By Michael Shank and Courtney Erwin

REFERENCE REVIEWS of “Victims of Religious Violence” Chapter: “Two over-arching essays – on terrorism and on victims – give us a welcome steer here on what is what…Victims come in all shapes and sizes – those oppressed and mistreated and abused, physically and emotionally – examples offered in Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism: the essay concludes that “it is true that many of the victims are oppressors as well”, something that lies at the heart of the matter and that often provides a plaform for the more optimistic (some say futile) attempts at reconciliation and faith dialogue.” Download PDF

Throughout history individuals as well as groups have been victims of religious violence. To understand this complex topic it is important to review historical and contemporary examples of victimization arising from religiously oriented acts of violence. Case studies from five dominant religious groups—Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism—chronicle the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels of victimization resulting from exposure to violence. These five case studies represent a fraction of the breadth and diversity available for analysis, but they exemplify the victimization and violent processes that emerge within or as a result of religious frameworks or paradigms. This analysis is not intended as an exhaustive overview of victimization resulting from religiously oriented violence, but rather is meant to illuminate trends within several case studies and provide a method for comprehending, categorizing, and analyzing them. Herein victim shall be defined as one who is “adversely affected by a force or agent,” “injured, destroyed, or sacrificed,” “subjected to oppression, hardship, or mistreatment,” or “tricked or duped” (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 2003); and violence is understood as a “physical force exerted for the purpose of violating, damaging or abusing,” an “abusive or unjust exercise of power,” “abuse or injury to meaning, content or intent,” or “vehemence of feeling or expression” (American Heritage Dictionary 2000).

In general, there are three categories of possible victimization: physical (primary), psychic (secondary), and spiritual (tertiary). Violence is perpetrated through a variety of mechanisms, including weaponry, education, media, and law and legislation. Each of the five case studies reviews individuals’ exposure to these mechanisms and elucidates how the mechanisms were violently used on a primary, secondary, or tertiary level. Physical victimization is inflicted on the body, primarily through death or torture, and occasionally through ritualized acts (e.g., circumcision). Psychic victimization is experienced through the intellectual, cognitive, or psychological processes of the mind. Spiritual victimization is imposed on the believer’s intangible sacred or divine self and to the source wherein the formation of religious meaning occurs. Spiritual victimization has also been referred to as an “individual’s loss of inner bearings” (Burger 1933).

Buddhism: Primary Victimization (Body)

Physical victimization of Buddhist believers, though perhaps most widely recognized in Tibet in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, emerged in Buddhist society nearly 600 years after the birth of the Buddha in the sixth century B.C.E. The first entity or authority to threaten Buddhist believers with violence was Zoroastrianism (founded by the prophet Zarathustra and active primarily from the third until the seventh century), which became the official religion of Persia in the early third century C.E. Throughout Zoroastrian rule, Buddhist monasteries were frequently demolished or ransacked and freedom of worship suppressed. This was common in subsequent centuries, even up until the thirteenth century, as Turkic, Persian, and Afghan invaders and armies exercised similar violence on Buddhist monasteries, temples, and universities throughout South Asia. During the latter part of this period, the physical threat posed to Buddhists came from Muslims and Mongols alike, from Qutb-ud Din’s Turkish armies in the twelfth century to Genghis Khan’s armies in the thirteenth century; few monasteries were left untouched.

In India, “Nalanda, Vikramasila,Jagaddala, Odantapuri and other Buddhist centers of learning and monasteries were destroyed by Muslim invaders…Many of the monks were killed during these destructions” (Ambedkar 1987). In some countries, such as Sri Lanka, Buddhist populations in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, who were first maltreated by Catholics, completely died out after continual violent incursions by external forces. Many Buddhists migrated to Tibet to escape the physical destruction of Buddhism in South Asia. Though Buddhism was now pervasive throughout Asia—including South Korea, Japan, China, and Thailand—Tibet became a dominant region of Buddhist sovereignty and ideology.

