First Degree Murder as Self-Preservation: Religious Violence and Insecure Identity

Ask yourself the following questions: What is your identity? What is the most important part of your identity to a larger social group? To what lengths are you willing to go to preserve that identity (criticism of others or violence)?

The last question should give you insight into the language you use to discuss members of other social groups that do not share your identity (see Campbell, 1992). That is, the stronger our attachment to preserving our own identity, the stronger is our language to define the ‘other’s’ identity. Mr. Trump’s ‘rapist’ accusation against Mexican immigrants is a perfect example of this. By calling Mexicans rapists and criminals, Mr. Trump is actually 1) defining his own identity (as a non-rapist), 2) expressing the moral position of his own identity by contrasting it against others who do not share the same values, and 3) justifying the construction of enemies against his social group.

When identity becomes important enough, however, mere words no longer suffice. Armed conflict is always the product of disagreements over identity (Who has the moral high ground? Whose culture belongs where? Whose culture threatens our identity by engaging in acts our culture finds grossly repugnant?).

Slobodan Milosevic? Genocidal madman and Russian puppet. NATO intervention.

Osama bin Laden? Anti-Western, anti-democratic jihadist with intent to kill millions of Americans. International campaign to deliver democracy to Afghanistan.

Muammar Gaddafi? State sponsor of terrorism and illegitimate ruler. Several US-led campaigns over the course of ~30 years to topple his government.

When words are no longer appropriate tools to preserve our own identity, they become tools to justify international warfare. This is understandable. Every society throughout history that has waged a war with another society has escalated its language to the point where language validates violence. But all of my examples about violence have been states. What if we bring this down to the personal level?

Why do some Christians murder abortion doctors? Why do some Christians kill their atheist friends? Why are atheist bloggers hacked to death? Why do some Christians murder gay men?

Courts usually find some kind of motivation. It might be explicit; the accused was motivated by specific religious instructions. It might be implicit; the accused suffered some kind of mental illness. There are many excuses. I argue, on the other hand, that the reason is the self-preservation of identity (ontological security). When a condition is present that threatens the sense of self, some can justify violent countermeasures against the source of their ontological insecurity. The source is generally another person or group that holds values that counter their own. Previous rhetoric (see Trump) has constructed an ‘outsider’ who does not deserve to live in our society. Just like international conflicts, interpersonal conflicts are the results of identifying contrasting values and defining them as part of the ‘other,’ with which we vehemently disagree.

In other words, religious violence is not necessarily religiously justified. It is instead carried out by people who believe their identities are being threatened by the presence of an ‘other’ that does not hold the same values. This is apparent when we talk about peace anxiety (see Rumelili, 2014). The fact that two individuals or societies are at peace signals to one or the other (or both) that their identities have been diminished. Coexistence undermines the value of difference. Therefore, former conflicts will reformulate and persist. A religious man with extreme views that is tolerated by a liberal society will lash out at the society strictly for tolerating him because he feels tolerance belittles his identity.

I present you this alternative way of looking at religious conflict because traditional explanations (e.g. might = right, struggle over resources, precepts in religious text, etc.) might no longer be compelling enough. Religious violence might instead be a function of declining religious identity when faced with people who do not share your religious values.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
This entry was posted in Political Science, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s