Book review: It’s not religion that causes violence, it’s power struggle

“Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence” by Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong should not need another introduction. She left behind her life as a Roman Catholic nun to devote a lifetime studying world religion, and she becomes one of the greatest religious scholars that has ever lived in the process. She is now, in her own words, a “freelance monotheist”, and it is reflected in her careful, respectful and unbiased way of writting on every different religion. This book is another testament on this deep care and her range of knowledge on the subject matter.

Fields of Blood seemingly discusses every single violence conducted in the name of religion, from ancient societies like the Summerians, the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, Zoroastrians, Confucian, to the Abraham religion and the many religions in the Sub Continent, to the era of first secular states (the US and post-revolution France), until the rise of Zionism, the current “war on terror” era and the most recent rise of ISIS. Within this scope, she masterfully narrated on the politics, the struggles and the social interactions in each one of those eras, and explains us the gradual and intricate evolution of religion from the time religion, state and daily lives have not been separated yet, into the religion as we know it today.

The book is so full of information and so airtight, however, that it can sometimes feel a little too complicated and unecessarily detailed. But I believe it is not meant to be memorised but rather to give us the big picture of how massively complex religious evolution is. And as always, Ms Armstrong focused on the historical facts rather than the mystics or the folklores, and thus some may find the revelation in the book unsettling, such as the degree of editing the Bible experienced, or how Islamic Hadits were conveniently tailored, or the mysterious discovery of questionable scrolls containing the teachings of Moses for the Jews, despite the fact that during Moses’ time in 8th century BC teachings were taught verbally rather than in writting – all of which have 1 underlying purpose: to match the rulers’ political needs at the time. And this is the central thesis of the book.

The slaughter of American Indians and Bosnians in the name of religion, the Holy War in medieval Europe, the deadly clashes between Hindus and Muslims in India, the violent acts by the likes of the Crusaders, the Conquistadors and the jihadists, in fact all violence that are conducted in the name of religion are all man made. And the scripture-based justification that comes with them are nothing short of a political doctrine, not much different than the atheist doctrines by Hitler, Stalin and Mao.

As Karen Armstrong herself puts it “terrorism is fundamentally and inherently political, even when other motives—religious, economic, or social—are involved. Terrorism is always about “power—acquiring it or keeping it.” And so, according to one of the pioneering experts in the field, “all terrorist organizations, whether their long-term political aim is revolution, national self-determination, preservation or restoration of the status quo, or reform, are engaged in a struggle for political power with a government they wish to influence and replace.””

Indeed, our main focus when it comes to religious violence should not be the religion, but what have happened in that specific occurance that created violence in the name of religion. And to that end, learning from this book, there seems to be a pattern where all root causes of violence eventually come from these 5 stages:

1. There are groups of people that are treated unfairly or even opressed. Whether it is a religious minority, different sect controlled by other establishment, economic inequality, a whole area controlled by foreign occupation, or orthodox religious community opressed by secularism and modernity.

2. A leader emerged out of them to fight for these people, to bring justice, to give them voice and to guide them out of their misery, where the leader at first advocates non-violent measures to address the issues.

3. Only to be crushed, slaughtered and tortured by those in power, which pushed them to the edge and force them to be radical. Karen Armstrong commented on this matter by saying that “fear of annihilation and the experience of state violence often radicalize a religious tradition.”

4. And so, in response, these leaders then declare a Holy War / Jihad (struggle) / martyrdom as a desperate attempt to fight the iron fist establishment, and portraying violence as “the only option” left for them. They began to justify violence by quoting their holy book and fit the opressors into their doctrine (i.e. Fit the description of jahaliyah, or the devil, etc).

5. Their end goal may varies but one thing is certain, whatever the objective is it has little (if any) to do with the actual religion but a lot to do with power struggle.

Karen Armstrong then elaborate, “the claim that the primary motivation of a terrorist action is political may seem obvious—but not to those who seem determined to regard such atrocious acts of violence as merely “senseless.” Many of that view, not surprisingly, find religion, which they regard as a byword for irrationality, to be the ultimate cause.”

Questioning which religion is more violent than the other is, therefore, completely missing the point, a reality that Karen Armstrong addressed when she commented on Richard Dawkin’s view on religion as “dangerous oversimplification [that] springs from a misunderstanding of both religion and terrorism.” She did admit that “this, of course, is not to deny that religion has often been implicated in terrorist atrocities…” But nevertheless, “it is far too easy to make it a scapegoat rather than trying to see what is really going on in the world.”

There are thousands more words that can be written in this review, with thousands specific examples can be derived from this book. It is indeed the hardest review I’ve written so far, simply because there are so many great things about the book, and so many important points that I want to cover but could not possibly fit them all in just one short review. It is definitely one of my top 10 books to read to understand how the world really works. It is trully a masterpiece.

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