The ongoing debate about the role of Islam in the world includes two frequent errors. One is that since Islam recently has been invoked more than any other faith as a justification for violence, Muslims in general should be condemned and individual Muslims should be treated as suspects, with a diminished set of legal rights.

The opposite error is to claim that it is never fair to criticize a religion and that religious doctrine should never be mentioned when discussing the causes of violence.

This column is my rebuttal to those who make the second mistake, who are mostly liberals. Since I spend much of my time combating the mistakes of the right, I shouldn’t stay silent when the errors are made by my allies.

Islam has been invoked recently far more than any other religion as a justification for killing others – not just non-believers but fellow Muslims as well. The argument that it would somehow be an infringement on religious freedom to include that fact in our analysis is an abdication of our responsibility to deal with even unpleasant reality.

Such an analysis must include the fact that the tendency of Islamists to war on others in their religion’s name is not uniform across cultures, but has been a particular problem in the Arab world. Obviously this is not caused by an inherent ethnic trait, but it is relevant to try to understand what combination of history and culture have given rise to this phenomenon – not because to understand all is to forgive all, but because understanding the causes of a phenomenon is an important prerequisite for dealing with it.

The assertion that it is inappropriate to examine the role of religion in social pathology is not just a mistake with regard to Islam. The unpleasant truth is that religion in general has been much more often a negative factor than a positive one with regard to large-scale violence – both between nations and within them.


Organized religion has a bifurcated role. It provides a great deal of comfort for individuals, and within societies organized religions play a wholly positive role in charitable and educational efforts. Even as I found myself in political disagreement with the positions of the Catholic Church, I had constructive relations with the Archdiocese of Boston and the Diocese of Fall River.

In both of these entities, I worked cooperatively on a regular basis with those in charge of housing and other social services to help the vulnerable in our society, fighting for humane immigration policies in southeastern Massachusetts, and in providing affordable housing in Greater Boston. I am very proud of the shard of stained glass given to me by Cardinal Sean O’Malley on the occasion of our presiding at the groundbreaking of an affordable-housing development on the site of the church where John F. Kennedy was baptized.

But on the global scale, religion has more often been a contributor to violence than a barrier to it. As I think of recent conflicts, I see religious leaders promoting strife between their followers and those of other faiths rather than trying to prevent it.

In some cases, Muslims have been the victims of intergroup violence in which religious leaders have been among their persecutors.

One leading contender for prime minister of India, to be selected in the next election, is a Hindu. Narendra Modi governed a state in which Muslims were massacred by the Hindu majority after a train carrying Hindus was set on fire.

Strikingly, in a great contradiction to the popular image, Buddhist religious leaders in Myanmar have been leading mobs committing terrible violence against the Muslim minority in the north of that country.


In much of Africa, terrible bloodshed has resulted from religious intolerance that religious leaders of all sects have conspicuously declined to oppose. Some Catholic priests in Rwanda abetted mass murder.

The conflict in Sudan has been Christian versus Muslim, here with Muslims more often the oppressors. Currently in the Central African Republic, after a Muslim militia terrorized Christians, Christian groups have retaliated in a reign of terror not just against those who perpetrated the violence, but against innocent Muslims throughout that country.

In Northern Ireland, religious leaders were again more often part of the problem than the solution. For a long time, the major obstacle to Catholic-Protestant reconciliation was the Rev. Ian Paisley, a leading Protestant minister. It is true that relative peace has now come to that area, but it was secular political leaders – especially Maine’s own George Mitchell – who deserve most of the credit.

In Israel, I have been deeply troubled by the extent to which settlers in the West Bank have invoked their religion as a basis for abuse of some of their Arab neighbors. Ultra-orthodox rabbis in Jerusalem and elsewhere have also played a very divisive role, showing great disregard for the rights of others.

I recognize that only bad news is prominently featured in our media, and there may be instances where Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Jewish and other clergy have stood up against angry factions within their own faith communities and tried to persuade their fellow believers to eschew violence. If I am provided it with examples of it, I will apologize gladly.

But even if that is the case, the role of religious leaders in fomenting some of the gravest violence we have seen recently must not be ignored. Willful blindness to important social facts, even if it is motivated by a desire to show respect for religious beliefs, is an obstacle to alleviating problems.


Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.

Twitter: @BarneyFrank

– Special to the Telegram


Correction: On Tuesday, Feb. 18, at 9:41 a.m., this column was updated to correct the name of Cardinal Sean O’Malley.

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