‘A religious man should keep a balance between hypocritical freethinking and fanaticism’

“Violence isn’t a brainchild of religious consciousness but is a part of a man’s nature,” historian, Realnoe Vremya’s columnist Karim Gaynullin is convinced. In another column for our newspaper, he reflects on the nature of manifestations of evil and about motives that push people into committing crimes. The researcher believes that committed misdeeds can’t be considered from a perspective of the criminal’s religion like, for instance, Islamophobs, unfortunately, often do today.

Part of man’s nature

Violence isn’t a brainchild of religious consciousness but is a part of a man’s nature. Before the establishment of law, public life is a war against everybody where there aren’t any ethical laws and everything is permitted. As normal existence in such conditions is impossible, people came to the conclusion that they should restrict their own natural freedom of violence. God’s will became one of the explanations for this restriction.

Modern-day law tells us that violence is an exceptional prerogative of the government. Great German sociologist Max Weber defined states as “monopoly on violence” that has an exceptional right to apply physical punishment to humans. However, human society existed without a state for most of its history. A big part of historical states wee conglomerates of tribes, kingdoms and poleis that are distant from a contemporary, modern state.

In reality, such “proto-states” where there was no monopoly on violence, communities established legal norms. Great religions were born in this regulation. The norms of Islamic, Jewish law and ancient Christian states that seem cruel to a modern person have an interesting peculiarity: these norms don’t need the modern, complex prison and the court system to work.

Before the European Enlightenment, religion and politics weren’t separated, and religiously motivated violence was considered perfectly legal. So rulers’ political strivings often had a religious foundation. For instance, a desire to seize lands from some prince was motivated by his deviation from the true faith. While with the creation of national states, religions began to give way to ideologies as political actors.

Ideologies such as nationalism, communism, fascism and liberalism have religious roots. Great German legal theorist Carl Schmitt amazingly showed in his Political Theology that the modern legal order has its roots in religious concepts. Enlightenment philosophers didn’t hide that but dreamt of establishing a civic religion and civic cults, while the first builders of modern states borrowed ideas of traditional religions of the East and West. From the first years of their existence, the newly establishment ideologies, political religions of the era of modernity began to compete with religion for establishing such ethical principles a society must rest on.

Ethical principles themselves, questions “what should?” are logically unexplainable. In other words, it will be wrong to say logically that “violence is bad” because of the assumption that “a person subjected to violence suffers”. Both religions and ideologies are designed to explain why society should look this way, why a person should leave the “natural state” (Hobbes) without logical argumentation — lawlessness and wars of all against all to create a society, culture and morality by uniting with other people.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, ideologies drove religions out the political sphere. Three systems divided the world between each other: liberal, communist and fascist systems, each of them was a candidate to remodel the whole world in accordance with their benchmark values. The establishment of ideology didn’t lead to the destruction of violence. In contrast, the bloodiest war in human history and the next 50 years of cold opposition and threats of nuclear winter were created by secular systems. Nevertheless, the “liberation” of left-wing groups, exports of democracy and national interest are still considered the best-founded arguments to demonstrate violence and political engagement than religious beliefs.

Therefore the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 first and then a series of Islamist movements around the world became a big shock for the “educated” world. A myriad of circumstances facilitated the birth of Islamism, that’s to say, the consideration of Islam as a political actor. The crisis in the Near East created by the population’s disappointment with authoritarian secular regimes, on the one hand, and the weakness of new states that were formed by a division of the Arab world by colonial empires of the West are key here.

The political form Islamism offers has little in common with the way Islamic society existed in the Middle Ages. First of all, Muslims didn’t have a modern bureaucratic state. Most of the political forms were a conglomerate of tribal unions that gathered around the supreme leader. This is why Islamism can be considered as a modern ideology that aspires to rethink religious narratives in a bureaucratic state. Extreme Jihad Islamists endorse the creation of a totalitarian religious state, while more moderate Islamists are for the existence of Islamic parties inside a competitive fight of democracy.

Different Christian political groups in the West partly do the same. Both models have little in common with the medieval political reality.

External violence: religion and space

Many have heard about religious wars: the most famous are Muslims’ gazawat and Christians’ holy wars, milhemet mitzvah in Judaism or certain personifications of wars in the form of specific gods and wars to their glory in pagan cults.

