…reading Christian history suggests just how wrong just an analysis would be. Out-of-control clergy, religious demagogues with their consecrated militias, religious parties usurping the functions of the state ”” these were the common currency of the Christian world just a few decades after the Roman Empire made Christianity its official religion. Whatever he might have thought of his theology, Cyril the Christian bishop would immediately have a strong fellow-feeling for al-Sadr the Islamic mullah. Like al-Sadr, Cyril, too, disciplined his followers with pronouncements that cast deviants beyond the protection of the church and the law: Christians then called them “anathemas”; Muslims today call them “fatwas.”
In retelling the story of Christian atrocities, I’m not trying to blacken the reputation of the church but rather to suggest that, given the appropriate social and political circumstances, given a sufficiently weak state mechanism, any religion can be used to justify savagery and extremism. None of the violence or intolerance commonly seen in modern-day Islam is, so to speak, in the DNA of that religion, any more than of Christianity. Change the circumstances, and any religion, too, can become the basis of a sane and peaceful society.