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Acknowledging failures in religion

(© Johnny DiBiasi /

THE headlines in the newspapers as I sit down to write this are as gloomy as the dank December day in Washington, DC, outside. Sunni militants bomb a Shia mosque in Iraq, killing Shia worshippers. Responsibility for the terrorism in Mumbai is claimed by a group calling itself the Deccan Mujahideen. Violence between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria results in the deaths of hundreds.

The Western media are often accused of showing an anti-Muslim bias, especially in the wake of the events of 2001 in the US. The terms “Muslim” and “Islam” only turn up when linked to militants, jihad, and extremism. The television companies highlight terrorism and other atrocities on their news broadcasts to whet the appetites of their increasingly jaded audiences.

I consider myself fairly clued up on issues such as media bias and the widespread ignorance about Islam in the US. Nevertheless, this morning I find that I have to make an effort to resist composing the headline in my own head: Muslim violence again.

I confess I am almost relieved to find out that, even though only churches and not mosques seem to have been destroyed in Nigeria, nevertheless Christians there have been as guilty of violence as their Muslim counterparts.

Religious tit for tat

The history of violence and intolerance in the name of religion should not be turned into a blame game. It is easy to read the headlines about terrorists who claim Islam as their motivation and their cause, and to say, “They are violent,” and, “They are intolerant.” We forget that some of the discontent that fuels such violence finds its roots in the period of Western colonialism and neo-colonialism.

Procession in Bangalore for Mahatma Gandhi’s Quit India Movement, a call for independence of India
from British rule, 1942 (Public domain. Source:

One of the greatest crimes of the 20th century was the way the British mismanaged the partition of India and Pakistan. The conflict between these two nations today, centered on the status of Kashmir, is just the latest act in that long tragedy.

Muslims who blame Western colonialism for all the evils in their world forget too easily, however, that the West has also on many occasions suffered from Muslim colonialism. The Ottoman Turks were as aggressive in their empire-building efforts as the Western powers were in the 19th and 20th centuries. A large part of the Christian Mediterranean endured the Muslim yoke of Ottoman rule for hundreds of years.

Even England and Ireland further north were not spared. State papers from the Stuart era in England refer to the English Channel as “a Turkish Sea” because of the dominance of Ottoman naval power. Raids on the English and Irish coasts were launched from the Ottoman client-state of Algiers, “the whip of the Christian world”. It was only in 1683, with the failure of the Ottoman siege of Vienna, that the Muslim threat to Christian Europe began to subside.

Muslims can cite Christian aggression and violence during the Crusades (Public domain. Source:

Muslims can cite Christian aggression and violence during the Crusades, of course. Christians, however, can counter that the Palestine they sought to conquer only became Muslim because of Arab aggression and conquest, when the Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab took the city in 683CE.

Claim within context

There is a persistent claim that Muslim rule was always tolerant and accommodating to the non-Muslim population. Proponents of an Islamic state often cite the convivencia in Muslim Spain, a term used to describe the glorious and harmonious coexistence of Muslims, Jews, and Christians in Muslim Andalusia. This Muslim golden age is often contrasted with the intolerance of Catholic Spain after the reconquista ended Muslim rule.

19th century portrait of Maimonides
(Public domain. Source:

This is a romantic legend. It is true that Maimonides, the greatest of Jewish philosophers, was a product of Muslim Spain. But those who most often speak of tolerant Andalusian Islam always forget to mention that the Muslim rulers of Cordoba offered Maimonides and the entire Jewish community the choice of conversion to Islam, death, or exile. Several Muslim sources, such as al-Qifti’s Tarikh al-hukama and Ibn al-Ibri’s Tarikh mukhtasar al-duwal, even claim that Maimonides was forced to convert to Islam before his exile.

It is instructive for us to remember the words of Americo Castro, the historian who first coined the term convivencia to describe the creative interaction between Jews, Muslims and Christians in Muslim Spain. “Each of the three peoples of the peninsula saw itself forced to live for eight centuries together with the other two at the same time it passionately desired their extermination,” wrote Castro.

There is no bifurcation of “they” and “we” in the history of religious intolerance and violence. There is only a “we”, in the sense of “kita” in Malay, the first person plural pronoun that includes both the speaker as well as the one spoken to. The period in which much of Islamic law and theology developed was not one in which religious freedom or tolerance, in the sense that we understand today, were seen as social or ethical goods.

Christianity has the Inquisition, the wars of religion in Europe, the destruction of many civilisations and cultures, and so much more, to answer for. Neither Muslims nor Christians have clean hands. As Bernard Lewis has observed, “for Christians and Muslims alike, tolerance is a new virtue and intolerance a new crime”.

Conversations of truth

If we intend to engage one another in a truthful and fruitful conversation, we need to acknowledge the failures evident from the history of our religious traditions. We must move away from the childish romantic legends of perfect virtue and infallibility. Otherwise we end up always in the futile activity of protecting our own turf, or justifying our collective religious neuroses.

