Why Demonization is Also the Wrong Language

by Mark Woodward

In a comment on my recent post “Why ‘Moderate Islam’ is the Wrong Language,” Mel repeats the shopworn claim that Islam is a religion of violence. He suggests that I should “do my homework” and read the Qur’an. He implies that reading Sayyid Quttb’s writings can provide insight into the basic nature of Islam.

I am not surprised to read this. Some Christians have been denouncing Islam as a religion of violence for more than a thousand years when it suits their purposes. Post-Christian secular Westerners have continued this discourse. Some Muslims have been denouncing Christianity as a violent religion too–for more than a thousand years–when it suits their purposes. Both have, at times, denounced Judaism as a religion of violence. Religious and secular Jews have denounced both Islam and Christianity as violent regions. None of this is hard to do.

I can assure Mel that I have read the Qu’ran and Qutb, the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, and lots of other religious texts too. What I have learned is that it is very easy to find passages from the sacred texts of almost any religion that justify or even glorify horrific acts of violence. One can find religious thinkers of almost any faith who have constructed theologies of violence. It is also easy to find examples of horrific acts of violence perpetrated in the name of almost any religion in history.  People tend to forget this when they’re focused on religious violence on the front pages of today’s, or yesterday’s (or unfortunately tomorrow’s) newspaper.

In the introduction to the most recent edition of my World Religions textbook I wrote:

Most people think of their own religion as being peaceful. Jews, Christians and Muslims all speak of the “Peace of God.” Hindus, Jains and Buddhists teach ahimsa or nonviolence. There is, unfortunately, a tendency to describe other people’s religions as cruel and violent. This is a mistake, and one that helps to promote and perpetuate cycles of violence. People of almost all religions have been victimized because of their beliefs. Most, or almost all have been perpetrators of religious violence. Almost any religion can be used as an excuse or justification for violence.

It is tempting to say that this strategy of demonization grows out of ignorance. Unfortunately this is not always the case. Very learned scholars have engaged in this type of discourse for centuries. Indeed, the more knowledgable the practitioners of the discourse of demonization are, the more dangerous they can be. A bigoted discourse accompanied by quotations and references appears more reasonable that one put in simple, direct terms.

It is sadly ironic that at a point in human history at which peace and nonviolence are normative values, people of all religious and political persuasions continue to employ the rhetorical strategy of “demonization” of “enemy others” to justify their own violence. The argument would seem to be: “They are violent and evil people so it is okay to kill them.”

The worst possible response to demonization combines apologetics and counter-demonization. I am not going to do that because it is pointless and because it only fans the flames of hatred. Instead I point out that in conflict situations people have a regrettable tendency to justify their own violent acts by portraying their opponents as irrational, inherently violent, archetypes of evil. (For an excellent recent example of this, see the post on Gadahn’s latest video–Editor).

I am a political realist and understand that the use of force is sometimes necessary. Nonviolent action would not have stopped Hitler and it will not stop Osama bin Laden. Nor would I claim that Islam, or any other religion, is inherently peaceful. To claim that any religion is “the religion of peace” is the other side of the demonization coin. It allows people to portray themselves as innocent victims or martyrs and deny culpability for acts of violence that they, or others, have committed in the name of religion.

The bottom line is that there is very little evidence that religion causes violence. On the other hand, it is abundantly clear that religion is frequently used to justify and promote conflict. Because the demonization of others helps to perpetuate conflict, the appropriate communication strategy is to refuse to engage in it, even if it is politically expedient.


* Mark Woodward is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Arizona State University and Visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies at Gadjah Madah University and Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University, both in Yogyakarta Indonesia

One Response to “Why Demonization is Also the Wrong Language”

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  1. John Bauer says:

    This is important thinking but in need of further refinement because it suggests that there are not important qualitative differences between religions on the subject of violence. Tragically, some religious worldviews are more violent than others and we have the discernment to recognize that. So while there may be a certain commonality among all to view other religions in negative, especially violent, terms and presuppose positive attributes to one’s own, there remains the unfinished taslk of qualifying objective differences among religious worldviews with respect to when, where, how, how much and how often violence is considered justified. Further, we must be intellectually honest enough to view our own religious presuppositions in the same way, especially with regard to atheism, postmodern humanism, and secular neo-transcendentalism. Arguably, the most homicidal religious trend of the past 100 years has been the emergence of “post Christian Western secular” religions masquerading as scientifically-based ideologies, specifically German national socialism and Russian bolshevik Marxism. Indeed, is there ever a religion without violent tendencies? Thus, the question becomes more widely normative than before, because now we must face the truly difficult issue of which religion’s sanction of violence is both just and justifiable.