In a late February, predawn raid in Buni Yadi, a town in northeast Nigeria, Islamic militants locked the doors of a boys' dormitory and set it on fire. At least 59 students perished in the flames. The militants were linked to Boko Haram, a terrorist group that seeks to establish an Islamic state in Yobe, Nigeria.
The mainstream media cover these kinds of horrific attacks, which are often motivated by simmering religious hostility, according to recent data from the Pew Research Center. But rarely do media cover the larger, global story of religious intolerance.
That's the challenge that Rodney Stark, professor of social sciences and codirector of the Institute for Studies of Religion (ISR) at Baylor University, and Katie E. Corcoran (an ISR postdoctoral fellow) took on in their new book, Religious Hostility: A Global Assessment of Hatred and Terror. They found that one critical difference between conflicts of the distant past and today is that national armies once fought wars on religious grounds, whereas today, militant civilians—not soldiers—are the main combatants. Daniel Philpott, professor at the University of Notre Dame and author of Just and Unjust Peace, interviewed Stark, best known among CT readers for his research on the early church and the Crusades.
Why do we need another book on religious persecution and intolerance?
Much of what has been written about terrorism and the Middle East simply isn't true. There was the recent, widely publicized claim of 100,000 Christians a year dying for their faith. That's pretty stunning. When I found out how that 100,000 number was calculated, I realized it was absurd. More likely, the number was less than 7,000 a year.
Another reason for our project was the infatuation with the Arab Spring. People should have known better. President Hosni Mubarak was a tyrant, but he replaced Anwar Sadat after Sadat was assassinated by the Muslim Brotherhood. And why? Because Sadat had made a treaty with Israel. Mubarak had many flaws, but he suppressed the Egyptian fanatics, the ones who killed Sadat. If you look at Gallup World Poll data, when Egyptians were allowed to choose freely in an election, they chose a tyrant—one dedicated to attacking Christians, Jews, and Arab moderates.
Egypt's army has reinstated Mubarak's policies. That's good—probably. But we missed the whole spectrum of events. We decided to write a book that looked at real data to figure out what was going on in the world.
What surprised you?
The most stunning finding: It had been widely reported by people who were looking at survey data that majorities throughout the Middle East disapproved of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Then I discovered something. The reason that overwhelming majorities disapproved is because they think it was a frame-up done by George W. Bush. Among those who accept that it was committed by Arab terrorists, most of them approve of the 9/11 attacks. That shocked me. Overwhelmingly, people approved to the extent that they rightly understood what happened on 9/11.
You continually stumbled across data showing Islam to be especially problematic in stirring up hostility. What's your explanation?
Most Middle Eastern nations have several Muslim groups that have been bitter enemies for centuries. As Mubarak modeled it, the old ruling elites in these countries managed to sit on this hostility reasonably well to keep peaceful relations going.
But these rules have broken down. Some 75 percent of the people who died from religious hostility in 2012 were Muslims killed by Muslims. Then the terrible bitterness among them gets fanned by the enormous anger in these countries toward the West: the jealousy arising from poverty; technological backwardness; and then, of course, being appalled at the West's immorality, especially as depicted in the media.
But we must be careful not to blame the "unwashed Arab street" for all this. The elites, the most educated people throughout the Middle East, share these views.
Are you distancing yourself from the claim that Islam is inherently violent and intolerant because of its theological or scriptural teachings?
Religious violence isn't something new in the world. Lord knows there were 90 brands of Christianity all busy hating each other not long ago. Tolerance is hard to come by. I hesitate to think there is anything peculiar to the Islamic tradition. There is a problem, to be sure, in that Muhammad butchered people for their irreligion. But the fact is, Christians have killed each other by the millions too.
Pakistan reported the highest rate of religiously motivated atrocities in 2012. What is it about the country that puts it at the top of the list?
Pakistan's curse is that they are not only split up among the Shia and Sunni and smaller Muslim sects, but that the Sunni have been heavily backed by the Saudis, which affected their education. The Sunni have been educated into a radical nasty brand, at least compared with the Shia, who are in turn being armed and backed by the Iranians.
So Pakistan is a little battlefield on which outsiders have been pouring an awful lot of gas. Pakistan is next to Afghanistan, so the Taliban has made inroads in Pakistan and has a long history of involvement with al-Qaeda. Pakistanis are victims of outside interference.
