Western, secular violence just as destructive as religious violence

By Opinions Editor

Mental illness, video games and lax gun laws are frequently blamed for mass violence on American soil, but when violence occurs overseas, many are quick to point the finger at religion for condoning extremism.

In his 2007  essay “Does Religion Cause Violence?” William T. Cavanaugh proposed that pitting “rational and irrational, secular and religious, Western and Muslim is not simply descriptive, but helps to create the opposition that it purports to describe.”

This “us versus them” mindset serves to polarize us against the Middle East. Religious violence is a worldwide problem, but our preoccupation with it blinds us to the nationalistic and patriotic violence committed by Western nations.

Religion is most often equated with terror organizations like al-Qaeda and ISIS, which are seen as motivated by a higher power to carry out heinous acts when, in fact, their actions are more complex and have multiple motivations.  According to Cavanaugh, this form of oversimplification can be dangerous.

One manifestation of this simplistic thinking is in Islamophobia, which is, unfortunately, all too common. Fifty percent of Americans said they believe the Islamic religion is more likely to encourage violence than others, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey. 

Religion and violence should not be synonymous, considering that Western values—including secularism—can incite violence as well.

In his essay, Cavanaugh asserts that, “so-called secular ideologies and institutions like nationalism and liberalism can be just as absolutist, divisive, and irrational as so-called religion.”

Americans and the Western World should consider why extremism is attributed solely to religious zealots when secular organizations, including the U.S. defense agencies, have also been responsible for substantial civilian casualties and war crimes like waterboarding.

Acts undertaken in defense can have tragic consequences. On Oct. 3, an American airstrike killed at least 22 civilians at a trauma hospital operated by Doctors Without Borders in Kunduz, Afghanistan.  Of the 22 known dead, 10 were patients, including three children. There were 37 total injured in the attack,  and 24 staff members’ bodies still have not been recovered. Doctors Without Borders President Meinie Nicolai has called the attack “abhorrent and a grave violation of International Humanitarian Law,” contending that the U.S. deliberately targeted a hospital. The organization has called for a full-scale investigation.

Too often, we dismiss civilian casualties as the price of war without reckoning the moral consequences of acts that are justified as defensive measures. An estimated 26,000 civilians were killed during the Afghanistan War from 2001–2014. The Iraq War, which dragged on from 2003–2011, killed an estimated 144,300–500,000 civilians. 

These alarming statistics rarely resonate with the American public, and few would accuse the U.S. military of terrorist acts. The motivations behind those wars are highly controversial to this day but can be seen as guided by a belief in American exceptionalism—that the US has the right to extend its influence worldwide because of the moral superiority of its values. It is an ideology that some Americans believe in so strongly that their nationalism might be seen as a form of fanaticism.

Acknowledging occasions of the U.S. military’s misuse of power does not equate the military with ISIS, al-Qaeda and other extremist groups whose core missions are destruction. Equating Islam with ISIS and seeing secular violence as more acceptable because it is not motivated by holy texts, higher beings or promises of an afterlife or reward creates both a moral blindspot and an “us vs. them mentality” that forecloses any prospect of peace. It is simplistic thinking with tragic consequences that plunges us in a never-ending cycle of violence and retaliation.