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Skip to 0 minutes and 9 seconds When discussing religion and conflict, we must also address the use of violence. As we will discuss next week, there are some people who argue that there is always a link between religion and violence and religion and conflict. When reporting on religious violence, it seems to be perfectly clear what is meant by violence. We all know the images of the aftermath of a terrorist attack. We are horrified and cannot understand how this can be justified, especially in the case of civilian victims. However, when we listen to the justifications for this violence by the perpetrators, there is usually a reference to the violence of some enemy group to which these victims are thought to belong to which the perpetrators have reacted.

Skip to 0 minutes and 58 seconds So it seems that there are different perceptions of violence at stake but also of who the perpetrators of violence are. So when do we call something violence? And what can we learn from how it is directed? Johan Galtung famously distinguished between direct physical violence and indirect violence, which could be structural and cultural. Structural violence is the kind of violence that is not perpetrated by someone in particular but is the result of societal conditions. For example, it can refer to the fact that the life expectancy of people in lower classes is usually a lot shorter than the life expectancy of people in the upper classes of society.

Skip to 1 minute and 44 seconds Every society also has ways of justifying and making invisible this kind of violence, making it natural, as it were. In Galtung’s conceptual framework, this is called cultural violence. In his view, violence, so also cultural violence, breeds violence. Indirect forms of structural and cultural violence can breed direct forms of violence. Direct violence, for example the beating of wives and children, can become structural and cultural if it occurs frequently and is seen as a normal part of life. Galtung subsumed both under a very broad definition. “Violence is the cause of the difference between the actual and the potential.” Whatever stops people and groups from achieving their full potential can be identified as violence. This includes physical and nonphysical, actor-induced and structure-induced violence.

Skip to 2 minutes and 45 seconds Another influential scientist discussing violence in this broad way is Pierre Bourdieu. Rather than cultural violence, he speaks of symbolic violence. “The oppression of certain groups in society is justified in such a way that also those who are the victims feel that this is justified.” A strong example is male domination. Often this is justified in so many ways that women do not perceive themselves as oppressed, even when it is clear that there is a clear difference between the actual and the potential positions of women in society. The world over, they earn less, reach less high positions in society, et cetera. This is true also in societies where equality between the sexes is high on the agenda.

Skip to 3 minutes and 37 seconds We can wonder whether this definition of violence is not too broad. If we really take in this definition, we can see violence everywhere. Besides when discussing violence in relation to religion, the main question in people’s minds usually concerns direct violence that causes physical harm. How can this be justified? Most religious traditions have some sort of directives that points towards preserving life and not harming others. Yet all religious traditions have also justified the use of violence in certain instances. In the case of the use of direct physical violence, it is important to understand this violence in terms of the actors involved, as well as the strategic and tactical aims.

Skip to 4 minutes and 24 seconds Why do certain religious actors feel that the use of violence is justified? And who do they direct this violence at? And why? What do they think this violence will achieve in the short term and in the long term? In some cases, the long term does not enter into consideration. People may simply feel they are defending themselves against violence perpetrated on them by other actors. These kinds of questions will return in the fourth week, where we will analyse several cases of religion and conflicts, some involving direct physical violence. For now, let’s return to the question, whether Galtung’s definition of violence may not be too broad? Yes, it may be too broad.

Skip to 5 minutes and 11 seconds But on the other hand, it is useful to see the links between different kinds of violence. It is useful to understand that violence may occur without an actor. Taking into account structural and cultural violence may help in understanding how the direct violence of one particular group may seem senseless to the group it is directed at. Why do Muslim terrorists attack innocent Europeans? We could understand this as a reaction against structural violence embedded within historical and present-day conditions that have led to war and instability in the Middle East.

Skip to 5 minutes and 53 seconds And thus to the fact that Muslim-majority countries are disproportionately subjected to foreign invasions and occupations by Western powers, as well as subject to internal conflicts between dictatorial regimes, often supported by Western powers, and oppositional groups striving for change. Furthermore, we have to understand how they see this as part of larger strategic and tactical aims. Pieter Nanninga, in week three, will go into how these conditions support the world view of jihadist groups, such as Al-Qaeda and IS, and what they hope to achieve with their actions.

Definitions of violence

Violence plays an essential role in the discussion of religion and conflict. Galtung differentiates between direct physical violence and indirect violence, which can be structural (i.e. the result of societal conditions) and cultural (i.e. justified and made normal by society).

To this he adds that violence breeds violence. Bourdieu speaks of symbolic violence; herein even the victims feel that the violence is justified. This video further discusses these views and definitions of violence, and to what extent they may be useful in the discussion of religion and conflict.

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Religion and Conflict

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