On Jan. 2, Saudi Arabia executed popular Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who had angered the Saudi royal family by calling for their removal in 2011. The Saudi royal family claims the execution was an act of national defense, because it accuses Iran of creating “terrorist cells” in Saudi Arabia.
In response to the execution, Iran requested that the Saudi ambassador condemn the execution. Saudi Arabia in turn requested that the Iranian ambassador “vehemently object to Iran’s condemnation” of the execution.
Then Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, took to Twitter (as apparently you do when you are a supreme leader) to proclaim God’s vengeance.
“Divine revenge will seize Saudi politicians,” he wrote.
Doubtlessly, unfairly-spilled blood of oppressed martyr #SheikhNimr will affect rapidly & Divine revenge will seize Saudi politicians.— Khamenei.ir (@khamenei_ir) January 3, 2016
There is a definite pattern of revenge to this story, but it has nothing to do with God. As René Girard has taught us, revenge is human, not divine.
Girard claimed that humans are mimetic — and we are particularly mimetic when it comes to violence. Humans imitate violent words and actions, passing them back and forth. But violence escalates because each side in a conflict wants to deliver the final blow.
In this sense, the Saudis and the Iranians are just like the majority of human beings. According to Girard, humans tend to believe that,
Only violence can put an end to violence, and that is why violence is self-propagating. Everyone wants to strike the last blow, and reprisal can thus follow reprisal without any true conclusion ever being reached.
Throughout his long career, Girard revealed the human aspect of violence. Like the Saudis and Iranians, it is we who condemn one another with escalating threats of condemnation and violence.
Girard, a Christian, claimed that the long trajectory of the Bible reveals the distinction between human violence and God’s nonviolent love. He challenged any notion that God is associated with violence. Though Girard made only a few comments about Islam during his career, I believe the Islamic tradition offers a similar challenge to associating God with violence.
Because I want to be clear that I am not imposing my Christian theology onto Islam, I’ll tell you about Mouhanad Khorchide, professor of Islamic Religious Education at the University of Munster in Germany. As with the Bible, Khorchide knows that there are different images of God in the Quran.
For Khorchide, the question is, “Which image of God are we talking about?”
According to Khorchide, some Muslims choose to believe that God is a dictator, one who acts like a violent tribal leader that cannot be challenged. Political leaders, like the Ayatollah, promote this understanding of God because they view themselves as “shadows of God on earth.”
“This sends out an unequivocal message: anyone contradicting the ruler is also contradicting God,” Khorchide says. This makes God into a tribal deity, who pits “us” against “them.”
Of course, one can read any holy book, including the Quran and the Bible, and find images of a violent tribal deity. But Khorchide has a different reading of the Quran.
“God is not an archaic tribal leader, he’s not a dictator. Of the book’s 114 suras, why do 113 of them begin with the phrase ‘In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful?’ There has to be a reason for this,” he says.
For Khorchide, “The Quranic God presents himself as a loving God.”
And a God of grace and mercy radically transforms the human understanding of God and violence.
The Ayatollah is wrong to associate God with revenge. And so are we whenever we associate God with violence. The God of Islam has nothing to do with revenge. Rather, the God of Islam, the God of Mercy, wants us to stop the cycles of vengeance that threaten the future of our world. In fact, God wants us to transform our bitter enmity into friendship.
As the Quran states, God’s goal for human relationships is reconciliation. “Good and evil cannot be equal, repel evil with what is better and your enemy will become as close as an old and valued friend” (41:34).