With the world constantly afire with news of terrorist groups carrying out brutal crimes, it seems as if they all have one common basis: Religion. At first face, it truly seems that any belief so strong and radical, be it of any God or allegedly holy book, must be a source of evil. However, by looking at different cultures and backgrounds, the issue seems to be a problem of how religion is addressed and not religion itself.
In a recent poll by the Students’ Union, University of Manchester students were asked if the world would be more peaceful without religion. With 49 votes for the “undecided” option, a very slim majority (141) believed that it wouldn’t be, as opposed to the 107 voters who did. However, had the question been asked to students of the same age group in a different part of the world, say the Middle East, for example, the outcome would not have been so close; there would be an almost unanimous agreement that religion is a source of good. It seems, therefore, that how one is raised to regard religion has a much bigger affect on their attitude towards it than whatever their religion actually is.
For the purpose of comparing how religion is seen in different cultures, societies can be divided into two categories—individualist and collectivist. The terms were first coined in the 1970s by researcher Geert Hofstede, who collected information about different cultures and divided them into different dimensions. On one hand, a collectivist culture is one where people are encouraged to do what is best for society as a whole; community needs are put before those of the individual, and the idea of family is central. On the other hand, in individualistic cultures, people are more independent and their actions do not represent their family as a whole. Unsurprisingly, it is the collectivist cultures that tend to be more religious. In places like central Asia, the Middle East and South America, religion is central to one’s identity, mainly because of the inherent need to have a unifying force between the closely-knit members of each community. Generation after generation, it becomes firmly established that everyone must fall neatly into a certain faith and not step out of its traditions or morals. Any change of the norm does not only shame the individual, but also their family and friends.
Take Egypt for example. While this may seem hard to believe here, in Egypt, a citizen’s religion is written on their national identification card. Religion, in such cultures, is more than a matter of faith, but it is instead part of one’s identity. In Egypt specifically, your ID will either read out Muslim or Christian—there is no middle ground. People may have their own beliefs, but that can never change the family they were born into. It also does not matter that the majority of Egyptians are Muslim, this culture of religiosity makes Egyptian Christians more religious and traditional than Christians in countries like the United States, for example. It is unsurprising, therefore, that something so essential and close to one’s persona is of great value to them. Attacking their religion is more than attacking their opinion, and is rather an attack and on their very core.
This often has devastating consequences. Setting aside any stereotypes attached to either of the above-mentioned religions, the most essentially peacefully religions can easily become radicalised when their followers feel personally victimised or attacked. Whether these feelings, or their reactions towards them, are justified is a whole other issue.
As an Egyptian Christian who has only recently moved here, my first visit to church proved one thing: there is a huge difference between whole-heartedly choosing to follow a religion and being raised into it. In Egypt, being a Christian means that your parents are both Christians who baptised you when you were young and have taken you to church every Sunday since. Being a Christian here, however, more often than not, means that you took the educated choice of following a certain faith with all it may entail. The former, which is often found in collectivist cultures, fits its purpose perfectly—you are raised to traditionally follow your religion, without stepping out of line or embarrassing your family. The latter option, however, entails that you actually chose whom to be, and will thus follow your faith as a matter of personal autonomy and not because you feel you are forced to.
At the end of the day, all that is left is a group of people who, to their core, are taught to follow the rules of their community. Their religion has determined their way of life for as long as they have existed, and thus it means more to them than any westerner can fathom. While this in no way vindicates the inhumane acts of any terrorist claiming to fight for their religion, it at least serves to explain that it is more than a belief that has made them so violent—it’s their identity.