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Religions and terrorism


The principal conflicts of the final years of the twentieth century and the beginnings of the new millennium have religious undertones, whether in Ireland, Kosovo, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Iraq or the extremely violent new Islamic State. This was clear in Paris, with the murder of the cartoonists and others by Islamic fundamentalists. How does religion enter into this?

Not without reason did Samuel P. Huntington write in his well known 1997 book, The Clash of Civilizations: «In the modern world, religion is a central force, perhaps the central force that motivates and mobilizes people… What matters in the end to people is neither political ideology nor economic interest. What people identify with are religious convictions, family and creeds. They fight and are even willing to give their lives for these things.» (p. 79). Huntington critiques Northamerican foreign policy for never having paid sufficient attention to the religious factor, considered something old and superceded. That is a huge error. Religion underlies the gravest conflicts that we are experiencing.

Whether we like it or not, in spite of the secularization process and the eclipse of the sacred, much of humanity is oriented by a religious cosmo-vision, Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Sintoist, Buddhist and others.

As already affirmed by Christopher Dawson (1889-1970), the great British historian of cultures: «the great religions are the foundations on which civilizations rest» (Dynamics of World History, 1957, p.128). Religions are the point d’honneur of a culture, because through religion they project their great dreams, elaborate their ethical dictums, confer meaning on history and have their say about the ultimate meaning of life and of the universe. Only modern culture has not produced a religion. Modern culture found substitutes with idolatrous functions, such as reason, endless progress, unlimited consumerism, limitless accumulation and others. The result was denounced by Nietzsche, who proclaimed the death of God. Not that God had died, if so, God would not be God. The fact is that men killed God. Nietzsche meant that God no longer is the point of reference for fundamental values, for an overriding cohesion among humans. We are seeing the effects at a planetary level: a humanity lacking direction, an atrocious loneliness and a feeling of rootlessness, without knowing where history is leading us.

If we want peace in this world we need to recapture the feeling of the sacred, the spiritual dimension of life that is at the origin of the religions. Truthfully, even more important than religion is spirituality, that presents itself as the profound human dimension. But spirituality expresses itself through religions, whose purpose is to nourish, sustain and infuse life with spirituality. This is not always accomplished because almost all religions, when institutionalized, enter into the games of power and hierarchies, and can assume pathological forms. Whatever is healthy can fall ill. But we measure religions, as we do people, for the “sane” versions, and not the “pathological” ones.

Thus we see that religions perform an indispensable function: they try to give ultimate meaning to life and to offer a hopeful framework of history. What is happening now is that fundamentalism and terrorism, that are religious pathologies, have become relevant. In large part this is due to the devastating process of globalization (actually, the Westernization of the world), that ignores differences, destroys identities and imposes foreign habits on them.

In general, when that occurs, peoples hold onto those things that are the guardians of their identity. They conserve through religions their memories and their best symbols. When feeling invaded, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, with thousands of victims, they take refuge in their religions as a form of resistance. Then the issue becomes something other than religious. It is politics using religion for self defense. Invasion creates rage and a desire for revenge. Fundamentalism and terrorism find their origins in this complex of questions. Hence the terrorist attacks.

How can we overcome this impasse in civilization? It is fundamental to live the ethics of hospitality, to be willing to dialogue with and to learn from those who are different, to live an active tolerance, and to be aware of one’s humanity.

Religions need to acknowledge each other, to enter into dialogue and to find minimum convergences that allow them to peacefully coexist.

Before anything, it is important to recognize religious pluralism, as a matter of fact and of right. Plurality derives from a correct understanding of God. No religion can hope to define the Mystery, the original Source of all beings or any other name they want to give to the Supreme Reality, within the limits of their discourse and of their rites. If it were that way, God would be part of the world, in reality, an idol. God is always beyond and always far above. Consequently there is space for other expressions and for other forms of celebrating God that are not exclusive to one specific religion.

The first eleven chapters of Genesis contain a great lesson. They do not speak of the Israelites as the chosen people. Reference is made of all the peoples of the Earth, all of whom are peoples of God. Above them all rises the rainbow of the divine alliance. This message reminds us still today that all peoples, with their religions and their traditions, are peoples of God, they all live on the Earth, in the garden of God, and form the unique Human Species that is composed of many families with their traditions, cultures and religions.

Free translation from the Spanish by
Servicios Koinonia,


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