From the sixteenth until the nineteenth century, Buddhism continued to face violent persecution in Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, and elsewhere, in part from European Christian colonialist forces that controlled South and Southeast Asia (especially in the nineteenth century). However, it was not until China’s occupation of Tibet in the mid-twentieth century that physical victimization reached its height. Together with the Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, over 100,000 Buddhists fled from Tibet into India to escape the violence wrought by the Chinese government. Buddhism was too great a threat to communist ideology, since it prevented the Chinese government in Beijing from fully wresting control over the hearts and minds of Tibetans. Consequently, tens of thousands perished at the hands of the invading Chinese; more perished crossing the treacherous Himalayas, and most of the monasteries established in Tibet were destroyed by the Chinese army. This ignited further persecution of Buddhism throughout South and Southeast Asia.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Burmese government persecuted approximately 2,000 Buddhist monks who, refusing to adhere to government rule that ultimately contravened Buddhist philosophy, were either arrested or bayoneted by government troops. During that time, North Korea effectively exterminated all signs of Buddhism, and Cambodia’s Pol Pot regime implemented a similar extermination program of Buddhist clergy. In the 1990s, South Korea endured the destruction of Buddhist temples and the murder of Buddhist monks by Korean Catholics. More recently, Sri Lanka has suffered numerous deaths and the destruction of sacred Buddhist sites by the Tamil Tigers, a secessionist organization established in the 1970s in pursuit of an independent Tamil state in northern and eastern Sri Lanka.

Tibet remains in Chinese control, and the Dalai Lama is still in exile from his Tibetan home in Lhasa. Buddhists continue to endure physical victimization in Tibet, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, where, in the early twenty-first century, Muslim separatist groups beheaded more than fifteen Thai Buddhists.

Buddhism: Secondary Victimization (Mind)

Psychic victimization experienced by Buddhists can be correlated, often directly, with the policies of the given state religion and its corresponding religious law. Under Muslim rule, for example, Buddhists in India and elsewhere faced either conversion or forced eviction. Under Mughal rule (throughout the Indian subcontinent from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century), the luxury of conversion did not apply; eviction or death was more common. According to many Buddhist leaders, the historical imposition of the Muslim religion on Buddhists, through legal and legislative mechanisms, played a role in the further decline and decay of Buddhism in India. Certainly, the same culpability could be shared by Christian and communist leaders in East Asia (e.g., in China, Vietnam, Laos, South Korea), where Buddhism was perpetually suppressed by laws limiting freedom of religious expression and political representation.

However, perhaps the most psychically disabling and victimizing threat to Buddhism was the near total destruction of Buddhist cultural and educational institutions throughout Asia. Monasteries and temples—the mainstays of Buddhist cultural and educational life—were frequently decimated, symbolizing a major defeat to the intellectual capital of Buddhist culture. In victimizing the psyche of Buddhist society, however, China went further than any other ruling party to include education and media as tools of oppression. In the 1900s, Chinese literature and textbooks presented Chinese culture as “dominant and modern,” while portraying Tibetan culture “as peripheral, eccentric and medieval”; Tibetan Buddhism was represented as “feudal superstition and ridiculed as the blind faith of a backward people” (Ryan and Mullen 1998, 259).

The Chinese media were similarly involved. China’s legal newspaper, Fazhi Ribao, reported that in Tibet, “Feudal and superstitious activities are rampant…Shamanist witches dance into frenzies, geomancers search for auspicious locations” (Ryan and Mullen 1998, 259). This education and media onslaught led, not surprisingly, to a worldwide defense of and interest in Buddhism. However, Buddhism’s cultural and educational infrastructure and capacity remain tenuous in South Asia, kept alive in theory and in hope more than in tangible or institutional resources. Conversely, Buddhism outside of Asia, particularly in Western countries, is growing due to interest and fervor of Westerners.

Buddhism: Tertiary Victimization (Spirit)

Spiritual victimization of Buddhists was most acutely felt in what can best be described as a media or public relations maneuver intended to damage Buddhist believers’ spiritual worldview. In India, it became common practice to build Muslim mosques where Buddhist temples had once existed—a practice exhibited early in the eighth century by Syrian Arab general Muhammad bin Qasim and later by Mughal ruler Aurangzeb in the seventeenth century. Muhammad bin Qasim replaced a Buddhist temple in Nirun, India, with a Muslim mosque, while Aurangzeb more generally employed a practice of replacing Buddhist temples and monasteries with Muslim mosques. These efforts constituted a media or public relations ploy intended to harm the spiritual faculties of Buddhist believers who felt a sacred or divine attachment to the sites of the temples and monasteries. While Qasim, Aurangzeb, and other Muslim rulers could have selected alternate construction sites for building mosques, they chose sacred Buddhist sites to spiritually victimize and inflict violence on that which was sacred.

