The Blackwell Companion to Religion and Violence

By Andrew R. Murphy | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 41
Rethinking Religion and Violence
in the Middle East

Jeroen Gunning

In popular (Western) culture, few regions are as profoundly associated with violence, and religious violence in particular, as the Middle East. This fascination is mirrored in both the social sciences and the policy world. Reams of paper have been dedicated to analyzing the relationship – or lack thereof – between religion and violence in the region, raising fundamental questions about what it is we are studying and how to study it. What do we mean by “religious” and what is its relationship with “politics”? Are “religious” actors more violent than “nonreligious” ones? Do beliefs explain violence, or do its causes lie in political and socioeconomic structures? Why are we so fascinated with “religious violence” in the Middle East in the first place?

Though these questions are important for academic reasons, they are far from “academic.” It matters, for instance, whether beliefs or structures are at the root of violence. Former British prime minister Tony Blair dismissed the notion that Western foreign policy might have contributed to Islamist violence by arguing that “its cause is an ideology, a world-view, derived from religious fanaticism … had we taken no decisions at all to enrage it, [it] would still have found provocation in our very existence” (quoted in El-Affendi 2009: 63). The answers to these questions thus have (potentially) profound political consequences.


Religion, Orientalism, and the Secular Bias

The Middle East has seen much violence. It is host to one of the world’s longest conflicts, the Arab-Israeli conflict. It has seen a number of civil wars (e.g., Lebanon, Algeria, Yemen), interstate wars (e.g., Iran–Iraq, Iraq–Kuwait) and a revolution (Iran), and is one of the most militarized zones in the world. Much of this violence has involved actors with religious beliefs and identities. And yet, contrary to popular perception, the level of ethno-religious conflict in the region is average (Fox 2001). During the Cold War, the Middle East and Asia were roughly equally war-prone, and since the end of the Cold

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