Guest Blog: ‘Islam has a stronger tradition of legitimated violence than Christianity’

by - 10th December 2014

LAST WEEK Desmond Swayne, Minister of State at the Department for International Development made provocative, even egregious remarks about the relationship between religion and violence. 

As reported first by Lapido and followed up by The Times on 1 December, Swayne suggested that ‘I don’t think there’s anything ISIL [commonly known as ‘Islamic State’] can come up with that Christians have not matched at some stage in history’.

These remarks deserve a response, providing at the very least a useful stimulus to more careful thought about the subject.

It is indeed important that Christians acknowledge the extent to which their faith has been implicated in past acts of horrific violence, including, as Swayne mentioned, the massacre that followed the taking of Jerusalem by the First Crusade in 1099, and the persecutions and military conflicts of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe.

However, as an historian, I believe it is essential to see such events in their context. The actions of the Crusaders in 1099 were indeed appalling and inexcusable, but in her recent book Fields of Blood (2014), Karen Armstrong attributes them to a ‘psychotic … abnormal’ state of mind induced by ‘prolonged terror and malnutrition’.  The so-called ‘wars of religion’ in post-Reformation Europe should be seen in the context of the fragility and internal conflicts of early modern states in which religious uniformity was perceived as an essential basis for stability.

In other words, while Christianity is indeed uncomfortably implicated in such events and actions it should not be seen in any simplistic sense as their ‘cause’.

Desmond Swayne argues that it is the ‘radical depravity’ of humankind that leads to the perversion of more positive religious impulses, a valid theological observation that recalls John Bunyan’s perception in Pilgrim’s Progress that there is a ‘way to hell, even from the gate of heaven’. Nevertheless, it risks over-simplifying complex circumstances and obscuring significant differences between Christianity and Islam.

In particular the role of the state and of military force is crucial.

Over the two millennia of its existence, Christianity has developed highly diverse and sometimes contradictory attitudes both to the state and to war.  When and where churches have formed close relationships with the civil authorities they have consequently become readily linked to state-sponsored violence.

Conversely, Christians who have radically dissociated themselves from the state – as indeed the religion’s founder can be interpreted as doing with his statement ‘My Kingdom is not of this world’ – perceive their faith as endorsing pacifism.

By contrast Islam has a more consistently positive view of the state’s potentialities, which, if truly Islamic, is viewed as the means for achieving the ideal Muslim community.

It is also arguable that Islam has a stronger tradition of legitimated violence than Christianity, although the extent to which this is true is a matter of significant on-going academic debate (see in particular It is nevertheless possible for ‘ISIL’ and other contemporary radical militant Muslim movements to claim legitimacy from a selective interpretation of Islam.

However,their extremism has also been shaped by their specific experience of the chaos and violence of post-Saddam Iraq and of the Syrian civil war, and by deep resentment against perceived Western neo-colonialism which mocks the promise of earthly success for the believers.

A balanced analysis also requires full acknowledgement of the positive contributions of some religion. Swayne rightly affirms the peace-loving attitudes of the great majority of both Christians and Muslims. One should go further and recognise the positive peace-building efforts of Christians in many troubled situations, which often go unreported precisely because no one thinks to render them visible, and which help to prevent the outbreaks of violence generally deemed to be more newsworthy.

For example, although society in Northern Ireland continues to be divided by Christian labels of ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’, it is important to acknowledge the patient grass-roots work of many Christians on both sides of the sectarian fence that has contributed significantly to the reduction in violence and confrontation since the early 1990s. In the developing world too, responsibility for which is Swayne’s own department, the contribution of both expatriate and indigenous Christian workers on the ground has been immeasurable, and historically so over very long periods in places.

The issues raised here require much more careful reflection and debate. 


John Wolffe is Professor of Religious History at The Open University and a Research Councils UK Global Uncertainties Leadership Fellow. 

For a more extended discussion summarising recent academic research go to the following page:

Consultation events on religion and violence are taking place in London on 6 January 2015 jointly sponsored by Lapido, in Milton Keynes on 15 January 2015, and in Edinburgh on 19 March 2015, with further locations to be arranged. Further details are also available here.