More modern examples of spiritual victimization of Buddhists include bomb attacks by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka on ancient sacred shrines, recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites. The bombings are deliberate: by targeting treasured historical and sacred sites, the Tigers can victimize places of structural importance that hold substantial and significant spiritual value. Additionally, the 2001 destruction of the ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghanistan—formerly the world’s two tallest Buddha statues—by the Taliban (the extremist religio-political movement in Afghanistan) exemplifies a deliberate attempt to rid the country of non-Islamic artifacts and direct an assault on the international Buddhist community.

Finally, Buddhism continues to be spiritually victimized by China’s unwillingness to allow Lhasa (a city regarded by Buddhists as the traditional seat of the Dalai Lama and the holiest city in Tibet) to serve as the religion’s spiritual center in that country. As a result, Tibetan Buddhism continues to have a fluid, noncentralized character with specific leaders such as the Dalai Lama and regionally known karmapas and lamas.

Christianity: Primary Victimization (Body)

Historical records show that physical victimization of Christians, by the most rudimentary weaponry, increased not long after Christianity was founded, in approximately 30 C.E. (Galli 1990) as a sect of Judaism. Christians faced immediate physical persecution from Roman and Jewish rulers in the first and second centuries C.E. The death of Jesus Christ, as recorded in the Bible, counts as one critical initial example of physical victimization, but torture and killing of Christian believers was not uncommon before, during, and after the death of Christ. Physical victimization was often justified by Roman leaders in response to the unwillingness of Christians to renounce Jesus Christ as the Messiah, blaspheme Christ, or fight in the name of the Roman Empire.

In the second century, the concept of martyrdom quickly took root within Christianity and characterized the thousands of Christians who were burned at the stake, eaten by lions, tortured, quartered, beheaded, and drowned. In subsequent centuries (specifically the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries), anti-Christian persecution continued unabated, not only at the hands of the Romans and Jews (though the latter remains contested), but also at the hands of the Persians, who violently eradicated Christian populations. In the sixth century, especially, the Persian army carried out numerous raids throughout Palestine, killing nearly 100,000 Christians settled in and around Jerusalem. Much later, beginning in the twelfth century and continuing through the sixteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church joined its Roman, Jewish, and Persian predecessors in persecuting Christians in an effort to ensure church unity. Physical persecution of Christian denominations by the Roman Catholic Church was not uncommon and included burning at the stake, drowning, beheading, quartering, and other forms of physical torture.

In the early twentieth century, physical persecution of Christians escalated into genocide with the killing of more than 1 million Armenian Christians during and shortly after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The twentieth century also witnessed physical persecution of Christians in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, China, and especially the Sudan, where approximately 1.5 million Christians have been killed since 1984. Physical victimization of Christians, whether by death or torture, remains salient in the twenty-first century in Pakistan, Indonesia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, among other countries.

Christianity: Secondary Victimization (Mind)

Psychic victimization of Christians has been most apparent in the tools of law and legislation. Throughout history, Christian sects and denominations—particularly when they are a nation’s minority populace—have often been deprived of certain civil liberties and freedoms, charged special taxes, prevented from doing government service, and prohibited from establishing houses of worship. During the Roman Empire in the third century, Christians were required to take part in public animal sacrifices, which, through complicit participation, implied subservience to imperialist rule. Upon performance of the sacrifice, a certificate was awarded, thus proving conformity to local law and governance. Since the rites and rituals required by Emperor Decius contravened Christian law, some Christians circumnavigated the required animal sacrifice by purchasing the certificates.

