I had been looking forward to this class since I was admitted into the course last fall. The course “Violence: A Multidisciplinary Inquiry” is one of the few opportunities I have had as a midwifery student to get outside of the medical discussions, black and white decisions, life or death matters of being a nurse-midwifery student. And today. Today, I had the rarest opportunity to meet a globally recognized individual, who is not only know for his prose, but more importantly for his strength, courage and steadfast belief in the freedom of speech.
Salmon Rushdie sat in front of our class today and had a talkback discussion with us on the intersection of religion and violence. This topic seemed all too fitting with the release of his latest book, Joseph Anton: A Memoir. Here sits a man who had a fatwa placed on him by the Aytollah Khomeini in 1989 and lived underground for twelve years with 24 hour armed protection. Before this day, I can honestly say I had given a lot of thought to the idea of religion, as well as the idea of violence, but together, in my mind these two ideas have rarely intersected with the exception of studying past wars, and of course, 9/11.
Preparing for class this week and reflecting on our readings, I began to think, what in my life would motivate me enough to commit an act of violence? I struggled with this idea as I had quite a longer list on what would stop me from acting out in a violent manner. I have grown up with a religious background, and consider myself a spiritually minded individual. I have witnessed acts of violence and listened to victims of assault share their stories in the clinical setting, and have also listened to survivors of human trafficking bravely tell their stories. But I have given very little conscious, reflective thought regarding the role that religion plays in motivating violent acts against others in this world.
Our class discussion both with Professor Rushdie as well other expert Emory Faculty, Liz Bounds and Gordon Newby provided some insight and challenged my own view on religion, the role it plays in our world and it’s power to motivate violence. An example we discussed is an extremist’s belief that their real life comes after this one. That this life on earth is a precursor to what awaits you when you die. How you perform in this world, what you chose to stand for, and how you fight for what you believe in will dictate the reward waiting for you in the afterlife. Ayaan Hirsi, a human rights activist for women’s rights in Islamic Societies (among other things), remembers these types of teaching from Osama Bin Laden in her book, “Infidel”.
“Bin Laden’s quotes from the Quaran resonated in my brain: “When you meet the unbelievers, strike them in the neck.” “If you do not go out and fight, God will punish you severely and put others in your place.” “Wherever you find the polytheists, kill them, seize them, besiege them, ambush them.” “You who believe, do not take the Jews and Christians as friends; they are allies only to each other. Anyone who takes them as an ally becomes one of them” Ayaan Hirsi-Infidel.
Often, those recruited have similar qualities such as mental health issues, living in poverty, and needing the money for their family in some capacity or another. You begin to see how suicide bombers and martyrs are recruited for acts of violence in the name of their religion. More importantly, you begin to see how little value is placed on this life, the life you are living, in the hopes of what may or may not be waiting for you in the next life
There is a need in our growth as a human race to individually question what we believe as a person. Our beliefs should be evolving over time, allowing religious communities to grow in the changing times and cultures around us. It is interesting to me to think about the religious texts our beliefs are rooted in, and how they might look differently if they were written today. In religions across the globe, religious texts are accounts from humans about their faith, written by humans. Although the principles of many religions are similar, they are still interpretations of someone who wrote them down at some point and time in history. As part of humanity, there is a responsibility on our part to study, examine and question how these beliefs relate to the here and now. It important in our growth as humanity to ask the question, “Is what we believe still relevant to the context of the community we serve, and the society at large we are hoping to create in this world?” More questioning and dialogue about our faith can lead to finding common ground in the similarities across religions, not the differences that lead to international wars, genocides and the oppression of others.
Walking in our nation’s capitol recently, I visited our history in the context of a walk around the many monuments erected to remember our past. The most recently erected monument is to Martin Luther King, Jr. A brief but insightful tour by a national park ranger challenged us to each think about what MLK’s work means to each of us. Whether what he stands for, whether his work, whether his vision has been realized by the world today. The answer to whether or not equality for all permeates throughout our society and the world at large…for me, it was an obvious no. The monument is deeply rooted in this idea of unfinished work, the incompleteness of a vision that is left up to us as the human race to realize around the world, not just for Americans, but for all people.
Religion and violence are a part of our history and have been the catalyst to many disagreements and atrocities the world has seen to date. Often, people need something to believe in whether it’s belief in a higher power, or a grounded belief in the rigor of science. For some, it is finding renewed faith that was once lost, helping them to find purpose and community in an otherwise unfamiliar place. And for some, religion is the belief in the greater good, that people are bigger than themselves and can rise to the occasion to do good, and care for each other regardless of who they are, or where they came from. Regardless of your belief or willingness to believe in religion, one cannot question the existence of violence and the havoc it has reaped across nations. It is glaring at us everyday in news headlines around the globe. The caveat, however, is violence does not have to exist in the context of religious justification. A little less justification could have the power to lead to a lot less violence, and a whole lot more acceptance. It is in the space between these differences, that we can allow religion to challenge us to find the common ground to grow as a stronger, more diverse and accepting group for all…and maybe, just maybe, realizing the dream of equality for all people.