Official Islam in Malaysia at present seems incapable of engaging in this conversation of truth. Some Muslim commentators have said that the recent fatwa issue, and indeed all Islamic matters, should be left to Muslims, and non-Muslims should not comment on them. Their argument is that fatwa do not affect non-Muslims, and therefore should not be questioned by them.

When a fatwa reinforces a version of Islam that is reactionary and intolerant, then it does affect non-Muslims. The policing of morals, and the arrogation of religious authority by just one small elite group, can result in a kind of spiritual pride that affects all relationships in the community we call Malaysia. It is no great leap to go from telling Shia Muslims in Malaysia they cannot practise their faith, to telling a Muslim who wishes to be a Buddhist or Hindu that she has no such freedom. Intolerance creeps, and religious violence does not just come at the point of a gun.


Americo Castro, The Structure of Spanish History, trans. Edmund L King, 1954, pp. 54-55

Bernard Lewis, The Jews of Islam, 1984, p. 3 

Aloysious Mowe, SJ is an International Visiting Fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University, Washington, DC. He is a Jesuit priest with an academic interest in Islamic law and history.

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12 Responses to “Acknowledging failures in religion”

  1. Nora says:

    Thank you for this beautiful article.

    J Krishnamurthy, a well-known Indian philosopher remarked: Truth is a pathless land. Man cannot come to it through any organization, through any creed, through any dogma, priest or ritual, not through any philosophic knowledge or psychological technique. He has to find it through the mirror of relationship, through the understanding of the contents of his own mind, through observation and not through intellectual analysis or introspective dissection.

    The failure of these two religions or for any religion is when they claim themselves to be the sole rightful owner or the only one to hold the key to lead this pathless land we call the Truth. Not until they accept the fact that all rivers lead to this one big Ocean, this “we” will continue to get themselves stuck in these childish romantic legends of perfect virtue and infallibility.

    This is my opinion.

  2. faith04 says:

    Oh Lord, have mercy on Malaysian people. Please guide us to be truly peace-loving to argue out, not fight and kill each other. Amen.

  3. benzaini says:

    The writer seems to agree that violence is not a monopoly of any single religious group. However, there are comparable degrees of violence, for example, between the Muslim conquests of Syria in the 6th century AD and the European Crusades of the 11th century, whereby the Muslims are recognized for having treated the people of Syria more leniently and humanely than the Crusaders.

    On the other hand, regarding colonialism particularly, the Muslims never take Christianity as responsible for it, while the West and non-Muslims always blame Islam for many things. As for Muslim Spain, the writer seems to highlight the sufferings endured by the Jewish scholar, Maimonides, under the Almohades as a proof for Muslim intolerance.

    It is true that there were certain periods in the history of Muslim rule there which saw degrees of intolerance, but these were not the norm. The reign of the Almohades is never considered a part of the golden age of Muslim hegemony. Not only Jews and Christians suffered under their rule, Muslims also bore the burden. In this regards, the writer should also point out the treatment received by Maimonides in Fez and Cairo to really do justice to Islam and Muslims in general.

  4. Kamal says:

    The article is an interesting read, nevertheless doesn’t flow very well. Yes, the faithful of all faiths are no better when it comes down to handling power. But to blame it all on religion or religiosity is to ignore the worst or wars that have taken place during the modern era. We don’t fight to uphold our religions’ banners, we fight for clearly secular reasons. England and Europe did not face Hitler, or vice versa, because of spiritual demands. We don’t think of Japan’s violence in wars as a result of just deep Shinto fanaticism or pure emperor-worship (although there are some who view that as part of the mobilization and state ideology), nor do we look at the Korean War, the Vietnam War and many other conflicts as resulting from religious callings.

    But in all of these, we can find people who would use spiritual and moral discourses to justify the violence and conflict. I think we should move on, it’s too simplistic to blame religion for the violence people perpetrate. But we should also recognize by now the flaw in looking at people as distinctions – between secular or worldly, and the religious. If you are a soldier in battle, you will call on whichever you believe in to protect your life and soul. The problem is seeing “soldiers” in modern day conflict.

    And that brings me to the other point, if religion is simply instrumental today, what are the underlying reasons for violence? Look at the fatwa for example, is it really religion and religious policing or is it an excuse to create bifurcations in society? It isn’t about “”us” as much as people in power wanting to maintain or reify the “we” against “them”. And this is so much more telling about the fallacy of strong states and the grasp of power, which is really just a veneer.

  5. Karcy says:

    Ah, but your statement — that all rivers lead to the Ocean — is also a claim of universal truth. The battles of the major monotheistic (and Abrahamic) religions is primarily a competition of battles of competing universal truth claims.