Now, centuries later, another generation of Christians face psychic victimization via law and legislation. In Egypt, Coptic Christians were uniquely taxed for their Christian identity until recently. In Saudi Arabia, it is not only illegal for Christians to practice their faith openly, but also impossible for them to become citizens of the state. In Iran, Christians are prevented from witnessing or talking openly about their faith. In the Islamic republic of Pakistan, where Christians are a notable minority, individual passports are identified by religion, raising concern among Christians that they will be targeted for interrogation. Even in the United States, Christians have stated they feel victimized by legislation that prohibits religious speech in the schools and in publicly funded arenas.

Christianity: Tertiary Victimization (Spirit)

Spiritual victimization accompanied much of the aforementioned histories of physical and psychic victimization, beginning as early as Roman and Jewish persecution in the first and second centuries. In undermining Christianity’s sacred belief systems (e.g., specifically targeting the Christian belief that Jesus Christ is the Messiah), the Romans and the Jews effectively wrought substantial injury to Christian theological frameworks, inspiring among Christians the trend toward martyrdom. The thinking behind the practice of martyrdom was that if Christians were going to be persecuted for their beliefs, or divine systems of “meaning,” they must show devout and unwavering allegiance to those sacred meanings. Martyrs thus became heroes. Despite the spiritual onslaught faced by Christians, believers showed resilience and resoluteness against such violent attacks through martyrdom. Ironically, increased spiritual vigilance in response to felt victimization simply exacerbated the violence producing more victimization and, concomitantly, more martyrdom (Huebner 2005).

Interestingly, spiritual victimization experienced by Christians more recently has been imposed both internally and externally. Many Christians have been taught, informally or formally, at an early age that it was the Jews, and therefore Judaism, that killed Jesus Christ. Irrespective of the nuances of historical fact, this story gets passed down by Christians through media and educational mechanisms and builds the foundation for a spiritually victimized populace, one whose most revered leader was martyred by another religion. This perpetuation of self-imposed violence results in a latent victimhood that continues to adversely impact Christian-Jewish relations.

Another example of self-imposed violence is visible in widespread fear mongering, primarily through media channels, that an emerging Islamic caliphate is intent on conquering and converting the remaining non-Muslim population. By generating a feeling of spiritual victimization among Christians, such propaganda sets the stage for a justified reaction in protecting the assumed spiritual victim—in this case, Christianity.

Hinduism: Primary Victimization (Body)

Hinduism is considered the world’s oldest religion, and today it is the third-largest faith, claiming 13 percent of the world’s population as adherents, although the Hindu community is concentrated in Southeast Asia. Even with Hinduism’s large numbers, different forms of violence, resulting from colonial intrusion, missionary fanaticism, and modern nation building, have darkened its modern history. While Hindus certainly suffer from psychic wounds, the violence that has left the greatest impact on the community has been physical and spiritual.

Colonialism in the subcontinent has produced or contributed to multiple incidents of Hindu victimization, even years after the colonizers officially retreated. In 1971, thirty years after the end of British colonialism, and outside the state of India, the creation of Bangladesh involved terrible violence, much of it suffered by Hindus. At times, Hindus were required to wear yellow patches bearing the letter “H” and were forced to relinquish their property. They were the targets of massacres and systematic slaughter. By the time the killing abated, nearly 10 million Hindus were missing, contributing to the physical reduction of the Hindu population—from 31 percent in 1947 to 19 percent in 1961 to 14 percent in 1974 to 9 percent in 2001 (when the most recent census was taken)—in the region that became Bangladesh.

More recently, the Hindu community in Bangladesh has been victimized by daily acts of violence, which some see as a legacy of the painful birth of the country. Daily assaults on Hindus include murder, kidnapping, and looting. Additionally, there is a concerted effort to spiritually defame and intimidate: temples and items of worship are desecrated, religious celebrations are targeted, Islamic madrasas are built over Hindu temples, and Hindu priests are kidnapped and killed.

