As you almost certainly know by now, armed gunmen attacked the offices of French magazine Charlie Hebdo on 7 January, killing 12 people. The suspects, Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, are members of the Islamist group Buttes-Chaumont network, and one or both of them is reported to have shouted Allahu Akhbar (“God is great”) during the attack.
This attack, and related ones including a hostage crisis at a kosher supermarket in Port de Vincennes where five additional people were killed, caused great sadness, anger, and fear. They also occasioned outpourings of support, and analyses of what went wrong. Those responses, both the emotional ones and the intellectual ones, are entirely appropriate, I think.
Unfortunately, some of the intellectual responses, perhaps colored by the emotions, are incorrect (again, in my estimation).
Consider this assertion by George Packer in The New Yorker shortly after the attack:
Islam today includes a substantial minority of believers who countenance, if they don’t actually carry out, a degree of violence in the application of their convictions that is currently unique.
Or this op-ed piece by Doug Bandow, a “senior fellow at the Cato Institute”:
Nor should members any group, Muslim or other, be treated as enemies. However, the problem of violent religious intolerance is almost uniquely Muslim.
What is, I believe, wrong in these analyses is the assertion that religiously inspired terrorism is “unique” to Islam. It is trivially easy to show that Islamic terrorism is not “the only one of its kind; having no like or equal; standing alone in comparison with others” (unique A.2.a., Oxford English Dictionary). It is not much harder to argue that Islamic terrorism does not meet a weaker definition of unique as “exceptional” or “special”.
During the 2002 Gujarat riots official estimates say that 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus were killed. (Unofficial estimates put the toll much higher.) Hindu Nationalist leaders condoned the violence; it is even alleged that some Hindu Nationalist politicians may have directed attacks.
Sri Lanka’s long civil war from 1983 to 2009 was justified at least partially along religious lines, as Tamil rebels cited state support for Buddhism as well as Sinhala language among their grievances. Though the Tamil Tigers were Marxist and at least nominally atheist, the war was often described as one of Hindus versus Buddhists. (In Sri Lanka today, anti-Muslim demonstrations by the Buddhist Power Force have spawned riots resulting in at least three deaths and several homes, shops, or mosques burned.)
In the United States, eight people have been killed since 1993 while working at medical facilities providing abortions. Nine clinics or family planning centers have been targeted by arsonists and countless others have received bomb threats during that time. Although most anti-abortion activists reject such violence, several groups claim that their Christian faith justifies it.
Do Islamists commit acts of violence more often than other religiously motivated individuals or groups? I don’t know. It is an empirical question, one that could potentially be answered with the right data gathered by appropriate methods.
Do Muslims forgive, condone, or support religious violence more readily than followers of other religions? I don’t know. But any answer to that question would need not only good data but also good theory, including careful definitions of the actors, practices, and ideologies involved.
Is religious violence uniquely Muslim? My answer is “no”, but I would also caution readers against taking the word of any journalist or pundit (much less any blogger) who asserts an easy answer to the question.