Fields of Blood: Religions and the History of Violence

Fields of Blood: Religions and the History of Violence

Pre modern and modern religions have occasionally been transformed into militant piety; otherwise known as radicalism or violent extremism. In Myanmar, Buddhist radicalism has quickly dominated the politics in Arakan-Tenneserin, where the Rohingya minorities are persecuted and denied any citizenship, despite generations of staying in the country. In Sri Lanka, the Buddhist majority finally prevailed over the Tamil minority by the preponderance of its state-sponsored use of force. In Indonesia, structural violence is imposed on other religious minorities each day, given the huge Muslim demography.

Yet, Karen Armstrong disagrees totally with the notion that religions are inherently violent; or have serious propensity for an Armageddon. Instead, she argues early in the book that secularism, nationalism, ethno-centrism, and other ideologies crafted by humankind are equally guilty, if not more so.

World War I, World War II, and the Cold War, all were waged without any religious antecedents. To the degree the Crusade launched by Pope Urban II in 1192 had any religious resonance, the trigger was largely to divert the Knights in Europe into fighting "the Other"----the Muslims. The latter became the scapegoat, and subsequently, a victim, of European intra-civilizational rivalry.

But, nothing exists in absolutes too. Religions, when they are in the hands of the state, can be used as a sanction to perpetrate serious violence against others. When President George Bush was about to launch Operation Desert Storm, to literally bomb Iraq into "the stone age" in 1990, he knelt at the altar in White House before he proceeded with his executive decision.

How much violence goes into religion, it would appear, depends on the political matrix of the time. Karen Armstrong, having written scores of books on the history of religion, and history of God(s), clearly understand the quest for things spiritual are deep and abiding. But the quest for security, relative gains, mastery over others, honor, and control of strategic choke points, are equally compelling objectives in violence.

What makes Karen Armstrong a brilliant writer is her willingness to defend, not just one religion, but all religions. And, by performing such a task, has encouraged all groups and individuals to seek their respective religious paths, without being apologetic or fearful of the repercussions. It is of course left to them i.e. the faithful believers to contain the religious zealotry of the extremists that exist in their midst, or, at the tip of their wings. In this sense, religions like Bahaism, or, Quaker Movement, have indeed done an excellent job at eschewing violence. But, even these movements cannot avoid the issue of potential self-destruction. Taoist religion, for example, is extremely peaceful. But, it is this very ethos, that has pushed them to the margins of society too, occasionally, underground, as was the case during the Chinese cultural revolution. How does one ought to respond then ? Karen Armstrong provides no such answers, which means, the quest for peace and harmonious co existence, is a perennial search for the ultimate democratic solution.