In addition to this physical and spiritual trepidation, Hindus have been disenfranchised through legislation. The Vested Property Act, now defunct, was an East Pakistan-era law that allowed the government to expropriate “enemy” (in practice, Hindu) lands. Approximately 2.5 million acres of land were seized from almost all of the 10 million Hindus in the country. To date, many Hindus have been unable to recover these lost landholdings. Another example, in 1993, was the Home Ministry’s request that banks limit the withdrawal of large sums of money by Hindu depositors and stop business loans to the Hindu community. In this and other such instances, the Hindu minority was frustrated by the lack of effective political recourse afforded them. Recalling past situations, the Hindu community’s sense of victimization intensified from lack of visibility and reporting of their treatment.

Hinduism: Tertiary Victimization (Spirit)

Preceding these contemporary instances—and a significant reason behind them—is India’s colonial past. In the sixteenth century, India’s encounters with Europe resulted from several colonial conquests which began as trading expeditions but gradually became more imperialistic. Portugal, the Netherlands, France, and Britain all took advantage of the fractious relations between India’s various indigenous kingdoms; but it was the British—through the British East India Company and later under direct control of the British Crown—who were most successful in colonizing the subcontinent. Even though this colonization was economically driven in its initial stages, evangelism soon followed capitalistic enterprise, slicing into the spiritual reserves of the Hindu populace.

Missionary activity began in India during the nineteenth century, when evangelizing was popular in British religious circles. The institutions of colonial administration and industry were sometimes employed as proselytizing devices, with officers in the East India Company attempting to convert their native Indian soldiers, or sepoys, to Christianity. As a result, many Hindus regarded British colonialism as imposing a forceful and even deceptive conversionary practice. While the East India Company officially discouraged missionary efforts, some sources report that it covertly funded a proselytizing campaign. At the very least, the company secured official government sanction of conversions when it petitioned parliament for financial and other assistance. With the resulting Charter Act of 1813, the British government legally opened India to missionaries.

Because proselytizing utilized colonial mechanisms, Hindus practiced their faith at economic and political peril. Additionally, they practiced under both a perceived and a real fear of physical harm. This psychological insecurity contributed to violent rebellion when alarming rumors of imminent forced conversions reached the sepoys. After several months of escalating tensions between Hindu sepoys and British forces, the Rebellion of 1857 exploded only to end in the brutal and bloody repression of the Hindu population. What had begun as spiritual and psychic victimization had also become physical.

The missionary record did not close when India attained its independence in 1947. Today, according to the International Religious Freedom Report (2006), Christian missionaries have converted Hindus, particularly from lower castes, by nonviolent but still coercive means, by offering free education, health care, and financial assistance. The issue has been extremely controversial, with Hindu leaders threatening violence if the missionaries do not desist.

The conflict between Muslims and Hindus in the Indian subcontinent has a complex history that historians date to the jihad of the Umayyad Caliphate in Sindh in 711. Over a period of 800 years, Islamic imperialism and dominance in India resulted in the massacre and enslavement of millions of Hindus, as Muslims pillaged towns, killed entire Hindu populations, desecrated statues of Hindu deities, and destroyed Hindu temples. Since 1947, when British India was divided into India and Pakistan, Muslims have massacred Hindus in Calcutta and along the borders of the two countries. Ethnic and territorial disputes between Muslims and Hindus in Pakistan and India continue to result in violence, including Muslim rioting during Hindu festivals, desecration of Hindu temples, and kidnapping and sex trafficking of Hindu girls.

Islam: Primary Victimization (Body)

Islam’s 1,400-year history is marked by instances as well as entire eras of violence. Three campaigns, in particular, are useful in exploring the Muslim experience of physical violence. The first two occurred in the Middle Ages in Europe and the Near East, and the third happened in this century in Southeast Asia.

Between 1095 and 1291, European Christians embarked on a series of military expeditions to the Middle East. These invasions were sanctioned by the pope and conducted under the auspices of recapturing the Holy Land, specifically the city of Jerusalem, from Muslim rule. Christian armies justified their use of force by asserting that they were acting in the service of Christ. These Crusader forces from the West did not focus their violent actions on Muslim armies alone, but massacred the general population as they entered Jerusalem. This slaughter of Muslim innocents, carried out savagely and in discriminately by individual Christian soldiers, was the first large-scale physical assault on the Muslim population by the Christian West.

