Saturday, 9 December 2017

A Layered Framework To Understand Religion-Based Terror

I was shocked to hear the news of a Hindu man in Rajasthan who hacked a Muslim man to death and set him alight, all the while having the deed and his aggrieved justifications recorded on camera. It was difficult to watch, but also too fascinating to ignore from a psychological angle. The reasoning the man gave was outlandish. He accused his victim of conducting a "love jihad" (a peculiarly patriarchal term of outrage applied to instances of Hindu women marrying Muslim men and converting to Islam). He said he had committed the murder "for the sake of our Hindu faith".

Viewer discretion advised, even though the gory parts are blurred out

The justification that he did it for the faith was the most striking to me.

I have heard this kind of argument before, especially the oft-repeated scaremongering propaganda that "Muslims will outnumber Hindus in India in a generation". I had demolished this latter canard quite simply and comprehensively, using nothing more than a spreadsheet and census data of the last four decades. However, variants of this inexplicable majoritarian insecurity keep surfacing and never seem to die.

I had to create a joker meme to express my incredulity at the skewed priorities I was seeing

When I posted about this latest outrage and called it "Hindu terror", a couple of my Hindu friends protested. The gist of their protest was that Hindu scripture and Hindu spiritual leaders have never called for the killing of people of other faiths, and therefore any reasons claimed by the murderer were to be treated as entirely personal. It was not to be called "Hindu" terror in spite of his claim that he did it out of a desire to defend the Hindu faith; it was just a murder carried out for personal reasons.

They had a point in that Islamist killers often point to some verse or the other in the Quran to justify their acts, but there is probably no verse in any Hindu religious text that calls for violence against Muslims or people of any other faith.

But their argument didn't completely convince me either.

I am not a believing Hindu. I consider religion to be nothing more than ideology, which is a set of ideas that possesses a person's mind, and which need not make any sense to a rationalist, or even be internally consistent. Ideology can come from a variety of sources. Looking for motive purely in scripture or in a narrow school of doctrine is naive, because the links from a person's ideology to religious scripture are not always straightforward. It's important to examine the murderous ideology and see where it is derived from.

I was gratified at one level to see that even my Hindu friends did not condone the murder itself. They were just extremely uncomfortable with my associating the murder with Hinduism, even though the murderer had explicitly made that link himself! So was I really justified in calling this an act of "Hindu terror"?

This post is my systematic attempt to deconstruct the elements of religion-based ideologies with a view to understanding their role in instigating acts of terror.

Let's first establish and agree that a negative ideology can instigate a person into committing acts of violence against others.


A positive ideology, on the other hand, can make a person more amenable to peaceful coexistence with others.

When looking at the role of religion in creating either a positive or negative ideology in the mind of a person, it's important to recognise at least three paths from scripture to the mind.


The simplistic view is that a person is directly influenced by what is written in scripture. Of course, since everything is subjective and amenable to interpretation, even a person reading a scriptural text all by themselves, without external influences, is still subject to the interpretation offered by their own mind.

In practice, scripture is almost always interpreted for believers by intermediaries such as clerics and accepted spiritual leaders.


Therefore, the clergy has a crucial role to play in interpreting scripture and creating an ideology in a believer's mind. We have seen for ourselves the practical difference between a positive ideology and a negative ideology in countless cases.

At this juncture, a number of Hindus may interject to argue that this is true only of the Abrahamic religions, since Abrahamic texts are known to be exclusivist and intolerant of other faiths, often exhorting their believers to engage in acts of violence against unbelievers. Hindu scriptures do not call for such violence against unbelievers, and therefore there is no question of Hindu scripture being used to provide a credible basis for such violence.

While this is a valid argument, we are talking about ideology as a general phenomenon, and its roots need not be scripture alone but other social or political entities that are associated with the religion in some way.



