Why (some) states use religion to justify violence

Jan 27, 2015

Image credit: Roland Schlager/EPA

By Ani Sarkissian

Over the past week, news organizations have given substantial coverage to the relationship between Islam and politics in the wake of the Paris attacks on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper and a kosher grocery. Less attention has been paid to another story involving Islam and politics regarding the prosecution of Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi for “insulting Islam.” Among the accusations leveled against him, Badawi was charged with criticizing Saudi clerics and their relationship with the royal family on his blog. He was convicted and sentenced to a fine, 10 years in prison and flogging. The first 50 lashes were delivered in front of a mosque in the western Saudi city of Jiddah on Jan. 9 after Friday prayers. He is scheduled to receive 50 lashes once a week for 20 weeks until his sentence is fulfilled, though a doctor postponed the second installment of lashes because his prior wounds had not yet healed.

Badawi’s case is a reminder that it is not only extremist groups such as Boko Haram, the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula that commit atrocities in the name of protecting Islam. Saudi Arabia is only one case of a state that perpetrates acts of violence based on religious justifications under the guise of upholding the rule of law. My recent book, “The Varieties of Religious Repression: Why Governments Restrict Religion,” shows that this often has little to do with religion per se. Instead, certain types of non-democratic countries commonly use religious repression as an instrument of their rule.

Saudi Arabia has an interest in regulating all aspects of religious practice and expression, and the means to do so. Because it is a hereditary monarchy lacking elected officials, the ruling regime creates and enforces laws without any direct mechanism for representing the preferences of its citizens. However, being insulated from the populace does not insulate the regime from politics. Saudi leaders perpetually must take into account the interests of one key constituency: the conservative Islamic establishment that helped to found the regime and continues to give political legitimacy to the royal family. By virtue of the country’s absolutist regime type and a ruling interest in upholding the religious preferences of a particularly conservative segment of society, Saudi leaders have the motivation and means, including violence, to repress the country’s citizens. The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (the mutawwain) and the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Pious Endowments, Mission, and Guidance (MOIA), as well as other state institutions were established to create and enforce laws regarding Islamic dress code and behavior between men and women, manage the religious curriculum in schools and religious media programming, and monitor mosques and prayer leaders around the country.

The Saudi regime uses its authority to repress not only religious minorities (including about 2 million Shiites), but also Sunni Muslims who dare to publicly criticize the official interpretation of Islam or who are critical of the religious leadership. It is under this guise that Badawi was sentenced for publishing a liberal blog that challenged the religious establishment, advocated for secularism and criticized groups such as Hamas that seek to build a religious state in the Palestinian territories. They also, when needed, punish those they consider “extremists,” including individuals who fight for groups such as the Islamic State.

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12 comments on “Why (some) states use religion to justify violence

  • Why do some state use religion for justifying violence?
    Easy: that’s what religion is for. Well, part of it: it’s more complete to say that religion is the ultimate tool to enforce power on a large scale. It’s the whole point of institutionalizing it -thus making it a “religion” in the sense we inevitably think of when we speak about it.


    This whole story of the lashings and the imprisonment is unspeakably uncivilized. Western countries should have expressed their distaste much, much more loudly. Perhaps by massively funding the research and development of renewable energy sources, which would have scared the nuts out of the Arabians.

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  • Lorenzo Jan 27, 2015 at 4:46 pm

    This whole story of the lashings and the imprisonment is unspeakably uncivilized. Western countries should have expressed their distaste much, much more loudly.

    Instead a bunch of oily, posturing, politicians, have been to the Saudi King’s funeral, and to meet the new king, with much praise for US “key ally” in the Middle East.


    US President Barack Obama is heading a large, bipartisan US delegation travelling to Saudi Arabia following the death of King Abdullah.

    Mr Obama cut short a trip to India to make time for the visit, during which he will meet the new ruler King Salman.

    He is being accompanied by prominent Republican officials, including former Secretaries of State James Baker and Condoleezza Rice.

    .Saudi Arabia is a key US ally in a region riven by war and rivalries.

    Mr Obama had been due to visit the Taj Mahal in India on Tuesday, but had to cancel to allow for the four-hour visit to Riyadh.

    In an interview with CNN before he left India, Mr Obama suggested he would be unlikely to raise the case of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison last May for “insulting Islam through electronic channels” and “going beyond the realm of obedience”.

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  • Instead a bunch of oily, posturing, politicians, have been to the Saudi King’s funeral, and to meet the new king, with much praise for US “key ally” in the Middle East.

    Yup… if you have a lot of oil to sell, and you keep selling it, you’re the best friend of the West, I’m afraid.

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  • Oh and atheism is now legally “terrorism” under Saudi law. How long the new king remains to wear his crown remains to be seen. There are plenty of Arabian speaking Macbeths who covert it. “Who’d have thought the old man to have so much blood in him ?”

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  • I’ve always thought that Saudi Arabia is double- crossing the West all the time. On one hand, it plays at being our ally, and on the other it finances Islamic terrorism. We ought to watch out with friends like these.

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  • All states use coercion and armed force to maintain law and order and to protect themselves against other states. The question is not coercion but about to what degree it is justifiable and in what circumstances. It only has a specifically religious connotation when religious ‘crimes’ like blasphemy and apostasy are concerned.

    The trend is definitely against corporal and capital punishment. Yet non-religious states continue to impose capital punishment and torture. There are two separate issues. Firstly the campaign against capital punishment and the use of torture and cruel punishments for any reason. Secondly, the campaign against criminalizing non-crimes, like adultery, blasphemy and ‘causing offence’.

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  • Religion is about controlling people through fear. Fear of a bogey man invisible god does not work on non-believers. So they use torture.

    Religion attracts people who want to micro-control the lives of others. It would be nice if we could identify them and derail them before sperm and egg got together.

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  • The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were
    all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as
    equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful. — Edward
    Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol.
    I, Ch. II

    Courtesy Wikiquote

    Particularly with Saudi Arabia, reliant on imported technology and an antediluvian education system, ultimately these people rely upon the west for their continuance. They have climbed their ivory tower in Dubai and are in the process of trying to throw away the ladder by the subversion of civilisation around the world.

    Dunning-Kruger strikes again.

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  • Does anyone else find it curious that King Abdullah died within a few days of calling a halt to the lashings and requesting the case be sent to the supreme court? So what happens now? Will his request be ignored? We should not in any way be doing business with this regime. It makes us complicit. Not to mention, Saudi Arabia has way too much influence with our oil dependence when they can screw with our economy enough to cut oil prices in half within a few months, which means they can raise them again at a whim. I personally am willing to pay higher oil prices if it means we can get Saudi Arabia out of our lives.

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