Following the Crusades, Muslims were subjected to another wave of violence: the Spanish Inquisition. In 1478, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, with the approval of the pope, established a procedure in the form of a tribunal to maintain Catholic orthodoxy. The Inquisition accomplished the expulsion of Spain’s Muslim population, in 1492, from the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula and succeeded in ferreting out false converts. Whereas the Crusades were an external invasion, the Inquisition was an internal ejection. The violence of the Inquisition differed from that of the Crusades in that it was not inflicted as an instrument of war. Rather, its brutality was methodically implemented as a tool of state machinery in an attempt to achieve religious unity. Instead of traditional weaponry, such as swords and daggers, the Inquisition employed torturous methods of cruelty: stretching, jaw torture, amputations, drowning, and, ultimately, burning at the stake.

More recently, in 2002, Muslims suffered from a different shade of physical violence in the Indian state of Gujarat. This time, the official church and state authorities did not instigate the violence (although human-rights organizations charged the police and state government officials with complicity). Hindu mobs, avenging the deaths of fifty-eight Hindu activists burned alive in a train attack blamed on Muslims, went on a rampage that lasted months and left thousands of Muslims dead. During the first three days, thousands of Hindu attackers, armed with swords, explosives, and gas cylinders, descended on Muslim neighborhoods, guided by voter lists and printouts of addresses of Muslim-owned properties. Additionally, homes, businesses, and mosques were looted and burned, Muslim girls and women were brutally raped, dead bodies were burned and mutilated beyond recognition, and over 100,000 Muslims were displaced. Fellow citizens and neighbors were the perpetrators of a chaotic and unfiltered violence that exploded into the homes and daily lives of Indian Muslims.

Islam: Secondary Victimization (Mind)

The Muslim ummah, or community, has lived with the effects of psychic violence in addition to the scars of physical violence. The brutality of the Crusades continues to affect Muslim psychology. The impact of a massive army, culled from every part of European Christendom, invading the heart of the Muslim world over a number of centuries, was tremendous. A long-term consequence was the creation of an Islamic mentality of isolationism, underscored by a defensive posture that continues today (Amayreh 2008). Nine-hundred years later, Muslim radicals use the Crusades as a rallying cry to arms against the West. Furthermore, when Western forces are deployed in a Muslim Middle Eastern country, they are often regarded with suspicion derived from the traumatic imprint left by the Crusader armies.

The effects of Western colonization in Muslim countries are another example of lasting psychic violence. However, the tools of violence used by colonizers were, in many instances, the legal and educational systems. In Egypt, for example, the British dismantled sharia (Islamic law) in order to install British common law. They allowed only personal-status Islamic laws (i.e., inheritance, marriage, divorce, child custody) and courts to remain. By doing this, the colonizers imposed on Muslim society a violent intellectual and cognitive rupture with the past. In effect, Muslim jurists and scholars, the intellectual leaders of the community, were robbed of their legal legacy—a legacy that had guided, regulated, and, ultimately, shaped Islamic society for over 1,000 years. In a short time, these leaders, as well as the general populace, confronted the reorganization and reorientation of their society according to unfamiliar, Western values and laws and experienced the humiliation caused by this imperialistic activity. The current calls for Islamic law and its often disastrous contemporary manifestations is one example of the lingering upheaval of the colonial enterprise.

Another colonial pursuit with devastating consequences was educational reform. This occurred in several ways and was closely connected with the imposed legal changes. Traditional Islamic schools constituted the educational backbone of the Islamic legal infrastructure. By discarding sharia, colonization also incapacitated Islamic education, replacing it with the Western system. This educational dislocation produced a debilitating cognitive dissonance, which included a struggle that pitted Muslim and Western identities against each other. The refurbishment of Islamic education along Western models created a feeling of inferiority among many Muslims eager to demonstrate their competence in the modern world. Muslim elites were compelled to study in Western institutions because their indigenous schools were regarded as backward and substandard (Cuno 2005). After awkward attempts at “modernizing” the curricula and the educational approach, the colonizers finally dismissed what had been revered as the most venerable institutions in the Islamic world—schools such as Al-Azhar University in Egypt—and dealt a crippling blow to the intellectual dignity of Muslim societies.

