does the world control such a state?

Of course, we are still left with the question of why religion provides such an easy handle for manipulation. But this may not turn out to be the most important question if we succeed in controlling the state that is instrumental in the exploitation of the sentiment.

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  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 04:54h, 23 September Reply

    The impression that western countries provide good governance is qualified. If we look at it from the perspective of law enforcement to keep order in society then it is a valid assessment but the priority of leadership there is totally different from those of leaders from the subcontinent. West give low weightage to religion in general accept frivolous issues (from the perspective of South Asia) like abortion therefore the appearance of communal peace. But if we selectively compare governance on the basis of the priorities of the leadership we will see a striking similarity. The leadership in Asia is very sensitive to religious sentiments while the western leadership is very sensitive to financial matters and look how the record is strikingly similar. The collapse of Lehmann Brothers and other financial institution is an example of bad governance and this is not a one off occurrence.

    The problem in democratic set up is that leadership is dependent on the vote of its people therefore their sensitivities (perceived). Whenever people see hope in a leader they go full blast behind them. It is only the leaders who don’t measure up to the expectation and invariably follow the path of least resistance. Bal Thakre, Jayalaitha, the late N T Ramarao etc in India and Benazir Bhutto or her father in Pakistan are the examples of leaders who were give unquestioned power by the people but the leaders failed miserably.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 15:18h, 23 September Reply


    This takes us into different territory. I don’t think we can generalize interest in financial matters to the West. I had used the example of England where there have been very few financial crises compared to the US where institutional collapses have been routine. There are peculiar reasons for these differences. The best explanation I have found is at:

    Religion in US politics is also quite important, much more so than in the UK. But while politicians exploit the issue in subtle ways (e.g., Obama’s middle name), the constraints of the system are such that they cannot get away with it if they incite domestic riots or ethnic cleansing.

    On the other hand, Hitler exploited religion to devastating effect. So, we are back to the same question: When can leaders get away with exploiting religion for political ends and how can society constrain their ability to do so?

    I don’t think leadership in South Asia is particularly sensitive to religious sentiment (the religiosity of ZAB and Benazir was clearly a facade) but it can exploit religious sentiment very easily. Which brings us back to the propensity of the people to be exploited and what lies beneath it.

    I think SAA’s comment on the Devotion and Brutality post contains a good suggestion. Early education in other cultures and sensitivity to other religions would be of help. At the same time, ways have to be found to constrain the ability of leaders to exploit religion for political gain.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 14:48h, 24 September Reply

    I agree DAA has given a very insightful perspective. Children are by nature inquisitive therefore it will be easy to inculcate a sense of healthy inquiry in them. When they grow up it will be very difficult for anyone to brain wash them.

    Another thing that comes to mind is the role of democratic institutions. I believe the leaders everywhere are same. Their propensity for self preservation makes them lethal and the only deterrents are the accountability sought by these institutions from the leaders. Unfortunately in South Asia these institutions are weakening all the time.

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