How Violence Shapes Religion

Belief and Contact in the Middle East and Africa

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Ziya Meral
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , August
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


It might come as a surprise, but although the topic of “religious violence” is addressed at many universities, good academic literature about this theme is more uncommon than one might expect. This counts even more for literature on religion-related violence that explores the often intricate context in which violence is committed and justified in religious discourses or by religious leaders from an interdisciplinary perspective. The idea that violence appears in the name of religion, as if religion is the modern box of Pandora, often overshadows the question of when and how this happens. Simple assumptions about religion brushes away the contexts of institutional responsibilities, government policies, and past histories. It is refreshing that the London-based researcher Ziya Meral has added a study, How Violence Shapes Religion, to the small bookshelf of good scholarship on religion-related violence.

Contrary to the approach that asks how religion creates violence, Meral puts the question topsy-turvy: how does violence shape religion? With this question he approaches the issue from a perspective similar to that of Max Bergholz’s magnificent case-study on the Bosnian village Kulen-Vakuf that was published in 2016.

Although Meral follows a classic—what he calls—“methodology” of choosing cases, analyzing and comparing them (22), his more general approach contains a bold demonstration that popular explanations of the causes of violence with religious features are “not sustainable when tested against actual cases of ethno-religious conflict” (20). To demonstrate his argument, he picks two cases of current violence—in Egypt and in Nigeria. By diving into the history of these countries he addresses the complex place of religion in society and provides a deeply rooted historical dimension to the fast-food news on the violence that appears in these countries. By distinguishing between different layers that play their role in causing violence, a clear picture appears. Meral clearly shows the interplay between political elites, global and local actors, demography, state structure, and international media. This way, he can write that the “normalized, if not routinized” violence in Nigeria can be seen as a possible form of political expression” (65) that indeed glues to the religious affiliations of many Nigerians.

A similar structure is followed addressing the complicated Egyptian context. Here, Meral analyzes the historical depth of current conflicts by discussing the political dimensions of the Muslim Brotherhood, its relation to the Egyptian state and the social place of the Christian Copts. Also in this part of his book, Meral succeeds in drawing the violence in Egypt out of its direct context by showing how global issues like 9/11 reshaped (political) relations between Copts and Muslims in Egypt. Comparing the cases at several levels, the author argues that “ethno-religious violence is only part of a wider picture of violence” (136) that includes colonial heritage (and its impact on the place of religion in society), governance, the interplay of state actors and non-state actors, conspiracy theories (social media), and (the lack of) law enforcement. This way, religion-related violence is often the outcome of hybrid social tensions instead of an isolated force of its own.

Or, in Meral’s own words, “a more meaningful enquiry would have to start on how conflict settings impact religion” (179), as indeed the relationship between violence and religion “runs deep.” But is not causal. If religion were absent, political violence would develop along other lines, such as nationalism, separatism or tribalism, Meral argues. The dark consequence of this view, however, can be read where he states that violence is as a matter of fact a means of survival (156), a view that—I think—should not be taken for granted too easily, as, for example, American sociologist Randall Collins has shown.

The final chapter on “religion and violence in a global age” strikes me as a bit odd. It is more or less a summary of older literature on religion and violence and does not clearly contribute to Meral’s argument. I would have loved to know more about the fieldwork he did (which pops up in lucid phrases like “off the record” [118] or “I was present” [126]), or about the narrative dimensions of religious conflict that is so undervalued in scholarly publications. It is funny to see Friedrich Nietzsche, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, and Sigmund Freud suddenly appear on the same page, but where are more accurate authors on this issue, like Hans Kippenberg or Max Bergholz? However, Meral has added a wonderful contribution to the topic of religion-related violence and I am eager to read more from his hand.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lucien van Liere is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Utrecht University.


Date of Review: 
July 29, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ziya Meral is Senior Resident Fellow at the British Army's Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research, based at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst.



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