    My reading of this essay lends me to believe that Mowe is not advocating absence of (Abrahamic) monotheism and absence of universal truth claims (which in itself becomes a truth claim), rather, he is advocating critical evaluation and honesty of the respective histories of each religion. The truth is, however, that as much as history may be grounded upon certain grains of reality, much of what we know of history is conjecture and narration, subject not only to fictionalisation but also to the simple act of having a perspective. The “failure” in one religion is another person’s simple “mistake”.

  6. Skanderbeg says:


    Of course, Muslims blame the West, Christians, for colonialism. They blame Christians precisely because it’s reverse psychology, that is projecting their psyche on others. The Crusades happened because of the request of pilgrims and the Byzantine Empire. It was a defensive measure. A natural response. Palestine is the result of Muslim conquest – jihad.

    Now, to insist on the same path in the 21st century, as in the concept of wakaf as applied to Palestine, will lead to the annihilation of the Middle-Eastern Muslim world. Muslims and not just the so-called “dhimmis” have always been the victims of the self-inflicting and self-perpetuating violence and misery by Muslims.

    • Flag of Truth says:

      # Skanderberg

      When the Franks have taken their war into the Muslim world, that is called defensive measures? You are so biased! Then why it is called the Crusader’s/Holy War in the first place? Peter the Hermit and also Pope Urban actually took advantage of the lack of information at that time to persuade the Christians to make war on Muslims. It was a chance that lots of war-mongering Frankish kings had awaited for so long. And need I remind you of what Godfrey of Bouillon did after he conquered Jerusalem in the first crusades? He put all the inhabitants to the sword. No…that is not defensive measure, as you said it was. It was brutality in the name of religion.

      • Marcus says:

        And need I remind you that more than 400 years before Pope Urban I called the First Crusade, the Muslim armies of the Umayyad Caliphate sought to carve a path of conquest into Europe and were only stopped by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours in 732. That battle has generally been credited for saving Christian Europe from being conquered by Islam.

        Look, my point is, if you want to argue about which religion (Islam or Christianity) has done worse things to the other on the basis of history, Islam is bound to lose. This is because Islam WAS the “usurping”, “invading” force in its expansionist days when it displaced the religions that were there before it. The traditional heartlands of Islam, ie. the Arab world, were originally the very strongholds of Christianity in the few centuries A.D. before the rise of Islam.

        Now who’s being biased?

  7. Nora says:

    Kamal : “And that brings me to the other point, if religion is simply instrumental today, what are the underlying reasons for violence? Look at the fatwa for example, is it really religion and religious policing or is it an excuse to create bifurcations in society? It isn’t about “”us” as much as people in power wanting to maintain or reify the “we” against “them”. And this is so much more telling about the fallacy of strong states and the grasp of power, which is really just a veneer.”

    In my opinion, what are the underlying reasons for violence? It’s when people have completely lost their way and allowing their ideology, their various theories about what life is and/or should be, to trump life itself. Their love for their own particular ideas about and perceptions of the world has eclipsed their ability to love the world as it is. These people can no longer see what actually is, they can only see what they have decided to see.

    Karcy wrote :
    [1] Ah, but your statement — that all rivers lead to the Ocean — is also a claim of universal truth.

    Is it? You see I do have problem with this whole concept of the Universal Truth. Indeed I do say that all rivers lead to the Ocean but at the back of my mind I know that there’s some river that got dried up even before it reach the ocean. This is not just the truth but the fact of life if only we look around us.

    [2] The battles of the major monotheistic (and Abrahamic) religions is primarily a competition of battles of competing universal truth claims.

    Precisely – why this need for battle in the first place? Why can’t they learn to exist peacefully? Accepting each other as they are? Why this need to assert one’s own claims at the expense of another? They blame each other as being the perpetrators of violence. Can they prevent this violence from occurring again?

    In my opinion violence is inevitable, sooner or later, because it has always been inevitable. It will always be, just as long as humans are capable of quarreling and possessing anger no matter over what. Just as you have said it, the “failure” in one religion is another person’s simple “mistake”. To abolish violence in the name of religion is to abolish the basic principles/pillars adhered to in these religions. Can it be done?

  8. Karcy says:

    “Their love for their own particular ideas about and perceptions of the world has eclipsed their ability to love the world as it is. These people can no longer see what actually is, they can only see what they have decided to see”

    And you are saying that you know what the world actually is?

    To this question that you raise: “Can (Abrahamic religions) prevent this violence from occurring again%

  9. Better My says:

    The bombs in Boston yesterday immediately refocuses what the author is talking about. Whether this incident is directly caused by religious fanatics, which seems to be the case, or indirectly from bombs activated in the Boston crowd, [this kind of incident] always brings up images of religious fanatics doing their thing. Religious conflict should be discussed, for the religious to say what is on their minds, rather than keeping it to themselves, in open media, post-GE. The voice of reason and moderation will then help to calm anger, hurt etc. If we can’t talk about it due to silly or politically-motivated suppression, then we cant get to the solution of consensus from the middle crowd to lead the way.

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