In the contemporary context, Islamic civil rights and advocacy groups, such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), have stated that the Western media’s portrayal of the global war on terror has had an injurious psychic effect on Muslims. Media has emerged as a highly powerful tool for inflicting psychological violence in unprecedented ways. Notwithstanding stories that cover moderate Muslim issues, mainstream Western media, including newspapers and television news stations in the United States and Western Europe, has portrayed Muslims as terrorists and extremists. For today’s average Muslim, who resides in a world of breaking news clips often reporting on the many conflicts in the Muslim world, the media’s sway in determining their identity can be intrusive and overwhelming. Scholars have stated that it can have the effect of cornering the Muslim community, driving some into extremist positions and provoking a reactive defensiveness in others (Ahmed 2007). They maintain the media has played a part in producing a siege mentality and has strengthened perceptions that the Muslim world and the West are incompatible and engaged in a clash of civilizations. Ultimately, negative and insulting portrayals of Islam and Muslims—such as the offensive cartoons of Muhammad in the Danish press—are not only psychically oppressive but may lead to physical violence.

Islam: Tertiary Victimization (Spirit)

Beyond physical and psychic violence, Muslims have endured the less tangible, but perhaps more destructive, terrain of spiritual violence. A prominent Muslim perception of the creation of the State of Israel, for example, is one of spiritual warfare, with battles waged along theological lines. The sacred character of Jerusalem is magnified in Islam, a view that only enhances the feeling of spiritual attack.

The Muslim population has also experienced the current War on Terror as a war on Islam. The rhetoric used by certain Western government representatives and media have directly connected “terror” with the teachings and tenets of Islam (Doha Debates 2005). Many Muslims, not just the radical elements, regard this as spiritual terrorism. Muslims have experienced fierce and hostile strikes against beliefs that they hold most sacred. In addition to massacres in and destruction of holy sites, some religious and political figures in the non-Muslim world, such as evangelist Franklin Graham and Mark Williams, a leader of the conservative U.S. Tea Party movement, have questioned and, at times, condemned the religion. Former Muslims, too, such as Masob Hassan, the son of a Hamas leader who today lives in the United States as a Christian man, have spoken out against Islam, stating that a “moderate” Islam does not exist. These spiritual comments have generated new theological interpretations in the Islamic experience.

Judaism: Primary Victimization (Body)

The physical victimization of Jews emerged early in the first and second centuries C.E. at the hands of the Roman Empire. Numbers vary, but some sources claim deaths of 500,000, with untold thousands imprisoned and enslaved. In subsequent centuries the victimization of Jews was further institutionalized. For example, in the fourth century the Roman emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan. The document was intended to protect religious liberties and promote religious tolerance, but was accompanied by diminished rights for Jews and Constantine’s proclamations containing references to deicide and the accusation that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus Christ. Constantine set the stage for further violence against Jews by accusing them, as Christians previously had done, of being “murderers of our Lord” who have “impiously defiled their hands with enormous sin (Ecclesiastical History of Theodoret, Book 1, Chap. 9).”

The Jews also experienced physical victimization during the Crusades. One of the primary goals of the Crusades was to free Jerusalem from the Muslims. The eleventh-century storming of Jerusalem resulted in heavy death tolls and barbaric forms of killing, including the burning of synagogues with Jews corralled inside. The Crusades in the Near East instigated violence in Europe as well, where Jews were the frequent targets of violence, arrest, and torture. Jews also faced Muslim-backed persecution in the centuries leading up to, during, and following the Crusades. North Africa proved intermittently violent for Jews, who, although afforded dhimmi status (second-class citizenship permit ted to non-Muslims, which provided protection by the Islamic state in return for a tax or fee), nevertheless faced extermination in the eighth century, in Morocco especially, and slaughter in the fifteenth century.

In the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, physical victimization of Jews was not uncommon, particularly in Europe, as Jews were exiled or expelled frequently. This set the stage for the genocidal violence against Jews in Nazi Germany and other European countries the Germans occupied in the twentieth century. The means used to kill over 6 million Jews in the Holocaust included gas chambers, firing squads, torture, starvation, and suffocation. The Holocaust, arguably the most egregious example of physical victimization experienced by any religious group in modern history, spurred further psychic and spiritual victimization. Post-Holocaust physical victimization includes bomb attacks within the State of Israel, as well as other forms of physical and verbal abuse throughout the Western world.

