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Friday, May 27, 2005

Religious Justifications for Violence

The ongoing flap (here)/outrage and violence (in Muslim countries) about alleged mistreatment of the Koran raises the issues of cultural and moral relativism.

The U.S. military apparently -- though perhaps a bit belatedly -- decreed what non-Muslims might call extraordinary precautions against treating copies of the Koran in any of many ways that Muslims deem sacrilegious. Contrariwise, some interrogators may have tried to use Muslim sensitivity to treatment of the Koran as a way to demoralize prisoners -- though I don't believe this has been reliably established.

Underlying the factual dispute about what occurred is the question of how huge an issue this should be. The issue of whether interrogators should be allowed to play intense mind games with prisoners is important, but it is not the issue I am now addressing. I believe it is appropriate to cast a critical eye at a religious outlook that considers prohibited treatment of a book as justification for not only violence against individuals, but actual war. (I wish I could precisely recall and link to a post by a blogger who recently contrasted the potential penalties for U.S. flag "desecration" with the Muslim reaction to desecration of the Koran.)

Islam, or at least some branches of Islam, also considers death the proper penalty for heresy or apostasy by those calling themselves Muslims, and -- at least according to some extremists -- for any questioning of Muslim precepts by nonbelievers. While Muslims' reverence for the Koran may be extreme compared to how other religions treat physical symbols, the willingness to slaughter either religious dissenters or those outside the fold is not unique. Christianity's history is rife with such.

I do not believe that respect for cultural diversity or any other valid principle requires respect for those aspects of any religion that dictate violence, let alone lethal violence, against people based on any grounds other than mistreatment of other human beings. A religion that purports to authorize, let alone encourage or demand, such violence is harmless only to the extent that it is powerless.

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