Why do Muslim mobs in Islamic countries go on violent rampages in response to perceived insults to their religion? This question has surfaced once again in the wake of the riots across the Islamic world apparently triggered by the film, misleadingly titled, “Innocence of Muslims.” A range of reasons is being debated, including the nature of Islam, cultural inferiority of pre-modern societies, lack of democratic traditions, anti-Americanism inspired by decades of American support to Arab dictatorships and its unqualified support to the Jewish state.
While there may be some truth in all these, for a fuller understanding one should examine the other question that crops up in this context: Why don’t Christians in Western countries resort to violence even in the face of extreme provocation, including terrorist attacks by Islamic radicals? Is it because Christianity is a peaceful religion?
That can’t be true, because despite what the New Testament preaches, the history of political Christianity – from Constantine the Great to Christopher Columbus and beyond — is marked by relentless violence. No other religion, not even Islam, comes close to the scale of violence, physical and structural, that has been inflicted in the name of Christianity.
That said, one must note that for the most part — barring revolutions, ethnic and racial pogroms – societal violence for redressing grievances has been notably absent in modern nation-states of the Christian West. It has something to do with the philosophical and inherently secular construct of the European State in which the subjects, as if they were under a social contract, surrender their right to violence to the sovereign.
According to German sociologist Max Weber, the very existence the State is contingent on having “monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.” As the key appropriator of social passions and competing interests, the State enabled the formation of a civil society and a set of deliberative institutions like parliaments and the media. It also helped develop the modern notion of “citizenship” that inspired what political scientist J.W. Garner terms as a “habitual obedience to law” – by which, for instance, most people pay taxes or respect traffic rules or refrain from encroaching on other peoples’ liberty even when outside the scrutiny or reach of legal authority.
The European State, notwithstanding its Christian orientation, evolved into a secular construct, largely because the intellectual foundation of Western civilization lay, not in the Christian doctrine, but in Greek political philosophy from where the State originated. If anything, the attributes of religion were projected on to the State, thus rendering it the very the embodiment of morality and justice. German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel even compared it to “the march of God on Earth.”
Alongside, the “Protestant ethic” contributed to the rise of the capitalism which also diminished the influence of religion in public affairs. Of course, the same idea of State, in its extreme and perverse form, gave rise to fascism and totalitarianism. (It did not lead to utopian communism that Marx believed would eventually make the State redundant, causing it to wither away.)
Outside the West, only a few countries have been able evolve as modern nation-states where citizens displayed “habitual obedience to law.” Notable are Japan after the Meiji Restoration, and Turkey, where Mustafa Kemal Ataturk decided that it was futile to resist what he termed “the impetuous torrent of modernization.” In India, notwithstanding the success of its democratic institutions, the State continues to compete for loyalty with parochial factors like the caste, religion, language and ethnicity. As a consequence, the country remains hostage to violent subnational movements and sporadic rampages by murderous mobs.
In most of the Afro-Arab countries where the idea of State did not take root, competing interests of disparate tribes and sects thrown together by arbitrarily drawn political boundaries were held in check by authoritarian regimes that had the monopoly of violence. But with the fall of dictators in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring, and with nascent forces of modernization struggling to assert themselves the power vacuum is being filled by traditional power structures.
Against this background, if the State monopoly of violence accounts for the Western countries taking a legalistic view of violence – only violence sanctioned by the State is deemed legitimate – in Islamic countries, with weak allegiance to the authority of State and relative indifference to law, violence has come to be accepted an expression of popular will in the defense of the tribe, tradition, custom, religion or, a combination of all conveniently swept under the rubric of honor.