Judaism: Psychic Victimization (Mind)

Psychic victimization of Jews was evident as early as the first and second centuries, when certain civil liberties and religious rites (e.g., eating unleavened bread at Passover, circumcising, and reading the Torah) were prohibited by local authorities acting on behalf of the Roman Empire. Jews were also banned from witnessing or sharing their faith, and conversions to Judaism were punishable by death. The most damaging psychic victimization of Jews, however, was the accusation—perhaps perpetrated through the media of that time, which was primarily written text—that Jews were responsible for killing Jesus Christ.

Saint Augustine of Hippo, a key Christian leader in the church from the late fourth century until the early fifth century, identified the prevailing acts of psychic victimization of the Jews at that time—the accusation of deicide and resulting displacement: “But the Jews who slew Him…were yet more miserably wasted by the Romans, and utterly rooted out from their kingdom, where aliens had already ruled over them, and were dispersed through the lands…”(quoted in Schaff 1890). Within Islamic states, psychic victimization of Jews was also common, exemplified by the dhimmi laws. From the seventh century onward, Jews in North Africa especially were required by law to assume dhimmi status. Though dhimmi status came with some protection from the state, the degrading practice of assigning yellow belts or badges to Jews begun in Europe as early as the eighth century, became popular in the twelfth century, and was required by law in England, known as the Statute of Jewry, in the thirteenth century. This practice continued intermittently until the Holocaust, when Jews were again assigned yellow badges, this time in the shape of the Star of David. It was not uncommon for Jews throughout Europe to be prohibited from attending university or holding public office, required to live in specific neighborhoods or ghettos, or coerced into converting to Christianity or receiving baptism. The psychic victimization wrought by this long list of legal and legislative mechanisms for discriminating against Jews was unparalleled and left Jews with a psychological wound that undoubtedly remains pervasive today.

Judaism: Spiritual Victimization (Spirit)

These physical and psychic victimization processes culminated in an overall sense among Jews that their religion was the target of violence. Thus, spiritual victimization became the aggregate result of both physical victimization, whose objective (particularly in the case of the Holocaust) was genocide, and psychic victimization, whose intent was to differentiate Jews to the point of total exclusion and isolation or, conversely, to force them to assimilate. Consequently, the idea for a state, which in the twentieth century became the State of Israel, emerged to provide protection for a religion considered the target of both religious and secular administrations throughout history.

Violent anti-Jewish sentiment—though institutionalized and orchestrated by legal and legislative mechanisms—appears more surreptitiously in media and educational mechanisms. Whether passed down through Shakespearean dramas, school curricula, biblical or Koranic scripture, or quotes by Hollywood celebrities, anti-Judaism remains ever-present, bolstering the belief among many Jews that their religion is under spiritual attack and stimulating the defensive motivation among many Jews to further fortify the State of Israel against future attacks, whether physical, psychic, or, more comprehensively, spiritual.


The effects of violence on these five religious communities have been deep and pervasive. All of these groups can claim a long history of victimization inspired by their belief system. They have weathered more than physical brutality; each has also experienced psychic and spiritual victimhood. Frequently, these different levels of victimization are interrelated, imbuing multiple layers of complexity into the long—often centuries-long—process of healing and reconciliation.

Each community’s encounters with violence have been traumatic. No one group’s trauma is more or less significant than that of another, although the methods of inflicting violence and each group’s reactions to that violence are distinct and often shape interreligious relationships for years after. It is also true that many of the victims are the oppressors, as well.

Michael Shank and Courtney Erwin

See also: Buddhism; Christian Crusades; Christianity; Colonization and Christianization; Hinduism; Islam; Islamic Fundamentalism; Islamophobia; Israel; Jewish Defense League; Jihad; Judaism; Just War Theory; Lord’s Resistance Army; Pogroms; September 11 Attack; Spiral of Violence; Terrorism; World Trade Center Bombing; Zionism.

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