Religious violence is undergoing a revival. The past decade has witnessed a sharp increase in violent sectarian or religious tensions. These range from Islamic extremists waging global jihad and power struggles between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the Middle East to the persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar and outbreaks of violence between Christians and Muslims across Africa. According to Pew, in 2018 more than a quarter of the world’s countries experienced a high incidence of hostilities motivated by religious hatred, mob violence related to religion, terrorism, and harassment of women for violating religious codes.
The spike in religious violence is global and affects virtually every religious group. A 2018 Minority Rights Group report indicates that mass killings and other atrocities are increasing in countries both affected and not affected by war alike. While bloody encounters were recorded in over 50 countries, most reported lethal incidents involving minorities were concentrated in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, India, Myanmar, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Hostilities against Muslims and Jews also increased across Europe, as did threats against Hindus in more than 18 countries. Making matters worse, 55 of the world’s 198 countries imposed heightened restrictions on religions, especially Egypt, Russia, India, Indonesia and Turkey.
How is it that religions – which supposedly espouse peace, love and harmony – are so commonly connected with intolerance and violent aggression? Social scientists are divided on the issue. Scholars like William Cavanaugh contend that even when extremists use theological texts to justify their actions, “religious” violence is not religious at all – but rather a perversion of core teachings. Others such as Richard Dawkins believe that because religions fuel certainties and sanctify martyrdom, they are often a root cause of conflict. Meanwhile, Timothy Sisk claims that both hierarchical religious traditions (such as Shi´ism) and non-hierarchical traditions (such as Buddhism) can both be vulnerable to interpretation of canon to justify or even provide warrants for violent action.