The pre-modernity world didn’t divide religion and politics. More importantly, it didn’t divide religion and space. Most of the population didn’t consider itself the existing supreme power about whose state it might be unaware of. The holy power coming from God and expressed in the holiness of the Church or holy legal norms was much more important. The whole world was divided into special religious universes, “good” and “bad” lands and languages.

Notes of Russian traveller Afanasy Nikitin A Journey Beyond the Three Seas are illustrative in this respect where the author starts to write down even prayers in the Tatar, Arab and Persian languages when crossing the “unclean”, non-Christian land to show the badness of his trip. He also describes different obscenities he sees on his way in “non-Christian” languages, for instance, prostitution.

Some pre-revolutionary conservative Islamic scientists among Tatars forbade learning the Russian language as the language of non-Muslims in a similar way. They were satisfied with education in the Old Tatar, Arabic and Persian languages living in their separate universe, though their neighbours had another religion and another mentality. Even though their lands had been managed by the Russian Empire for long, while they lived in governorates, it was still seen in their works they lived in “Wilayat Bulgar”, which is the north of the Islamic world.

In the Western tradition, the special world of Christianity was named Res Publica Christiana or Christendom beyond which an inimical pagan world they had to civilise existed. Similarly, for Muslims, the world was divided into Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Kufr — the domain of Islam and domain of disbelief. Despite a big number of states inside every order, the order itself was considered as one and holy. The seizure of a territory for your space was meant as discovery of the land for the holy order.

Such intervention has nothing to do with modern religious terrorism. The last armed gazawat was declared by Muslims in the 17th century and ended with a defeat near Vienne. Since then, Muslims almost always lost territories without adding new lands to the space of Dar al-Islam.

Modern-day terrorists’ goal isn’t to seize lands, they don’t bring sacrifices to the altar of gods. The terrorists often go by revenge or an attempt to draw attention to themselves and blackmail democratic governments, which has nothing do with religion! Terrorism is an extreme political tool that can be used by a person with any views.

But has the holiness of the war itself disappeared as a phenomenon? I would question it. The secularised consciousness has just shifted the focus from religion to ideologies. Orders have begun to be defined not by the sanctification of rule by Christ’s Church or the introduction of norms of Islamic law on earth but the membership in communist international or a group of the “first world” countries the “non-freedom”, wild and archaic regime are against. If under Truman the fight against the Other in the person of the red threat was still considered as “opposition of all free people to Soviet aggression”, Bush openly declared campaigns of democracy.

And we aren’t talking about religious and ideological preferences. The nature of politics that draws a line “friend is enemy” is the point. Unions and contests happening around the world due to objective circumstances inevitably obtain an ideological connotation both in religious faith and fights of classes or fight for defending “national interests”.

Talking about religious special orders today, religious people here are divided into two groups. The first group claims that the whole world commits a sin when there is only one “land of paganism”, purity outside few groups of religious fundamentalists doesn’t exist. The second group most believers probably back says that such a special division in the modern global world simply doesn’t make sense. Muslims, Christians and representatives of other religions are represented in any country today.

Religion and internal violence

The idea of betrayal of a renegade is one of the consequences of special thinking where the space of one’s own religion is a separate universe. Most Abrahamic religions considered that a renegade deserves being punished in different ways, through death.

In fact, throughout the Middle Ages, society had a huge number of real renegades, freethinkers and philosophers. Public urges and formation of religions that pose a threat to a formed spatial position were rather punished. Religious clerics softened this narrative with conditions and principles. For instance, Islam has an idea that it was better to consider a renegade as Muslim than take a Muslim from religion. In Christianity, there was big polemics among holy fathers on the necessity of punishing renegades and heretics. For instance, Saint Joseph Volotsky had a firm stance in this issue, while many other saints thought that a person couldn’t be killed in any case.

Such a tendency can be tracked in other ways of punishment too. For instance, it is known that there is an Old Testament rule for the fact of adultery in Islam: death penalty. It is considered for some reason this applies only to women, but in fact, religious law doesn’t segregate people by their sex in these issues. And on the other hand, according to Sharia, it is nearly impossible to prove an extramarital affair. So for this purpose, it is necessary to have four male witnesses who are known for their honesty and personally saw the intercourse. In reality, this punishment rather restrained and was rarely used in practice.