While the scriptures themselves may not exhort believers into any kind of action, there could be self-styled defenders of the faith who create a sense of imperative action through a specialised ideology that claims to have its roots in scripture, but which in reality is a distinct ideology in itself. What matters is the perceived legitimacy of the new ideology in terms of its basis in religion. If the ideology is more and more widely perceived to be related to the religion, then the difference between the ideology and the religion becomes more and more academic.

With the two Abrahamic religions, ideology is directly related to scripture, with interpretation playing a key role in the formation of the ultimate ideology that influences a believer's mind.

This is what the ideological model of Islam looks like:


(Click to expand)

There is a scriptural basis for intolerance in Islam, and there is simultaneously scriptural basis for tolerance. It is a genuine contradiction, and the contradiction is resolved one way or the other depending on interpretation. Thus, the term "jihad" could be interpreted either literally as violence against unbelievers, or as an internal spiritual struggle. Believers in each ideology claim to be the correct interpreters of their scripture, and consider the other group to be misled.

The model is more interesting in the case of Christianity, since scripture itself is divided into two texts, the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament is very similar to the Quran in the vehemence of its language and degree of intolerance for various groups of people and acts. The New Testament, the chronicle of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, is much less violent. Interestingly, the New Testament asserts itself to be in complete alignment with the doctrine of the Old.


(Click to expand)

Extreme punishment for minor transgressions, of the kind encountered in the Quran, is also found in the Old Testament, but no modern interpretation of Christianity gives this any credence, even though there is no formal repudiation of these verses either. There are, however, other examples of intolerance, such as the injunctions against homosexuality, which continue to divide believing Christians. Hence Christianity too exhibits a striking dichotomy in ideology in spite of basic scriptural unity.

Hinduism is perhaps the most interesting model of the three.

(Click to expand)

Hindu scripture is remarkably diverse, with many different texts considered to be sacred and authoritative. The illustration above deliberately draws upon a spectrum of scriptural texts. Traditionally, the variety of opinions in the scriptures has been interpreted in two broad ways. Socially, a rigid hierarchy and pervasively observed rules have controlled diversity in often oppressive ways. Philosophically, there has been a degree of mutual respect and tolerance for other viewpoints (sampradayas). There have been debates between competing schools of thought, but violence as witnessed in Europe between Catholics and Protestant, for example, has been historically rare.

Sometimes, there have been creative reinterpretations of the faith itself, when placed under pressure from materially more powerful external viewpoints (e.g., the 19th century reinvention of Hinduism by Swami Vivekananda and Dayananda Saraswati on account of pressure from British sociologists as well as missionaries).

With Hinduism though, modern interpretations have added a layer of complexity to the traditional ones, in the form of new ideologies. Marxism, Feminism and Liberal Humanism are a group of ideologies that challenge the traditional orthodox Hindu social order as being fundamentally unfair. Concurrently, perhaps as a reaction to reform, the ideology of Hindu Nationalism (or Hindutva) has arisen to defend the old order from perceived attack.

There are thus two distinct Hindu ideologies. One of these successfully combines the native Hindu tradition of philosophical tolerance with the modern sensibility of egalitarianism. The other, equally successfully, combines the negative elements of social orthodoxy and majoritarian insecurity. The latter is increasingly seen in Indian society and mirrors the rise of the BJP in Indian politics. It is this ideology that is responsible for instigating violence against religious minorities.

It is clear from these models that at a general level, acts of terror are driven by ideology. Ideology may have its roots in religious scripture and interpretations thereof, but it could also be influenced by socio-political organisations and movements that only bear a tenuous relationship to religion. Regardless, if these socio-political organisations and movements are widely acknowledged to be legitimate spokespeople for the religion, then any acts of terror instigated by their ideology must be laid at the door of the religion.

Much as my Hindu friends might protest the term "Hindu terror", it is an inescapable conclusion that the terror ideology of the Hindutva organisations is related to Hinduism to the extent that they are considered legitimate representatives of Hinduism. Hindu terror is therefore regrettably real.

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