Religiously motivated violence is not religious

Last week a suicide bomber attacked a church in Solo, Indonesia, killing at least one congregant and injuring many others. Indonesia, a secular nation, has had a long history of religious tolerance when it comes to minorities. But since the 2002 attacks in Bali, which were religiously motivated, questioning the relationship between religion and violence has become critical.

Is it possible that religion alone can inspire individuals to conduct violence? If so, are faith-based institutions guilty by association?

Some scholars suggest that religion is in fact a source of violence. A University of California, Santa Barbara scholar who teaches religious violence and conflict resolution, Mark Juergensmeyer, wrote in 2000 that religion gives some people the moral justification for killing others by providing the mores and symbols – some of which demonize the “other” – that make acts of bloodshed and terrorism possible. In this context, violence is regarded as a religious act. Also, Bruce Lawrence, Duke University Humanities Professor of Religion, wrote in 1989 that extremists are religiously motivated to promote a vision of divine restoration.

These theories appear to explain the increasing popularity of religious fundamentalist groups, the rise of radical religious leaders and the rise of violent religious groups in many parts of the world – and certainly in Indonesia. Already this year, unfortunately, violence motivated by religion has been rampant here.

In one tragic instance in Cikeusik, a city in the Java province of Banten, Muslims attacked the house of a member of the Ahmadi community in February, leaving three people dead. There were also attacks on a pesantren (Islamic boarding school) run by the Islamic Pesantren Foundation in Pasuruan, East Java, on 15 February by an extremist Muslim group. And there was another attack on the International Conference for Gay and Lesbian Rights hosted by the organization GAYa Nusantara in Surabaya in March by another extremist Muslim group.

In the Muslim world this phenomenon of violence claiming to be in the name of religion has often been blamed on Salafi and Wahhabi teachings, which discount the various Islamic schools of thought as impure to the point of being sacrilegious, and therefore some argue that they consider the schools’ followers as legitimate targets of violence.

But in fact, to associate Salafi and Wahhabi teachings with violence is an overreaction and gross misperception of the large number of adherents in both camps who reject violence. Research by the International Crisis Group in 2004 in Indonesia shows that in certain cases Salafism may in fact be more of a barrier to violent extremism than a facilitator.

Fata Mukmin, leader of a large Wahhabi pesantren in Central Java, says that Wahhabi teachings, especially those concerning the Islamic concept which regards God as one and unique, lead students to develop a stronger faith, embrace forbearance, pray sincerely and partake in other positive, non-violent conduct. True Wahhabi teachings, Mukmin stresses, forbid the harassment or killing of other Muslims.

Ahmas Faiz, who runs the Imam Buchori Salafi pesantren in Solo, says that he disapproves of terrorism and religiously motivated violence, arguing that radicalism and violence are used by those who use Islamic norms to legitimise personal wrongdoing.

Teachings about tolerance, respect for non-Muslims and other peaceful aspects of Islam are integrated in the curriculum in both schools. Mukmin’s pesantren conducts seminars on religious dialogue, sends students to teach peaceful interfaith relations in surrounding communities and encourages students to continue their education in secular as well as in Islamic universities.

Several Quranic verses – such as those in the fifth and 49th chapters of the Quran – strongly prohibit Muslims from scorning, embarrassing and stereotyping others or perpetrating violence. The recent acts of violence in Indonesia contradict these verses and are perpetrated by people who are misguided. The Quran does not encourage violence, but instead encourages people to build peaceful, respectful communities.

Blaming Wahhabi and Salafi teachings for violent acts of terrorism is unfair and goes against these Quranic verses. Just like in the vast majority of religion-based institutions in Indonesia, students in many Wahhabi-oriented schools are taught these verses, which lead them to respect others, live together in harmony and resist extremist propaganda.

Like most of us, Wahhabis and Salafis believe that violence in the name of religion is simply not religious.

(Inayah Rohmaniyah is a tenured lecturer at the Faculty of Islamic Theology and Philosophy at Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. She is also a doctoral candidate at the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS) Yogyakarta. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service Copyright permission granted.)