A religious fundamentalist would have been probably disappointed if he had been in the medieval Abbasid or Ottoman caliphates. Despite the supremacy of religious law, that puritan society supporters of banned groups imagine in their heads didn’t exist. Medieval Muslims separated private and public life. And if was unacceptable to publicly infringe on the fixed order, people’s private life remained a personal prerogative of some people. At the same time, the ideas that seem to be awful heresy today were widely spread — it is much easier for a modern person who is familiar with the Internet to become religiously literate than a medieval peasant who, in fact, could believe whatever.

One of the issues of Orthodox religious law is that it considers certain criminal norms as part of the divine narrative that isn’t subjected to reformation. On the other hand, human society has seen a lot of changes. Where is the border between God’s will and the time-dependent context? It is a mission of a real lawyer to respond to changes, rethink law according to the spirit of the times to make it work regardless of the tradition he follows.

With a retreat of religion from public space and the formation of the concept of secularism, religious law gives way to secular. The metamorphosis took place in punishment too. There isn’t probably a more famous work dedicated to the research of the evolution of punishment than Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault. In this work, he shows that this evolution began from body punishment to soul punishment. Public lashing, cutting off parts of the body and execution meant to be a lesson for the population turned into complex systems of penitentiary facilities. The task of these establishments is to inculcate the feeling of guilt and suffering into the inmate. Law passed from deprivation from the body to deprivation from freedom.

Efficacy was one of the main reasons for such a transition. After the next public execution, especially unfair, the population often defended the killed person and staged a riot. The modern criminal system “hides” the process of punishment from the population. Then, the feeling of guilt the sentenced person must feel in society is to keep the criminal from repeating the misdeed. On the other hand, the creation of prison culture that educates respect for violation of law in a person became a trouble of society.

Healthy secularism

Healthy secularism is aimed to build an accommodating society that would allow people with different beliefs to live in the world. Because the State itself is a compromise between people who voluntarily refuse violence in favour of a peaceful and active life. But secular regimes themselves often come to create a totalitarian doctrine that envisages invasion into people’s personal beliefs and building a “correct” society.

Even if we omit the extreme forms of the ban on religions as such in communist Albania and execution of priests in the Soviet Union, we can put examples from modern society. It is the attitude of liberals to Muslim women wearing a veil. Liberals consider unacceptable if the veil is a requirement of the family a girl learns from her own mother. It must be only a free choice, whatever it means. Because for a Muslim woman, a veil is a part of Islamic religion, which, in turn, is rooted in its existential affiliation, the person she was born or became accepting all that moral doctrine the religion establishes. The choice of hijab itself is a meta choice, the choice of the choice, which, in fact, can be only negative, corresponding the formed culture of choice. How greatly Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek put it: “It is only the woman who does not choose to wear a veil that effectively chooses a choice”.

This is why in our secular liberal democracies, people who have deep-seated religious beliefs are in subordination: their faith is “tolerated” while it is a personal choice, but if they try to represent it publicly the way what it means for them it is an expression of existential affiliation, they are accused of “fundamentalism”. Hence, the bans on veils at school and in public establishments that are spread in some European countries. A balance can be found only in a case when both religious people and people who are distant from religion will respect each other’s borders.


Undoubtedly, religion isn’t limited to criminal law and war. First of all, it is a means of communication between a person and God. In this respect, it seems to me that religion will never stop being topical even if it will obtain other forms or create secular cults — the questions religion asks are rooted in the man’s nature. Religions create the nature of the ethic to God, while any ideologies have a too human character. Therefore I prefer being a religious person who treats ancient traditions with love.

On the other hand, any narrative has its context, and it is impossible to realise something from another era and other historical conditions nowadays. A religious person should keep a balance between hypocritical freethinking considering religion not as an ethical system but a cultural context that can be used in any ideology and fanaticism that doesn’t care about the reality and those changes that took place in society. It wouldn’t hurt if a secular person studied the nature of secular institutions and ideologies to understand that violence under any slogans is often the fight of some people for power and resources, in fact. And these slogans often aren’t religious but “secular”.

By Karim Gaynullin

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