Of Many Things

Apart from a few members of Cairo’s Muslim Brotherhood, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone willing to defend Muhammad Morsi’s record as president of Egypt. Long before he was forced from the Heliopolis Palace last month by a quick and dirty military coup, Mr. Morsi’s incompetence had earned him the perfervid distrust of gigantic swaths of the Egyptian electorate, most of whom had voted him into power just 12 months earlier.

And that, as they say, is the rub: Mr. Morsi is Eqypt’s legitimate, democratically elected head of state. As a general rule, democratically elected governments should be changed by ballots, not bullets. The most unsettling bit, however, is not that the condition of Egyptian democracy has been downgraded from serious to critical, but that there are any number of parties who would be pleased to write a do-not-resuscitate order on the patient’s chart.


Even the United States seemed unperturbed by the return of mobocratic rule to Cairo. The U.S. State Department, aware that calling a spade a spade would set in motion a legally mandated response, went to the most incredible lengths to deny that what had taken place was a coup, the sort of forceful denial of an objective reality that in another context might constitute prima facie evidence of one’s clinical derangement. For State Department officials, however, such linguistic contortions are an ordinary day’s work. And why not? The coup d’état, after all, is an ordinary means of governance in many so-called democracies.

Take Turkey, for example, where this month the Turkish parliament acted to amend army regulations that have often been used as legal justification for the military’s intervention in politics. The Turkish military has staged three coups since 1960. Each intervention, the military claimed, was in defense of the state ideology, succinctly expressed in the Turkish national motto: “Sovereignty unconditionally belongs to the Nation.” Turkey, say the generals, is a thoroughly secular democracy; should the “religious fanatics” threaten the public order, then the military will intervene, effectively burning the village in order to save it. While the military has now been tamed, they will surely remain on the lookout for religious interference in government affairs. Religion and government, after all, are a volatile, even dangerous, mix.

Or are they? In this issue William T. Cavanaugh questions some of our basic and perduring assumptions about religion and violence. It’s important to get one thing straight from the get-go: Professor Cavanaugh does not deny that some religious people are violent. What he questions is the notion that religion is inherently violent or dangerous. Perhaps the Egyptians and the Turks are right; perhaps certain forms of political Islam, in that particular part of the world, at this particular moment in history, are dangerous. Professor Cavanaugh isn’t addressing that issue, merely questioning the notion that such movements are dangerous simply because they are “religious.” Between 1998 and 2008, for example, the European Court of Human Rights made more than 1,600 judgments against Turkey for human rights violations; yet no one has suggested that this is evidence that secularism is somehow inherently violent.

One can quibble with Professor Cavanaugh’s thesis, but his basic point is compelling: In a strange sort of way, the myth that religion is inherently prone to violence, that religion and politics shouldn’t mix, distracts us from the fact that politics and violence almost always mix. The difference is that when violence is done in the name of religion, it’s called fanaticism; when it’s done on behalf of the state it’s called patriotism. In both cases, though, more often than not, God has a different name for it: sin.

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5 years 6 months ago
Unless one assumes that the very use of violence is itself unjust, Father Malone's use of God to condemn violence as sinful suggests a lack of an ability on God's part more often than not to make distinctions between the just and unjust use of force.
Matthew Malone
5 years 6 months ago
Thank you for your comment. I'd suggest you read it again. I do not contend that every instance of violence is sinful in God's eyes, just that most are. That is the function of the phrase "more often than not."
Laicus Romanus
5 years 6 months ago
In my view, rather than asking whether people are violent or peaceful, it is more thought provocative to ask which violence we consider legitimate. Max Weber defined the state as the "monopoly of legitimate violence", and http://americamagazine.org/issue/big-and-little-wars emphasized "the sheer volume of [US] interventions". A German court decision condemning circumcision in 2012 was overturned soon afterwards by a piece of new legislation legalizing it, although it means cutting a part of a baby's body. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in Arab countries in 2010 concluded that an overwhelming majority of Egyptians favor the death penalty of apostates (1). This means that for most Egyptians, using violence to repress the freedom of thought is legitimate. In turn, we can ask ourselves whether any election that took place in Egypt in recent years was a fair election. Can you have a fair election in a country where there is no freedom of thought, and where an overwhelming majority of the people is against the freedom of thought ? Let us also mention the absence of religious freedom in the referendum-approved Egyptian constitution of December 2012 (2). I am afraid that by putting too much emphasis on electoral processes at the expense of basic freedoms, we are trying to buy security at the expense of liberty pretty much in the way frowned upon by Benjamin Franklin : "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little, temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety". Hannah Arendt was critical of democracy, saying in "Imperialism" (1951) : "For it is quite conceivable, and even within the realm of practical political possibilities, that one fine day a highly organised and mechanised humanity will conclude quite democratically – namely by majority decision – that for humanity as a whole it would be better to liquidate certain parts thereof." In Federalist paper No. 10, James Madison said he was afraid of the "violence of faction", defining faction as "a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community" (3). (1) http://www.pewglobal.org/2010/12/02/muslims-around-the-world-divided-on-hamas-and-hezbollah/ (2) http://journal.georgetown.edu/2013/03/21/egypts-new-constitution-challenges-for-religious-freedom-and-related-rights-by-katrina-lantos-swett/ (3) http://www.constitution.org/fed/federa10.htm


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