In Tuesday’s mail I received a nine page typed critique of a sermon I preached recently on refugees and asylum seekers. It was clear that my critic was very unhappy with a number of things, including my assertion that we had nothing to fear from Muslim immigrants. Islam, he strongly implied, was inherently violent, a claim I often hear.

Now any of us can selectively quote the Koran to demonstrate either that Islam is a religion of violence or conversely that it is a religion of peace. The real issue is not what this or that verse says, but what adherents of Islam understand the Koran to say. And here there is considerable diversity, with the Islamic faith being appropriated by groups such as Al Quaeda and ISIS to justify violence and by others to promote peace. So it would appear that when it comes to how the Islamic faith is understood by its own adherents it is not necessarily nor inherently given to violence.

But what of the fact that most of the world’s violent conflicts are occurring in countries where Islamic populations are in the majority? Does this not suggest Islam is inherently violent? A little perspective helps.If we broaden our historical perspective to consider the entire period from 1946 to 2013 it becomes clear that violent conflict has occurred across all religious boundaries. The table below, sourced from a paper by Peace Research Institute Oslo, shows the incidence of internal armed conflict between 1946 and 2013 according to the dominant religion of the country where the conflict occurred.

Religion No. countries in Conflict % countries in conflict
Buddhist 9 45%
Christianity 56 51%
Hinduism 2 67%
Islam 36 72%
Judaism 1 100%

This suggests that either all religions are likely to produce violence or that violence is explained by factors other than religion. Both the Peace Research Institute Oslo and the Institute for Economics And Peace have explored these questions and concluded that religion is not the driving force behind the presence of conflict. PRIO state “Islam did not make a significant contribution to explaining the frequent incidents of conflict in the Middle East once regime type, level of development, and other variables had been accounted for.” (Gleditsch & Rudolfsen, “Are Muslim Countries More War Prone?” 2015)

A paper by the Institute for Economics and Peace looked at conflict zones across the world in 2013 and found that there was no significant correlation between religion and war. Of the 35 conflicts in 2013 almost all had multiple drivers, such as the desire for a change of government, identity politics, competition for control of resources, conflict over territory, et cetera. 40% of conflicts had a religious dimension but not a single conflict had religion as the sole dimension. Moreover the authors note that “when parties to a conflict are divided on religious adherents, the conflict often becomes framed as religious even though the parties have originally fought over other issues.”

The Institute for Economics And Peace paper found that the greatest factors influencing peace were political. Countries with low levels of corruption, well-functioning governments and good relations with neighbours were much more likely to be peaceful than those without. It seems then that it is not religion that is inherently violent, but that corruption, poor government and poor external relations can give rise to violence. In this respect it is notable that 70% of Muslim majority countries are authoritarian regimes, there are only three flawed democracies and no full democracies. There are many reasons for this, including the legacy of colonialism and global geopolitics. It is reasonable to assume that as more Islamic dominated countries become politically liberal, as poverty levels decrease and respect for human rights increases, the incidence of violent conflict will substantially decline.

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