Violence in the Name of God

The Militant Jihadist Response to Modernity

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Joel Hodge
Violence, Desire, and the Sacred
  • London: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , January
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


There is already a large literature on the topic of the relationship between violence and religion, and a subset of that focuses on Islam. In Violence in the Name of God: The Militant Jihadist Response to Modernity, Joel Hodge shows that he has read that literature thoroughly and he interacts with it at a high level of sophistication, utilizing his deep familiarity with René Girard’s mimetic theory to introduce a distinctive approach. Hodge focuses on three main subjects: modernity, victimhood identity, and an idolatrous understanding of God. Regarding modernity, the author argues that the secularization of the modern West, along with the legacies of colonialism, have produced a toxic brew against which some persons within the Muslim world have reacted in a psychologically unbalanced way. To the extent that the West has desacralized public life, privatized religion, liberated women from sexism, and unleashed the sexual revolution, these aspects of the contemporary scene are experienced as a direct assault on the traditional Muslim worldview.

Given the immense reach of Western culture and its spread around the world, the West has been perceived as an existential threat by many thinkers and leaders in the Muslim world, who have sought to foment a reaction against this threat. The key Girardian concept here is “rivalry,” placed now on what Girard called a “planetary scale.” There is within the logic of rivalry an in-built tendency to escalate to the extremes, which means to justify any and all violence that is carried out in the cause of re-sacralizing the world. As many commentators on Christian fundamentalism have pointed out, that is a modern phenomenon that arose in reaction to theological liberalism. Hodge is analyzing, at great depth, the parallel phenomenon of Muslim fundamentalism, which is not only a war of ideas within the Muslim world, but also a literal war with weapons between the extremists in the Muslim world and the representatives of the West.

Regarding victimhood identity, the author summarizes Girard’s historical account of the rise of “concern for victims” in the Abrahamic tradition, and notes that this can be very easily used as a pretext for engaging in violence against “victimizers” in defense of “victims.” As Girard said, “The victims most interesting to us are those who allow us to condemn our neighbors; and our neighbors do the same.” The current fashion is for people to be “atrocity collectors,” selectively compiling a list in one’s head of all of the slain who belong to one’s own tradition. It is now, within modernity, a necessity for all political actors to claim that their actions are justified as a defense of victims, and the irony of victimizing others on that basis is a thought that the most radicalized persons cannot entertain without having their ideology implode.

The third major theme, developed toward the end of the book, concerns the “vertical,” the ideas about God that are developed by the jihadists. These ideas fit Girard’s description of idolatry—a humanly generated image of God who commands and justifies violence against all of those who can be labelled as infidels. This phenomenon has clear parallels in Christian history, of course, as in the burning of heretics at the stake or the organization of Crusades to the Holy Land, which is an aspect of the past that is still part of our present. Hodge argues, clearly and convincingly, that the beating heart of jihadism is a particular diseased theology; it is the present reviewer’s belief that the most effective critique of this idolatry will come from Islam’s own leaders. This is a struggle for hearts and minds that needs to be won by the moderates, the irenicists, within the Muslim-majority sphere. A work such as the present book can be read by such moderates and used to provide helpful ideas and strategies. In this sense, the author’s careful avoidance of Christian apologetics in exactly the correct approach to take. The key distinction that can be made in all traditions is between “the sacred,” which foments violence, and “the holy,” which uses forgiveness to break out of the cycle of reciprocal violence.

On a minor note of criticism, the author could have benefitted from including within his research Barry Cooper’s New Political Religions (University of Missouri Press, 2005), which treats the same phenomena, but using the lens of Eric Voegelin’s thought instead of Girard’s. Ruth Stein’s For Love of the Father (Stanford University Press, 2009) is also very thought-provoking, in its psychological analysis of the diseased verticality of the 9/11 hijackers. There is also a substantial literature within Islam itself that seeks to counter jihadist violence by arguing that is based on a perverted interpretation of the Qu’ran. The author could have brought this literature in more fully, but perhaps that will be an agenda for future work.

Overall, this is a superb book, well worth reading by anyone who is interested in developing a deeper understanding of how Muslim extremists can become derailed in the particular way their tradition allows for, and by anyone who wants to see René Girard’s thought applied to the topic of Islamist violence, which Girard treated only briefly before his death in 2015.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles K. Bellinger is associate professor of theology and ethics at Brite Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
July 26, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joel Hodge is senior lecturer in systematic theology at Australian Catholic University, Australia. He is the author of Resisting Violence and Victimisation: Christian Faith and Solidarity in East Timor (2012).


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