Media report that in the Central African Republic, Christians are resorting to violence against Muslims, as a reaction to Muslim violence against Christians. Does this call for you and Corcoran to revise your findings from 2012, that little to no religiously motivated violence among Christians exists in the world today?
Yes, it does, although we made it clear that in Nigeria, Christians were beginning to strike back. Who would expect otherwise when you have the enormous number of murders that were going on? You had people driving by on motorcycles and shooting everybody in a restaurant or the like on religious grounds.
Focusing on the West, you and Corcoran find evidence that evangelicals aren't so different from the general population in their attitudes about church and state. So why are they often perceived to be more theocratic?
They have been very misrepresented by the press, which basically doesn't like religious people, particularly if they go to church and aren't lukewarm about it.
But who are the evangelicals? Usually they are defined on the basis of denomination. They are thought to be in conservative denominations like the Baptists and Nazarenes, and then you look at the Episcopalians and Presbyterians and say, "Well, these are not evangelicals." But if you ask people whether or not they are evangelicals, you find that half the people in so-called evangelical denominations don't accept the term evangelical, and that a whole lot of people in the nonevangelical denominations do define themselves as evangelicals. Fourteen percent of Roman Catholics identify themselves as evangelical.
Evangelicals differ from the liberal press on church-state matters, but they are not different from other Americans on these issues. They do differ from Americans in that they go to church more frequently and are far more likely to witness to their faith (inviting others to their church or prayer group). They are much less likely to believe in Bigfoot, Atlantis, astrology, ghosts. They are far more favorable toward Israel.
Do these stereotypes about evangelicals come largely from the media?
Sure they do. When I was a reporter, if you were a religious person you kept it to yourself.
By the way, there are more religious people in those newsrooms than anybody realizes. At a recent press conference, we revealed some of the results of the Baylor National Religion Surveys, and I mentioned that 52 percent of respondents said they had been rescued by a guardian angel. This attracted the attention I thought it would. Two different members of the press, when nobody was looking, pulled me aside and said, "It happened to me."
You and Corcoran argue for religious pluralism as a source of tolerance and support for religious freedom—a theme that you have returned to many times in your scholarship. By your theory, pluralism leads to peace. But in Pakistan, the factions are killing each other.
Initially, of course, pluralism leads to war. The most dangerous thing is having two, three religious groups in a society. If you had only one, there'd be nothing to fight about. Of course there never really is one—there's always variation within it. We miss, even among Sunnis, the enormous diversity within Islam, just as Muslims fail to grasp the diversity within Christianity. Neither is monolithic.
I'm echoing Adam Smith, whose great insight was that if you want religious peace, you need an enormous number of religious groups, all of them way too small to amount to much on their own. It's in everybody's interest to create a civil religion, papering over the diversity because any one of the groups could be crushed. The United States is a good model of that. I'm sure the founding fathers would have established a church if there had been a 60 percent Anglican population. Instead, they had to invent rules to govern religious freedom and the separation of church and state. There was no established church, because there was nobody dominant enough to play the role.
Couldn't it also work the other way around—that only when there is a relaxation of authoritarianism can more factions and a diversity of views emerge?
Saudi Arabia is not a good place to suggest you are not a very orthodox Sunni. So it depends on the time and place. The authoritarian regimes in the past century have been sitting on a powder keg and keeping it from exploding. It's really hard to say how all this can work out. You know, democracy isn't really the answer to intolerance.
Right. Even when we say democracy, don't we have to distinguish between democracy defined as elections and liberal democracy, which has freedoms and rights and free spaces as well?
It's important for Americans to realize we are spoiled. We have a pretty good situation. But this is all very recent and very precarious. Hitler came to power in a democratic Germany; Mussolini was elected. Democracy has never ensured tolerance.
Go back to ancient Athens, where twice, following a war with another city-state, citizens voted to kill all the men and enslave all the women and children. The wonderful British democracy excluded Roman Catholics from Oxford and Cambridge until the 1890s. Our own great civil rights struggle was in the 1950s and '60s.
Why are we still surprised when the overwhelming majority of Egyptians think the nation should be ruled by Muslim law (Shari'ah)? And why should we be surprised when they elect a president who promises to implement it? Elections are tolerant only to the extent that the voters are. The point is that democracy is nice, but it doesn't necessarily answer questions of tolerance.
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